Chernobyl’s legacy 28 years on

Opinion: Reactor shelter plan falters and medical aid is deferred amid Ukraine turmoil

The new protective shelter which will be mounted over the remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Photograph: EPA/Oleksandr Lepetuha

On April 26th, 1986, 28 years ago, the world’s worst nuclear accident occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in northern Ukraine. What lessons can we take from such a disaster and what hope can we borrow from such a tale of woe that could inspire us when we look to the future?

While other calamities vie for the world’s attention, Chernobyl has been relegated to history, but remains an unfolding tragedy for those living with the consequences.

If we don’t remember past events, then we are surely going to commit those same mistakes again. Unlike other disasters, the effects of a nuclear disaster continues, wreaking havoc in generation after generation, twisting and distorting the very fabric of life.

Adi Roche with a child after life-saving operation in Kharkiv.

Chernobyl is a stain on human history, unlike war and its ravages, unlike hunger and disease, radioactive contamination will never leave the stricken regions with its worst outcomes manifesting themselves in the decades to come. Chernobyl’s deadly legacy overshadows the lives and lands of the peoples of northern Ukraine, western Russia and Belarus, leaving us staring into the abyss.


Today, the Chernobyl zone remains even more radioactive than previously thought, with land remaining the biggest health threat as the radioactive element Caesium 137 finds its way via the food chain into the human body.

The millions of people living on contaminated land are confined to eating the food produced on this land. Prof Yuri Bandazhevsky, one of the world’s leading scientists on the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the human body through the food chain states: “On this 28th anniversary of the disaster at Chernobyl let me remind the world that there should be no caesium in the body and there should be no question of temporary or acceptable levels. The silent killer today is radiation, any dose is an overdose.”

Funding difficulties
Last November I visited the radioactive exclusion

area, also called the “Zone of Alienation”, to see progress on the building of the new sarcophagus, a massive shelter being built to try to contain the crumbling reactor and radioactive debris. While construction has been started, it has been hampered as funding problems and the volatile status of the damaged reactor has delayed and destabilised the work.

The 30km radius around the reactor is still full of abandoned towns/cities/villages that are contaminated and forlorn. So it will remain.

Many families and especially children’s lives are blighted as a result of the fallout from Chernobyl, even today. Chernobyl deniers continue to try to play down the effects of the massive amounts of radiation that were released on that fateful day and they would rather that the world forgot all about it; likewise the deniers will want to downplay the impact of Fukushima on the Japanese people.

I can’t prove conclusively that sick and disabled children are the definite proof of contamination; I am not a doctor or a scientist, but I see many children and babies with poor health, their tiny hearts damaged, the devastation on their growing healthy bodies. I see neglect and abandonment in their homes and villages

I see beyond the politics, blame and accusations. I see beyond the shortages and ill-equipped hospitals.

Recently, as events in eastern Ukraine deteriorated, our organisation had to make one of our most regrettable decisions in suspending the life-saving operations in that area for more than 60 children. Doctors in the local hospital advised that it was too volatile and tense to bring in our international medical team even though the cancellation of the surgical team would mean the lives of the children would dangle in the balance.

Once more there is the “big picture” of war and chaos, the big picture of energy supplies. And then there is the “little picture”, the ordinary citizen – the ordinary mother and father and their little child, in peril. In Chernobyl Children International we see the child, we see the anxious parents, we see that we can make some difference, to be invited into a child’s life and to be of some benefit, in some cases to save a child’s life is a privilege for all of us.

Just cause
The late and great Nelson Mandela said

“overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity, it is an act of justice”. We see our work as an act of justice also: justice that reminds us that these people are too long forgotten, that their pain and suffering cries out for a response.

We, in Chernobyl Children International believe in charity. However, we also believe in solidarity, thus our response is done in solidarity with those who suffer, a response that enables and empowers, a response that gives hope and courage to keep going. Our organisation’s motto is “offering hope to live”, something a Belarusian priest said to us when we first arrived with humanitarian aid. We adopted it as our motto.

The disaster recedes into the past, but its effects continue. On this anniversary, and three years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, we are reminded once more of the frailty of technology and human thinking with its ultimate and devastating consequences for human life.

Adi Roche is chief executive of Chernobyl Children International