One catastrophe that changed the lives of millions
This week, The Guardian marks Chernobyl's 19th anniversary with excerpts from Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich's new book, which includes interviews with eyewitnesses to the world's worst nuclear accident. A wife remembers how her husband left to fight the fires of the explosion on April 26, 1986, and returned so poisoned with radiation that his skin cracked, his hair fell out, and he produced stools of blood and mucous. Nikolai Fomich Kalugin, who lost his daughter, tells Alexievich, 'We didn't just lose a town, we lost our whole lives.'
Of the two countries affected (Belarus and Ukraine), Belarus experienced the most devastation, with 23 percent of the land contaminated by nuclear fallout; eighty-eight percent of that area still tests well above the safe residency limit set by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Despite the dangerously high levels of radiation, two million people inhabit the land and consume its produce, grains, and dairy. They also drink the water, which is tainted with chemical pollution, and breathe air contaminated with cancer causing plutonium particles.
Hope Burwell, an organic farmer turned author and teacher, writes of Chernobyl's lasting marks on Belarus in the March/April 2004 issue of Orion. She describes a country where almost half of all teenagers have serious health problems, like gastrointestinal anomalies, weakened hearts, cataracts, and thyroid complications. The country's overwhelming poverty rate not only intensifies these crippling health problems, it hinders any future cleanup efforts.
When Burwell returns home to Iowa to visit one of the state's nuclear facilities, she asks a nuclear engineer if the United States could have its own Chernobyl disaster. 'It wouldn't be exactly like Chernobyl,' he responds. 'But if you mean, would a disaster at an American plant something like the explosion at Chernobyl contaminate as much land, contaminate it with the same kinds of radioactivity -- yeah, it could happen here.'
Go there >> Land of the Dead
Go there too >>Jeremiad for Belarus
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