Chernobyl Revisited

This week, The Guardian marks Chernobyl’s 19th
anniversary with

excerpts from Russian journalist Svetlana Alexievich’s new
, 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
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

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.’

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Land of the Dead

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