New Documents Released on the Eve of Chernobyl Disaster Anniversary

Days before the 17th anniversary on April 26, 2003, of the disaster at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear reactor, a Ukrainian intelligence agency declassified several documents that show design flaws, shoddy artistry, and significant violations of safety rules at the plant. The 121 papers released exposed 29 accidents before the 1982 accident, including a 1982 accident that caused the release of small doses of radiation.

Russia has responded by claiming that post-Soviet Ukraine has not adequately maintained the concrete canopy covering the faulty reactor, which was only built to last five years. Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev warned that “nobody has inspected these walls in detail. We do not know what reactions are taking place under the shield.” The Ministry has also claimed that there are holes in the so-called sarcophagus through which radiation could leak. A collapse of the structure would likely spread a cloud of radioactive dust and panic throughout the region.

Preceding the disaster’s anniversary, 5,000 Chernobyl victims marched in downtown Kyiv protesting the continuing lack of funding for cleanup and victim compensation, including housing and healthcare. On April 26, hundreds of people gathered at a small hill with marble plates inscribed with victims’ names, and a bell tolled 17 times for each year since the explosion at the plant initiated a disaster whose effects are still being felt in the region.

The United Nations estimates 15,000 to 30,000 people living in the contaminated zones have since died from radiation exposure. Russian activists claim that these figures do not include the 300,000 Russian “liquidators,” who were sent to clean up the disaster and have now fallen victim to radiation-related illnesses.

More than 2.45 million people have been hospitalized in Ukraine as of early 2002 with illnesses sparked by the disaster, including 472,400 children, according to the Ukrainian Health Ministry. According to a study published in a July 1999 issue of the journal Cancer, the rate of thyroid cancer among Ukrainians age 15 and younger increased 10-fold in the years following the accident.

Activists and survivors of the accident are not distracted by the blame trading between the Russian and Ukrainian governments that neither compensate victims nor do enough to protect future generations. One activist was quoted in the Christian Science Monitor as saying, “What we want is for the (post-Soviet) governments of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus to work together in dealing with the legacy of Chernobyl, but there is no sign of that happening.”

Sources: Christian Science Monitor, April 25, 2003; World Environment News, April 28, 2003; United Press International, April 26, 2003; Associated Press, April 26, 2003)

Compiled by Devon Chaffee, Research and Advocacy Coordinator of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.