Chornobyl catastrophe remembered with prayers, conferences

by Zenon Zawada
Kyiv Press Bureau

KYIV - On the day of the Chornobyl nuclear catastrophe 20 years ago, Oleh Cherviakov rode a bus directly into the furnace of death.

His shift as a communications chief at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant began at 8 a.m. on that ominous Saturday morning.

Though he noticed his co-workers being shipped off to hospitals, and though he knew that he risked radiation poisoning, he did not think twice about working that day.

"We were fulfilling our responsibilities," he said, dismissing the idea of not reporting for work during such an emergency. "We could not leave. We weren't allowed to leave."

Though Prypiat was evacuated the next day, the plant managers had to remain, and Mr. Cherviakov worked two consecutive night shifts following the accident.

Though only 52 years old, Mr. Cherviakov has already suffered a stroke and is classified as disabled.

Ms. Cherviakov was among more than 300 Ukrainians who joined President Viktor Yushchenko in an early morning moleben service on April 26 led by Kyiv Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Kyiv Patriarchate to pray for those who perished and suffered as a result of the Chornobyl accident.

Ukrainians and foreigners alike spent the week commemorating the Chornobyl nuclear catastrophe by attending government ceremonies, academic conferences, religious services and reunions held throughout Ukraine, particularly in the Kyiv Oblast that is home to the Chornobyl plant.

1:23 a.m.

Precisely at 1:23 a.m., on April 26 the bell atop a memorial mound at the Warriors of Chornobyl Memorial rang for one minute amidst reflective silence.

Afterwards, President Yushchenko, alongside Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskyi, Prime Minister Yurii Yekhanurov and outgoing Verkhovna Rada Chairman Volodymyr Lytvyn, placed bouquets of red roses at the mound.

Vitalii Klitschko was among those attending the service and placing roses, though he was not part of the president's entourage that participated in a brief service afterwards inside St. Michael the Archangel Chapel.

Later Mr. Yushchenko and Patriarch Filaret joined worshippers inside a tent where vodka and juice were served, as well as complementary paska (Easter bread). Some brought their own food, as April 26 has become an annual commemoration for those who were directly affected by the Chornobyl accident.

Every year, hundreds of former Chornobyl zone residents meet at the Warriors of Chornobyl Memorial on Peace Boulevard on Kyiv's left bank to catch up on the latest news, exchange new telephone numbers and reminisce about their lives before the accident.

Once joyful family weekends and idyllic summers provide painfully fond memories for Liudmyla Vanhorodska, 44, of her grandparents' village of Ludanka.

"When I was a child, I remember building our aunts' home with our own hands, building the well. And we planted the trees," she said. "To leave that all behind was very sad."

Just 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the Chornobyl nuclear station, Ludanka was evacuated within days of the catastrophe.

Visiting the village two years ago, Ms. Vanhorodska said she saw wild boars roving about abandoned houses, in which growing trees burst through floorboards. Forest covers what used to be roads. "I didn't know the village anymore," she said tearfully.

Former Prypiat resident Fayina Kleshenok wasn't at the plant the day of the accident, but her 13-year-old daughter had returned from the city of Chornobyl that morning.

Nobody knew what had actually happened, but residents were told to evacuate with the expectation that they would return in three days.

Ms. Kleshenok would return to her apartment only once more; she was only allowed to retrieve family albums.

She is convinced that she's ill from the accident, having been in the hospital for a month because "my legs and arms refused to move. I couldn't move them," she said.

Her daughter was diagnosed with leukemia.

To make matters worse, Ms. Kleshenak's class designation as Chornobyl disabled doesn't qualify her to receive medicines. Class 1 disabled, many of whom gave bribes to get the status or falsified certificates, now receive medicines at a discounted price, Ms. Kleshenok said.

"I think I deserve it since I worked at the third reactor block in the deactivization department," she said of her experience as a liquidator. "It was the dirtiest work there done by our department. We served the people who worked on the roof, taking off their clothes and washing them."

"Twenty Years After Chornobyl"

At the Ukrainian Home on European Square, scientists and engineers met on April 25 and 26 to discuss their research at the "Twenty Years after Chornobyl" conference sponsored by the Ukrainian government and other governments and international organizations.

Among the speakers was Ihor Masnyk, the project director of Chornobyl research projects at National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., who discussed the execution of the largest study performed in examining leukemia cases among liquidators and thyroid cancer in children.

The liquidators' study, financed by the U.S. Department of Energy and the French Institute of Nuclear Protection and Safety, began in October 1995, while the thyroid cancer study began screening its subjects in 1997.

The project's first challenge was cooperation between the Ukrainian, Belarusian, French and American scientists and administrations, Dr. Masnyk said.

Problems plaguing the pilot study were poor understanding of the project, inadequate follow-up and less than optimal screening sites, long waiting lines and cold relations between staff and participants.

Specific measures alleviated these problems.

The National Cancer Institute took over the project in 1999 with continued Department of Energy funding, providing more scientific oversight and review bodies.

Further problems included delayed delivery of equipment, unresponsiveness of potential cohort members, weather, vacations and long distances to screening centers.

Original plans for locating subjects had to be re-worked because of incomplete information provided, early plans for laboratories were too ambitious, budgets were inefficient, and computers were lacking for data processing.

"The early enthusiasm and promises were over-ambitious, although well- meant," Dr. Masnyk said. "The majority of the requirements were achieved, professional judgments prevailed, negotiations provided satisfactory solutions and the completed screening of about 90 percent compliance per screening cycle manifested a success of the operation."

These studies led by Dr. Masnyk were the largest and most intensive on the effect of the Chornobyl accident on leukemia in liquidators and thyroid cancer in children.

"Rebirth, Renewal and Human Development"

Across the street at the Philharmonic Hall, social scientists and government experts discussed Chornobyl's social impact at the "Rebirth, Renewal and Human Development" humanitarian forum organized by First Lady Kateryna Yushchenko's Ukraine 3000 fund and the Children of Chornobyl Relief and Development Fund (CCRDF).

The main lesson the world learned from the Chornobyl catastrophe is that governments need to tell the truth, Mrs. Yushchenko said.

Another lesson is that governments need to shed an egotistical view of the world and adopt a strategic approach to meeting the needs of people.

Global problems need to be resolved through cooperation of different nations, Mrs. Yushchenko said.

Ukraine's first lady also announced a partnership between the Ukraine 3000 fund and CCRDF in which they will improve the training, technology, medicine and overall standards in one children's hospital in each region of Ukraine.

They will also work together to create a new state-of-the-art children's hospital in Kyiv so that Ukrainian children won't have to travel abroad to receive top-notch medical treatment.

Also attending the forum was the world-renowned author Paolo Coehlo of Brazil, who revealed his particular interest in the Chornobyl disaster and its effect on humanity.

In his first visit to Ukraine, he was forbidden to travel to the Chornobyl zone, so Mr. Coehlo instead visited the Chornobyl Museum at Kontraktova Square.

"I was moved to tears when I saw the consequences of the disaster," he said.

Mr. Coehlo then wrote about his impressions in his column published in periodicals in 35 different countries.

"To my surprise, most people had already forgotten the meaning of Chornobyl, either because they are young ... or because they did not get close to the disaster," Mr. Coehlo said. "I was really shocked because I was convinced that everybody knew."

The humanitarian forum is of major importance in not allowing people to forget those events that affect everyone in the world, he said. It can transform a tragedy into something positive because "we can have good lessons from tragedies," Mr. Coehlo said.

The first and the most important lesson is try not to let it happen again, he said, and then try to learn how to manage these disasters created by human beings.

"I am grateful to you for organizing this event, for making people more aware, for those people who weren't affected or who weren't even born when this tragedy happened," Mr. Coehlo said.

Among the scientists to address the humanitarian forum was Dr. Wolodymyr Wertelecki, chairman of medical genetics at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.

He spoke on the influence of Chornobyl on the genetic health of future generations that have been investigated by a large team of researchers.

Dr. Wertelecki's report was among the few, if any, to seriously explore the effect of Chornobyl's radiation fallout on genetics.

Information on Chornobyl's impact on birth defects is quite limited so far, Dr. Wertelecki said, partly because Ukraine doesn't have a broad birth defect surveillance system, with the exception of five scattered centers.

The studies, he said, have pinpointed an epidemic among Ukraine's infants of spina bifida, a genetic disorder in which the spinal canal isn't closed and is exposed outside the skin, or is severed. It is considered among the most serious of birth defects.

Ukraine loses 500 children to spina bifida every year and has lost 2,500 children in the last five years.

If the Ukrainian government were to introduce folic acid into the diet of its citizens, spina bifida cases could be reduced by at least 50 percent in Crimea, and by three-quarters in the most affected regions such as the Rivne and Lutsk oblasts, Dr. Wertelecki said.

He accused Ukraine's minister of health, Yuri Poliachenko, of ignoring the spina bifida epidemic.

"These are not arguable scientific facts," he said. "There is so much data right now that the Center for Disease Control in the U.S. has said monitoring is no longer necessary. This is beyond dispute, in terms of science. But it is disputable for the minister of health, who some people contend is committing public health malpractice by not introducing these preventive measures."

Beyond spina bifida, during the last five years four cases of conjoined twins have emerged in the Rivne Oblast, which is the region heaviest hit by ionizing radiation from Chornobyl.

One case emerged in Crimea a week ago, Dr. Wertelecki said.

"This is not attributable to Chornobyl, but is attributable to something," he said.

"Chornobyl+20: Remembrance for the Future"

Aside from the official conferences, Ukrainian, German and other European environmental organizations combined efforts to host the "Chornobyl+20: Remembrance for the Future" conference, which had an explicit anti-nuclear energy orientation.

Among those attending was Nancy Burton of the Connecticut Coalition Against Millstone, who has led an effort to close the Millstone nuclear power plant in Connecticut since 1988.

She was initially drawn to Ukraine by the Orange Revolution as an election observer and then began to study the Chornobyl disaster.

"I am horrified to learn that far from entering the modern era of conservation and investing in clean, green energy, it sounds like the Orange Revolution's leaders are pushing for a nuclear revival in the homeland of Chornobyl," she said. "Frankly, it makes no sense to me."

A disaster like Chornobyl could just as easily happen in Millstone, she said, and Americans have no reason to feel comforted that its nuclear industry is in private hands.

"Cutting corners is the name of the game, and they did that in the construction of Millstone," she said. Leukemia, thyroid cancers and extraordinary cancers cases have been increasing and are unusually high in Millstone, she added.

The Chornobyl+20 conference resolution declared that the international community has failed to recognize the truth about the Chornobyl disaster. It condemned the nuclear industry for promoting itself and seeking government subsidies to continue expanding.

It also condemned the drive to make the Russian Federation into an international receptor of nuclear waste, stating that each nation should find ways to cope with its own waste products.

"Cars crash. But people still drive cars."

Oleh Cherviakov knew all the men whose plaques decorate the memorial mound at the Warriors of Chornobyl park.

In some ways, the Soviet system was good, he said. People were more solid, they were more friendly.

"And if something like this were to happen now in our country, there's no way Ukraine would be able to solve this task alone," Mr. Cherviakov said.

He doesn't think any other government would have reacted differently compared to how the Soviet government responded to Chornobyl. "Every government has secrets which prevents impermissible things to be disseminated," Mr. Cherviakov said.

Ukraine should keep nuclear energy, he said, especially considering Ukraine's problems with obtaining fuel. Technology is constantly developing to make nuclear plants more secure, he argued.

"Cars crash, but people still drive cars," he said.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 30, 2006, No. 18, Vol. LXXIV

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