April 30, 2021

35 years since the Chornobyl disaster

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Thirty-five years ago, the word Chornobyl first entered our lexicon and left an indelible mark on the world’s consciousness.  This catastrophe, the largest nuclear accident in history, had monumental health, environmental, social, political and economic consequences that linger to this day.

Granted, with the passage of time, and at least the partial amelioration of some of its consequences, attention to and memory of this unprecedented disaster has faded somewhat. Other consequential events have supplanted Chornobyl as history marches on – and there has been no shortage of history in the last 35 years.  This does not mean that Chornobyl has been forgotten altogether, as illustrated in the critically acclaimed, award-winning 2019 HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” or with books such as Serhii Plokhy’s 2018 book “Chornobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe.”

And I’m sure it won’t be forgotten by those who have visited Chornobyl, as I did in 2007 as part of a U.S. Congressional delegation led by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). Especially vivid in my mind remain the haunting images of the ghost-town of nearby Pripyat, which was hastily evacuated a day after the explosion.

The Chornobyl catastrophe marks a tragic milestone in the history of Ukraine, Belarus, the surrounding region and, indeed, the world. It constitutes one of the most bitter legacies of Soviet communism – and that is saying something, given the number of bitter legacies left by the Soviet system. Chornobyl has had tremendous human costs, especially for Ukraine and Belarus, which bore the brunt of the radioactive fallout. Debate continues and estimates vary as to the full extent of its health effects on the surrounding population, including the numbers of fatalities and illnesses due to radiation poisoning.  While we will most probably never know the full scope of the devastation on human health, or on the environment, let there be no doubt that it has been enormous. Its legacy persists to this day and will do so for generations to come.

On this 35th anniversary, it’s important to honor the memory of all of Chornobyl’s heroes – the first responders, liquidators and others who selflessly sacrificed their health, and all too often their lives, to limit the damage from the disaster.

As horrific as Chornobyl was, there was some good that came from it.  It had swift and significant geo-political consequences.  The accident itself and the Soviet response exposed deep flaws in the Soviet system.  The Soviet government’s silence and obfuscation in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy – manifesting itself most starkly by the authorities’ failure to warn the people of the surrounding areas with timely information regarding the dangers of massive radiation – exposed the utter callousness of the Soviet system.  It created, or in many cases exacerbated, deep frustrations with Soviet rule and provoked further disillusionment with the system.  It shook whatever trust remained in the system.  Chornobyl helped encourage Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (Perebudova in Ukrainian, or re-structuring), notwithstanding the shortcomings of their implementation when it came to the Soviet government’s response to the disaster itself.

Chornobyl mobilized greater citizen activism across the Soviet Union, notably a mass ecological movement in Ukraine, which joined the movement for independence and democracy.  Thus, it galvanized the Ukrainian people’s long-suppressed efforts to determine their own fate and achieve an independent state, which delivered the death blow to the Soviet Union.  Chornobyl, Ukrainian independence and the fall of the USSR are all inextricably linked.  Without a doubt, Chornobyl was an important contributing factor in the downfall of what Ronald Reagan, only a few years prior to the accident, had labeled the “evil empire.”

The dissolution of the Soviet Union meant, however, that newly independent Ukraine inherited Chornobyl, adding to the already many considerable challenges facing the young state.  To this day, Ukraine, as well as Belarus, is dealing with its legacy.

And what about the international response?  A full accounting goes well beyond the scope of one column.  Indeed, it could fill quite a few tomes, including the question of whether or not the international response has been adequate.  But let me briefly touch upon just a few examples of Congressional and especially Helsinki Commission efforts.  Many of these were devoted to not only ensuring that Chorno­byl stayed on this country’s radar screen, but also with practical efforts to address and mitigate its numerous consequences.  Importantly, this included keeping Chornobyl on the Executive Branch’s radar screen and providing substantial funding assistance.

Indeed, Congress reacted quickly – just within a few days after the resolution – passing a resolution introduced by Rep. Mary Rose Oakar (D-Ohio), for whom my fellow Weekly columnist, Andrew Fedynsky, worked at the time.

In the decades that followed, the Helsinki Commission, where I worked for 35 years, was instrumental in helping to keep the spotlight on Chornobyl and its consequences, holding public hearings exclusively devoted to Chornobyl on the 5th, 10th and 20th anniversaries of the disaster.  The hearings, chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) included testimony from Ukraine’s ambassadors to the United States, Dr. Yuri Shcherbak and, later, Oleh Shamshur, as well as experts and NGOs.  They addressed not only the aftereffects, but also how the U.S. and the international community could respond to the many challenges left in Chornobyl’s wake.

House and Senate members of the Commission initiated resolutions on Chornobyl, which overwhelmingly passed both chambers. A joint resolution introduced on the 10th anniversary by Helsinki Commissioners Rep. Smith in the House and Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) in the Senate both urged the Ukrainian government and G-7 countries to implement a memorandum of understanding calling for all of Chornobyl’s nuclear reactors to be shut down in a safe and expeditious manner.  Among other provisions, it also called upon the president to support and enhance our own medical, humanitarian and other assistance, expand research into its public health consequences, and “to support the broadening of Ukraine’s regional energy sources, which will reduce its dependence on any individual country.” Obviously referring to Russia, the energy issue, alas, remains relevant to this day.

Members of Congress, including Helsinki Commissioners such as Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) ensured that funds were included in various foreign aid appropriations bills for humanitarian assistance for the victims of Chornobyl and to help mitigate its health, environmental and other consequences.  Indeed, U.S. government support through the U.S. Agency for International Development, State Department, Defense Department, Department of Energy and other agencies throughout the last 35 years has been considerable.  The U.S. has been the single largest country donor, spending hundreds of millions to help clean up the site and build confinement structures, most recently the New Safe Confinement (NSC) to contain destroyed reactor No. 4, the building of which was completed in 2019.  Many tens of millions more have been spent on direct Chornobyl-related humanitarian and health assistance and millions more addressing other Chornobyl legacy issues.

Finally, in the United States alone, there were numerous organizations and individuals, including many within the Ukrainian American community, who did yeoman’s work in not only assisting the victims of Chornobyl, but also in ensuring that it stayed on the U.S government’s radar screen. And while there are too many to mention, I cannot help but single out the Children of Chornobyl Relief and Development Fund.  Under the leadership of Dr. Zenon and Nadia Matkiwsky, with Alex Kuzma serving as executive director, and a small staff as well as countless volunteers, the charity provided more than $60 million of medical assistance to Ukraine, as well as helping to bring U.S. government, including the Congress, and public attention to Chornobyl’s health and social consequences.  Their efforts, along with those of many others both in the U.S. and around the world, should be applauded.

Orest Deychakiwsky may be reached at odeychak@gmail.com.