Chernobyl revisited

Children of the radiation zone visit Canada

MALCOLM GRAY July 15 1991

Chernobyl revisited

Children of the radiation zone visit Canada

MALCOLM GRAY July 15 1991

Chernobyl revisited



Children of the radiation zone visit Canada

With his dark hair and sparkling brown eyes, Eduard Budnitsky could embody a familiar Soviet slogan: “Under communism, children are the only privileged class.” Instead, the active 11-year-old is a living reproach to the Soviet system. More than five years after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the financially troubled Kremlin has barely begun large-scale resettlement of people from the areas of Byelorussia,

Ukraine and Russia that were worst hit by radioactive fallout. But in Byelorussia, a volunteer organization is sending healthy but high-risk children from the so-called danger zones for visits abroad. The expressed hope is that if the children eat uncontaminated food, they will strengthen their immune systems and thwart the develop-

ment of radiation-induced diseases. To that end, Eduard, from the city of Mozyr, and 70 other children are scheduled to begin six-week stays with host families in Canada on July 15. Toronto-bound Eduard, who has been reading up on Canadian attractions, told Maclean’s: “I am looking forward to seeing Sky Dome and its movable roof.”

The early-morning explosion of Reactor 4 on April 26, 1986, is still a grim fact of life for many area residents. In Kiev, 158 km south of the Chernobyl power plant, there is widespread concern that polluted water from the crippled reactor’s cooling ponds will leach into nearby rivers that supply the Ukrainian capital with drinking water. Kiev was largely spared airborne contamination in 1986 only because the wind was blowing towards the Byelorussian border, 10 km north of the power plant. As a result, Byelorussian authorities estimate that radioactive particles of plutonium, cesium and uranium from the malfunctioning reactor blanketed 40 per cent of their republic’s territory, including some of its most productive farmland. That fallout, they add, has exposed 2.5 million of the republic’s 10.2 million inhabitants to a vastly increased risk of contracting cancer and other radiation-induced diseases.

In all three republics, in fact, the world’s worst nuclear disaster has set off angry opposi-

tion to a Communist-directed system that made production paramount. Keeping the plant working was the top priority, say veteran employees who still operate two other units near the concrete-encased remains of Reactor 4. Outside a fenced-off depopulated region that extends for 30 km around the plant—the so-

called forbidden zone—resi-

dents of heavily contaminated areas must now live with the consequences of that policy, aided only by a special state subsidy of 30 rubles, or about one-tenth the average wage, per month. Many Byelorussians, unable to avoid eating crops grown in soil fouled by nuclear fallout, scornfully refer to that stipend as coffin money.

Still, the disaster prompted the formation of a grassroots self-help movement in 1989—the Byelorussian Charitable Fund, Children of Chernobyl. Now, 400 hardcore volunteers, aided at times by thousands of other supporters, mount campaigns to secure better medi-

cal care for radiation-zone inhabitants and to raise funds to send children on foreign vacations. This year alone, the program was able to arrange for up to 10,000 youngsters between the ages of 8 and 12 to visit host families in such countries as Germany, India—and Canada.

Gennady Grushevoy, a republican legislator who is the organization’s chairman, has personal knowledge of the continuing threat that the Chernobyl accident poses. His 18-year-old daughter, Marina, now suffers from leukemia, and son Maxim, 12, is in the first stage of a thyroid disorder that, if untreated, will likely develop into cancer. Grushevoy cites medical studies that estimate at least 60,000 children in Byelorussia share Maxim’s plight. Said Grushevoy: “Children who go abroad eat pure food, and they also get a break from the psychological oppression of living in a radioactive zone. It is also cheaper than waiting until they need expensive medical treatment.”

But in a country that is chronically short of money, arranging vacations for radia•r tion-zone children can be a S problem. Last week, Yuri Pankratz, a linguistics professa sor who is one of the organicé zation’s key troubleshooters, I had to contend with a difficult

5 demand by Aeroflot, the Sovi5 et state airline: that the group

pay for the children’s airfare to Canada in hard currency. Pankratz managed to win some price concessions, but the reduced sum is still substantial in the Soviet Union. And the organization was unable to finance the trips entirely through donations from Soviet work collectives and unions; the Soviets finally appealed to the Canadian Relief Fund for Chernobyl Victims in _ Byelorussia, which is organizing local participation in the visits, to pay for part of the fares. Said Pankratz: “Helping those children should be a top priority in this country, but it is not.”

In Canada, about 50 families are planning to host one or two young guests from Byelorussia—they have been studying Russian phrases in preparation. Most live on farms or at summer cottages in the Ottawa area, although some are from Toronto and Iroquois Falls in Northern Ontario. In the fall, another group of about 15 children will visit London, Ont. “Everybody called up,” said Joanna Survilla of Hull, Que., president of the Canadian

sponsorship group. “The response was incredible, just wonderful.” Bruce Mather, 57, a semiretired education consultant, and his wife, Joan, 57, expect to host two children at their cottage on Pine Lake, about 130 km southwest of Ottawa. “We’re getting quite excited,” Mather said. “We have a wonderful spot for swimming, boating, fishing, hiking and sailing, and we hope that they will be able to get built up physically.” Mather conceded that some family members have questioned their decision. “They say that it’s terrible to bring children who have a very unpleasant future and show them all these wonderful things and then send them back,” he said. “Nevertheless, if they enjoy it, we may be able to give them a shot in the arm.”

The children’s parents are plainly grateful for the opportunity. On a recent visit to the Byelorussian capital of Minsk, Galina Budnitsky watched her son Eduard playing with a friend as she considered the dangers of living in the south of the republic. Picturesque Mozyr is located about 120 km north of the Chernobyl reactor in a region that was blanketed by radioactive fallout. “I have seen the charts for our area, the Gomel region,” said Budnitsky, a 35-year-old librarian. “Leukemia, thyroid disorders, anemia and other diseases have all increased sharply in recent years.”

Anatoly Bytskevsky, 35, another Mozyr resident, has an 11-year-old son, Sasha, who is scheduled to come to Toronto next week. Sasha talked only of the sights he hoped to see in Canada, with Niagara Falls topping the list. But his father voiced a complaint common to many Gomel-area residents. “Soviet authorities tell us that many of our health complaints are caused by our fear of radiation,” said Bytskevsky, a shoe-factory worker. “But all I know is that I am tired all the time and constantly have headaches.”

Not all area residents are as wary of their surroundings. Sergei Pavlovsky cheerfully accepts living in Slavutich, a new town of redroofed houses and five-storey apartment buildings that is perched on the edge of the forbidden zone. Slavutich, a dormitory settlement of 20,000 townspeople, was built in the aftermath of the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl plant, in large part to house the families of the 5,000 employees who help supply Ukraine with eight per cent of its electrical-power requirements. Pavlovsky, a 28-year-old nuclear technician who was bom in the Chernobyl region, has another distinction: he was one of an army of 600,000 cleanup workers who swarmed over the area after firemen extinguished the reactor blaze. Now, in a constantly repeated affirmation of his

confidence in that cleanup, Pavlovsky guides some of the 1,000 scientists, journalists and other visitors who come to the forbidden zone each year. Said Pavlovsky reassuringly: “A visitor on a one-day trip to the zone gets about the same exposure as a passenger on a Toronto-Moscow flight would receive from solar radiation.”

On a recent visit, he and other guides warned a Maclean ’s reporter not to stray from regularly washed-down paths in the forbidden zone. Visitors also are required to travel in special vans that never drive outside the security perimeter. The precautions add to the eerie atmosphere around the world’s most infamous nuclear plant. The farms and villages around the plant are deserted, and the songs of wild birds are among the few sounds breaking the silence that now envelops the empty countryside within the fence.

During a visit to the deserted town of Pripyat, however, Pavlovsky was unable to discover the reason for an unexpected barrage of sound: someone inexplicably had switched on loudspeakers in the city centre and they blared out recorded messages urging long-gone workers to labor for a better future. About two kilometres away, shimmering through the haze of a hot midsummer’s day, loomed the massive 10-storey concrete tomb that encases the deadly remains of Reactor 4. Pavlovsky argued that the employees operating two adjacent reactors face no greater threat than workers in other heavily polluted environments (although he complained bitterly that top-rated plant workers still earned less than Moscow bus drivers). He also maintained that new safety features make another nuclear accident unlikely—at that plant or at 17 other sites with similar units across the country. But he had sharp criticism for the way officials handled the 1986 emergency. Said Pavlovsky: “They waited 36 hours before they evacuated Pripyat. It was criminal to expose people to such danger for that length of time.”

Soviet officials still attribute only 31 deaths to the accident: plant workers and firefighters who died shortly after the explosion. But some Soviet scientists argue that the radioactive fallout from the disaster has already claimed hundreds of lives—and could eventually cause thousands of deaths worldwide. On both sides of the forbidden zone’s wire fences, the slow decay of radioactive particles ensures that some of the country’s richest farmland will remain contaminated for centuries. But a few residents have defied official sanctions and have returned to their former homes—mostly elderly people who say that they want to live out their lives in familiar settings, despite the invisible menace that now pervades them. The families of the still-healthy youngsters who are travelling to Canada and elsewhere obviously do not share that fatalistic view. They express hope, in a land heavy with a sense of hopelessness, that the visits will strengthen their children for the inevitable trials ahead.