Time to go back home, people of Chernobyl insist
The Times 24 April 2004
Maria Dika was on the ground floor of block four of the Chernobyl nuclear plant when the reactor exploded, at 1.23am on April 26 1986.
The world’s worst nuclear accident unleashed ten times the radiation of Hiroshima. Mrs Dika was at the epicentre.
“There was a flash of fire and the sound of an explosion, and then the wall collapsed,” the former security guard recounts matter-of-factly.
In the aftermath of the blast, 118,000 people were evacuated from within 19 miles (30km) of the plant in northern Ukraine. Contaminated dust spread across Europe and as far as the North Pole. Since then, an estimated 25,000 people have died and tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands more fallen sick from radiation–related illnesses in Ukraine alone.
But 18 years on, Mrs Dika still lives in the town of Chernobyl, less than six miles from the makeshift concrete sarcophagus that encases 200 tonnes of radioactive material still smouldering in the ruins of reactor number four.
She is one of several hundred residents who have drifted back to the 19 mile “exclusion zone”, despite a massive increase in thyroid cancer cases in contaminated areas and official warnings that the sarcophagus is collapsing.
The returnees eke out a living in a no man’s land where moose, boar and wolves roam freely around abandoned villages and farmland. Some come in search of a future – a job or a plot of land to farm. But most, like Mrs Dika, are clinging to the past.
“I was born here, I spent all my life here. Those are my simple reasons. The radiation has got used to us now,” she explains with a smile, leaning casually on her balcony in the evening sunshine. There is a deceptive air of normality around Chernobyl.
As we arrived at the plant, staff were milling around in suits and overalls, apparently oblivious to the Geiger counter over the entrance reading 72 micro-roentgens an hour – seven times the radiation level in Kiev and almost three times the safety limit for everyday living.
Some 4,000 people work here, monitoring the sarcophagus and supervising the removal and storage of radioactive material from the three other reactors, the last of which was shut down in 2000.
They commute to the plant daily ion a special train from Slavutych, a purpose-built town outside the exclusion zone. Others come to Chernobyl town for a few days at a time to maintain dykes and ditches to prevent forest fires that would spread the contamination even further. Only a hardly few – estimates range between 500 and 1,500 – dare to live here permanently.
“Of course it’s not dangerous,” says Tatyana Khrushch, another Chernobyl returnee. “The air is clean, the forests are lovely and the mushrooms are great.”
In reality, the health hazards are appalling. The sarcophagus – 400,000 cubic metres of concrete and 7,000 tonnes of metal erected with helicopters and remote-control machines in just 206 days after the blast – is falling apart.
“There is a real possibility that the sarcophagus will collapse” says Yuliya Marusych, a spokeswoman for the plant, as she stood in the observatory from which visitors view the great grey hulk. Behind her a Geiger counter measuring radiation on the roof recorded 1,600 roentgens. “The Chernobyl crisis is not over.”
In the second half of this year, work will start on a two-year plan to stabilise the sarcophagus. Then, in 2006, the authorities will launch a $750 million (£424 million) project to build a giant steel arc that will enclose the entire block. The structure, 108 metres high and 250 metres wide, will be built to one side and then slid over the block on rails. Only then can experts start to remove the radioactive material from reactor four to make the site safe for good – a project that could take up to 100 years.
If completed on time, the new enclosure will shield Mrs Dika and her fellow returnees from a further leak, but it cannot protect them from the damage already done.
Dr Volodymyr Sert runs a Red Cross mobile laboratory offering thyroid cancer screening in the region of Zhytomyr, about 40 miles from Chernobyl. Last year he discovered 68 cases in this region of 1.3 million people. In 1986, there were just 15. And between 2006 and 2010, he expects an average of 100 cases per year.
“Of course it would be better for them to move from this area. But they do not have any place to go,” he said as dozens of people queued up for screening in the village of Laski. Most at risk are those now between 17 and 35, as their thyroid glands absorbed more contaminated iodine – the likely cause of the cancer – in the aftermath of the blast.
Olga Davidenko was not even born at the time of the explosion, but Dr Sert has just told her that she has an enlarged thyroid gland and should go to the regional hospital for a biopsy.
“I am convinced that people should leave here,” said the shaken 17-year-old, who wants to study law at university.
“I think people should find a way to clean up the air. I am convinced that this misery can be eradicated,” she added.
Against all the odds, Mrs Dika has been lucky so far. Immediately after the blast she was flown to Moscow and treated for three months in what was then the only radiation clinic in the Soviet Union.
Since then, she has felt fine. Her only regret, it seems, is that she cannot move back to her old flat in Pripyat, just 3km from the plant.
Once a model city, Pripyat is now a ghost town, strewn with the belongings of its 50,000 residents and decorations for the May Day parade they were preparing before they were evacuated 36 hours after the blast.
“Of course I miss it,” Mrs Dika says wistfully. “It was my home.”