Chernobyl– Maria Dika remembers the flash of flames and a collapsing wall as Chernobyl’sreactor No. 4 exploded in the world’s worst nuclear disaster 18 years agoMonday. Although she took an extremely high dose of radiation on that day, Dika,who was working as a security guard at the power plant, again lives in the glumtown of Chernobyl, just 10 kilometers from the reactor.
“Theradiation got used to us,” said Dika, a jolly 42-year-old who now manages ahostel for maintenance workers in the contaminated zone. “I was born andspent my life here. It’s my home.” Life is returning to the30-kilometer-radius exclusion zone around Chernobyl, as many former residentshave taken part-time maintenance jobs at the plant or returned to their nativevillages nestled in pine forests.
Once thearea had a population of close to 120,000 people, who were evacuated in theaftermath of the disaster.
Undeterredby radiation levels that in places are dozens of times higher than acceptablenorms, some 500 former residents like Dika have since returned, while 4,000others are shuttled into the zone to work on the gradual powering down of theplant.
The areahas also become a bonanza for scientists studying the effects of radiation onplant and animal life that has reclaimed much of the area.
But evenas scientists work to minimize radiation levels, the danger of a new tragedylingers, this time in the form of a radioactive dust cloud.
Expertswarn that the collapse of an unstable wall in reactor No. 4 could release someof the 200 tons of nuclear fuel encased inside the unit by a protective shell ofconcrete and steel that was hastily thrown up in the aftermath of the disaster.
Thereactor exploded in the early hours of April 26, 1986, when technicians failedto power down its core after a series of poorly timed tests, killing 30 peopleimmediately and exposing more than 8 million people in Belarus, Ukraine andRussia to radiation.
Victimsblame Soviet authorities for informing locals of the accident too late, afterthey had already been exposed to enormous amounts of radiation.
OnSaturday, some 5,000 people marched in Kiev to commemorate the disaster and callattention to the plight of Chernobyl’s late victims.
MariaDika returned home despite risks. Thousands have died, but the total number ofvictims may never be known because of the difficulty in determining whetherailments are related to radiation.
It isknown that the frequency of thyroid cancer in contaminated areas has jumpedsince the accident, though this consequence is becoming evident only today.
Radiation-inducedthyroid cancer usually takes more than 15 years to set in. It will peak in thenext few years, said Volodymyr Sert, a doctor who runs a Red Cross mobilediagnostic unit that screens residents in contaminated areas.
Theorganization registered 68 cases in the Zhytomyr region last year compared tojust 15 in 1986.
InLaski, a half-deserted town 90 kilometers west of Chernobyl, backgroundradiation levels are 30 times higher than in Kiev, 200 kilometers to the southof the reactor site.
Thyroidcancer cases are particularly high there because iodine deficiency caused thethyroids of locals to absorb the radioactive iodine released when Chernobylexploded, Sert said.
Andthese people are still at risk of receiving a new dose of radiation.
Nuclearfuel trapped in the remains of reactor No. 4 are causing the structure todeteriorate, said Yulia Marusych, a spokeswoman for the plant.
“Godknows how long it will hold,” she said, pointing to a meter-tall model ofreactor No. 4. The real reactor loomed outside the plant’s observation deck.
Theaging gray shell of the sarcophagus encasing unit No. 4 leaks radiation throughsome 100 square meters of cracks and holes on its surface, Marusych said. Adosimeter gave a reading of 1,600 roentgens per hour, or 90 times backgroundradiation levels in Kiev.
Thereare plans to construct a 100-meter-high metal shell to cover units No. 3 and No.4. The project, funded by international donors and lenders, as well as by theUkrainian government, comes at a $ 768 million price tag and is scheduled to befinished by 2008.
“Ihope it will be in time,” Marusych said.
Thepower plant stands at the center of the 10-kilometer-radius dead zone. InChernobyl town, which stands on the perimeter of the dead zone, a skeletonfirefighting crew monitors forest fires to prevent radiation from spreading.The occasional bus trundles down the main street ferrying workers from thereactor.
Incontrast to the lush green fields outside Kiev, agricultural lands in the30-kilometer exclusion zone have been abandoned — brown plots dotted withstunted trees. Deserted houses with broken windows line the road, and only therare farmer passes by on a horse-drawn cart.
Unlikethe areas surrounding the exclusion zone, scientists say, the dead zone willremain uninhabitable.
Tooheavy to be carried by the winds that blew lighter radioactive elements as faraway as Austria and Scandinavia, plutonium — with a half-life of 24,000 years– settled around the reactor, said Valery Kashparov, who directs the UkrainianInstitute of Agricultural Radiology.
But withthe proper funding, less radioactive areas, including parts of the exclusionzone, could be made safe for human life in less than a year, said Kashparov, achain-smoker who said tobacco use is much more hazardous than radiationexposure.
Hisinstitute has developed a number of techniques to make produce safe enough toconsume and sell outside the contaminated areas.
“Mostof the radiation absorbed by people doesn’t come from being in a radioactivearea, it comes form eating produce grown there,” Kashparov said.
Researchby the institute — which was founded a month after the disaster to study andfight its effects — shows that only 5 percent to 25 percent of radiationabsorbed by the body comes from background radiation and contaminated air andwater.
“Eightyto 95 percent comes from eating contaminated food, especially milk andmushrooms,” Kashparov said.
Just bytilling and fertilizing pastures, radiation intake would drop by eight times,Kashparov said.
“Tillingthe pasture means cows will eat clean grass; the cows’ meat and milk will inturn be clean, yielding cleaner manure used to fertilize potatoes, which in turnare fed to pigs,” he said.
“Unfortunatelythe government is not doing enough to inform people and to help finance thepurchase of fertilizers.” Almost 20 years after the disaster, little isknown about the long-term effects of radiation.
“Peoplethink that smaller doses of radiation over a long period of time are lessdangerous than a large dose all at once,” said Dmitry Grodzinsky, aradiobiologist at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences.
Sittingin his dark Kiev office, Grodzinsky warned that the effects are not smaller,just different.
“Anorganism which is in an area of higher radiation is constantly agitated as theradiation destroys its cells. To adjust, the organism destabilizes its owngenome so that it can adapt, resulting in more mutations in its offspring,”he said.
Grodzinskygave pine trees with extraordinarily long needles as an example.
He saidas far as effects of radiation exposure go, cancer is a bigger danger thangenetic instability.
“Radiationis like a lottery. Particles may shoot through your body and just destroy somecells. But in 600 cases out of 1 million, it causes cancer.” Radioactivitycertainly spawns myths.
When the50,000 residents of Pripyat, a town just two kilometers from the reactor, wereevacuated, they were not allowed to take their pets. Within a few months rumorsspread of giant mutant dogs roaming the zone.
“Whatreally happened was that the dogs got hungry and ate all the little dogs untilnone where left. Natural selection reclaimed Chernobyl,” Grodzinsky said.