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Debate Rages About Impact of Chernobyl Disaster


Many firefighters and other emergency workers who responded to the Chernobyl explosion eventually died from radiation exposure. An unknown number of other people were also killed before the site was sealed inside what was called a concrete sarcophagus. Twenty years later though, the ruined reactor still poses a threat.

NPR's Gregory Feifer traveled to Chernobyl.


In Northern Ukraine, an exclusion zone surrounds the worst contaminated land around the idle Chernobyl nuclear plant; getting within six miles of the plant requires a government permit.

At the main entrance gate, departing cars are checked for radiation. People are tested, too. Almost 4,000 work inside the area, many living there four days a week. Inside the plant itself, employees swipe magnetic identification cards to enter the administration building. Their main task is shoring up the concrete and steel sarcophagus covering reactor number four. The panels were manufactured off-site, and hastily assembled over the reactor to minimize radiation exposure for the workers.

Chernobyl plant spokeswoman, Julia Marusich.

Ms. JULIA MARUSICH (Spokeswoman, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant): This very method didn't provide the accuracy of shelter structure installation. Initially, the sarcophagus, it was not filled. The structures are not now stable. They are not reliable.

FEIFER: Workers are now strengthening the water-damaged sarcophagus to contain about 200 tons of highly irradiated fuel that lie inside, along with tons of radioactive dust and other contaminated material.

It's highly dangerous work. Teams sometimes have to limit their time in the area to only a few minutes.

Eventually, the reactor will be contained by a huge new hangar-like structure, which will cover the existing sarcophagus. But that will take 10 to 15 years to complete. Plant spokeswoman Marusich says there is a continuing threat the present structure will collapse.

Ms. MARUSICH: There is a threat of fine dispersed radiated dust release outside. That is why so urgent is to construct a new filled structure.

FEIFER: When Chernobyl exploded, radioactive materials spread to Belarus, Russia, and many other European countries. Fireman Anatoli Solato(ph) arrived to work in Chernobyl two months after the accident. He says many of his co-workers died from contamination.

Mr. ANATOLI SOLATO: (Foreign language spoken)

FEIFER: The thing is that we really didn't know how dangerous radiation is, he said. When I was there, I felt nothing. Anatoli says all his hair fell out soon after he went outside without protective headgear.

Moscow didn't initially inform other countries of the explosion, but now Russian officials say the government took every proper measure to minimize its effects. Leonid Ilyin is director of the Moscow Institute of Biophysics, and helped direct the response on the ground. He admits the Soviet Union was caught completely off guard, but says authorities worked quickly and efficiently.

Mr. LEONID ILYIN (Director, Moscow Institute of Biophysics): (Through translator) There wasn't a single case of serious radiation poisoning among evacuated residents or those cleaning up the site. Not to be confused with the firemen who went there immediately afterward.

FEIFER: Authorities say among all those exposed to Chernobyl radiation, only 4,000 cases of cancer, and about 50 deaths so far, can be directly attributed to the meltdown. That number, much lower than initial estimates, was seconded in a major United Nations report last September.

But a number of environmental groups strongly dispute those figures. Estimates vary widely, but Greenpeace, which is leading the criticism, says Chernobyl may have resulted in up to 100,000 extra cases of cancer worldwide.

Greenpeace member Vladimir Chubroff(ph), says the Russian government's numbers are low for political reasons.

Mr. VLADIMIR CHUPROV (Greenpeace Member): (Through translator) A very powerful lobby is trying to convince the public the effects of Chernobyl aren't serious, because the accident is the only thing in the way of a new government program to build 40 new nuclear energy reactors.

FEIFER: Chuprov says building new reactors while the threat from Chernobyl still looms large will only court further nuclear disaster, the effects of which the world is only beginning to understand.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News.

INSKEEP: We've got more coverage of Chernobyl on our website. You can read survivors accounts of the 1986 disaster, and also see recent photos from the exclusion zone around Chernobyl. Just go to Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gregory Feifer
Gregory Feifer reports for NPR from Moscow, covering Russia's resurgence under President Vladimir Putin and the country's transition to the post-Putin era. He files from other former Soviet republics and across Russia, where he's observed the effects of the country's vast new oil wealth on an increasingly nationalistic society as well as Moscow's rekindling of a new Cold War-style opposition to the West.