Written by Didier Bourguignon,
In the early hours of 26 April 1986, an incident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and subsequent explosions released nuclear radioactive material into the atmosphere. Some 600 000 people took part in the containment operations and around 350 000 people were displaced in the years following the accident. Radioactive material was scattered in the vicinity of the plant and over much of Europe.
Thirty years later, Andrei Stsiapanau, Associate Professor at the European Humanities University (Minsk/Vilnius), a leading expert on the impact of Chernobyl on society and politics, particularly in Belarus has examined both the accident and the technical responses to nuclear safety. Professor Stsiapanau highlights how Chernobyl and its legacy have influenced Soviet and post-Soviet politics, mainly by generating social mobilisation. He indicates that Belarussian authorities are now shaping the Chernobyl legacy in the context of the construction of a nuclear power plant.
Since 1986, the international community, led by the European Union, has been assisting Ukraine, Belarus and Russia in dealing with the far-reaching consequences of Chernobyl. The EU is the main donor to the two post-Chernobyl accounts of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and funds major remediation projects, including the building of a new sarcophagus for the reactor. This focus on the Eastern Partnership countries is not the only EU response – Chernobyl has pushed the EU to develop a ‘nuclear external policy’ with other countries, such as Armenia.
The release of radionuclides into much of the European atmosphere had effects on environment and health. Agricultural and natural ecosystems in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, as well as in many other European countries were affected as radionuclides were taken up by plants and later by animals. In some areas, they were subsequently found in milk, meat, forest food products, freshwater fish and wood. Although environmental impact varies according to location and ecosystem, forests and fresh water bodies have been among the most affected.
The impact of the Chernobyl fallout on human health is not unanimously agreed by experts; indeed United Nations agency conclusions are challenged. The effects of heavy fallout exposure include radiation sickness and cataracts; with thyroid cancer, especially in children and adolescents, and leukaemia among exposed workers, appearing later. The accident also had important psychosocial effects. The major population groups exposed were those working on the clean-up of the accident, evacuees and residents of contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. No clear evidence has emerged of any measurable increase in radiation-induced adverse health effects in other European countries.