Optimism is stronger than caesium
[b]April 26th is a sad day for humankind; 25 years ago, the world’s largest technogenic catastrophe occurred as the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded. Of course, on a planetary scale, the event happened barely yesterday; for us, a significant portion of time has passed [/b]Belarus was the most affected country, since the largest amount of radioactive fallout rained on our territory. With this in mind, the problem of how to deal with the consequences of the event remains topical, since strontium and caesium take time to become inactive. Immediately after the catastrophe, over 46,000 square kilometres of Belarusian land was contaminated with radioactive particles (23 percent). This figure now stands at 30,000 square kilometres (14.5 percent). Belarusian and Russian scientists have published an atlas showing today’s situation and that prognosed for our two states over coming years.
Belarus was the most affected country, since the largest amount of radioactive fallout rained on our territory. With this in mind, the problem of how to deal with the consequences of the event remains topical, since strontium and caesium take time to become inactive.
Immediately after the catastrophe, over 46,000 square kilometres of Belarusian land was contaminated with radioactive particles (23 percent). This figure now stands at 30,000 square kilometres (14.5 percent). Belarusian and Russian scientists have published an atlas showing today’s situation and that prognosed for our two states over coming years. It is thought that current radiation levels in affected villages and cities will remain until 2046, while Belarus’ caesium contamination will continue until 2090. Plutonium and strontium, which fell in a 30km radius of the nuclear plant, will exist, sadly, for several generations.
Despite the huge economic losses caused by the catastrophe (worth $235bln, or 32 annual budgets of the country) Belarus has achieved much in dealing with the consequences of Chernobyl. Initially, people were moved from contaminated regions, rehomed in safe areas, while an efficient system of radiation control was put in place. Gradually, the country has shifted to the social-economic revival of Chernobyl-affected regions. It is a major task of a new state programme, running until 2015 — costing $2.2bln (double that was spent in the previous five years).
Territory contaminated by radio-nuclides can be conventionally divided into that considered habitable and that not. Where contamination exceeds 15 curie per square kilometre, production activity is prohibited, as is residence. Lower figures are deemed suitable for living, as long as radiation safety measures are met. At present, 5,200 square kilometres are known as a ‘dead zone’, with over 137,000 people relocated. However, some people have chosen to live and work within the zone.
The Chernobyl disaster most significantly affected Belarusian agriculture, with over a million hectares of land covered with caesium-137 and strontium over 350,000 hectares. Those territories which have been significantly contaminated cannot be farmed, resulting in over 265,000 hectares of land being taken out of use, explains Zinaida Basalaeva, who heads Agricultural Radiology and Environmental Protection at the Belarusian Agriculture and Food Ministry. Most of this land is now a ‘dead zone’ — part of the Polesie State Radiation-Ecological Reserve. Lands won’t be returned to villagers for many decades, as the radionuclides present are long-lived. Lost revenue is estimated at $717.5mln (1998 prices).
Much investment has been required to bring less contaminated fields into use. Every year, 15-16 percent of funds allocated by the state budget to deal with the consequences of the catastrophe are spent on protective measures for agriculture. Such measures include lime application onto acid soils, fertilising with potassium and phosphorus, and improvement of hayfields and pastures. As a result, crops from affected territories meet norms regarding radionuclide levels. In fact, Belarusian norms regarding the content of radionuclides in food and water are among the strictest in the world, being four times as strict for milk and ten times as strict for bread, in comparison with EU norms. “No produce bearing an enhanced level of radionuclides is being output by state farms,” explains Anatoly Zagorsky, the First Deputy Head of the Belarusian Emergency Ministry’s Department for the Liquidation of the Consequences of the Chernobyl Catastrophe. “The situation on private farm holdings has also improved; over the past five years, the number of villages producing contaminated milk has fallen over 3.5 times.”
Re-specialisation of agricultural facilities has turned out to be an efficient measure. Scientific research conducted in the post-Chernobyl years and the practical experience of agrarians have shown that territories unsuitable for growing grain or producing milk can be used to farm rape, corn and sunflowers, to breed cattle for meat, to breed horses and to produce seeds.
In 2001, Alexander Lukashenko’s visit to Gomel Region resulted in programmes to re-specialise the most affected farms in Gomel and Mogilev regions. In all, 57 farms were designated unable to meet radionuclide norms. Komarinsky, in Bragin District, is a good example of re-specialisation, switching from grain and milk to cattle breeding. Its French ‘limousine’ cows are easy to feed and accumulate little radioactivity in their flesh. Accordingly, their meat is of good quality and meets radionuclide norms. It has taken the farm several years to shift from being loss making to profitable. People are now returning to the district, having been relocated soon after the disaster, so good salaries are welcome. Measures taken to ensure their safety in living on Chernobyl affected territories allow us to speak of the revival of the contaminated areas. There’s no doubt that money spent on re-specialisation of the 57 farms — costing Br140bln — should repay itself before long.
From rehabilitation to revival
The new state programme, launched this year, focuses on overcoming the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe. As before, it aims to protect citizens, giving medical and social support in the affected regions while ensuring that food meets norms. For many years, Belarus will need to continue checking for radiation levels; our laboratories make over 11 million such tests. Financing of domestic agriculture and forestry is essential, since radionuclides will be here for some time to come. According to the Agriculture and Food Ministry, only 15,700 hectares of land have been returned to normal use so far (from those retired from use due to radiation). Even twenty five years after the tragedy, forest produce requires particular attention: in 2010, about 60 percent of all mushroom tests proved that they were unsuitable for consumption. Additionally, 7 percent of wood was unsuitable. Accordingly, it’s too early to speak of reducing radiation control.
Apart from these protective measures, the state programme focuses on the social-economic development of the Chernobyl affected territories. Over 1.1mln people currently reside within them. For the past 25 years, since the disaster, protective measures have been highlighted there, with social development lagging behind. Compensatory plans are now afoot, with new facilities and infrastructure developed, to raise living standards to match those seen countrywide.
In line with a Presidential initiative, financing for the programme dealing with the revival of affected regions (running from 2011-2015) has doubled. However, yet more is required to create more comfortable conditions. Mr. Zagorsky tells us that up to 50 percent of the Br6.8 trillion allocated is to be spent on the construction of social facilities and the launch of new production, with the emphasis on innovation and competitive manufactures. Altogether, 79 (of 127 proposed projects) have been approved by the State Committee for Science and Technology. The ‘industrial’ theme is diverse, encompassing a high-tech facility to produce fish products (in Mogilev Region) — from breeding and production of fodder to fish processing. In Brest Region, sand mining for glass making is being developed, while another project envisages modernisation of asphalt-concrete plants. Implementation of these plans should enable the country to produce competitive products while creating thousands of new jobs. Residents of affected areas will be able to earn good salaries, aiding them in improving their wellbeing. The Belarusian Government belie should return to normal life in the coming decade.
By Lilia Khlystun