Path to relief

30 years after the Chernobyl disaster: implementing the Union programme
On 26th April, the world commemorated a sorrowful date, 30 years after the Chernobyl nuclear plant catastrophe. For scientists, politicians, medical professionals and public figures, it was another reason to finalise a major effort to relieve the consequences of the 20th century’s largest technogenic disaster. Belarus, having suffered most of all nations, with almost a quarter of its territory contaminated by radioactive nuclides, has been the main venue for the discussion of Chernobyl issues.

Gomel recently hosted an international scientific conference bringing together about 200 experts, from Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, France, Japan and other countries. For the first time, medical workers, radiologists and radiobiologists reconciled their approaches to the problem. Professionals from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, the three former USSR states that suffered most from the Chernobyl disaster, met at Minsk’s National Academy of Science, to discuss the social consequences of the tragedy and measures undertaken to build a new shell over the exploded reactor.

In addition, representatives of ten states met at Minsk’s Palace of the Republic, including the UN Deputy Secretary General, Helen Clark, the Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Europe, Cihan Sultanoglu, and the IAEA’s Deputy Director General, Juan Lentijo.

One of the forum’s core topics was Belarus’ experience of relieving the global-scale disaster, including our transition to sustainable social and economic development of affected areas. Just 30 years ago, the consequences of the Chernobyl tragedy seemed catastrophic for our small country, with more than 3,600 settlements affected, inhabited by more than 2.2 million people. Due to radiation, 100,000 people were obliged to relocate, and 479 settlements disappeared from the geographical map. About 245,000 hectares of land were recognised as unsuitable for farming. In total, damage is estimated at having cost the nation US$235 billion: equal to 32 annual budgets for Belarus.

The tragedy has not broken our people, although we continue to work at providing relief to affected territories. One of our clo­sest partners in this mission is Russia, having also suffered from radioactive fallout (1.5 percent of the Eastern part of the country was contaminated). Common objectives have encouraged our two countries to work jointly to overcome the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, with four Belarus-Russia programmes comprising one of the first joint projects. 

Grigory Rapota, the Union State Secretary, explained in his conference speech, “Billions of Russian Roubles have been spent on Chernobyl-related Union programmes. We’ve launched a Russian-Belarusian information centre, with representative offices in Minsk and Moscow. We’ve also opened medical centres, in St. Petersburg, Obninsk and Gomel, to treat those who’ve tackled the consequences of the tragedy, as well as residents of affected ­areas. We’re using the latest medical technology and have a unified register listing disaster-affected citizens from our two countries, to help render proper medical aid. The Union State has financed medical assistance to 15,000 citizens of Belarus and Russia, and has improved the health of 17,000 children from affected areas. Meanwhile, 200,000 hectares of radioactively contaminated far­ming land and 120,000 hectares of forest have been reclaimed.”

In mid-April, Mr. Rapota joined a large group of Russian and Belarusian journalists in touring Gomel Region, including Polesie’s State Radiation and Ecological Reserve, Vetka, and ­Khoiniki. The route, organised by the Union State Standing Committee, took in the most affected places, although evidence of the destructive past is seen only through commemorative signs such as the Sorrow Monument in Khoiniki. Vetka and Khoiniki are neat and beautiful towns, with successful enterprises, where life goes on and children are born. Mr. Rapota notes that we’ve learnt much over the past three decades, in overcoming the consequences of the tragedy: experience which we’ve been able to share with Japan, following its Fukushima disaster.

Belarus and Russia continue efforts to overcome the consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe, as it’s still too early to say that danger has been completely eliminated. The area contaminated with radioactive nuclides is recovering slowly, but scientists, health professionals, ecologists and economists must persevere. 

The first programme (1998-2000)

Objective: To create unified scientific and methodological bases and to elaborate legal documents on medical, radiation and social protection of citizens, and on the reclamation of areas affected by radiation, to help implement joint practical measures in the fields of medicine, agriculture, forestry and radiological protection of the population.

Total financing: 333.75 million Russian Roubles. 

Major results:

— creation of specialised databases on the main health effects of the Chernobyl disaster;

— new techniques and standards of utilising forest in radioactively contaminated areas created;

— the Russian Nationwide Centre for Ecological Medicine, in St. Petersburg, built and equipped;  and

— the clinical radiological centre reconstructed, and a specialised treatment and diagnostic building constructed within the Medical Radiological Centre in Obninsk.

The second programme (2002-2005)

Objective: To formulate a unified policy of relieving the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster and enforcing this policy.

Total financing: 2,378.796 million Russian Roubles.

Major results:

— Grodno Pharmaceuticals Plant constructed and equipped to provide medicine to the population of affected areas of Belarus and Russia; 

— a specialised radiological early treatment centre constructed in Gomel to provide medical assistance to the affected population of Belarus and Russia;

— a Unified Russian-Belarusian Chernobyl Re­gister created, to support targeted specialised medical assistance; and

— launching of a Russian-Belarusian information centre to help relief of the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.

The third programme (2006-2010)

Objective: To formulate and to improve the mechanisms of Russia and Belarus being used to overcome the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.

Total financing: 1.2 billion Russian Roubles.

Major results: 

— medical centres and hospitals providing medical assistance to the disaster-affected population and to ‘liquidators’ equipped with up-to-date medical equipment; 

— 204,000 hectares of farming lands and 120,000 hectares of forest in Russia and Belarus brought back into economic use;

— average annual exposure doses for critical groups living in contaminated areas of Gomel Region catalogued; and

— an atlas published detailing the actual and projected consequences of the Chernobyl disaster in affected areas of Russia and Belarus.

The fourth programme (2013-2016)

Objective: To improve policies on the joint provision of safe conditions to citizens of Belarus and Russia affected by radiation and to enhance the quality of life for inhabitants of contaminated areas, ensuring interaction between Russia and Belarus in tackling emergency situations in such areas.

Total financing: 1.3026 billion Russian Roubles.

Major results: 

— new medical technologies developed and implemented in the spheres of cardiology, oncology, pediatrics and obstetrics;

— children’s rehabilitation and therapeutic centres re-equipped;

— targeted medical aid provided to more than 8,000 ‘liquidators’ of the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster;  and 

— a Russian-Belarusian internet portal created for Chernobyl disaster relief issues.

By Lilia Khlystun
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