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Debate Over Chernobyl's True Toll Continues


A recent United Nations report about the world's worst nuclear accident at Chernobyl 20 years ago says the consequences of the disaster were overblown and that scientists now believe the radioactive nuclear fallout was not as harmful to human health as previously reported. But for those living in what was long believed to be one of the worst affected countries, Ukraine, the message does not ring true.

Chernobyl is like a tale of two cities. For some, it is a poisoned place of death and fear, forgotten and abandoned. For others, it is a phoenix rising, a city struggling to come back to life, after surviving the unthinkable, the explosion of a nuclear reactor and the release of nearly nine tons of radioactive material.

After 20 years have passed, debate still rages over basic questions such as, how many people died as a result of the explosion? And, how should the nations affected by nuclear fallout provide for their population's health and safety, as well as their energy needs. During this month, the 20th anniversary of the explosion, there are still many views of the legacy of Chernobyl.

Hundreds of leading experts recently concluded, in a report released ahead of the anniversary, that fewer than 50 deaths could be directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all of them exposed rescue workers, or so-called liquidators. However, the U.N. report went on to say that radiation from the explosion could still cause up to 4,000 deaths in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus - not tens of thousands, as was once widely thought.

These latest figures provide a much less dire assessment of the long-term consequences of the Chernobyl disaster than ever before.

But former liquidator Ivan Zharavich, who now serves as the local administrator of a Ukrainian region that includes Chernobyl, says the report is just not true. He says the exact number of victims from Chernobyl may never be known. But, he says, the toll is nothing short of devastating, especially for those who were children at the time of the blast.

Zharavich says, before the accident, the region had a child illness rate of two percent. Now, he says, it is 88 percent. And, he adds, nearly every day, there is a funeral, with more than half the people dying, not from natural causes, but from what he and others believe to be radiation-induced illnesses.

More alarming, he says, is that long-term monitoring and studies of Chernobyl's effect on children have essentially stopped, though many believe that the offspring of this next generation and beyond could provide more clues. As one scientist put it, there are undoubtedly more unpleasant surprises on the way.

Dr. Igor Komisarenko who heads Kiev's Institute for Endocrinology and Metabolism, is a bit more optimistic. His clinic is the lead organization in Ukraine offering treatment for nuclear radiation cancer, especially in children. To date, he has performed more than 500 surgeries on Chernobyl children, many of whom, he says, have gone on to live healthy, productive lives.

The doctor says the number of surgeries he performs on children with nuclear thyroid cancer is now very low, approaching the level of what was experienced before the explosion at Chernobyl.

But he acknowledges that could be due, in part, to the fact that the children who got radiation at the time of the accident have now grown up. And these days, he says, he sees more adults coming in with the same kind of radiation cancer.

Scientists and engineers still work at the now-closed Chernobyl plant, monitoring the de-commissioning of the three reactors that were operational after the explosion, and more importantly, some say monitoring the second sarcophagus, or shell, that is being prepared to protectively surround the damaged reactor by 2012.

The $800 million project is considered vital, as there are leaks and cracks in the current shell that many experts fear could collapse, creating a second catastrophe at Chernobyl.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is reportedly considering using the polluted territory as a burial ground for spent nuclear waste from other countries.

Leading nuclear energy analyst Vladimir Osatenko, a former liquidator who, also served eight years in Ukraine's parliament, says he disapproves of the plan. In his view, nuclear waste is even more dangerous than power plants like Chernobyl.

Osatenko says nuclear waste "remains poisonous thousands of years, far longer than any politician." And yet, he says, our leaders create this huge waste by agreeing to build more and more plants. He likens the process to a Pandora's Box, which, once open, he says, is nearly impossible to close.

According to Osatenko, Ukraine has 130 million cubic meters of nuclear waste that, to this day, is unmanaged. He says the time of studies and research is long over. As he put it, "somebody needs to pick up a shovel and figure out where to put it."

Meanwhile, villagers have begun toiling in Ukraine's pollution-ridden soil, planting potatoes, tomatoes and other food to feed their families.

Analyst Osatenko says the risk is still too great and much stronger controls are needed.

He says it takes two hours to conduct one radioactive sample on a single food source. That is why, he says, it is simply not possible for everything to be tested. He says that if sellers checked to the degree necessary, they would never have time to serve any customers. As a result, he says, he has no faith in the safety of the food supply from affected regions.

As Osatenko sees it, the lessons of Chernobyl have still not been learned. Perhaps in time, he says, history will record that humanity prevailed. But he says, in his view, in the case of Chernobyl, nobody wins.

Still, seemingly against all odds, there are small signs of renewal.

Hundreds of people have moved back to the zone to try and re-start their lives. They do so in what is now listed as one of Europe's largest wildlife habitats, thanks largely to the lack of human intrusion. But that too could change, as Chernobyl itself has become somewhat of an emerging tourist destination for so-called extreme tourists, who come to visit the disaster site, one of the most feared places on the planet.