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The Chernobyl Disaster And It's Legacy For The Children

The Chernobyl disaster is the world’s worst environmental disaster. It has started an endless chain reaction which has affected millions of people. The number affected may never be known and the number of people who have died or who could eventually die is highly controversial. The Chernobyl disaster has certainly had the effect of multiplying any previous problems that existed in society by many times and as usual it is the weakest in such societies that suffer the most. While the experts argue the statistics, the fact remains that thousands of children continue to suffer. They don’t have the luxury of arguing about the figures or about what should be done. Efforts to support practical projects on the ground are the first step in helping those who need it most.

What Happened: Chernobyl is a district in north-western Ukraine in eastern europe. On 26th April 1986 a test was being carried out at Reactor Number Four in the Chernobyl nuclear power station. The aim of the test was to see if, in the event of an unexpected loss of electric power, the turbines would provide sufficient electric power to keep the cooling system operating for the few seconds it would take the diesel generators to kick in and to provide backup electric power for the cooling water pumps. This test was being carried out because it is imperative that the fuel rods in a nuclear power plant are kept cool at all times.

So what happened? The automatic cooling system valves had been shut down and locked to prevent them being used for the duration of the test. The basis for this decision was that, if need be, the boron control rods could be lowered immediately and stop the nuclear reaction. A combination of power plant design, management failure and operator error led to the uranium and graphite core overheating to temperatures in excess of 5000°F. To try and contain the situation, the reactor was then flooded with water which superheated to steam. It was this steam and a collection of hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and oxygen gasses that caused a massive explosion that blew a one thousand ton concrete and steel roof off the reactor. Enormous amounts of radioactive material including Iodine 131, Caesium 137, Strontium 90 and Plutonium burst into the atmosphere and floated across the entire northern hemisphere and a massive fire burned at the reactor core for eight days.

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The explosion released one hundred times more radiation into the atmosphere than the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

  • Radiation is invisible. It has no smell. It does not respect borders.

  • The most threatening source of radioactivity after the explosion was Iodine 131 and is cancer causing.

  • Caesium 137 will take hundreds of years to disappear and is present in the soil. It concentrates in wild foods such as berries and mushrooms.

  • Strontium 90 will not disappear for over 2,000 years and could affect bone marrow.

  • Plutonium 239 is the most toxic of waste and will be around for several thousand years. It can cause lung cancer when inhaled in dust.

  • Traces of radioactive fallout were found in almost every country in the northern hemisphere. Amounts of radiation distributed depended on the amount of rainfall or the direction of wind over particular countries. Belarus was the most affected.

  • Re-contamination is a problem which still occurs. Forest fires, for instance, scatter large amounts of Caesium and Strontium 90 into the atmosphere.

  • Re-contamination occurs through food and water where the people till their fields, herd their cattle and eat their own food products in some areas.

  • The most obvious health problem is the increase in thyroid cancers. About 4,000 cases of this disease affect mainly those who were children or adolescents at the time of the Chernobyl disaster.

  • In many radioactive zones, the birth rate has dropped by at least 40% due to women’s fears of having deformed or ill children.

  • An area of over 160,000 km² has been contaminated. About 2,000 villages have been evacuated.

  • More than 350,000 people were resettled away from the immediate areas but many millions still remain in contaminated areas further away from the exclusion zone.

  • Over 20% of the agricultural land of Belarus was contaminated by fallout from the Chernobyl disaster.

  • Many institutions are full of sick children or are left in care by families who cannot cope with social problems.

The figures quoted are disputed by many groups, but this much is certain, the economic and psychological effect on the people, coupled with the effects on their health are a bad combination. The Chernobyl disaster has made a bad situation worse, breaking up communities and families, affecting the weakest people – the children.

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