Chernobyl: 30 years in the exclusion zone

By Anne Lundon
BBC Scotland

image captionAlmost 50,000 people lived in Pripyat at the time of the accident

On 26 April 1986, a catastrophic nuclear accident occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine. An explosion and subsequent fire released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which spread over much of the western USSR and Europe.

Almost 30 years on, Eòrpa reporter Anne Lundon travelled there to find out about the continued impact the disaster has on the country.

There is still no official account of how many died and suffered as a result of the meltdown, and the health implications of the disaster have long been debated.

Now, the cost of dealing with problems in neighbouring countries also means that victims of the disaster have been impacted by funding cuts.

Upon entering the exclusion zone, there's miles of wilderness. It looks empty, lifeless. But now and again, in amongst the trees, you spot some houses - a sight of the life that once was - now overrun with nature.

Today, 140 people live in the exclusion zone - most of whom returned in the first couple of years after the accident.

Among them is 81-year-old Ivan, who lives with his wife, Maria.

image captionIvan and his wife Maria live within the exclusion zone

He said: "We came back - it was easy to come back. The authorities let us and so that's what we did.

"Our life here? I came back and went to work at Chernobyl. Life has changed. Many things have changed.

"There used to be people and then suddenly they were gone. There was life, movement and everyone had something to do. And now what do you do?"

One of the most prolific areas associated with Chernobyl is the town of Pripyat. It was built two miles from the power plant to house workers and their families.

There were almost 50,000 residents in the town at the time of the accident.

image captionNature is taking over the town of Pripyat

Today, everything has been left as it once was - with nature taking over. But this wilderness is once again attracting visitors.

Levels of radiation in some parts are almost at a normal level, meaning it is safe for people to visit for short periods of time.

After the accident at reactor four, the three remaining reactor units - which were vital to Ukraine's electricity needs - continued to operate for some years. The last of those units closed in the year 2000.

The decommission of units 1-3 is being carried out separately from that of the destroyed unit 4, which is expected to take many years longer to complete.

As the work at the reactor continues, plans are in motion to try to change public perception of the exclusion zone. They want to declassify part of the zone, and develop it.

At the National Academy of Medical Sciences, Prof Konstantin Loganovsky has been researching the effects of radiation on long-term health.

He said: "In recent years it has been proved that nervous cells divide, so they are very vulnerable to radiation, especially in hippocampus and front brain cortex.

"This leads to many disorders like cognitive disorders, behaviour disorders, thinking disorders and emotional disorders ranging from depression to suicide.

"Of course, liquidators, evacuees and children received the highest levels of radiation. What happens is that parents share this stress with their children. They even transfer it through generations. This is an amazing situation.

"In Japan after Fukishima everyone got over this, they believed everything will be fine and everyone is healthy. It's the opposite here. Everyone is sick, every single person is sick."

image captionA fairground lies abandoned in the exclusion zone

There have been funding and benefit cuts affecting many regions within Ukraine, meaning that victims of the disaster will not receive the support and help they once did.

They will lose support towards medical bills, university grants and free transport.

At one time, it was the state that helped with this funding - now it is up to local authorities. And budgets very often do not match the needs of the regions.

Viktor Ivankevych, Deputy Minister of Social Policy in Ukraine, said, "Ukraine is spending a lot of money in the east of the country to provide for its defence. This money could have been used to upgrade the level of pension support for these categories of people.

"As of today there are about two million people who have either suffered from Chernobyl or were clean-up workers at the ChNPP in Ukraine."

Another town inside the exclusion zone which has been abandoned is Zalissya - where there are many empty homes and collective farming.

Most of those who left Zalissya were rehomed an hour and a half south of Chernobyl - in the Borodyanka region.

image captionThe decommission of the reactors is still continuing

Oleksander Leonenko was evacuated from his home when he was 22 years old.

"We had a certain level of trust in what we were told. We believed we were going away for three days. We took only food. Everything else we left at home.

"To tell the truth, we did not suspect we were leaving forever. The only thought we had was about coming back; maybe in three days or maybe in a week. But we would come back for sure.

"Only when we heard about new houses being built for us we understood this was for the rest of our lives.

"I made my first steps there, went to school there, left for the army and came back. It's been 30 years and it feels like yesterday. This part of my life went by very fast.

"I feel like I've come back home when I return to Zalissya. I come once a year. The moment I put my foot on my father's house doorstep I have a feeling like I've come back home after a couple of years of being away on business. Still, subconsciously we know we will never go back."

You can watch the full report from Chernobyl on BBC ALBA's Eòrpa on 30 March at 20:30.