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Chernobyl, 30 Years On

Thirty years after the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe began, the public health crisis is still underway and still worsening.

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Tuesday, April 26, 2016, marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl catastrophe. As is the case with its counterpart Fukushima, the official date marks only the beginning of a long, horrible ordeal, which is still underway and still worsening.

The date also marks the beginning of the 10th year of the daily vigil by the grassroots organization IndependentWHO at the entry to the World Health Organization (WHO). The stated and unwavering purpose of the vigil is to have the WHO renounce the accord that ties it to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), giving the IAEA veto power over anything that the WHO might propose to do in the area of ionizing radiation and health.

As the IAEA’s mandate is the promotion of all things nuclear, it will come as no surprise that, since the agreement entered into force in May 1959, the WHO’s work on ionizing radiation and health has been negligible.

The WHO assessment of Chernobyl, established in function of this agreement and discussed at length in an article published almost two years ago by Truthout, was what pushed IndependentWHO to undertake the vigil. A major element of that assessment, the death toll, is worth revisiting.

According to the WHO, 51 people died because of the explosion of Chernobyl reactor number four. We have been told that thyroid cancers attributable to its radiation may reach 4,000 or 5,000 cases over the decades to come. Such figures are absurd, yet the WHO-IAEA partnership has relentlessly insisted on them and done its best to thwart any alternative assessment, to such an extent that they are still routinely cited in the mainstream corporate media.

In November 1995, ahead of the April 1996 10th anniversary of the catastrophe, Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima, the director general of the WHO, organized a major conference on the human health implications of Chernobyl, inviting over 700 scientists from throughout the world, all specialized in some aspect of health and ionizing radiation. Their view was unanimous: The catastrophe was still unfolding, and the health effects would continue to increase for generations to come.

Contrary to what the WHO promised when the invitations to the conference were sent, the papers presented by the conference’s participants were never published. Later, in retirement, Nakajima elaborated on this, explaining that, unique among the various organizations and agencies of the United Nations system, the IAEA is under the authority of the UN Security Council.

Thus, any contention between the IAEA and another agency can be referred to the oversight authority, the Security Council, where the five permanent members, all nuclear powers, have veto power, in effect declaring the grounds of contention without merit. The WHO’s oversight body is the UN General Assembly and the secretary general, de jure and de facto powerless before the Security Council.

In April 1996, following the 10th anniversary conference, the IAEA organized its own conference on Chernobyl, which has since replaced the November conference in all references by the WHO. The concluding message was reassuring — and patently false.

More than 800,000 (perhaps as many as 1 million) young men were recruited by the Soviet Union to put out the fire in reactor number four and entomb it in a sarcophagus. At a 2001 conference in Kiev (whose proceedings were never published either), the figure advanced was that already over one-third of them had been reported as incapacitated or dead.

The liquidators were later the subject of an international symposium organized by the Swiss chapters of Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War at the University of Bern medical school in November 2005. The introduction to the symposium’s abstracts noted that, in April of that year (the 19th anniversary of the catastrophe), a press release from the Ukrainian Embassy in Paris had acknowledged 2,646,106 Ukrainians as being Chernobyl victims, among whom one-third were children.

In the light of the constant denial of any serious aftereffect by the most directly affected countries (Ukraine, Belarus and Russia), not to mention the outright lies with which these countries’ governments have surrounded the subject, such a revelation was astounding. Yet the announcement was passed over in silence by all major corporate media.

The liquidators were drawn from the entire Soviet Union. Of the registered Ukrainian liquidators, 94 percent were classified as ill in 2005, mostly too ill to work anymore.

More recently, in 2011, the New York Academy of Sciences published a 327-page English translation of a 2007 Russian publication on the consequences of the catastrophe, presenting an analysis of the scientific literature (some 1,000 titles and more than 5,000 printed and internet publications in Slavic languages, mostly in Russian). The death toll calculated from these studies, covering the period from 1986 to 2004, was 985,000.

These peer-reviewed monographs have been pointedly ignored by the WHO, even though Russian is an official language of the WHO, which maintains a permanent translation and interpretation staff for all six official languages. (A substantial body of peer-reviewed articles in Russian built on climate studies of the east Siberian continental shelf and its fast thawing permafrost — and concomitant release of methane — has similarly been ignored by the World Meteorological Organization, which, like the WHO, has Russian as an official language and a full staff of permanent translators and interpreters on hand.)

Chernobyl’s Children

In the spring of 1992, several Alsatians answered an unusual call from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and participated in receiving in France a group of 300 children from Ukraine, all Chernobyl victims.

The following autumn, these volunteers decided to sign on to a partnership with the Green Help foundation in Kiev, a grassroots organization set up to help the victims of the catastrophe. Their organization was named Les Enfants de Tchernobyl (Chernobyl’s Children). Their goal was to bring young victims to France for their summer vacations, receiving them in private homes.

Finally, in early July 1993, after seemingly endless negotiations and official proceedings, 196 children, accompanied by 10 interpreters, arrived at the Basel-Mulhouse airport on a military transport plane to launch what has become a summer ritual. Since then, more than 250 such projects have been carried out in support of the children most badly affected in the three countries (Ukraine, Belarus and Russia). Every summer, some 200 children come to Alsace and surrounding départements in eastern France for three weeks.

As the children come primarily from highly disadvantaged families, there are also occasional humanitarian actions organized in favor of some of the families. Life, for many of them, is anything but easy.

The organization’s website notes:

The inhabitants of the north of Ukraine, the south of Russia and Belarus are obliged to live in a radioactive environment, and, because their food is contaminated, the radionuclides, and especially cesium 137, accumulate day after day in the bodies of the children. The main problem is products that result from food-gathering (berries, mushrooms and such), hunting and fishing, a considerable part of their daily diet.

The permanent irradiation of their cells, particularly those of the heart, the thyroid gland and the brain, causes numerous lesions that are the source of very serious pathologies, linked especially to harm to the immune defenses of the vital organs.

The work and examinations of Professor Yuri Bandazhevski have demonstrated a co-relation between the level of cesium 137 accumulated in the children’s bodies and the anomalies revealed by their electrocardiograms. Cesium 137 does not exist in nature, thus what one finds can only be of human origin: nuclear installations, atmospheric tests, nuclear pollution and catastrophes.

For years, the general assessment of Dr. Bandazhevski and those attending to children’s health in Belarus — the country most affected by the catastrophe — has been that some 80 percent of the children are ill from a vast panoply of diseases, many seriously. While the percentage seems to have stabilized over the long term, suggesting that the worst has passed, the seriousness of the illnesses seems to be slowly increasing. Additionally, there is a deplorable lack of reliable comprehensive statistics on congenital birth deformities, a major indication of radiation poisoning.

Further, little effort — beyond that of a handful of independent researchers with woefully inadequate means at their disposal — has been expended to establish the extent of harm throughout the rest of the world from the countless radionuclides (microscopic radioactive particles) let loose on the good earth when the reactor core burned.

While “official” accounts of the catastrophe claim that some 200 tons of fuel still remain within the sarcophagus, nobody has advanced irrefutable evidence to support this claim. Given the duration and intensity of the fire, most independent researchers have concluded that all the fuel burned. The presence of residual fuel seems to have been an additional major reason justifying the European Union’s assuming the huge cost of building of a new sarcophagus over the original 1986 construction (besides the obvious ones of the original’s aging and its less than optimal construction under the stress of the catastrophe).

Thus, a permanently high-level contamination zone in Eastern Europe can be attributed to “nuclear waste” that cannot, yet, be removed. The reality is that the presence or absence of residual fuel is irrelevant. The reactor building, along with the ground under and around it, with or without the fuel, constitutes an irrevocably and colossally poisoned area that can never again be made fit for human or animal life in any form.

The “official” version would thus appear to be another brick in the huge wall of denial, minimizing Chernobyl’s contribution to the contamination of a world already saturated with radionuclides from nuclear weapons, nuclear reactors and the use of uranium and depleted uranium weapons. Thirty years on, regardless of the WHO-IAEA claims, the Chernobyl catastrophe continues to unfold, denied by the nuclearists, ignored by the mainstream corporate media and largely unknown to the general public of the world.

At IndependentWHO’s general assembly in March 2016, its members voted to extend the vigil once again for yet another — its 10th — year. A highly placed official at the WHO confided to this journalist that it has become a colossal embarrassment to the WHO and that no high-level meeting takes place without it being mentioned.

While the WHO has had its hands tied by the IAEA and the nuclear establishment, the indefatigable public presence of IndependentWHO representatives at its entry, every working day, from 8 am to 6 pm, stands as one more example of ordinary citizens obstinately speaking truth to power.

More power to them!