Chernobyl twenty-five years on

WHILE the world witnesses the slow motion nuclear disaster unfolding at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan we are reminded that this week represents the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The accident at Chernobyl in Northern Ukraine was much more sudden and devastating than what is currently happening in Fukushima.

WHILE the world witnesses the slow motion nuclear disaster unfolding at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan we are reminded that this week represents the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The accident at Chernobyl in Northern Ukraine was much more sudden and devastating than what is currently happening in Fukushima.

On April 26, 1986 a huge explosion ripped through reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl facility, blasting tonnes of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Much of this material from the initial blast came down within kilometres of the power plant. A large percentage landed in an area that became known as the red forest. Here, the radiation levels were so high that all vegetation and trees were completely destroyed.

A graphite fire burned in the reactor core for ten to twelve days following the explosion carrying large amounts of radioactive materials high into the atmosphere. This material was dispersed over a wide area depending on the changing weather patterns at the time. Rainfall brought this material back to earth over large areas of Northern Ukraine, Southern Belarus and Russia and eventually carried the radioactive material over large areas of Western Europe.

Soviet secrecy surrounded the accident over the first days and only two days later was the world alerted following increased radiation levels in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant in Sweden. Swedish engineers traced the origin of this radiation to Chernobyl.

Only on day two did the Soviet authorities also decide to evacuate the modern city of Pripyat, just 3kms north of the power plant. Pripyat had been constructed to house Chernobyl NPP workers and their families and was home to 45,000 people.

A 30km exclusion zone was set up around Chernobyl and in the months and years that followed; all towns and villages within this area were completely evacuated.

Over 145,000 people were uprooted from their homes and farms and re-located to other parts of Ukraine. Thirty one heroic fire fighters and plant personnel died in the immediate aftermath of the explosion trying to contain the fire while being exposed to lethal doses of radiation. Numerous other workers were admitted to hospital suffering from radiation sickness that would take its toll in subsequent years. Over half a million people became involved in clean-up operations around the plant and throughout the wider affected areas in the months and years that followed. These workers became known as liquidators.

While official figures on the total number of deaths are difficult to obtain it is generally accepted that the eventual death toll attributable to Chernobyl will run into thousands. The incidence of thyroid cancer in children from contaminated areas increased dramatically in the years following the accident.

The Chernobyl disaster led to the most sustained humanitarian effort in history, a fact recognised in a United Nations report to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the disaster in 2001. Thousands of children from Belarus, Ukraine and Russia have availed of recuperation holidays in western European countries through the assistance of numerous Chernobyl charities. Many children have received medical treatment through these programs while a number of the charities concentrate on improving the lives of children in orphanages in the Chernobyl affected areas. Ten years after that UN report the humanitarian effort continues.

Locally, Friends of Chernobyl Children Tullamore continue to assist children from the Chernobyl affected areas of Northern Ukraine. This organisation was founded in 1994 and initially concentrated their efforts on helping children from Belarus.

In 2000 they switched their focus to Northern Ukraine and with the assistance of Nataliya Preobrazhenska chairperson of Save Children of Ukraine from Chernobyl Catastrophe Charitable Fund over 400 Ukrainian children have enjoyed recuperation holidays in Tullamore and surrounding areas.

The Friends of Chernobyl Children Tullamore also co-operate closely with the Kells Committee for the Care of Chernobyl Children and this year 20 children will visit Tullamore, while 10 children will travel to Kells. In total both organisations have assisted over 600 Belarus and Ukrainian children.

The charity is run by a voluntary committee from existing or previous host families. Fifteen host families in Tullamore and surrounding areas will take part in the project this year. The children will arrive on June 29 for a three week stay. They will be accompanied by interpreter, Vitaliya Gavrylenko. Each year the children receive medical screening through Moira O’Loughlinn’s clinic at the health centre. The committee also organise a number of events to bring the children together during their stay.

In recent years these events include, a disco, BBQ, sports & activity day, camps at Camross in the Sliabh Bloom Mountains and parties at Supermacs. At all times the children enjoy the dedicated attention of voluntary host families, enjoying family events and outings. Host families generally find it a very rewarding and enjoyable experience. Each year a number of new host families are usually recruited while a number of families have been involved for many years. Families generally get involved when they have young children and then request a Chernobyl child of the same age as this helps with the interaction between the children.

Fundraising makes up a large part of the committee’s work. In recent years the cost flights, bus transfers, insurance and events sees the cost of running the project averaging €120,00 annually. All of the time and effort of committee members and host families is completely voluntary and all funds are directed to assisting as many children as possible. The committee continue to get tremendous support within the local community and from host families and these are the main reasons why the project continues to operate successfully.

The committee are currently planning to mark the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster with a celebration of the work and commitment of all the host families that have been involved since 1994. This event will take place in Tullamore during the time that the visiting Chernobyl children are here in July. It will be an opportunity for families to renew acquaintances again and to meet the children and their interpreter Vitaliya Gavrylenko.

Vitaliya lives in Ivankiv, the regional town closest to the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Laryssa Pravdiva is the project co-ordinator in Ivankiv and she will select all visiting children this year from this region. Vitaliya will give a first hand account of what life is like in the rural villages where the children live.

The committee are also planning a photographic and poster exhibition to coincide with the celebration, depicting a brief history of the disaster, village life in the area of the exclusion zone and the joy and happiness experienced by the children during their visits over many years. The committee are currently trying to make contact with all previous host families especially families involved in earlier years.

If you were a host parent please contact Mary at (087) 0635232 after 6pm. If you would like to become a future host parent or supporter please contact Máire at (087) 2974273 or Alma at (086) 3857374.