Some people think that Chernobyl is the example of the collapsing Soviet system which disregards the welfare and safety of workers and their families, and also its inefficiency to deliver basic services to its citizens such as health care, and transportation especially in critical situations. One of the worst man-made industrial disasters in history happened on April 26, 1986, in a Nuclear Energy Plant in Chernobyl. Most people had no idea that such city even existed, but after that day its anonymity vanished forever. Chernobyl is located just about 120 kilometers north of Kiev, a major city in Ukraine. This accident was a major humanitarian catastrophe of the twentieth century.
In one of the four reactors of the Nuclear Energy Plant, Unit 4, an explosion occurred at around 1:24 am local time, while an experiment was being made. The experiment was to test how long the turbines would supply power in case of a loss of main electrical power supply. The biggest cause of the explosion was the reactor itself. It was a Soviet made reactor, which had designing faults and was being operated by inadequately trained personnel. Also during the experiment, parts of the safety system of the reactor were shut off in addition to breaking of some other operating rules.
There were two explosions. The first destroyed the roof of the reactor building, and the second one exposed the reactor core. Both inside and outside of Unit 4 were on fire, releasing large amounts of fuel containing fission products, including radioactivity. Burning fuel and graphite from the core of the reactor caused the main release of radioactivity into the environment. The graphite burned for nine days releasing radioactivity. During these next nine days, radioactivity spread almost all around Eastern Europe and Scandinavian countries (Sweden, Finland, etc.) with help from changing meteorological conditions and wind directions.
The explosion released thirty to forty times the radioactivity of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 31 people were killed, and hundreds were hospitalized. The main casualties were among the firefighters, including those who attended the small fires on the roof of the turbine building.
The monitoring of the territories effected by radiation started immediately. Over six-million kilometer squares has been examined. About 100,000 people had to abandon their towns, which were located within the 30-kilometer radius zone around the reactor. About 650,000 people, who were called "liquidators" worked on cleaning up the radioactivity at the site, in order to restart the remaining three reactors, but these people also received high doses of radiation. There are also many other symptoms caused by this accident, such as childhood thyroid cancer (especially seen in Belarus and northern Ukraine), skin and lung cancers, and psycho-social effects from stress related conditions. Until now, ten people have been reported dead from thyroid cancer related to the accident. There are still 500,000 cases of this disease, but it is not fatal if reported early. According to the statistics, today, around 3 million people, more than 2 million in Belarus alone, are still living in contaminated areas. Chernobyl itself is still inhabited by almost 10,000 people.
Today, the Chernobyl Unit 4 remains closed, and the 3rd has been shut down after a turbine hall fire in 1991. Although the structures are neither strong nor durable the other two reactors at the plant are still in use due to the heavy energy needs of Ukraine. The country is already in much debt to Russia for energy supplies that it has to operate its Nuclear Power Plants, which supply around 37% of the electricity. These plants are nowadays even more important to Ukraine than they were ten years ago. Around USD400 million has been spent on improvements of the remaining reactors at Chernobyl especially for a safer environment and higher output. Almost 6000 people work at the plant every day whose radiation doses do not exceed the internationally accepted limits. These workers and their families live in a new town (30 km from the plant) called Slavutich, which was built following the evacuation of Pripyat (3 km from the plant).
The Ukrainians have also thought about closing down the remaining two reactors. In December 1995, a memorandum of understanding was signed by Ukraine and G7 nations to progress the closing, but it is still not certain what is going to be done, because Ukraine will need new energy generating units before shutting down Chernobyl. The alternative generating could be provided by completing Khmelnitski and Rovno nuclear plants. The construction of these was stopped in 1989 but has since continued, and they could commence operation in year 2000 if they are fully financed the amount around USD900 million.
Although Chernobyl is the largest civil nuclear disaster, it may not be the last. There are currently about 430 nuclear power reactors operating all around the world. Some of them have the same technology used in Chernobyl. The US Secretary of State Warren Christopher mentioned that in an interview; he said: "The (Chernobyl) catastrophe caused thousands of deaths. It continues to reach into the future to claim new victims and indeed the spectre of another Chernobyl continues to hang over the region..." The Chernobyl disaster has caused the death of some 2,500 people, affected millions and forced people to leave their homes. The Ukrainian government has mentioned that hundreds of thousands of people still suffer from Chernobyl related illnesses. Preventing this kind of disasters should be the first concern of governments, because Chernobyl may not be the last.
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In the five short years between 1986, the year of the Chernobyl disaster, and 1991, Belarusans had begun their quest for independence. The Chernobyl incident and cover-up was not the only cause for Belarus' desire for independence from the Soviet Union, for other political and economic circumstances were involved. However, it was a tremendous factor in rallying national spirit and courage. The deception that Belarusans experienced at the hands of the Soviets helped to awaken national consciousness and made the people realize that they no longer had to be subordinated to a deceitful, distant authority. The Chernobyl scandal incited a feeling of national identity and pride, starting the country on its road to independence. For this reason, the Chernobyl incident has proven to be a defining moment in Belarusan history.
Although Chernobyl, the sight of the nuclear reactor which exploded on April 26, 1986, is in Ukraine, it is located only seven miles from the border of Belarus. When the reactor exploded, winds carried the radioactive cloud northwest across Belarus, contaminating its forests, lands, and population. (London Observer Service, 1J) "It is an established fact that because of the northern direction of the winds, 70% of the Chernobyl nuclear fallout landed on Belarusan territory." (Zaprudnik, 122) Half of the 4.4 million people in Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus who suffered from the radioactive effects of Chernobyl were in Belarus. (London Observer Service, 1J) Yevgeni Konoplya, an expert on the post-Chernobyl effects, stated that "All the problems they faced in Nagasaki we face here. There was no place as hard hit by Chernobyl as Belarus." (Hundley, 1)
The damaging effects of the Chernobyl explosion were kept secret by the tight grip that the central Soviet government had over all media publications in the republics. There was much information about the explosion in the West, but those people who lived in the Soviet Union, especially in Belarus and Ukraine, were fed disinformation and facts were hidden from them. People living in those areas were indeed told that an explosion had occurred, but they were never informed about how far north the radioactive material had traveled, or about how dangerous it was. In fact, it took more than three years before the authorities grudgingly acknowledged the damage to human beings and the environment. (Zaprudnik, 136) It was not until Sweden began to detect radioactive fallout from Chernobyl that the possibility of a Soviet cover-up became very real in the minds of Belarusans. (Done, 1)
It was discovered early in the 1990s, through declassified Politburo documents, that the Soviet government denied medical care to thousands of people who were victims of Chernobyl. The government did this by increasing tenfold the amount of radiation considered safe, just two weeks after the explosion. In addition, millions of people were put at risk through the shipment of food and materials from Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia on orders from party and government officials worried about "lost production." (Parks, 1) It was also exposed that the Soviet government withheld information from international nuclear experts, provided incomplete facts to foreign doctors who came to treat victims, and arranged phony tours for international journalists to display the region returning to normal. (Parks, 1) Alla Yaroshinskaya, a writer for the Russian paper Izvestia, wrote that the Soviet government "invented different categories of truth: one for the East, another for the West, yet another for the International Atomic Energy Agency and quite another for us who in their view were not entitled to know anything at all." (Parks, 1)
The Soviet cover-up of the Chernobyl incident was a major development in Belarus. It was a psychological factor that weighed heavily on the minds on the Belarusan people. Coupled with the discovery of mass graves in Kurapaty near Minsk, where 300,000 Belarusans were victims of Stalin's crimes, these two incidents combined to inspire a national awakening and a desire for separation from the Soviet Union.
In June and July of 1989, major events pushed Belarus towards independence. In June the Belarusan Popular Front (BPF) emerged.(Zaprudnik, 121) Its program was focused on the roots of Belarusan nationhood: "The Belarusan people gained the right to sovereign nationhood by struggle and suffering throughout their entire history." (Zaprudnik, 133) The BPF was instrumental in rallying the awakening that Belarus needed in order to gain independence, and in applying pressure to the Belarusan government to achieve this goal. On June 27, the Belarusan Language Society was founded, supporting Belarusan as the official language of the state. On July 26, a mass rally in Minsk demanded an investigation into the Chernobyl cover-up. (Zaprudnik, 142) Within months, Belarusans began to unite in a common force that questioned their "subordination to a distant and alien authority," the Soviet Union. (Zaprudnik, 182)
By the end of 1989, communist governments were collapsing throughout Eastern Europe. During 1990, Belarus' neighbors, Lithuania, Russia, and Ukraine, had proclaimed independence, although this would not officially occur until 1991. In a rapid chain of events, the Supreme Council of the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (BSSR) made a declaration of Sovereignty of the Republic of Belarus.(Zaprudnik, 121) The communist majority "had no choice but to accept the urging of the Belarusan Populist Front deputies in favor of state sovereignty." (Zaprudnik, 151) Plagued by ideological and political disarray throughout the end of 1990 and 1991, the communist party in Belarus continued to weaken. Following the failed coup d'etat in Moscow, the Belarusan Parliament declared independence on August 25, 1991, one day after Ukraine's declaration. (Zaprudknik, 121) In a matter of days communism had collapsed throughout the Soviet Union and the republics had gained their freedom.
The struggle for freedom in Belarus, however, was a process that did not take a few days, but rather a few years to accomplish. From the time of the explosion at Chernobyl and its subsequent cover-up to the time of Belarusan independence, the people of Belarus went from forgotten victim of the explosion to a country with a strong national consciousness and spirit. The Chernobyl incident forced Belarusans to realize that their relationship with the USSR was an unhealthy and distrusting one. No longer did the Belarusans want to take orders from a power that had deceived them and taken the lives of their countrymen. The Chernobyl situation awakened national feeling and inspired Belarusans to seek independence. The events surrounding Chernobyl, therefore, are milestones in the history of Belarus and its relationship with the former Soviet Union.
Ukraine inherited nuclear weapons after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Ukraine have tansferred all their battlefield-range missiles to Russia, but still possess thousands of warheads on long-range rockets. Ukrainian leaders suggested that Ukraine should disarm nuclear weapons if the west assist Ukraine in constructing a weapons-dismentling facility of its own, security guarantees and financial compensation were promised from the west and Russia in return.
Since 1991, the building of conventional defence had been the first priority. Ukraine declared 'not to accept, not to produce and not to acquire nuclear weapons' in October 1991. All tactical nuclear weapons were indeed transferred from Ukraine to Russia for destruction. The 179 ICBMs and 30 strategic Bear-H and Blackjack bombers that remained on Ukrainian territory could not be removed so quickly, since, political struggle began among nationalists on the disarmament of nuclear weapon.
Nationalists opinions were divided into two camps. Moderate nationalists agreed disarming on conditions that 'Ukraine have firm guarantees from the nuclear states', 'financial resources and technological assistance for the dismantling of nuclear warheads and their carriers', and 'Ukrainian disarmament is possible only in parallel with the disarmament of other nuclear states'. More radical nationalists argued that nuclear disarmament would be 'a sign of the weakness of Ukraine' that would leave it 'a defenceless puppet in foreign hands, subject to the will of other states'. Financial assistance would always be welcome, but no exteranl security quarantees could be possible because there's always a chance of Russia attacking Ukraine.
Nationalists came to realize that the disarmament negotiation process along with the Western powers would help Ukraine to obtain security quarantees that they could never have obtained with Russia alone. In January 1994, Ukraine signed the trilateral disarmament treaty in Moscow with Russia and the United States. It promised to dismantle all remaining weaponry in return for fianancial assiastance and security assurances. The January 1994 trilateral disarmament treaty prevented Ukraine from becoming the third-largest nuclear power in the world. It was a better choice for Ukraine to disarm the nuclear power. That is because if they chose nuclear power, then Ukraine would have been isolated from the west and even as an ally to Russia on the subject, Ukraine will always have to watch their back from Russia.