The Chernobyl's legacy in Belarus

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April 26, 2021 will mark the 35th commemoration of the largest atomic accident in history. With nearly a quarter of its territory affected by radioactive fallout from Chernobyl, the country remains the most contaminated in Europe.

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Near the green and yellow border post leading to the exclusion zone, the sign announces a measurement of 0.52 microsieverts (μSv) per hour. This corresponds to low doses of radioactivity, but these accumulated daily over the long term can become harmful to an individual's health. In front of the building, on a commemorative stele, we remember in white letters that 728 people were evacuated from the village of Babchin in the spring of 1986. There is hardly any form of human activity in the vicinity of the 96 villages that occupy the Belarusian exclusion zone. This extends over a 30-kilometer radius around the Chernobyl power plant. Following the explosion of reactor No.4 at the nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986, more than 20,000 people on the Belarus side (350,000 people including the Ukrainian and Russian areas) had to leave behind their houses and a land become uninhabitable.

The site is frequented by teams of scientists who study the development of the flora as well as a fauna made up of some fifty species of wild animals including Przewalski horses, wolves, lynxes, brown bears, mooses and even a hundred of bisons. The security teams, for their part, make sure to contain the possible forest fires that threaten to ravage the reserve. Their fumes would be likely to transport nuclides, such as cesium-137, to inhabited areas. They also take care to prevent intrusions by poachers and unwanted audiences if they do not have a pass to enter this restricted area.

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It was in December 2018 that this part of Belarusian territory, located in the Polesia State Radioecological Reserve, became accessible to tourists accompanied by a guide certified by the Belarusian government. At the moment, it's only a few dozen groups a year that go there. As for the exclusion zone on the Ukrainian side, since its opening in 2011, it has continued to observe an increasing number of visitors to reach a record of 70,000 visitors in 2019. Peter Philon, director of the Pripyat Tour agency shows a lack of visitors in 2020 with the covid-19 crisis, only fifteen people discovered the exclusion zone this year. According to him, tourism in this region not only provides an insight into the history and reality of Chernobyl, but also helps to support conservation activities in the park.

Is there a health risk in visiting the exclusion zone?

Radioactivity is not visible and odorless, but it is everywhere and with uneven levels. In the ancient village of Orevichi, the dosimeter measures a level of radioactivity of 2.21 μSv / hour (or 19.3 millisierverts (mSv) per year). In France, the IRSN (Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire) sets the rate of 10 mSv per year (three times the annual dose received by the French population) as the rate from which measures to protect civilians become necessary. According to the guide, going to the exclusion zone for a day is equivalent as receiving a radiation rate during a plane trip. These highly radioactive lands, teeming with cesium-137, strontium-90 or plutonium make it impossible to establish human life in the long term. Regarding the Chernobyl power station, twelve kilometers away from the village of Krasnosele, it can be seen on a clear day from the top of a watchtower.

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Radiation protection institute in Minsk, capital of Belarus

The BELRAD radiation protection institute remains the only non-governmental organization in the country to work for the prevention and protection of around ten thousand people, for a population of around 1.1 million inhabitants established in the contaminated territories, mainly around of Gomel, Mogilev and Brest.

This institute, founded in 1990 by physicist Vassili Nesterenko, is the last bastion before oblivion. Supported financially by a few foreign organizations, notably "Children of Chernobyl Belarus" in France, it helps tens of thousands of children by controlling their levels of radioactivity in the body. Radioactivity is invisible to the eye, but is still very much present in Belarusian soils. Cesium-137 is one of the most worrying elements, since it is found in food products obtained from harvesting and picking, for example in berries, mushrooms or even in milk. In 2021, part of the population living in these rural areas will continue to eat farm and forest products which can therefore seriously harm their health.

Today, the institute has 26 members and is headed by Alexey Nesterenko who continues the work started by his father. The institute, based in Minsk, also established and controls eleven laboratories in the contaminated settlements that measure the levels of nuclides stored in the food-stuffs and agricultural and forest products. Based on this, the institute recommends protective programs to improve the health and well-being of children who assimilated nuclids in their bodies.

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The covid-19 pandemic has prevented the BELRAD Institute from celebrating its thirtieth anniversary and from carrying out its international exchange projects. Since its creation, thanks to the help of organizations, it has promoted some so-called "recovery stays" for sick children in Germany, Italy, Belgium and France. However, due to a lack of visibility and government oblivion towards the sickness, which nonetheless invests favorably in cultural and sports infrastructures in the regions affected by the disaster, these programs are also more complicated to set up. The lack of means to finance the cost of a bus, but also the growing difficulty of finding host families in the various countries are among the problems encountered, notes Natalia Manko, referent of the association «L'Avenir aux Enfants » having sponsored the stay of more than 10,000 children in Belgium since 1994. It is therefore independently that the BELRAD institute and a handful of scientists as well as volunteers continue a fight against an invisible enemy, but still very present. For Alexey Nesterenko, progress towards a possible improvement of the situation will depend enormously on the aid granted by the organizations.

For example, the use of pectin, a food supplement made from apples, helps to absorb some of the cesium-137 assimilated in the child's body. It has been observed that pectin can decrease the level of nuclides in the body by up to 65%.

The concern is that of an internal contamination observed for about thirty years. By eating so-called “dirty products" on a daily basis, children are prone to developing cardiovascular diseases, leukemia and other forms of cancer. Even today, the rate of becquerels (bq) per kilogram measured in the bodies of thousands of children exceeds the allowable doses. According to Alexey Nesterenko, it would requires less than 20bq / kg not to be worried, but in 2020, out of 10,000 children in 60 schools, 70% had a higher rate. It is observed that from 50bq / kg, lesions can appear in the organs. However, the possibility of internal contamination and its harmful effects on health are ignored by the State of Belarus, which has stopped all financial support since 2001, as well as by the WHO, which is minimizing the danger on the concerned populations. In 2005, the WHO and the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) gave definitive answers by recognizing 56 deaths due to the explosion of the plant and estimated at 4,000 the number of thyroid cancers attributable to the effects of Chernobyl.

Cesium-137 will gradually disappear from the soil. It has already lost half of its radioactivity and it will lose half of the remaining 50% in the next thirty years, leaving no real trace after two hundred years. But this news is not enough to cheer up on humanitarian activists. In addition, many other components remain present, such as half of the plutonium which will take around twenty thousand years to leave the soil.

Through her studies on the influence of contamination on the human organism via low radioactive doses, Professor Roza Gontcharova, member of the Institute of Genetics and of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, raises a bigger problem. arising from internal cesium-137 contamination. According to her research, the human metabolism could undergo an alteration of the genetic system, which one transmitted through future generations would increase the risk of heart disease and leukemia. Having studied the effects of radioactivity on the genetic heritage of 22 generations of rodents between 1986 and 2006, she noted aberrances at the chromosomal level as well as an increase in embryo losses until the last generation, however less confronted with radioactivity. So far, no health organization recognizes the risk of a possible mutation of the human genetic heritage and its intergenerational transmission.

Not listened by international institutions as well as by the Belarusian state in their actions, Alexey Nesterenko and Roza Gontcharova surround themselves with other allies. She insists on the exceptional humanity and greatness of soul of the French ecologist Solange Fernex, who invested her strength in saving the BELRAD institute. Died in 2006, Solange Fernex created the French organization Children of Chernobyl Belarus which financially supports the projects of the BELRAD Institute. The organization Children of Chernobyl Belarus, now chaired by Yves Lenoir, continues to support these professionals eager to raise awareness of the still worrying health situation linked to Chernobyl in Belarus. Until 2001, the BELRAD institute was able to finance 370 laboratories to help around one hundred thousand children. Since the state of Belarus decided to stop granting financial aid, eleven laboratories can be maintained thanks to donations. On the other hand, and faced with the astonishment of a part of the population as well as their Lithuanian neighbors, the government of Alexander Lukashenko announced the commissioning of the Astravets's nuclear power plant, in the North-West of the country, since November 2020.

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To support the Belrad institute visit "Enfants de Tchernobyl Belarus" website : 

http://enfants-tchernobyl-belarus.org/doku.php

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Brahin, a cultural city

In Brahin, we remember the meteorite weighing more than a ton that fell a few kilometers away in 1810, and we remember especially Chernobyl. The small town honors Vassily Ignatenko, a heroic firefighter among the first sent to the site of the disaster. Died a few days after the catastroph as a result of his exposure to strong radiations, his sculpted bust occupies the central square of the city. Today, Brahin is one of the inhabited cities most exposed to low radioactive doses with a rate of 3.8 mSv per year. Belarusian regulations set the maximum allowable effective dose at 5 mSv per year. In recent years, the city has benefited from numerous state aid to restore its cultural and sports infrastructures. One hundred and fifty employees are responsible for promoting local culture. The vocal ensemble Bely Rosy contributes to Brahin's fame by winning prizes in numerous national competitions and infusing it with vitality by embodying renewal.

Mozyr, the olympic dream

The Pripiat river borders the town of Mozyr, about 100 kilometers North of Chernobyl. Downstream, the river runs alongside the nuclear power plant in Ukraine before joining the Dnieper.

Heavily affected at the time by the fallout from the radioactive cloud, Mozyr today only records low radioactive doses with a rate of around 0.87 mSv per year. The city has built a reputation for its international performances in line racing kayaking. Vitaly Skriganov, the director and coach of the local nautical base has trained the olympic champions Raman Pyatrusheka and Artur Litvinchuk, gold medalists in London in 2012. This is now the younger generations who train on the Pripyat river that dream of future podiums.

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Useful websites

Site of the Institute for Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety http://www.irsn.fr 

Belarusian Ministry website on live radioactivity rate: https://rad.org.by/ 

BELRAD center website: http://belrad-institute.org/Ru/doku.php 

Website of the association "Children of Chernobyl Belarus": http://www.enfants-tchernobyl-belarus.org/doku.php 

Website of the association "The Children of Chernobyl in Belgium" : http://www.enfants-de-tchernobyl.be/ 

Website of the association "Amitié Val de Loire Belarus": http://www.tigy.fr/amities-val-de-loire-bielorussie