Kyiv (AsiaNews) – Anna Korolevska (2nd photo) is the deputy director of the Ukrainian National Chornobyl* Museum. For her, "the Chornobyl story is not over. The authorities must be serious about caring for the people who still live in the contaminated area and who have been abandoned, with big risks for the second and third generation of children."
When an explosion rocked Reactor N. 4 at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, she was in Kyiv, more than a hundred kilometres from the disaster site. Thus, she knows first-hand the human tragedy that still plagues Ukraine, which was hard hit along with Belarus, by the worst disaster in the history of civilian nuclear power, on 26 April, 30 years ago.
She was a little over 20 and a few months pregnant. "I followed my instinct. Even though my choice still hurts, I decided to have an abortion. It was too risky to give birth under the circumstances. I found out later that thousands of women had their uterus contaminated forever."
"Everyone in Ukraine has a personal Chornobyl, including those who were not directly affected by the evacuation, illnesses or the death of a loved one," Korolevska said in her office in Kyiv, amid the sounds of constantly ringing phones.
A few days before the 30th anniversary of the disaster, school children, tourists, journalists, and dignitaries from different countries want to visit the museum, the only one in the country dedicated to the nuclear disaster.
"People, the young, do not forget Chornobyl. We see a strong interest. It is the authorities who have abandoned the area," laments the deputy director. The area in question covers the districts of Ivankiv and Poliske, i.e. the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone, also known as the Fourth Zone.
People can live there, but contamination is still high, and monitoring food and people stopped. "People are living on the edge of poverty,” Korolevska said. “They have no alternative to the radioactive products they grow in their garden" (3rd photo).
The doctors treating people from the affected areas continue to see cases of bone and brain cancer, heart ailments, thyroid cysts, metabolic and genetic disorders in Chornobyl children, who eat foods with radioactive isotopes like caesium 137 and strontium 90.
"A new generation born in the area was exposed to small doses of radiation over a long period,” she explained; “as a foetus first, than after birth. For this reason, it is essential to invest a lot of money not only in the new reactor sarcophagus, to replace the old one in order to prevent further radioactive leaks, but also in solving the question of the contaminated area, to help residents, who currently receive very little in terms of social assistance. They cannot get regular medical examinations. What are needed are labs, free clinics, and preventative measures.”
Established in 1992 shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the archives, the Chornobyl museum (4th photo) collects documents, objects, and eyewitness accounts from rescue workers, victims and survivors.
The first exhibit was dedicated to firefighters, the first to rush to extinguish the radioactive fire. They were sent to die without protection or awareness of what was happening. Over time, the deputy director said, “we came to realise that the scope of the museum was much broader, namely explain the magnitude of the tragedy through the fate of people who were affected."
"We toured Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine and combed the archives to put together as much material as possible." Today, the museum presents a faithful representation of the accident and its consequences through maps, videos, photos and other material.
"It was not easy,” Korolevska said. “We came up against the secrecy and silence that continues to surround what happened, as well as the obstacle of victims’ reluctance to make public their pain, not to mention the fact that some of the more emotionally charged pieces cannot be displayed because they are radioactive."
Nevertheless, the museum has some touching sections, like the one dedicated to the liquidators – more than 600,000 volunteers, soldiers, engineers, and firefighters who for four years cleaned up the plant, and buried radioactive material and waste, sometimes with shovels.
The first ones who arrived on the scene moved with their hands and feet graphite material giving out as much radioactivity in a second and a half as a person accumulates in a lifetime.
"The information about the real state of health of the people of Chornobyl is still not accessible. This is not acceptable,” Korolevska said. “Through the museum, we want not only to preserve the memory, but also continue to raise the alarm around the world about the conditions of our planet,” in which 440 reactors are still in operation, including 16 in the Ukraine.
In her view, the problem cannot be solved only by “throwing money" at a new sarcophagus to secure Reactor N. 4, which is still at risk of leaks, starting next year, or by shutting down every plant.
"The problem of disposal and waste management still remains. The Earth is still heavily contaminated by atomic bombs and tests carried out over the years in various countries. We must start to take care of people.”
* Chornobyl (Чорнобиль) is the Latin transliteration of the Ukrainian name for the city. Chernobyl (Чернобыль) is the Latin transliteration of the Russian name by which it is better known.