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Chernobyl tragedy, lessons remembered in Ukraine

Siblings Anastasia and Roman Brytanchuk weren't born when the Unit 4 reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986, but are aware of the disaster and its consequences. Photos by Cliff Hollis
KIEV, UKRAINE  (Apr. 26, 2006)  —  Twenty years after the world's worst nuclear disaster, citizens here in the capital of Ukraine call the event a "catastrophe" but add that nuclear power is needed for everyday life. Roman Brytanchuk, 19, a student at Kyiv University for Marketing, who helped translate for an international marketing group that toured the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev today, said nuclear power is necessary but needs strict controls.
"It ... needs control because we can use it for economic growth, but it is a threat for our environment and the health of our nation," he said.
His sister, Anastasia, 17, stressed the need to remember victims of the explosion at the nuclear power plant.
"We are happy people all over the world hear about the catastrophe and are trying to solve the problems," she said, referring to those who continue to have health, economic and other difficulties stemming from the disaster. She said she works with groups that raise funds to help children suffering Chernobyl's health and economic hardships.
She added that nuclear power is relatively clean source of energy that helps reduce air pollution. Nuclear plants emit emit no greenhouse gases as do coal- and gas-fired power plants.
A group of 11 East Carolina University students and faculty members is in Ukraine this week and plan to visit the Chernobyl station Thursday. The station is approximately 60 miles from Kiev.
Early on April 26, 1986, a series of missteps during a test at the Unit 4 nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl station resulted in a steam explosion that blew the top off the reactor building and spewed radiation into the atmosphere. The United Nations reported last year that 56 people -- 47 workers who died of acute radiation exposure and nine children who died of thyroid cancer -- died as a direct result of the explosion, and another 3,940 people could die prematurely of cancer caused by radiation exposure. Greenpeace, on the other hand, released a report this month estimating 93,000 people have died or will die from Chernobyl.
At the Chernobyl museum on the 20th anniversary of the explosion, television news crews filmed outside and tour groups queued up to get in. Guide Luiba Pikulia, who was 4 in 1986, said the museum seeks to educate people about what happened and the lives Chernobyl affected. Personally, she sees atomic energy as a fact of modern life.
"Nuclear power is very convenient for our electronic gadgets," she said. "We want to help people learn" what can happen when nuclear mistakes occur, she added.
The reactor meltdown perhaps spurred the end of the Soviet Union, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in the April 18 issue of The Day newspaper in Kiev.
"The Chernobyl disaster, more than anything else, opened the possibility of much greater freedom of expression, to the point that the system as we knew it could no longer continue," Gorbachev wrote. "I started to think about time in terms of pre-Chernobyl and post-Chernobyl." The economic effects still burden Ukraine, neighboring Belarus and Russia, he added.
The disaster also opened his eyes to the need to reduce nuclear arms. "According to scientific experts, one SS-18 nuclear rocket could contain a hundred Chernobyls," Gorbachev wrote.
Though Gorbachev stressed the central government released the best information it had at the time about the disaster, some feel the information was not fast or complete enough.
Kiev bus driver Oleg Karpovich was 14 when the reactor exploded. A week later, teachers told him and his classmates they would be evacuating to other cities in the region because something had gone wrong at Chernobyl. What, they didn't exactly know.
Karpovich was scared as a teenager, but now feels differently.
"I was 14 and didn't understand what was happening," he said while stopped on a street in central Kiev. "Of course, today, looking back, I feel angry the truth was not told to us."
Despite the meltdown of the No. 4 reactor, the Chernobyl facility continued operating until 2000. Ukraine has four active nuclear power plants, and two more are planned.
Dr. Daniel Sprau, associate professor in the Department of Health Education and Promotion at ECU, looks at safety suits at the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, Ukraine. Sprau is leading a group of ECU students and faculty members in Ukraine this week.
Dr. Daniel Sprau, associate professor in the Department of Health Education and Promotion at ECU, looks at safety suits at the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, Ukraine. Sprau is leading a group of ECU students and faculty members in Ukraine this week.
Kiev bus driver Oleg Karpovich thinks officials should have given more information to the public when the Unit 4 reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant 20 years ago.
Siblings Anastasia and Roman Brytanchuk weren't born when the Unit 4 reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in 1986, but are aware of the disaster and its consequences. Photos by Cliff Hollis

Contact: Doug Boyd | 252-744-2482