20 years on: the horrors of Chernobyl still linger

IT happened 20 years ago and 1500 miles away, yet the dark spectre of the Chernobyl disaster still hangs across the land.
Even in Scotland, Some 10 farms remain under restrictions because of the lingering radioactive fall-out.
The people of Ukraine yesterday marked the twentieth anniversary of the nuclear power plant explosion which spewed clouds of radioactivity over huge swathes of Russia and Europe.
Viktor Yushchenko, the country’s president, joined survivors and relatives of the victims at a ceremony of remembrance as close as safety would allow to the Chernobyl reactor, still covered by its ugly protective sarcophagus. Beneath the concrete cover is the deadly remains of human folly.
In Slavutych, the town created to house the “refugee” workforce and their families after the world’s worst nuclear accident, hundreds filed slowly through the streets.
At precisely 1.23am local time – the very minute the explosion and fire occurred on April 26, 1986 – a respectful silence ensued, broken only by the eerie toll of a single bell and alarm sirens.
In Scotland, meanwhile, the anniversary was not far from the thoughts of the farming community. The ill winds brought radioactivity east from Chernobyl and showered contaminated rain upon the land. The UK was not spared.
At the time, the public was assured that the effects would be negligible in a matter of a few weeks. Such assurances were far from the mark.
Ten farms in Scotland, most of them in Stirlingshire and East Ayrshire, remain under restrictions. It could still take several years before they are given the all-clear, according to the Food Standards Agency.
James Withers, deputy chief executive of the National Farmers’ Union in Scotland, said yesterday: “It is incredible that a small number of Scottish farms are still under restriction, 20 years on. The initial advice was that the effects would be over in a few weeks, which seems laughable now.
“Around 2000 farms were originally placed under restriction and we’re now down to a handful.
“But it is impossible to know when we will finally escape Chernobyl’s legacy. It is extremely frustrating for the individual farmers still caught up in restrictions.
“Farmers do have access to a compensation scheme and the general view is that it is a fair reflection of the losses these businesses have faced.”
Under the restrictions, sheep and lambs at the farms are checked for radioactive caesium-137. If they exceed the safety limit the farmers have to mark them with indelible paint, move them to different pastures and wait until they fall below the limit. Only then can they be sent for slaughter and enter the food chain.
Back in Slavutych, a middle-aged man who bore witness to the events all those years ago wiped tears from his eyes and shook his head in disbelief as he stood alongside a group of teenage mourners, too young to remember the tragedy.
Ukraine has been left to deal with a legacy of ill health among its people and a reactor that, though entombed in its concrete coffin, will remain radioactive for centuries.
Soviet authorities took two days to inform the world about the accident, which was caused by human error. Firefighters and soldiers were sent in to extinguish the fire and clean up radioactive material, some equipped only with shovels.
Thousands of people suffered health problems from the radiation. The sarcophagus is leaking and is to be replaced – at a cost of hundreds of millions of pounds.
The World Health Organisation puts at 9000 the number of people expected to die due to radiation exposure from Chernobyl, while Greenpeace predicts an eventual death toll of 93,000.

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