Beyond Chernobyl: Ecology in Ukraine
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Ten years ago this April 26, an explosion at the Number Four reactor at the Chernobyl atomic station sent a radioactive cloud over Ukraine and neighboring republics, unquestionably the worst nuclear accident in history.
Fifty tons of radioactive material were released—ten times the amount of fallout at Hiroshima—and two days after the explosion Swedish radio reported 100,000 times the normal amount of Cesium 137 (a radioactive isotope) in that country’s airspace. Over 870 square kilometers of land were contaminated, much of which has since been banned for agriculture. It is still difficult to assess the absolute damage. According to some estimates, the rate of cancer deaths may reach a level comparable to those at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The fallout from Chernobyl is not the only environmental crisis facing Ukraine. Other threats to the environment and human health, while less dramatic than the explosion at Chernobyl, call for immediate attention. One of the most severe examples of such problems is heavy metal contamination, particularly lead. Exposure to high levels of lead can cause severe brain and kidney damage in both children and adults—-and, in pregnant, can cause miscarriages, premature births, and low birth weight.
A 1993 Ministry of Nature Protection study reported that lead concentrations in the capital city of Kyiv were 4.6 times higher than the allowable limit—-the unavailability of lead-free gas making driving an urban public-health menace. The report also warned of exposure to high levels of formaldehyde, which causes chemical burning of the throat and lungs and may ultimately result in death. The report found that one million inhabitants of Odessa were constantly exposed to formaldehyde levels nine times higher than the maximum permissible annual concentration—-with much higher levels on certain days. The same report also indicated severe problems concerning water and soil contamination—-the volume of contaminated waste per square kilometer is as much as 6.5 times higher than in the United States, and in a sample of 59 sources of drinking water, not a single one measure below established permissible levels of contamination.
An approach to these problems will have to contend with a number of factors contributing to Ukraine’s ecological nightmare. First, as Chernobyl illustrates, the Soviet period was marked by a kind of willful neglect and general disregard for human welfare. In a recently disclosed 1979 report to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, KGB Chief (and later Secretary General of the Communist Party) Yuri Andropov reported numerous construction flaws at Chernobyl that could result in radioactive contamination at the plant. Despite this warning, no remedial action was taken. Seven years later a preventable tragedy occurred. Chernobyl is only an extreme case among many problems predetermined through neglect of environmental quality and public safety.
On a scientific level, addressing Ukraine’s different forms of pollution will not be easy. Many of the environmental technologies developed in the United States are designed for pollutants which are isolated and at levels far lower than those found in Ukraine, where various pollutants are often clustered together. Promising biotechnologies for the extraction of organic pollutants—-such as oil spills—-will not work where high levels of heavy metal contamination would prove lethal for the bacteria employed in such clean-up methods. Environmental detoxification will require combinations of technologies customized to the matrices of Ukrainian pollutants.
Social and economic obstacles also hinder Ukraine’s ecological regeneration. Because the government still owns the majority of factories, imposing sanctions against pollution violations would entail the implausible situation of the government suing itself. Indeed, routine measures of airborne pollutants indicate that the highest levels of industrial pollution occur between 2:00 and 5:00 a.m., suggesting a systematic evasion of environmental inspection. And with the hyperinflation of the last few years, Ukraine’s economic instability makes it difficult for government or industry to allocate funds for the installation of air and water treatment equipment, let alone for the payment of fines.
To many Ukrainians, the extension of the market economy offers the greatest hope for environmental restoration by reviving the budget and generating funds for environmental programs. Yet economic growth could revive many of the worst polluters who were bankrupted during the recession, further increasing industrial contamination. Given the legacy of Soviet control, future environmental policy in Ukraine will do best to promote structured incentives—-rather than governmental directives—-as the means for safeguarding the environment while fostering economic growth.
Alexander Orlov is an International Institute Multi-Year Fellow from Ukraine and a doctoral student in Civil and Environmental Engineering.