Fifteen years on, the Chernobyl disaster still leaves a scar across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and the wider circle of European States affected by what has been described as the worst environmental catastrophe in human history. One hundred and ninety tons of highly radioactive uranium and graphite material were scattered into the atmosphere by the explosion at 1.23 am on April 26th, 1986 - hundreds of times more than the radioactivity released when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.
Some seven million people were directly affected, 70 per cent of them in Belarus. This includes millions of children, as the exemplary work of the Cork-based Chernobyl Children's Project has continued to remind people in this country and elsewhere. Thyroid cancer, genetic changes, congenital birth deformities and toxic contamination of the land are among the most damaging impacts of the catastrophe.
Disturbing evidence of donor aid fatigue and complacency about such long-term effects is underlined by the appeal yesterday for solidarity with the people concerned by the United Nations Secretary General, Mr Kofi Annan. So far much more money has been donated to contain the physical damage to the plant - undoubtedly an essential requirement, given the reportedly weak state of the sarcophagus surrounding the Number 4 reactor - than to the civilian victims. Such skewed priorities can only be corrected by sustained political pressure at an international level - in what could be an appropriate role for Ireland at the UN Security Council.
It is too early to provide a full evaluation of either the physical or human scale of the Chernobyl disaster. It has had a profound impact on safety practices within the international nuclear power industry, leading to the closure or phasing out of plants in a number of states, modification of their design and intensified research on alternative forms of energy. In Sweden and Germany decisions have been taken to phase out nuclear plants - an approach that has yet to find favour in most other industrialised States.
Compared to this it is estimated that by 2015 the human impact of the disaster will have cost Belarus - one of the poorest States in Europe - some $235 billion. In the absence of international aid its people will have to bear that cost themselves. This is a shameful fact, likely to have long-term consequences for regional stability. That can be seen in the backwardness of Belarus's political and economic system - as in that of Ukraine, where the liberal reformer, Mr Viktor Yushchenko, was yesterday voted out of office by a coalition of forces supporting the president, Mr Leonid Kuchma and parties representing tycoons likely to suffer disadvantage from his policies.
Unfortunately such political turbulence makes donors of aid more reluctant to come forward, for fear it will be diverted by endemic corruption. It is to the lasting credit of the Chernobyl Children's Project to have been able to channel its aid directly to the people most affected by the disaster.
© 2001 ireland.com