Chernobyl's poisonous legacy 25 years on

Lucy Osborne
Sunday 24 April 2011 00:00 BST

A full quarter of a century after the Chernobyl disaster, and the sarcophagus over the wrecked reactor is cracked and deteriorating, hundreds of tons of highly radioactive material remain to be dealt with, attempts to raise many millions of pounds to make the site safe are falling short, the health of Ukrainian children unborn in 1986 is still being damaged, and it will be 20,000 years before vegetables grown in the area will be safe to eat.

This is the appalling and continuing legacy of the world's worst nuclear disaster. Its 25th anniversary will be on Tuesday, and a meeting in Kiev last week to resolve issues broke up without full agreement and unable to issue a report.

Some $1.1bn is needed to build a planned new cover for the reactor, which will allow the radioactive rods to be dealt with. But the pledges from a range of countries are still falling short by $298m.

It is likely that the remaining money will be found, and the extraordinary new cover – as tall as the Statue of Liberty and three times the weight of the Eiffel Tower – will get built. It will not be too soon. The original "sarcophagus", built in 1986 as a temporary measure to stop radiation from spreading, has gone past its expected service life.

But the immense after-effects of nuclear fallout will persist for generations. The number of cancers is still rising. The UN health agency has said about 9,300 people are likely to die of cancer caused by radiation, and some groups have put the numbers at 10 times higher. And, according to a BBC Radio 4 investigation to be aired on Tuesday, increased numbers of heart attacks, cataracts and psychosis in the country could also be related to the fallout.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian children still need to be sent away every year to uncontaminated areas in order to allow their bodies to get rid of some of the Caesium-137 accumulated through eating everyday food such as milk, mushrooms, berry jam and meat. Meanwhile, in Britain, 369 farms continue to be restricted in the way they can use land and rear sheep.

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