Sustainability Research Institute

Fieldwork in Ukraine to investigate human rights issues in relation to the Chernobyl nuclear accident

07.12.2017 - 09:45

Chernobyl Museum Kiev. Credit: Emrah Akyuz.

Zalissya and Kopachi Villages in Pripyat. Credit: Emrah Akyuz.

The most central area in Chernobyl and the Amusement Park. Credit: Emrah Akyuz.

Radiation Levels in the exclusion zone in Chernobyl. Credit: Emrah Akyuz.

A dog in Chernobyl. Credit: Emrah Akyuz.

Postgraduate researcher, Emrah Akyuz, has been undertaking fieldwork in Ukraine to investigate human rights issues in relation to the Chernobyl nuclear accident. He spent four months in Fukushima between May and September 2017. After he completed his fieldwork, he continued his work in this regard by visiting Chernobyl. He is currently attempting to compare Fukushima and Chernobyl in the context of environmental human rights, as these are the only two sites worldwide defined as level seven nuclear accidents by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In order to continue his studies, he has been conducting interviews with scholars, activists, the victims of the accident, NGOs, and so on, to collect data for his PhD project. He notes that Fukushima and Chernobyl have a considerable number of both similarities and differences in the context of understanding and exercising environmental human rights. Some interesting photos and events from this fieldwork may be noted as follows:

He visited a large number of locations during my fieldwork; one of the first in Ukraine was the Chernobyl Hospital, which is only used by those suffering from the nuclear accident and for academic research in relation to the accident. He interviewed two doctors, who both treat victims of the accident and workers, and undertake associated academic research. They stated that psychological/mental health issues are much more common than cancer-related illness in Chernobyl. The accident, however, does not pose any risk to people’s health as the area was evacuated at the time of the accident, and has since remained uninhabited. Those who currently work in the exclusion zone raised a different point, namely the fact cataracts are their most common health issue. Other scholars also raised this issue, that workers suffer a number of serious health issues, particularly cataracts.

Chernobyl museum is also a very interesting place to learn about in the events of 1986. It provided certain important information that cannot be found online. The life stories of workers who sacrificed themselves to clean the damaged stations in 1986, for instance, and the workers’ and their families’ living conditions in the town of Pripyat (which was evacuated soon after the accident), families and workers belongings, a number of official documents and informal letters written during and immediately after the accident, videos documenting the accident itself and the subsequent evacuation process, items which were used to clean the area, workers’ uniforms, national and international newspapers’ reports on the accident in 1986, etc., are exhibited in the museum. This helps people gain considerable insight into how the accident affected the living conditions of the people around Chernobyl.

He had a single day tour to the exclusion zone. The first place he visited was the town of Pripyat, which was constructed in 1970 for the power plant workers and their families. 50,000 people used to live in Pripyat, but they were all evacuated with just three hours of the accident. He specifically went to the villages of Zalissya and Kopachi within the town. It is very clear that the housing there is not habitable, and in any case people have not had access to this housing since the accident; this means the accident affected (and, of course, still affects) the enjoyment of property. Interviewees, however, agree that victims of the accident were given sufficient compensation for any damages to their belongings. They currently live in different parts of Ukraine, which is different from the Fukushima in that the Ukrainians were never moved to temporary housing units.

It was not only villages but also large residential areas that have been significantly affected by the accident. He refers in particular here to the most central part of Chernobyl, which is only 1-2 km away from the power plants. The area has a large number of apartments, the first supermarket in Ukraine, a hospital, and an amusement park, the latter being the symbol of the accident. Levels of radioactive contamination vary from 0.30 mSv to 17.93 mSv, according to my measurements. It is not possible to live here as the contamination is still high in some areas. According to the interviewees, the decontamination of this area may take thousands of years.

He rented a radiation monitor to measure radiation levels in the exclusion zone. It is interesting that while radiation levels were 0.30 mSv in Kiev, they were only 0.13 mSv in certain parts of the exclusion zone. This, however, varies significantly from place to place in Chernobyl. The lowest level he measured was 0.13 mSv, whilst the highest was 17.93 mSv . According to the American Nuclear Society (http://www.ans.org/), the average yearly human dose is 6.2 mSv/year (0.71 mSv/hour). It seems that some parts might well be considered safe to live in, but others still represent a significant hazard to human health.

The interesting point is that he saw many animals living in the exclusion zone. These included horses, dogs, wolves and birds, all of which look healthy. I, however, interviewed an American scholar who has worked on the impact of the accident on animal organisms since the 1990s. He stated that there has been an increase in mortality and a decrease in reproduction. However, he made it clear that animals respond differently to the accident depending on the dose received of, and their sensitivity to, radiation.