Seventeen years after Chernobyl exploded, its victims are receiving less and less government assistance, and Russia and Ukraine are trading accusations in a seeming effort to shift responsibility.
This week, Ukraine's SBU, the successor to the KGB, declassified 121 documents in an apparent campaign to show that the Ukrainian KGB had warned Moscow of the dangers at Chernobyl from the plant's initial construction phase in 1976 - but their alarms went unheeded.
In an apparent riposte, Russia's minister of atomic power, Alexander Rumyantsev, held a press conference to claim that post-Soviet Ukraine had bungled the Chernobyl cleanup so badly that a disaster might occur "at any time."
The Chernobyl disaster - whose anniversary is Saturday - "is being covered with a thick layer of rhetoric and distortions from which it is almost impossible to dig out the truth," says Yury Andreyev, head of the Ukrainian Chernobyl Union, a public association that speaks for many of the 3.5 million Ukrainians who were exposed to large doses of radiation.
Last weekend about 5,000 Chernobyl victims marched in downtown Kiev, some carrying sick children or photos of loved ones who died as a result of the accident. "What we want is for the (post-Soviet) governments of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus to work together in dealing with the legacy of Chernobyl," says Mr. Andreyev. "But there is no sign of that happening."
The USSR promised generous benefits to the millions of people affected by the fallout that spread across the western USSR, including disability pensions, lifetime medical care, and alternative housing for the 60,000 people evacuated from the hardest-hit zones. Similar promises were made to the "liquidators" who mopped up surface contaminants and built a concrete sarcophagus over the remains of Unit No. 4, which blew up during a "safety test." From the immediate effects of the accident, 31 people died, but no reliable figures exist for long- term deaths from health complications caused by the radiation exposure.
The United Nations estimates that 15,000 to 30,000 of the 6 million people living in the contaminated zones have since died due to radiation exposure. But survivors' groups claim the studies have been sketchy, and do not include the 1 million liquidators from all over the USSR. "Of the 600,000 Russian liquidators at Chernobyl, about 100,000 have died and another 200,000 are seriously ill," says Gen. Vadim Korostylev, who took part in the cleanup of Chernobyl and now heads Chernobyl Shield, a group representing Russian victims. "The situation for survivors is dire."
The USSR's collapse led cash-strapped successor states of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine to slash benefits and curtail efforts to clean up contaminated areas. Nearly two decades on, 25,000 of those evacuated from the immediate area of Chernobyl are still without housing. And disability pensions for most victims have been slashed - by about 80 percent for Ukrainian survivors, says Andreyev, and by about half for Russian survivors, says General Korostylev. "The government is forgetting about us," says General Korostylev. "They say it happened long ago, and it's not their responsibility anymore."
The documents published by Ukraine's SBU this week on its website (www.sbu.gov.ua) seem designed to make a similar point. They include a Ukrainian KGB report listing dozens of cases of shoddy parts during the building of Chernobyl from 1976-1979, including 162 tons of defective piping from a Donetsk, Ukraine factory. A secret 1982 memo to Moscow Center lists 29 minor accidents in the plant's first four years, plus a serious "loss of control" that led to the "significant release of radiation" four years before the major disaster. A 1984 report warns of serious "deficiencies" in reactor No. 4.
"I believe these documents are genuine, and they provide a glimpse into the culture of secrecy that pervaded the Soviet KGB," says Sergei Markov, president of the Kremlin-tied Center for Policy Studies in Moscow. "But their publication like this, on the eve of the Chernobyl anniversary can only be seen as part of the propaganda effort to evade responsibility for the accident and its consequences."
For his part, Rumyantsev, the Russian atomic minister, claims that Ukraine has failed to maintain the concrete canopy over what was once reactor No. 4, leaving holes through which radiation could leak. "Today it's hard to say what's happening behind the walls of the sarcophagus," he said. "Who is controlling the situation?"
The plant was completely shut down three years ago with Western financial help. Ukrainian officials say they have raised almost $700 million from the international community to build a new shelter over the plant, one they say will contain the continuing radiation hazard for centuries. A statement by Ukraine's official news agency Thursday said construction on the new shield could begin this year, adding "By the way, Russia is not a donor, nor does it participate in the shelter project."
But for many Chernobyl victims, all the charges flying back and forth add up to governments shirking their responsibilities. "When we were cleaning up the mess at Chernobyl, we didn't spare ourselves," says Gen. Korostylev. "Now it's as if we don't exist. In retrospect, it seems that fighting radiation was an easy thing to do compared with trying to force bureaucrats to keep their promises."