On one hand, the brutality and contempt for working people by the Soviet government in Moscow. The carelessly flawed design of the nuclear reactor that led to the meltdown. The decision to skip construction of a containment vessel that would have impeded the release of radiation. The refusal to immediately evacuate the area or take any measures to prevent residents from consuming contaminated milk and vegetables. The callous and bureaucratic displacement of hundreds of thousands, treating working people like cattle. The paltry resources to treat victims of radiation and assist those whose lives were turned upside-down. And the indifference for the lives and livelihoods of Ukrainian and Russian workers who risked their lives to contain the disaster and clean up the mess — which continues to this day.
In contrast is the image of unparalleled and selfless medical aid and humane care given to more than 25,000 victims of the disaster by the revolutionary government on the small island of Cuba — which continues to this day.
The April 26, 1986, disaster unfolded during a test of the control system as reactor No. 4 was being shut down for routine maintenance. A sudden power surge led to a meltdown of the reactor core and an intense 10-day fire that released large amounts of radiation, which were carried far by winds. More than 130 workers at the plant were sickened by high doses of radiation, according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. Twenty-eight were dead within three months. Another 19 died over the next two decades. And more than 6,000 children and adolescents contracted thyroid cancer from iodine-131, which was inhaled or ingested, mostly through contaminated milk and vegetables.
The town of Pripyat, built one mile from Chernobyl’s reactors to house the facilities’ 50,000 workers and their families, was not evacuated until 36 hours after the explosion. Residents were told they only needed clothing for three days and then they could return. They never went back.
About 115,000 were evacuated from the surrounding area and 220,000 total from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
Visitors approaching the crippled Chernobyl plant are stopped at checkpoints marking two exclusion zones, the first at 30 kilometers (18.6 miles), the second at 10 kilometers (6.2 miles). To enter the zones requires government-issued passes and accompaniment by an approved guide.
25,000 treated in CubaAs cases of thyroid cancer started growing, which takes several years to develop, the Cuban government responded in a manner consistent with its unbroken record of internationalist working-class solidarity. The first group of 139 children arrived for treatment in Cuba on March 29, 1990. When the Ukrainian government didn’t have planes to transport them, Cuba sent two planes, one just finishing repairs in Uzbekistan that had not yet been painted. The children were greeted by Cuban President Fidel Castro when they landed.
Over the past 24 years Cuba has treated more than 25,000 people affected by the disaster, including at least 21,340 children, at a special clinic established at Tarará, near Havana. Cuban doctors have also been working in Ukraine.
Even at the height of what Cubans call the “special period” of economic hardship when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was no letup in the program providing free medical treatment to all who needed it.
“I knew about the Cuban program for the children,” said Mikhail Remezenko, a union official of the Nuclear Power Workers union and former worker at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant who accompanied Militant correspondents. “Children with serious radiation illnesses came back with greatly improved health. So many were cured. We are very satisfied with what the Cubans did.”
Olga Svyntytska, who lives in Prybirsk and works resettling former residents from the exclusion zone who want to move back to the region, said her cousin went to Cuba as part of the program. Viktoria Babek, who lives in Slavutych, and is vice chair of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Workers union, said many knew about the program from watching TV. “We were glad to see how the Cuban government took the really sick kids and how their stay there improved their health,” she said.
At the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, the solidarity from Cuba is featured in a large display panel, with photos, letters from family members, and a copy of the Cuban daily Granma from March 31, 1990, showing a gathering of Ukrainian mothers with their children. Irina Ivasenko, president of the Ukrainian Association of Children of Chernobyl, tells Granma she is struck by how such a small country has such a huge heart.
Workers fight pay, pension cutsThe authors of this article hooked up with Remezenko at Chernobyl Park in the exclusion zone, which was opened on the 25th anniversary of the explosion. A long row of signs carry the names of the 187 towns in Ukraine and Belarus that were evacuated. Another monument marks the murderous effects of Washington’s nuclear assault on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
“Twenty-eight firefighters from the plant and from two fire departments in Chernobyl and Pripyat were killed fighting the fires after the explosion,” Remezenko told us. In their honor, firemen donated money to build a life-size monument in front of their fire station. The government refused to pay for it.
Like many of the nuclear workers, Remezenko lives in Slavutych, a town of 25,000 built to house workers forced to abandon Pripyat.
“We are among the lowest paid and worst-treated nuclear workers,” Sergey Akamovych, an executive committee member of the union, told us. “We don’t produce any energy to sell so we don’t make them any profit.”
But there is still room for corruption, he said. Only 60 percent of the government’s allocation for Chernobyl makes it to the plant each year. The rest, he said, “disappears.”
Some 2,700 workers from Slavutych work at Chernobyl, dismantling the remaining reactors, processing leftover nuclear fuel and preventing new radioactive leaks. It is a slow and dangerous process. All four reactors are closed; the last shut down in 2000. Two reactors — No. 5 and No. 6 — were under construction at the time of the explosion and still stand, partially built and surrounded by a gaggle of cranes.
Approximately 200 tons of fuel, plutonium and other highly radioactive fission by-products remain in the bowels of the destroyed reactor No. 4.
Somewhere between 600,000 to 800,000 workers — known as liquidators — were involved in the cleanup effort. Thousands of coal miners were drafted from across Ukraine to dig a tunnel under the wreckage and install a coil to cool the concrete floor and reinforce cracks.
At first they were granted special government benefits because of the danger of the work, including two years of pensions for each year they worked. But nuclear workers more and more had to fight successive Ukrainian governments over wages and pensions. In February 1999, workers set up tent camps outside government offices in Kiev and the country’s five nuclear plants demanding they be paid more than $15 million in outstanding wages.
The fighting example of workers who have been involved in the cleanup and maintenance of the Chernobyl nuclear site is part of the political struggle taking shape in Ukraine today. Protests by liquidators took place from 2011 through 2013 from Kiev to Kharkiv to Luhansk, opposing the pension cuts ordered by President Viktor Yanukovych, who was overthrown in popular anti-government demonstrations in February.
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