U.S. Water News Online
KIEV, Ukraine -- Ten years after the world's worst commercial nuclear disaster, officials and environmentalists are still struggling to eradicate the effects.
Plutonium and other dangerous radioactive particles released during the accident have been working their way into the groundwater in the wetlands of northern Ukraine for the past 10 years, and have now found their way to the region's major waterways.
"Ukraine is the only country in the world in which a huge quantity of plutonium is in an uncontrolled, free, and fluid state," said nuclear physicist Volodymyr Usatenko, chief consultant to the Ukrainian Parliament's commission on Chernobyl.
"Loose" plutonium, according to experts, though released in lesser amounts than the iodine, cesium, and strontium, is potentially more threatening than any of these three elements. It travels more quickly, is more radioactive, and is more quickly absorbed into living organisms, causing cancer and other health problems, according to researchers.
Although some argue that the number of victims of the Chernobyl accident are wildly overestimated, one victim's group says 150,000 people in the Ukraine alone have died from Chernobyl-related diseases, and 55,000 more are invalids.
After the nuclear disaster, plutonium was carried into the air with the radioactive cloud and deposited on the countryside. During the cleanup, bulldozers removed top soil, cut down trees, and dismantled buildings. The contaminated rubble was trucked to "temporary storage sites."
These sites -- termed "graves" by officials in charge of cleanup -- were little more than holes in the ground, according to workers in the area. Some were covered over, some weren't. Those holes now dot the 18-mile restricted zone around the plant -- some 800 known burial sites, with many others undesignated.
During the construction of these graves, said Volodymry Holubev, head of radiation protection for Ukraine's Health Ministry, the major issue was not quality of construction but rather, "how to hide" the contamination "as soon as possible."
As a result, no one knows how much waste escaped, or even how many graves were dug. It is also unclear how much fuel, including plutonium, was actually released in the 1986 disaster.
The plant's chief engineer, Vitaly Tolstonogov, concedes that some 50 tons of fuel remain unaccounted for. Just how much burned in the fire and how much was tossed out onto the earth and surrounding rivers is unknown.
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