Five years ago, on April 26,1986, one of the four reactors at the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded. Silence blanketed the world for three days while radioactive particles fell to the earth from the deadly cloud. Geiger counters and dosimeters (hand-held geiger counters) throughout Eastern Europe began to register the horrifying increase in radioactivity as the winds spread the invisible isotopes far and wide.
The Soviet Union could no longer keep this disaster quiet and the news wires began to clatter -- our worst nightmare had come true. The explosion produced 90 times more radioactive fallout than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, altering the world's biosphere forever.
Other news soon replaced Chernobyl in U.S. headlines, but for the people of Byelorussia, the Soviet republic just across the Pripyat River, the Chernobyl disaster remains a current event. The 2.2 million people who live in contaminated regions have altered their daily lives to deal with radiation. Digital clocks atop official buildings in Minsk -- the capital city of Byelorussia -- flash the time, temperature, and radiation level every few seconds.
70 percent of all the radioactive fallout fell on this region of 14 million people (20 percent fell on the Ukraine and 10 percent on other parts of the Soviet Union and Europe). Today, 173,000 Byelorussians, including 37,000 children, are being monitored for radiation sickness. The occurrence of thyroid, kidney, and general diseases has dramatically increased. Doctors report higher miscarriage rates in pregnant women and more birth defects in children born to parents living in contaminated areas. Exposure to high levels of radiation especially suppresses the immune systems of growing children. Even common colds can readily lead to chronic respiratory problems.