Alexey Nesterenko, ecologist, Institute of Radiation Safety (BELRAD), Minsk

"Our grandchildren will be hit the hardest"

Alexey Nesterenko is an ecologist and director of the independent Institute of Radiation Safety (BELRAD) in Minsk, which was founded in 1990.

"Our institute set up 550 of our internally developed radiometers for determining radiation exposure in food throughout the contaminated areas in Belarus in the 1990s. Using a simple measurement method, the population was able to determine if the mushrooms they had picked were fit for consumption. There were also 800 dosimeters for determining the dose of radiation in the human body. Of all of these devices only a couple of dozen are still in operation today. That's how the government of this country wants it. It says that the measurements are no longer necessary, that state institutions are doing enough. And at many schools where we teach children how to properly behave when dealing with radiation, we are no longer well-liked. Everything depends on the respective chairmen of the executive committees. If they have a backbone, then they let us work. But if they're cowards, then they prohibit it. For me, this is the worst consequence of a policy that simply tries to trick us into a normality that is no longer possible after Chernobyl. What good is it when a billion dollars is invested into the gas supply in the contaminated areas to prevent the use of contaminated wood if at the same time the people no longer know how they should behave in the woods or what to pay attention to when growing vegetables in their gardens? We have long demonstrated the enormous impact of such educational work in various long-term studies. But it doesn't stick with them. This type of knowledge has to be continuously imparted, especially in the classroom. The same goes for our internally developed pectin preparation, which speeds up removal of radionuclides from the body and has proved highly successful. There, too, obstacles have been put in our way. This has been going on for years now. After one of our measurement campaigns in 2007, we recommended to the authorities that some of the villages in the heavily contaminated Naroulia region be evacuated or at the very least be offered more assistance. We didn't receive any answer, and instead we suddenly had the financial police at our doorstep accusing us of abusing donations and not paying taxes, and demanding that we close our doors. The allegations were far-fetched, and we enjoy a very good reputation abroad as well as an independent, reputable institution. We apparently should have been intimidated. The government continues undeterred on its course of supposed normalisation. The country is even building a new nuclear power plant. In the meantime, contaminated land continues to be declared clean, and people are invited to cultivate it again. The exclusion zones are more porous than ever before, and people collect fruit in the forest. A bucket mushrooms brings them up to five dollars. The mushrooms then snake their way into Lithuania, where they are quickly declared Lithuanian mushrooms and sold on the market with the corresponding certificates and all. This is the outcome of a highly negligent, dangerous policy at the expense of people's health. I remember it well. In my childhood there was a former tank shooting range nearby. Entering was of course strongly forbidden. What do you think we did as children? People don't behave any different in the radiation-exposed forests, which only exist as exclusion zones on paper. The caesium137 contamination will be dangerously high for the next three centuries or so. The radiation also causes genetic damage in our bodies that will result in serious diseases, but only in the coming generations. We have to assume today that our grandchildren will be hit the hardest. This is the Belarusian normality that we have to live with. Only when we protect ourselves will we also protect our children.