38 years after Chernobyl disaster, 12% of Belarus's territory is still contaminated


On April 26, 1986, a catastrophic accident occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. A planned shutdown of the reactor, lasting 20 seconds, seemed like a routine check of electrical equipment. However, a few seconds later, a chemical explosion released about 520 types of dangerous radionuclides into the atmosphere. Thirty-eight years later, Belarusian officials say 12 percent of the country's territory is still contaminated. 

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was located near the city of Pripyat in northern Ukraine, then part of the Ukrainian SSR, close to the border with the Byelorussian SSR. Pripyat has been abandoned since the year of the accident, and an exclusion zone was created with a radius of 30 km around the plant. Over 100,000 people were evacuated from the zone. 

Pripyat Central Square. Image by XEvansGambitx via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0

To the north of the Ukrainian part of the Exclusion Zone is the Polesie State Radiation-Ecological Reserve, which belongs to the territory of the Republic of Belarus. There are 96 abandoned settlements in the area, where more than 22,000 residents lived before the accident and evacuation in 1986.

Checkpoint Bragin at the entrance to Polesie State Radiation-Ecological Reserve. Image by Showmeheaven via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 3.0 DEED.

According to Belarus state media, in the end of April 2024, the first deputy head of the State Atomic Inspectorate in Belarus Leonid Dedul said during a press-conference: 

As a result of explosions and fires, about 200 types of radionuclides with half-lives ranging from a few hours to hundreds of thousands of years were released into the atmosphere, with Belarus taking the main blow. For example, if we consider the radionuclide cesium-137, 35 percent of the total amount that fell down landed in our country. This radionuclide accounts for about 90 percent of the radiation dose load on the population. Since the post-accident period, the area of contaminated territory in Belarus by cesium-137 has decreased by almost half and now amounts to about 25.5 thousand square kilometers, or 12 percent of the country's total area. 

Today, more than 2,000 populated areas are located in radioactive contamination zones, with approximately 930,000 people (185,000 of whom are children) living in them.

Although the state media reports on the success of Belarusian state-sponsored Chernobyl program that deals with economic, social and environmental consequences of the disaster, those outside the country are skeptical about it.  

Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has been the leader of Belarus for 30 years now, said that the program worked so well that it has “beaten Chernobyl in the face.”

However, Belarusian historian Alexander Fridman thinks that Lukashenka's regime, through propaganda, is manipulating public memory and opinion around the tragedy.  Economic goals, he says, and the ability to use  contaminated territories for them, were the  driver of Lukashenka's Chernobyl program.  In his opinion piece for DW, he says the people were overlooked, and research that showed grave consequences of using the land even after years have passed was repressed. 

One of the researchers was Yury Bandazhevsky, former director of the Medical Institute in Gomel, a scientist working on the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster.  He was sentenced to eight years imprisonment in Belarus in 2001. According to many human rights groups Dr. Bandazhevsky was a prisoner of conscience. His arrest came soon after he published reports critical of the official research being conducted into the Chernobyl incident. 

He was released on parole in 2005, and is now working in Ukraine. Bandazhevsky said in one of his interviews to the DW 30 years after the disaster: 

I believe that even three decades after the Chernobyl disaster, the situation hasn't changed enough to allow for safe living and agricultural activities in these territories. Yes, the radiation levels of cesium-137 and strontium-90, which have a half-life of about 30 years, have indeed decreased. However, cesium's half-life product is barium, which hardly exits cells.

Radionuclides have migrated into the soil, entering biological chains into plants, animals, and humans, affecting the cells of vital organs. This is ignored by those [officials] who speak of safe living in areas affected by the nuclear power plant accident.

We began to study the changes occurring in the human body under the influence of radioactive elements in the fifth year after the explosion. At that time, we recorded serious pathologies of internal organs — brain, heart, and endocrine system — that could be assessed as a result of direct radiotoxic exposure. But [Belarusian] officials didn't want to connect cause and effect. Meanwhile, in the Vetka district of Belarus, many of the children we observed in 1993–1995 have died. 

We must consider that victims can also include those who live far from the Chernobyl area but consume products from there. In Belarus, after the Chernobyl accident, some “smart” individuals came up with the idea to mix “clean” products with “dirty” ones. In the Gomel region, contaminated lands were initially secretly, then openly, used to produce agricultural products, with livestock being fed grain from there. Products from the region continue to be distributed throughout the republic. Now, the situation has reached the point where these territories are reclassified as “clean,” saving on social payments.

In October 2023, as  the media reported, an NGO, Children of Chernobyl, which had helped thousands of kids from contaminated areas to visit European countries in order to receive health and psychological support, was shut down by  a Belarusian court as part of ongoing crack down on Belarusian civil society. In addition, for over two years  since the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine started (supported by Lukashenka), Belarus is not communicating any research or other issues about Chernobyl to other countries, apart from rare meetings of IAEA, Belarusian state media reports. Thus, it is impossible to conduct an independent evaluation of what is going on in contaminated areas of Belarus. It is safe to suggest that, until Lukashenka's regime fails, the public within and outside the country will not know the real cost of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster for Belarus.

Start the conversation

Authors, please log in »


  • All comments are reviewed by a moderator. Do not submit your comment more than once or it may be identified as spam.
  • Please treat others with respect. Comments containing hate speech, obscenity, and personal attacks will not be approved.