The Soviet Union undertook far-reaching measures in response to the Chernobyl nuclear accident. The government adopted a very low threshold with regard to the level of radioactive contamination that was considered acceptable for inhabited areas. The same caution applied to the zoning principles that were defined by the Soviet government in the wake of the accident, and that were subsequently reinforced by national legislation after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. These principles determined where people were permitted to live and imposed limitations on the types of activities that might be pursued (including farming and infrastructure investment). The zones were created based on very cautious standards for radiation risk and using measurements made very soon after the accident occurred.
In the wake of the accident, rehabilitation actions were undertaken on a huge scale (see Table). To accommodate the resettled populations, large investments were made in the construction of housing, schools, and hospitals, and also in physical infrastructure such as roads, water and electricity supply and sewerage. Because of the risk that was believed to be involved in burning locally produced wood and peat, many villages were provided with access to gas supplies for heating and cooking. This involved laying down a total of 8,980 kilometres of gas pipeline in the three countries in the fifteen years following the accident. Large sums were also spent to develop methods to cultivate “clean food” in the less contaminated areas where farming was allowed.
Table: Chernobyl-related construction, 1986–2000
An extensive benefits system was established for the populations that were seen to have suffered as a result of the Chernobyl accident, either through exposure to radiation or resettlement. Benefits were offered to very broad categories of Chernobyl victims, defined as people who:
- Fell ill with radiation sickness or became invalids due to the consequences of the accident;
- Took part in clean-up activities at the Chernobyl site and in the evacuation zones in 1986–1987 (known colloquially as “liquidators”);
- Participated in clean-up activities in 1988–1989;
- Continued to live in areas designated as contaminated; or,
- Were evacuated, or resettled, or left the affected areas at their own initiative.
Some 7 million people are now receiving (or are at least entitled to receive) special allowances, pensions, and health care privileges as a result of being categorized as in some way affected by Chernobyl. Significantly, benefits include measures that have no identifiable relation to the impact of radiation. Moreover, the benefits confer certain advantages and privileges even to those citizens who had been exposed to low levels of radiation or who continue to live in only mildly affected locations, where the level of radiation is close to natural background levels in some other European countries. In effect, these benefits compensate risk rather than actual injury.
By the late 1990s, Belarusian and Russian legislation provided more than seventy, and Ukrainian legislation more than fifty, different privileges and benefits for Chernobyl victims, depending on factors such as the degree of invalidity and the level of contamination. The system also guaranteed allowances, some of which were paid in cash, while others took the form of, for example, free meals for schoolchildren. In addition, the authorities undertook to finance health holidays in sanatoria and summer camps for invalids, liquidators, people who continued to live in highly affected areas, children and adolescents. In Belarus, almost 500 000 people, including 400 000 children, had the right to free holidays in the early 2000s. In Ukraine, the government funded 400 000–5 00 000 health holiday months per year between 1994 and 2000.
These government efforts were successful in protecting the overwhelming majority of the population from unacceptably high doses of radiation. They also stimulated the development of agricultural and food-processing techniques that reduced the radionuclide level in food. In the absence of alternative sources of income, government-provided Chernobyl benefits became the key to survival for many whose livelihoods were wiped out by the accident. And the health care system detected and treated thousands of cases of thyroid cancer that developed among children who were exposed to radioactive iodine in the weeks following the accident.
Alongside these successes, however, government efforts undertaken in response to the accident contained the seeds of later problems. First, the zones delineated to restrict the areas where people could live and work soon proved unwieldy. As the level of radiation declined over time, and knowledge on the nature of the risks posed by radiation became more sophisticated, the continuation of limitations on commercial activities and infrastructure development in the less affected areas became more of a burden than a safeguard. Zoning adjustments have been made in some places, but more needs to be done in light of new research.
Second, the massive investment programmes initiated to serve resettlement communities proved unsustainable, particularly under market economic conditions. Funding for Chernobyl programmes has declined steadily over time, leaving many projects half completed and thousands of half-built houses and public facilities standing abandoned in resettlement villages.
Third, the Soviet government delayed any public announcement that the accident had occurred. Information provision was selective and restrictive, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the accident. This approach left a legacy of mistrust surrounding official statements on radiation, and this has hindered efforts to provide reliable information to the public in the following decades.
Fourth, wide applicability meant that Chernobyl benefits mushroomed into an unsustainable fiscal burden. Somewhat counter-intuitively, the number of people claiming Chernobyl-related benefits soared over time, rather than declining. As the economic crisis of the 1990s deepened, registration as a victim of Chernobyl became for many the only means to an income and to vital aspects of health provision, including medicines. According to Ukrainian figures, the number of people designated as permanently disabled by the Chernobyl accident (and their children) increased from 200 in 1991 to 64 500 in 1997 and 91 219 in 2001.
In conditions of high inflation and increasing budget constraints, moreover, the value of the payments fell steadily in the early 1990s. In many cases, Chernobyl payments became meaningless in terms of their contribution to family incomes, but, given the large number of eligible people, remained a major burden on the state budget. Especially for Belarus and Ukraine, Chernobyl benefits drained resources away from other areas of public spending. By the late 1990s, however, any attempt to scale back benefits or explore alternative strategies to target high-risk groups was politically difficult, given the likelihood of protests from current recipients.
Despite this constraint, some changes to Chernobyl legislation have already been made to improve policy efficiency. In Belarus, for example, individual benefits are no longer paid to the least-affected categories of the population, and the meagre sums paid out as compensation to individual families living in the contaminated areas are now accumulated at the regional level and used by local authorities to improve medical and communal services for the affected population.
The enormous scale of the effort currently being made by the three governments means that even small improvements in efficiency can significantly increase the resources available for those in need. Governments realize that the costs and benefits of particular interventions need to be assessed more rigorously, and resources targeted more carefully to those facing true need. Resources now committed to Chernobyl health care benefits should be targeted to high-risk groups (e.g., liquidators) and those with demonstrated health conditions, or be shifted into a mainstream health care system that promotes preventive medicine and improved primary care. Similarly, Chernobyl benefits that in practice meet socio-economic needs should be folded into a nationwide means-tested social protection programme that targets the truly needy. Such changes take political courage, as reallocating resources faces strong resistance from vested interests.