MOSCOW, April 20, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Parishev, 20 kilometers east of Chornobyl, was once a bustling village of several hundred people. Now, only a dozen people remain.
Speaking to RFE/RL one year ago, Halyna Yavchenko said the number of villagers in Parishev is shrinking and that people are dying one after the other. She herself complained of strong headaches and high blood pressure.
But she said she's not afraid to live in an abandoned village in the middle of a radioactive zone. If only the wild animals would leave her garden alone: "We are used to living here. But we are like wolves here. Last year, boars ate everything they could find."
Yavchenko is one of the many affected by the 1986 disaster, where a power surge triggered an explosion that emitted radiation across Europe. But experts disagree how severe the consequences of the disaster have been -- and how bad they still could be in the future.
A report released in September 2005 by the Chernobyl Forum, which comprises the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Development Program, said fewer than 50 deaths so far could be directly attributed to Chornobyl. The report claimed the disaster will cause no more than 4,000 deaths worldwide. It also found no profound negative health consequences to the rest of the population in surrounding areas.
These figures take into account only the people most exposed: those sent to "liquidate" the consequence of the explosion, and those who lived in nearby towns at the time of the accident.
The IAEA says its findings regarding the environmental impact of the blast are also "reassuring," with radiation levels mostly returning to normal.
The report claims that poverty, disease, and mental-health problems in the former Soviet Union actually pose a far greater health threat than radiation exposure.
But this verdict has been challenged by a number of organizations, including Greenpeace and associations of Chornobyl "liquidators."
Speaking at a press conference on April 18 in Kyiv, Bruno Rebelle, a program director for Greenpeace International, said the number of Chornobyl-related deaths is much higher: "The most recent published figures indicates that in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine alone, the accident resulted in an estimated 200,000 additional deaths between 1994 and 2000."
A recent Greenpeace report, which is partly based on research from the Russian and Belarusian Academies of Sciences, says that the incidence of cancer in Belarus jumped 40 percent between 1990 and 2000. And, according to the report, children born after 1986 have shown a 88.5-fold increase in thyroid cancers.
Speaking at a Greenpeace news conference in Moscow earlier this month, Lyudmila Komogortseva, a deputy from the Bryansk Oblast -- Russia's region most affected by the accident -- said the incidence of cancer in her region is 10 to 15 percent higher than the national average.
"Today one can say with certainty that the Chornobyl catastrophe, even what is called low radiation doses, has a negative effect on the health of people living in the regions exposed to radioactive pollution," Komogortseva said.
Komogortseva lashed out at the Russian government for failing to pay compensation to the Bransk population for health damage and slashing ecological and health programs set up in the region after the disaster.
Some experts and local residents are also concerned about the dangers of contaminated food.
Komogortseva said more than 50 percent of food products in the Bryansk region are contaminated, according to official figures from Russian veterinary sources. In addition, she said, local residents widely consume mushrooms, berries, and game from the forests, where most of the radiation is concentrated.
Speaking at the same press conference, Vladimir Chuprov, the chief nuclear expert at Greenpeace's Moscow chapter, said these food products continue to pose a serious health threat: "These food products -- mushrooms, berries, meat, dairy products -- reach the Moscow market, the St. Petersburg market, the central European part of Russia. Specialized organizations are known to withdraw hundreds of kilograms of these products from Moscow markets every year. The problem here is general, this radiation is spreading, and one should in no circumstances close one's eyes to this problem, like the IAEA and our opponents from Rosatom are trying to do."
The IAEA, however, dismisses such warnings.
Didier Louvat, the head of the IAEA's waste safety section that helped coordinate the UN report on Chornobyl, told RFE/RL there was no evidence showing low radiation doses increased the risk of cancer.
"The Bryansk region was the Russian region most affected by the [radioactive] fallout. So the Bryansk region forests are certainly the most contaminated. If this can be related to any increase of cancer in the region, among the population, even the population consuming forest products? The WHO report clearly said no," Louvat said. "Twenty percent of the population -- the Russian population, the world population -- are going to die of cancer. There is no way to attribute this cancer to one specific cause."
Greenpeace believes the authors of the Chernobyl Forum report have an agenda.
Chuprov said the report is part of a campaign to present nuclear energy as a reliable and safe source of energy: "The question is politicized. There is a powerful lobby, and public opinion on Chornobyl is the last barrier against the construction of new [nuclear] reactors in Russia and in the world. This is part of a PR campaign aimed at eliminating social disapproval, because according to social polls, 78 percent of Russians are against the construction of nuclear plants in their region."
Russia's atomic energy agency, Rosatom, has announced plans to build 40 new nuclear reactors in the country by 2030.
(RFE/RL's Valentinas Mite contributed to this report)
Click on the map to enlarge.
THE DIRTY ZONE: Within a month of the April 26, 1986, Chornobyl explosion, Soviet authorities had evacuated almost 120,000 people from a zone within 30 kilometers of the plant. However, contamination by radioactive isotopes, particularly cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years, spread over a much wider area.
The map above shows the four areas of cesium-137 contamination across Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. The Closed Zone shows contamination more than 40 curies per square kilometer, the Control Zone includes the Permanent Control Zone (15-40 curies per square kilometer) and Periodic Control Zone (5-15 curies per square kilometer), and the Unnamed Zone shows contamination of 1-15 curies per square kilometer.
Click on the icon to view the slideshow