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Ceremonies marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown across the former Soviet Union today. But the disaster was not an event confined to April 26, 1986. It merely began then. People continue to become sick and die because of Chernobyl. This piece in the Guardian explains some of the ongoing effects on agriculture and the environment.
Estimates of the Chernobyl death toll range from a few thousand to several hundred thousand. In light of those deaths, perhaps it is insensitive to discuss the financial cost of the meltdown, but as Chernobyl’s death toll grows so does the bill. The Chernobyl plant stood in what is now Ukraine, and the most severe environmental effects were suffered in what is now Belarus. The expense hampers the economies of both countries. According to the Guardian article linked above, each country has spent $12 billion to deal with the effects of Chernobyl.
Ukraine and Belarus did not create the problem, though. Chernobyl was a Soviet facility, and the Russian Federation is the successor state to the Soviet Union. Upon the collapse of the USSR, all Soviet embassies became Russian embassies. Russia inherited the USSR’s permanent seat on the UN Security Council. While Russia enjoys the spoils of being the USSR’s successor state, it suffers none of the consequences, including the cost of dealing with Chernobyl.
$1.1 billion is needed for a new cover, or sarcophagus, for the reactor. What is Russia doing? At a recent conference to address this cost, various nations pledged a total of $785 million. According to the Associated Press, the United States pledged $123 million, Germany pledged $60.5 million, and Ukraine pledged $41 million. Russia–the successor to the Soviet state that operated the plant–pledged $64 million. What’s even more outrageous, the AP explains, “Russia’s pledge doubled the amount it has donated since it began contributing in 2005.” In other words, assuming Russia makes good on this pledge, it will have contributed only slightly more than the U.S. is pledging now.
Russia’s refusal to pay for its Soviet sins are not limited to Chernobyl. I’ve interviewed former GULAG prisoners in Kazakhstan who were rehabilitated during the Thaw. They receive a meager supplement to their pension, a few dollars extra per month, as a sort of reparation for their political imprisonment. These payments are covered by the Kazakh government, which had nothing to do with the GULAG system other than having had its land used as a prison camp and place of exile by Soviet Russia. The Kazakhs were among the most mistreated of Communism’s victims, and now they pay to assist their fellow victims. Why doesn’t Russia bear the cost of these payments? When convenient, the Russia of Putin and Medvedev distances itself from the unpleasant Soviet past.
The German government of the Twenty-first Century had nothing to do with the Third Reich, but it justifiably pays reparations to Holocaust survivors and to former forced laborers from Ukraine and other nations. The Federal Republic of Germany is fulfilling its ethical obligations as the successor state of Nazi Germany. The Russian Federation is just two decades removed from the end of the Soviet Union. Some Russian leaders served prominent positions in Soviet government. But the Russian Federation is no more inclined to pay for Soviet sins than for those of the Tsars.
The continuation of Chernobyl’s effects is a scientific certainty. Russia’s refusal to do the right thing seems as likely.