SATURDAY (April 26) marked the 28th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Duncan Leatherdale reports on a national charity's only shop in the country working to help the children affected.

IT is a disaster that, nearly three decades later, is still wreaking disease and death with no signs of abating.

The explosion that caused the deaths of 30 people within three months of its occurrence was terrible, but the aftermath has been even more catastrophic, with countless thousands still believed to be suffering from its effects.

On Saturday, April 26, 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded, with plumes of highly radioactive material released into the atmosphere, 60 per cent of which fell on neighbouring Belarus.

More than 350,000 people were moved away, whole towns such as Pripyat are now devoid of human life due to the lingering lethal levels of radiation.

Cancers started sprouting and birth defects and deformities became much more commonplace with thyroid cancer in particular linked to the iodine fallout.

In the ten years before the Chernobyl accident, just seven children contracted thyroid cancer in Belarus.

Within four years of the accident this level had risen by 30 times, and the World Health Organisation predicts that around 50,000 children aged between nought and four-years-old at the time of the explosion will contract the disease at some point.

Other illnesses whose rises are linked to the disaster include leukaemia, tumours, diabetes and central nervous system defects.

Ten years after the disaster, Belarus’ doctors appealed to the western world to help its sick youngsters with a vital four weeks of respite.

Catherine McElholm, national treasurer of Chernobyl Children’s Project, said: “They were saying the children were not recovering from cancer, many of their immune systems were seriously weakened and they needed to be in a clean environment.

“Just four weeks of clean air and unpolluted food would boost their immune systems for two years.”

Several groups sprung up around the UK in response to the doctor’s calls, including one on Teesside and the main charity in Manchester.

Kind-hearted people also launched a shop in Crook, County Durham, management of which was taken over by the Chernobyl Children’s Project several years ago.

It is the only shop the charity has and is manned entirely by volunteers.

Ms McElholm said: “It is amazing how this one little shop in Crook is making such a big difference to so many people, those that make donations there and buy things from the shop deserve a lot of praise, as do the volunteers who keep it running so magnificently.”

The charity arranges for around 250 children to come to the UK each year, although numbers are dropping due to a dwindling number of families offering to host the young visitors.

Many of the children come to County Durham staying with families in the towns and dales.

And the groups that come are given an afternoon at the Crook shop where they can choose toys and clothes to take home with them.

As well as organising the visits, the Chernobyl Children’s Project is doing a significant amount of work in Belarus itself, particularly in the area around the town of Gomel.

They have opened the country’s first hospice for children and a respite care centre to give families looking after sick youngsters a much-needed break.

The charity has also arranged for surgeons to receive extra training to deal with certain types of illness born out of the disaster, and has successfully pushed for a great improvement in the fostering and adoption services within Belarus.

The World Nuclear Association said faulty designs and human error were to blame for the disaster.

On Saturday, April 26, in 1986, the fourth and final reactor at Chernobyl power plant was to be shut down as part of a routine test.

The preparations caused the reactor to become dangerously unstable, so when control rods were inserted into the core a dramatic power surge caused a massive build up of pressure through the rapid production of steam.

The extra pressure caused the first of two explosions, with radioactive material being released by the destruction of the reactor.

Two workers were killed in the explosions and the high radiation doses on the first day of the accident led to 28 deaths, including six firemen, before July that year.

A 4,300sqkm exclusion zone was eventually set up around the power plant and radioactive particles released by the blast were recorded across Europe, with Ukraine and its neighbours such as Belarus bearing the brunt of the fallout.

Almost 30 years after the world was shaken by its largest ever nuclear disaster, volunteers at a shop on the appropriately named Hope Street in Crook are still doing their bit to help those affected.

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