- Written by Urs Fitze
„It’s about trust”
Alexander Zaitsev is the director of the Research Institute of Radiology in Gomel, which reports to the Ministry of Emergency. The institute logo is of a flower whose petals are meant to resemble the atom symbol. It employs 75 people at its headquarters and three branches.
"When we talk about agriculture in the radioactive-contaminated areas, I have to say from the outset that above a certain level of exposure, the land can't be cultivated any more. In Belarus this is 15 curies per square kilometre. For values between 1 and 15 curies, the soil is considered contaminated but cultivation is still possible under certain conditions. There are no restrictions under 1 curie. So we're talking here about soils that are lightly to moderately contaminated, and we're talking about the radionuclides caesium137 and strontium90, which are causing us the most trouble. Chemically, they are nearly identical to potassium, which plays an important role in the human body. When we absorb caesium137 and strontium90, our bodies perceive them as potassium. This applies to all living things, even plants. Every plant needs potassium, and it's an important fertiliser. For agriculture, this means that if we succeed in ensuring optimal potassium fertilisation, it would minimise the amount of radionuclides that the plants absorb. Unfortunately it's not that simple as fertilisation also depends on the nature of the soil and of course the plant itself. We solve this problem with geochemical passports; that is, we know for each type of soil its exact characteristics. This also holds true for exposure to radionuclides. With these geochemical passports, the kolkhozes (collective farms) already have an important decision-making tool, not only for fertilisation but for crop production, too. A majority of farms in Belarus are state-owned kolkhozes. Cultivating such soils requires expertise, which we provide through courses and seminars. Generally speaking, what we are dealing with in the south of Berlus are good to very good soils that are exposed to very different levels of radioactivity and also react very different to this exposure. Peat soils are particularly problematic, though they are relatively rare here. With radioactive contamination, it's only possible to use the soil to a very limited degree. This is especially true for growing vegetables. We generally dissuade people from growing protein-rich pulses such as beans or peas, but corn for animal feed is well suited – and it's needed, thanks to a rise in livestock farming. Radioactive contamination can be reduced with the appropriate additives. With milk, we often recommend further processing. Cheese and butter are the most suitable because the radionuclides concentrate in the whey and buttermilk. This is how the face of agriculture has changed in the 30 years since Chernobyl. But at least it still exists outside the restricted areas. This also holds true for the many small farmer who, often as a side job, have their own vegetable garden. They are able to analyse their soils just like the large kolkhozes, and we advise them on which vegetables are recommended for them. We also have different brochures for mushroom and berry pickers, as well as for hunters. There are also maps that show the soil contamination with high accuracy.
The fact that many people in Belarus avoid products from the Gomel region cannot be argued away nor can we deny that there's a problem with selling those goods. And I can understand this to some extent. On the other hand, the state institutions are doing all they can to ensure that the only food to make it onto the market is that which complies with the limits, which incidentally are in many cases far more stringent than those in the European Union or Russia. We strictly control the food independent of any such instructions. But the problem doesn't only have to do with contamination. It's about trust. This is what various surveys that we've conducted show. The rejection is seen at all levels, but the better educated people tend to also be the most sceptical. Their lack of confidence is justified, and it's up to us to do something so we can earn this trust."