Olena Fedorova was just six years old when a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine exploded.
The explosion would spread radioactive material and deep uncertainty over large parts of the western side of the Soviet Union and on across Europe.
And a week after the accident, Olena Fedorova and her family were forced to evacuate their home in Ukraine, leaving everything behind.
She says she was playing in the yard when the word came to leave.
“My mum called me back immediately, and she said, ‘Uh, we need to go. We need to go.’ And I asked, ‘Where do we need to go?’ And she said … she didn’t answer me anything. She said, ‘Oh, you’re not allowed to bring anything. No dolls, no clothes, no books, nothing. Anything.’ I thought, ‘Oh, it’s strange.’ And I was thinking, ‘Oh, well, we’ll come back.'”
Now living in Melbourne all these years later, Ms Fedorova says Ukraine will always be her home — just as she thought then.
“It still remains in my memory today that (I was thinking,) ‘We’ll still come back, we will come back.'”
Thirty years on, the magnitude of the Chernobyl disaster remains unknown.
At the time, two people died in the explosion, and another 29 workers at the nuclear plant died from acute radioactive contamination.
Amid heavy regional concern, early predictions estimated the eventual death toll, resulting from radiation exposure, would be in the thousands.
But United Nations Development Program representative Louisa Vinton says there is no evidence those predictions are coming true.
“Aside from high rates of thyroid cancer, there was no statistical evidence of any direct consequence from radiation. No cancer, no reproductive problems, no deformations, no nothing. But what people don’t realise is that thyroid cancer is, in 98 to 99 per cent of all cases, treatable.”
Ms Vinton says stress from displacement and fear of radiation has had far greater impact on public health than radiation exposure.
“The consequence of fear, in health terms, has been more potent than the exposure to radiation. So the need was to really find a way for communities to recover their confidence, their social cohesion, their economic well-being, and, really, just resume normal lives — to start returning to normal life without fear for the future from radiation, and learning to deal with some of the more potent health threats.”
But in the United States, University of South Carolina professor Timothy Mousseau insists radiation exposure has specific health impacts.
He and a team of scientists have been studying the effects of Chernobyl for more than 15 years.
He says studying wildlife living within the 30-kilometre exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl allows his team to examine the specific effects of radiation.
“There’s really no doubt there are consequences for the wild populations, and, because they’re not subject to stress-related, emotional kinds of responses, we can disentangle the effects of various environmental factors to look purely at the radiation effects.”
Their studies have detected tumours, reduced life spans, developmental abnormalities and high rates of cataracts in the animals.
Despite those findings, Griffith University science professor Ian Lowe says many people in Ukraine are choosing to return to evacuated zones rather than face lifelong displacement.
“Something like 1,000 people who lived in areas from which people were evacuated have moved back, because they’ve decided that they would rather have the risk of extra radiation than be permanently displaced from the place that they’ve always lived. They’re mainly older people who, I suppose, have taken the calculated risk that the latency period for cancer from radiation is typically decades, so, if you’re in your seventies or eighties, you’re not taking a big risk moving back there.”
Chernobyl researcher and filmmaker Merilyn Fairskye, at the University of Sydney, says residents returning to Chernobyl have a powerful connection to the land.
“For them, quality of life isn’t to do with the amount of radiation that might be in the ground. It’s to do with being in their home.”