KIEV, Ukraine — In the lush but irradiated pastures near the Chernobyl nuclear power station, cows are fed what U.N. officials jokingly refer to as inflated condoms.
In fact, the bulbous blue capsules are filled with ferrocyanide and beeswax. In the cows' stomachs, they work like magnets to attract the radioactive cesium particles ingested along with grass, enabling the dairy herds of northern Ukraine to give uncontaminated milk.
The purification technique, pioneered in Norway to save the livelihoods of Lapp reindeer herdsmen whose livestock were threatened by fallout from Chernobyl, is being applied here as a pilot project aimed at avoiding millions of dollars in lost milk production over the next few decades.
At a modest cost of $150,000 to its Norwegian government sponsor, the initiative is one of the few successes in a panoply of ambitious Western aid programs devised to counter the lingering poisonous effects of the explosion and fire that occurred at Chernobyl's nuclear power plant seven years ago Monday.
The rest of the ambitious aid effort--including millions of dollars in commitments from the European Community, the United States, the United Nations and the Group of Seven major industrialized democracies--has fallen far short of expectations.
"The world effort over Chernobyl has been a real mess, very disappointing," said Bogdan Lisovich, the U.N. deputy representative in this former Soviet republic.
According to Western diplomats and Ukrainian officials, the difficulties in cleaning up the world's worst nuclear accident and treating its victims lie in both the donor countries and Ukraine.
The same problems crop up time and again on a larger scale as foreign organizations and governments try to aid Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union: lack of experience in how the help should be targeted, growing indifference in the West, corruption, crime and a stifling mix of Western and Ukrainian bureaucracy.
Although the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development proposed several million dollars in funds in 1992, none have arrived, Lisovich said. The European Community, under pressure to cut overall foreign aid, has canceled major cleanup plans in the Chernobyl region despite pleas from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, the countries most contaminated.
The main U.S. initiative--a 20-year project to help monitor 80,000 Ukrainian and 25,000 Belarussian children for Chernobyl-related ailments--has been delayed by complications in renegotiating the original agreement with Ukraine and Belarus after the Soviet Union broke apart in late 1991.
According to Vladimir Shovkoshitny of the Chernobyl Union, which represents people who worked in the Chernobyl cleanup, 8,000 Ukrainians, Russians and Belarussians have died from radiation-related illness since the 1986 accident and more than 35,000 have become invalids.
Child cancer rates in southeastern Belarus have risen 80% compared to pre-accident figures, and the thyroid glands of 1.5 million Ukrainian children were damaged by radiation, doctors say.
While improvements have been made in treating both land and human beings exposed to Chernobyl radiation, doctors complain of a shortage of drugs, which the state cannot afford to buy in enough quantity. They say much of the donated medicine and other foreign material aid for Chernobyl victims has disappeared onto the black market.
"We don't want big funds because the money never gets to where it's supposed to," said Olga Bobilova, head of the Ukrainian Ministry of Health's department on Chernobyl-related illnesses, who favors small-scale projects like the milk purification aid from Norway. "We want concrete help on specific projects."
One of the two most ambitious aid attempts was organized by the United Nations in 1991, promising a $648-million commitment from Western governments for everything from soil decontamination to health care. In the end, the United Nations managed to raise just $1 million.
The other big effort is a $700-million package, promised last July by the Group of Seven, to help Ukraine and other former Soviet republics improve the safety of their nuclear power plants.
That money has only recently been allocated, but Western officials here say that international treaties bar them from delivering any of the aid to Ukraine until it ratifies the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and vows to give up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union.
Influential members of Ukraine's Parliament are resisting Western pressure to ratify the treaty as long as they feel threatened by nuclear warheads in next-door Russia.
Aid or no aid, the Chernobyl power station, which supplies more than 5% of Ukraine's electricity, is likely to churn out power for the foreseeable future, despite frequent stoppages caused by sloppy work practices and outdated technology.
Although the three 1,000-megawatt Chernobyl reactors still in operation are supposed to be shut down by the end of this year, Ukraine is too poor to import oil or electricity to replace the energy they produce.
"My feeling is that the (Group of Seven) governments will again ask Ukraine to close down the power station," a Western diplomat predicted. "The Ukrainians will say, 'But we don't have the money.' The Chernobyl problem is not going to go away."