Na­ture re­claims the tainted lands of the Chornobyl zone

Kyiv Post - - National - BY WILL PONOMARENK­O PONOMARENK­[email protected]

CHORNOBYL EX­CLU­SION ZONE, Ukraine — Overnight on April 26, 1986, the world’s worst nu­clear dis­as­ter hap­pened some 90 kilo­me­ters north of Kyiv. Re­ac­tor No. 4 of the Chornobyl Nu­clear Power Plant ex­ploded dur­ing a failed re­ac­tor ex­per­i­men­tal test, caus­ing a cloud of ra­dioac­tive fall­out to pol­lute vast swathes of Ukraine, Rus­sia, and Be­larus. Within days, fall­out par­ti­cles were also ap­pear­ing in Europe, Amer­ica, and Asia.

It took the Soviet author­i­ties three days to start evac­u­at­ing 115,000 civil­ians from 188 cities and towns within a 30-kilo­me­ter area around ground zero.

The new ex­clu­sion zone was closed off by Soviet troops — and up to 600,000 people, mostly sol­diers and sci­en­tists, were en­gaged in the deadly post-ac­ci­dent cleanup and build­ing a con­crete sar­coph­a­gus over the ex­tremely ra­dioac­tive de­stroyed re­ac­tor.

More than thirty years af­ter, the Chornobyl Nu­clear Power Plant and its ex­clu­sion area still at­tract at­ten­tion from all around the world — and le­gends have grown around it.

The for­est land

Video games, movies, and sci-fi books of­ten present the zone as a gloomy, with­ered land with killing zones of ra­di­a­tion, anom­alies, aban­doned towns and rusty fac­to­ries in­hab­ited by mon­sters, hu­man mu­tants, and loot­ers.

How­ever, vis­i­tors to the zone do not en­counter ra­dioac­tive desert, but rather a thriv­ing land of rich forests and mead­ows in the Ukrainian re­gion of Pole­sia.

Not­with­stand­ing that the nu­clear fall­out still af­fects the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment, the Chornobyl zone is now a much more hos­pitable and beau­ti­ful place than many people imag­ine it to be.

Its air is fresh and clear, and its rivers are clean and well stocked with fish — it took only a few years for na­ture to re­turn af­ter the hu­mans fled. Lots of rare an­i­mals, such as Mon­go­lian wild horses or Euro­pean elk, and also boars, foxes, and wolves, have found a home and their nat­u­ral habi­tat there.

Af­ter three decades of aban­don- ment, na­ture has re­gained much of its do­min­ion in the zone — and ab­sorbed the empty hu­man set­tle­ments. The streets of Zalis­sya, a vil­lage sit­u­ated just a cou­ple of kilo­me­ters away from the Chornobyl Plant, have turned into dense for­est, with old ru­ined houses barely vis­i­ble among the trees and high grass.

As the years go by, the ex­clu­sion zone has become a na­tional na­ture park. It is also a good busi­ness — at least 10,000 tourists from all around the globe visit the area each year, ac­cord­ing to Ukraine’s state agency on the zone’s man­age­ment.

Fight­ing the fall­out

Not many build­ings in vil­lages like Zalis­sya have re­mained in­tact, says Ser­hiy Myrniy, a dis­as­ter liq­uida­tor turned tourist guide. A qual­i­fied chemist and ecol­o­gist, he served as ra­di­a­tion re­con­nais­sance squad com­man­der in the Chornobyl Zone in the summer of 1986.

“All the things around were pol­luted with ra­dioac­tive fall­out,” Myrniy re­mem­bers.

“Young sol­diers, mostly Soviet army draftees, were taken here with sim­ple spades in their hands to load the con­tam­i­nated top lay­ers of soil on trucks for fur­ther dis­posal. Usu­ally, it worked out, and the ra­di­a­tion in­ten­sity de­creased ten­fold. How­ever, in many cases it didn’t, so many houses were de­mol­ished, with the ex­ca­va­tors buried deep in the ground right there.”

At some places along roads and for­est paths, one still can find ra­di­a­tion signs mark­ing the old dump­ing pits.

Since the dis­as­ter, the ra­di­a­tion lev­els in the area have de­creased a thou­sand­fold, pri­mar­ily thanks to the people who sac­ri­ficed their health and lives dur­ing the de­con­tam­i­na­tion ef­forts, Myrniy says. Be­sides, most of the iso­topes that were ejected from the burn­ing re­ac­tor on the night of the dis­as­ter, such as stron­tium-90, ce­sium-137, io­dine-131, have al­ready de­cayed away over the past thirty years.

How­ever, there are some cer­tain spots where the back­ground ra­dia- tion is still high.

One of them is a lone old tree near an aban­doned kinder­garten build­ing in the ghost town of Kopachi. Just ap­proach­ing the tree makes a dosime­ter start beep­ing in­dig­nantly — the ra­di­a­tion level here is 5 mi­crosiev­erts per hour — very high.

“My the­ory is that one of my fel­low liq­uida­tors shook the fall­out dust from his clothes on this tree af­ter do­ing his job back in 1986,” Myrniy says. “If you take just a cou­ple of steps back, the ra­di­a­tion level goes back to nor­mal lim­its again.”

Same thing hap­pens at some corners near the kinder­garten build­ing walls — thirty years ago, fire trucks wa­tered the roofs in or­der to wash down the fall­out ash, and the ra­di­a­tion still traces the paths by which the con­tam­i­nated wa­ter streamed down from above.

The pro­tec­tion dome

The ra­di­a­tion back­ground lev­els in most of the zone are gen­er­ally ac­cept­able, Myrniy says. Even the fa­mous Red For­est, sit­u­ated just west of the power plant, the trees of which died within 30 min­utes of the dis­as­ter, is now healthy and planted with young strong pines.

The heart of the ex­clu­sion zone, the sadly re­mem­bered nu­clear re­ac­tor No. 4, rises high over the re­grown woods. To­day, it is cov­ered with a gi­gan­tic sil­ver-col­ored arch that can be seen from far off — the so-called New Safe Con­fine­ment, built over the old Soviet con­crete sar­coph­a­gus. With a height reach­ing 108 me­ters, the struc­ture is the world’s big­gest

build­ing of this kind, de­signed to protect hu­mankind from new ra­dioac­tive leaks from the re­ac­tor’s ru­ins for the next 100 years.

It is al­most done — the French con­sor­tium No­varka funded by the In­ter­na­tional Chornobyl Shel­ter Fund says it will com­plete the work by the end of 2017. Up to 1.5 bil­lion eu­ros have been spent on the project, and right now the giant con­fine­ment seems to be work­ing: right next to ground zero, a dosime­ter records a ra­di­a­tion level of 1.09 mi­crosiev­erts per hour. The em­ploy­ees of the Chornobyl Power Plant even walk around the area with­out any spe­cial pro­tec­tive cloth­ing.

The whole com­plex of four nu­clear re­ac­tors com­pletely sus­pended op­er­a­tions in late 2000, but there will be enough work for there for com­ing gen­er­a­tions of nu­clear power en­gi­neers — the de­com­mis­sion­ing of the plant will take un­til 2060.

The plant it­self is also far from be­ing a dead zone. Just a cou­ple of hun­dreds of me­ters away from the Con­fine­ment, there is an ar­ti­fi­cial cool­ing pond with an im­pres­sively large pop­u­la­tion of cat­fish. Tourists love feed­ing them with bread slices taken from the plant’s can­teen, and the fish rush to an old rail bridge across the pond when they sense hu­mans com­ing. The dogs liv­ing at the plant are the same: used to the con­stant pres­ence of crowds of people, they also de­mand treats. Many of them stay close to places still in­hab­ited by hu­mans to es­cape the packs of wolves roam­ing the wild forests.

Al­though the dan­ger is mi­nor, the Chornobyl work­ers rec­om­mend stick­ing to the sim­ple rules in the ex­clu­sion zone: do not eat in the open air, avoid touch­ing an­i­mals, and un­dergo ra­di­a­tion de­con­tam­i­na­tion be­fore get­ting back in­doors.

Back in the USSR

Even Prypyat, a ghost city of huge apart­ment blocks, as­phalted av­enues, and con­crete squares some two kilo­me­ters north­west of the plant, has failed to re­sist the resur­gence of na­ture.

Be­fore April 1986, the city had a pop­u­la­tion of 50,000 — mostly Chornobyl work­ers and their fam­i­lies. It was to­tally evac­u­ated in a day, soon af­ter the blast. No one was ever al­lowed to re­turn home.

The once-lively city has turned into a pine wood over the years, and only small patches of cracked as­phalt and con­crete still re­call the hu­man pres­ence here. The city sta­dium’s foot­ball field is now lush wood­land pocked with small mounds of earth — left by wild boars dig­ging for morsels. The well-known ob­ser­va­tion wheel, seen in lots of video games, can only be reached via for­est paths. In summer, one can walk through the cen­tral av­enues of Prypyat with­out even notic­ing the huge nine-story apart­ment blocks just tens of me­ters away, be­hind dense green walls of trees.

The city’s for­mer down­town square is one of the few parts that are still rec­og­niz­able.

Al­though dam­aged by time and weather, the cen­tral build­ings — the fa­mous Polis­sya Ho­tel, the sports com­plex, the Prometheus cinema and the city restau­rant, still bear many re­minders and de­tails of the Soviet-era — time there stopped in 1986.

In the square, there was even a West­ern-style su­per­mar­ket, the only one in the city — an enor­mous lux­ury by Soviet stan­dards. Old cash tills, price la­bels, and small metal shop­ping carts still can be found in the dust there, among bro­ken glass and junk.

“Prypyat used to be a rich city, the home of nu­clear physi­cists,” Ser­hiy Myrniy says. “People used to come here from Kyiv and Be­larus — to buy goods they couldn’t get any­where else.”

Ex­pe­ri­enced guides of the zone ad­vise against walk­ing in­side the build­ings in Prypyat — apart from be­ing dan­ger­ous due to de­cay, they are of­ten still se­ri­ously con­tam­i­nated by ra­dioac­tive fall­out.

Time goes on, and the ghost city con­tin­ues to turn back into for­est, but one of its build­ings still bears an un­seen mark of the heroism of the Chornobyl dis­as­ter re­spon­ders.

The ra­di­a­tion lev­els in the city’s hos­pi­tal base­ment are still un­usu­ally high. It was this hos­pi­tal that re­ceived the very first vic­tims among the liq­uida­tors of the Chornobyl blast, on that night in late April in 1986 — the first fire-fight­ing team. They had become mor­tally ill with ra­di­a­tion poi­son­ing a few hours af­ter work­ing near the burn­ing re­ac­tor.

Not know­ing what to do with the fire­fight­ers’ uni­forms, which were giv­ing off in­tense ra­di­a­tion, the medics sim­ply buried them in the build­ing’s base­ment.

Thirty-one years later, the spot re­mains the most ra­dioac­tive place in the city.

Tourists look on July 9 at a memo­rial de­voted to all of the set­tle­ments evac­u­ated from the 30-kilo­me­ter ex­clu­sion zone around the Chornobyl Nu­clear Power Plant af­ter the dis­as­ter there in 1986. (Volodymyr Petrov)

A child’s bed is seen on July 9 in what was a kinder­garten in the Chornobyl ex­clu­sion zone. The kinder­garten is one of the sights on a tour of the zone taken by thou­sands of tourists ev­ery year. More than 30 years af­ter the dis­as­ter, trees and plants...

Tourists walk through a for­est grow­ing on the site of a foot­ball field in the aban­doned city of Prypyat in the Chornobyl ex­clu­sion zone on July 9. (Volodymyr Petrov)

Tourists feed cat­fish liv­ing in the ar­ti­fi­cial cool­ing pond near re­ac­tor No. 4 of the Chornobyl Nu­clear Power Plant on July 9. (Volodymyr Petrov)

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