Ukraine's leaders face toxic land-use challenges 35 years after the world's worst nuclear accident.
KYIV — What is perhaps the best-known — and certainly, the most dangerous — place in Ukraine is referred to as the "Chernobyl Exclusion Zone." And now, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky is promising major changes to the site of the worst civilian nuclear disaster in history.
More than 35 years after the tragedy, much has changed in what locals call the "Zone," but life continues. People who'd returned to their native villages after being forcibly evicted in the aftermath of the 1986 accident still live there. But life has been troubled in these specially designated towns and communities: contaminated areas are often located alongside their vegetable gardens, new infrastructure cannot be built, and there is virtually no work.
To change lives in these communities and to attract investment in the area, projects to transform the Chernobyl zone have already been designed, and are now up for approval before Ukraine's Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources.
Currently, the Chernobyl zone is divided into three zones, linked to the proximity to the reactors. The first one is 10 kilometers around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where the catastrophe happened. The "Shelter" object and the town of Pripyat are located there. This area is called "forever lost" because the radioactive elements that have accumulated there will need at least 20,000 years to dissipate.
The second zone is a buffer zone and a zone of unconditional (compulsory) resettlement. The villages there have been evacuated, while construction and cultivation of crops, fishing, gathering berries, and hunting are forbidden.
The third zone refers to guaranteed voluntary resettlement. It has the same prohibitions as the second zone, but people live there, both locals and those who work in the Zone on a rotational basis. Residents of these communities cannot renovate their own homes, plant vegetables, get land or inherit property.
There are 10,000 hectares of wasted land
The territory of guaranteed voluntary resettlement includes 800 settlements that fall into the third and sometimes even the second zone. There is practically no work here, and business activity and tax revenue is non-existent.
In the community of Naroditsy, there are 10,000 hectares of wasted land. But they grow crops on some of them, which is both illegal and unhealthy. According to the State Environmental Inspection, 5,000 hectares of contaminated land are being used to plant crops in the Zhytomyr region alone.
Community leaders explain their actions as follows: they don't know if these lots are polluted or not, because they have no corresponding maps. To know for sure they ask to carry out studies. According to the State Exclusion Zone Management Agency, $1 trillion would not be enough to study all contaminated lands.
The transformation of the exclusion zone and the unconditional resettlement zone was mentioned back in 2015 by the then Minister of Ecology Igor Shevchenko, but it went no further. Since the 2019 election of President Zelensky, three decrees have been signed related to the transformation of the zone. In April 2021, a draft law was registered that will allow regional state administrations to grant permits for the use of currently contaminated land, after expert evaluation, to build new infrastructure facilities and to expand existing ones.
The iconic Ferris wheel in the ghost town of Prypiat, Ukraine sits abandonedVolodymyr Tarasov/Ukrinform/ ZUMA Wire
Olga Vasilevskaya-Smaglyuk, a member of Parliament and co-author of the bill, says changes and new building permits are needed for
local communities to survive. "We need tourism and economic development. Tourists who go to the Chernobyl zone should have a place to eat or fill up their cars," she said. "
Caution, however, comes from members of the Parliament's main Scientific-Expert department, who say it may lead to uncontrolled use of lands and construction of new enterprises on the radioactively contaminated lands, which could of course lead to health problems.
The proposed project is divided into three phases. The first will last from 2021 to 2030 and provides for the restoration of the degraded ecosystem within a 30-kilometer zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant and the restoration of the natural barrier function.
During this time, it is necessary to eliminate dead wood and forest fires, which account for 30% of the total area of the zone, plant new trees and transfer water sources to the nature protection zone. The territory that cannot be used for living beings will become an industrial zone to dispose of contaminated wood.
The Shelter facility requires special attention: under its roof lies the ruined fourth unit, which continues to deteriorate. It should be dismantled and buried before it starts to collapse in unpredictable places and on an unpredictable scale.
The second phase will last from 2031 to 2050. The uninhabitable part of the Zone must be turned into an open economic zone, in particular, to build the infrastructure for the nuclear fuel of Westinghouse (the company that supplies fuel to a number of Ukrainian nuclear power plants).
The territory that cannot be used for living beings will become an industrial zone.
Also in the second period, environmentalists have proposed developing tourism, to create a museum-archive of folk culture to form a regional Chernobyl scientific-information fund of ethnocultural heritage.
The third stage will last from 2051 to 2071. During this time it is planned to transfer the restored land plots for economic use, to completely decommission three Chernobyl units, and create environmentally friendly and waste-free nuclear technology.
Instead of the remaining three power units, ecologists propose to install 12 NuScale Power modular reactors with a capacity of 50 MW. The technology for small power modular reactors itself is at the testing stage. The first such reactor in the world is planned to be launched in 2026 in Idaho.
Another plan for the exclusion zone is a proposal to build a plant to recycle lithium-ion engines and produce hydrogen energy.
There are proposals to develop multipurpose testing grounds for domestic and foreign scientists, to provide comfortable working conditions for scientists by establishing an innovative Chernobyl research hub of science and innovation.
But while officials are reviewing the plans, the Chernobyl zone continues to degrade, and the people who live there are forced to violate the law: they say it's for a different kind of survival in the face of joblessness and poverty.