Ukraine

Nuclear Past, Radioactive Future: In Chernobyl, 30 Years Later

As plants and wildlife struggle to survive in the area contaminated by the April 26, 1986 nuclear disaster, some elderly villagers have returned.

Dangerous ride back
Dangerous ride back
Pierre Le Hir

CHERNOBYL — Forest, nothing but forest, as far as the eye can see. Dense, thick and impenetrable forest. On either side of a stretch of asphalt scarred by potholes, ominous-looking pine trees stand tall while frost-covered birch trees make a ghostly view. Among the branches, overtaken by sprouts of weeds, bramble and underbrush, are a couple of abandoned red-brick houses, with their tiled roofs sunken, their windows wide open like empty eye sockets and their faded shutters flapping about in the wind. Here, at the start of spring, a shroud of snow covers the ground, frozen beneath a pale sun. Welcome to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

To enter, one need only consult one of the numerous agencies specialized in so-called "dark tourism" — a tourism of horror, of the macabre, of the morbid, which stems as much from genuine interest as its does from pure voyeurism.

Live "the ultimate experience" that will be "imprinted in your memory forever," while you "peep into the places that will give you goosebumps," and ultimately "fall in love with Chernobyl," promises chernobylwel.com, a tour operator that chose a gas mask logo for its red-and-black website. Fire and ash. Blood and tears.

The instructions are minimal: Don't eat or smoke outside, don't drink water from a well or river, don't sit on the ground or touch the vegetation, don't bring anything into the area or take anything back with you. Regardless, it has become a pretty popular destination: In 2015, 15,000 "adventurers" came here to quench their thirst for thrills.

April 26, 1986, 1:23 a.m.

Turnout is expected to be at an all-time high this year, for the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster — the worst in nuclear history alongside the Fukushima accident in Japan a quarter of a century later.

On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., following operational errors during a trial, reactor number four at the V.I. Lenin nuclear power station, located about 15 kilometers from the city of Chernobyl, exploded. The detonation shot a cloud of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. Over the next ten days, these spread over Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, but also a large swath of Europe. In the following months, 350,000 people were displaced, dozens of villages were razed and the ruins were buried in about a thousand trenches.

Thirty years later, nearly six million people still live in contaminated areas. The Chernobyl disaster released approximately a thousand times more caesium-137 than the Hiroshima bomb, and vast amounts of strontium-90. It will take another 300 years for both to disappear. As for plutonium-239 — which poisoned the area around the plant and the nearby city of Pripyat, whose 49,000 inhabitants fled, turning it into a ghost town — it will be around for hundreds of thousands of years.

Two exclusion zones were established: the first, stretching ten kilometers around the nuclear facility and where the 5,000 site workers toil away, commuting from the new city of Slavutych which was built for them about 50 kilometers to the east; the second, extending 30 kilometers in all directions, which has been left to the elements.

From the country's capital Kiev, it only takes two hours to reach the first check-point of the forbidden area, the 30-kilometer zone protected by barbed wire. Police officers in fatigues check passports and authorization passes from the Ukrainian ministry of internal affairs. After ten kilometers, we reach another barrier, another checkpoint. We've set up a meeting with researchers from the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology (UIAR). A dirt path leads to their laboratory, a building hidden in the heart of what used to be an immense pine forest. But the radioactive cloud burned everything down. Bulldozers had to pull the trees and bury them three meters deep, roots and all, before the area could be replanted with saplings. But the radioactivity is still there, in the humus, in the plants.

Inside the exclusion zone

Even Valery Kasparov acknowledges that "the newer trees are far more contaminated than the old ones." The head of the research team is a big man with a gruff, bear-like disposition. "After the accident, their leaves absorbed the radioactive substances in the air. Now, they pump it into the ground through their roots," Kasparov notes. His Geiger counter shows that the younger pines contain up to ten times more strontium than the trees that were buried. Their trunks are twisted and their branches, curled.

While most of the new conifers look strong and healthy, upon closer examination, they suffer from grave malformations: The top of their central stem is missing — like a hand with an amputated middle finger.

"This anomaly typically affects 5% of trees. Here, 100% are affected," Kasparov says. "Some also have needles that are longer than normal, or shorter, or discolored."

Kasparov's dosimeter reads 7.5 microsieverts per hour: 60 times more than at the entrance to the zone or in Kiev. A camper who would pitch his tent here would receive, in a day, the recommended maximum annual radiation dose.

Two kilometers away as the crow flies, a metal cupola cuts a stark outline in the sky. This giant arch will soon cover the old, hastily constructed cement-and-steel sarcophagus built to contain the doomed reactor immediately after the accident.

When it exploded, the reactor released only 5% of its total radioactive material. Its messy insides are still churning 1,400 tons of magma — including 190 tons of uranium and plutonium, notes Julia Marusic, the manager of the plant. Trying be reassuring, she adds, "Everything is being done to minimize the risk, which is still there."

A sarcophagus for 100 years

The huge new containment structure is designed to withstand just about anything: At 108 meters tall, 162 meters long and with a span of 257 meters, it's big enough to accommodate the Statue of Liberty.

Built by French firms Vinci and Bouygues, in association with a French consortium named Novarka, the New Safe Confinement will cost 1.5 billion euros — mostly financed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Union. It is set to be pulled along rails toward the old structure by the end of this year, so it can be up and running by the end of 2017. That is, two years behind schedule.

At that point, the dismantling of the old reactor can finally begin, inside a container designed to survive a century of extreme conditions: cold, heat and everything from tornadoes to earthquakes.

"How long will it take to dismantle it? A hundred years? Two hundred years? Today, no one knows," says Sergey Bozhko, president of Ukraine's nuclear security authority. From his office in Kiev, he keeps an eye on the country's four other nuclear plants. In the long run, he believes that the waste from Ukraine's 15 reactors will be centralized in Chernobyl, which he thinks is destined to become a giant radioactive cemetery.

Hanna Vronska, the country's minister of ecology and natural resources, agrees.

"People will never be able to return to the 10-kilometer zone to live or work," she says. "The only solution is to put all the nuclear waste there."

And yet, Vronska sees a future for Chernobyl. She's suggested developing solar energy inside the first circle and creating "a biosphere reserve" in the 20-kilometer section between the zones, to protect and study a unique ecosystem where nature is once again at the helm.

More frequent anomalies

Taking over from humans, wild animals have repopulated the contaminated area. They're not easy to see, but one can infer their presence through subtle signs: a paw print in fresh snow, a bird of prey's swift movements amid the trees. Specialists have recorded the presence of wolf packs, herds of wild boars and different types of deer, as well as bison, elk, lynx, foxes, beavers, otters, eagles and falcons. Even a good-sized bear was spotted.

At the end of the 1990s, two dozen Przewalski's horses were introduced to the area, and managed to reproduce. According to some scientists, based on inventories carried out flying over the area in helicopters, there may even be more animals today than there were before the accident. Their number says nothing, however, of their health — nor of their possible deformities, especially considering that unhealthy specimens tend to get picked off by predators first.

Anders Pape Moller, an evolutionary ecologist at France's National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), carried out detailed studies in the zone. "The level of soil contamination is very heterogeneous and, where it is at its highest, the abundance, diversity and reproductive rate of animal populations are at their weakest, while anomalies and tumors are more common," he says. "All the results point to the same conclusions."

People haven't completely abandoned the forbidden zone. It's as though even here, the will to live was stronger. Several farmers have returned to their home villages after a forced exile.

How many of these illegal residents are there, the so-called "samosely" whose presence is tolerated by the authorities? There are fewer than 200 in Ukraine, and all are getting on in years. Once they die, the memory of the people of Chernobyl will disappear.

Gone for good

To meet them, one must go deeper into the woods and wander through forgotten hamlets filled only with absence and silence. Knocking on the door of a small house with a sheet-metal roof, we're greeted by a flock of chickens pecking at black dirt. Then Ivan appears: He is 86 years old, wears his ushanka hat askew and is wrapped in a fur coat that looks much too heavy. His wife Mariana, a year younger than her husband, wears a prune green kerchief, and is gazing into the distance. Their few belongings fill their humble abode — a bunch of rags piled up on the floor or hanging from a string, tin plates filled with potatoes, dried beans and unidentifiable tubers.

"I used to have a big farm, with pigs and chickens," Ivan recalls. "The day after the accident, soldiers came in trucks to evacuate us. I was out in my field. They told us not to panic, that there was no danger, that we shouldn't bring anything, that we'd be back in three days — when in fact, we were gone for good."

Two years later, the government authorized 140 families to come back, while others were refused access, and no one really knew why. Ivan and his wife returned to their old farm, and a small village started taking shape again, but the young people chose to go work in the city, in Kiev or on the outskirts.

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Two "samosely" in Chernobyl — Photo: Scott

The old couple makes do with little: some vegetables from the garden, some apples, mushrooms from the woods, a perch or catfish caught in a nearby pond. That's in spite of official instructions not to consume fish, game or wild berries.

Ivan clings tightly, protectively, to his wife. "We are happy here," he says. "This is our village, our home. We were born here. We want to die here."

"We have everything we need"

Further into the zone, there's Matriona, her floral aprons covering her ample curves, and Vassily, with his wooly hat pulled down over his ears and a large smile across his face. In their early 60s, they're the village young'uns.

"I was evacuated on May 4, eight days after the accident," says Matriona. "I came back secretly, was evacuated a second time, then a third, and finally I was told, ‘Fine!' And so I stayed."

Her home boasts a certain level of comfort. They own a fridge, a TV, a microwave and a smartphone. "Gifts from my daughter," Matriona explains. "We have everything we need. Why would we go live in the city? Over there, people are poor, they pay for gas and all sorts of taxes."

Besides, she adds, "people here live to be older than those who moved." Radioactivity be damned.

Night falls. To get outside the 30-kilometer zone, you need to go through an old radiation detector, to make sure there are no radioactive particles on your shoes. The doors close once more on the exclusion zone and the forest where the first buds of spring are just beginning to show.

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