Geopolitics

Destination Chernobyl? Radioactivity, Jobs And Tourism

Ukraine's leaders face toxic land-use challenges 35 years after the world's worst nuclear accident.

Destination Chernobyl? Radioactivity, Jobs And Tourism

A barrier blocks the road to the ghost town of Pripyat near the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto via ZUMA Press
Andriy Olenin

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.

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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