How do you picture the area around the scariest human-made natural disaster zone a few decades later? Perhaps, like a postapocalyptic dark world filled, possibly, with mutated cockroaches that, as the popular wisdom states, would surely be the ones to survive a nuclear disaster? That surely seems fitting, and so once thought Mary Mycio, a journalist and a writer, many years ago, when she first heard of the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the wee hours of the morning on April 26, 1986.
"Surely, whenever I thought about the irradiated lands 50 miles north of Kiev, it was like contemplating a black hole. All I could picture was a dead zone, like a giant parking lot paved with asphalt or a barren desert of dust and ash where nothing could grow and nothing living could survive without protective gear. Only gloomy shades of black and gray colored my mental images.But when I first visited the Chernobyl region, 10 years after the disaster, I was surprised to find that the dominant color was green."
This is what the Alienation Zone around Chernobyl nuclear power plant (now decommissioned, with the infamous reactor sheltered by the heroically built Sarcophagus) now looks like:
(Images by Sergey Gaschak from the article in Slate magazine here: http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/nuclear_power/2013/01/chernobyl_wildlife_the_radioactive_fallout_zone_is_a_wildlife_refuge_photos.html)
This slightly dry and undoubtedly scientific book (even if that's presented as popular science) manages to address the specifics of complicated radiation monitoring, radioactive waste storage, the history of the explosion, in addition to the meat of its contents - the focus on the ecological impact of Chernobyl disaster, the invisible radiation that lives in plants, animals, ground and waters. And it does so in a very accessible way, slowly introducing and explaining difficult concepts (but not in the too-simplified way that would insult the intelligence of her readers, no ma'am) interspersing them with Mycio's travelogue-like experiences over her numerous visits into the 30-km Exclusion Zone (also known as Alienation Zone) mostly in Ukraine where she now lives, as well as a semi-legal forage into the Belarus territory where a third of the zone is located.
"Contrary to the myths and imagery, Chernobyl's land had become a unique, new ecosystem. Defying the gloomiest predictions, it had come back to life as Europe's largest nature sanctuary, teeming with wildlife."
Through the eyes of Mycio, Chernobyl Alienation Zone is seen as an unintentional unnatural natural preserve, the territory abandoned by humans after a deadly disaster - which, without the urban landscapes, without human interference, without farming and hunting has started to be reclaimed by wild nature, with fields giving way to meadows and bogs and forests where the previously endangered or rare species - wolves, boars, black storks, eagles, deer, and even experimentally human-introduced Przevalski's horses - appear to roam free and thrive.
"The prevailing scientific view of the exclusion zone has become that it is an unintentional wildlife sanctuary. This conclusion rests on the premise that radiation is less harmful to wildlife populations than we are."
From a Slate Magazine article by Mary Mycio, Do Animals in Chernobyl Fallout Zone Glow?
No wonder that Mycio early in the book quotes the 1920 poem by Sara Teasdale, 'There Will Come Soft Rains' also immortalized in Ray Bradbury's eponymous 'There Will Be Soft Rains' (1950), included in 'The Martian Chronicles' (and, if you are the Martian Chronicles fan, you can see it immortalized in 1984 short animated film by 'Uzbekfilm' studio, with English subtitles - http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=WfI69DC_jaw)
"There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;
Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone."
Sara Teasdale (1920)
And yet in this seeming unexpected wildlife paradise, teeming with life that seems to be a testament to the sheer ferocity of Nature that survives even the most imaginable disaster there is always the invisible presence of radiation that remains a threat even after all these years. The dosimeter that Mycio takes with her on all these trips, to the forests and rivers and the homes of squatters serves as a beeping intrusive reminder of reality - in addition to the Sarcophagus looming on the horizon.
The most well-known testament to the deathly effects of radiation exposure (yes, acute and huge-dose, but still...) is the Red Forest, also known as Wormwood Forest (named so after wormwood, a common weed in the Chernobyl region, which also apparently is connected to the biblical apocalypse, as I learned). This is a pine forest that was one of the areas that took the heaviest fallout immediately after the explosion - and as the result the pines lost their chlorophyll, turned red and died. It was subsequently leveled, buried underground and covered with sand, and new trees were planted - and now they grow deformed, still feeling the effects of radiation both in the ground and the higher than in other places levels in the air.
And it's not just Red Forest. The area of the Exclusion Zone has patchy areas of heavy contamination, and some are more dangerous than the others. The danger comes from the ground where radioactive isotopes are freed from the dead vegetation and are taken up by the new plants, from the animals that eat those plants and are in turns eaten by predators, from the danger of fires that can release dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere, from the waters that can take up contaminated materials and spread radioactivity downstream, from the material on the bottom of water reservoirs (such as Chernobyl nuclear station cooling pond) that, if dried up, can release many curies of radioactivity into the atmosphere.
"It seems odd, but it is impossible to smell fresher air in an inhabited urban setting than in Chornobyl, where the number of cars can usually be counted on one hand and songbirds frequently provide the only sound. It is one of the disaster's paradoxes, but the zone's evacuation put an end to industrialization, deforestation, cultivation, and other human intrusions, making it one of Ukraine's environmentally cleanest regions—except for the radioactivity."
In many ways, the stunning unexpected and unplanned nature preserve that sprouted on the ruins of the human-made disaster is also like a ticking bomb potentially threatening the humans living in the areas around it. And the threat that is for now contained in the decrepit but much-needed Sarcophagus - over 90% of nuclear fuel still there - is likely to be a danger for at least 300 years, and possibly much longer. This unnatural nature park is full of life and full of danger. Both at the same time. The two sides of the aftermath of Chernobyl disaster, now 27 years ago - but with effects that will likely be around for many many more decades.
"The tomb over the ruined fourth reactor was like a monumental Rorschach test, perhaps more revealing about the person looking for meaning in it than about the thing itself. Was Chernobyl's message one of hazard, about the dangers of technology and the fact that all of us, 5 billion strong, live downwind from 300 nuclear reactors that are operated by mere people and have a statistical probability of one meltdown every 30 years? Or was its message one of hope, that no matter how humanity messes up, nature will persevere—even if it is forever changed and unnaturally natural, like the radioactive landscapes of Chernobyl? Perhaps the arch would one day become a kind of environmental shrine, eerily sanctifying the radioactive wilderness around it. Or would it desecrate that wilderness? I imagined future philosophers making pilgrimages to contemplate the shelter shrine and come up with answers. I didn't have any."