7 October 2005

Chernobyl: No People But A Thriving Ecosystem

By Rusty Rockets

When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor melted down in 1986, scores of people died, many more became ill with acute radiation sickness, and 135,000 people were evacuated. The blast spread more than 200 times the radioactivity of the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The prognosis for Chernobyl and its environs - succinctly dubbed by the Soviets as the "Zone of Alienation" - was grim. But surprisingly, Chernobyl's surrounding flora and fauna have flourished remarkably. In Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl (October 2005, Joseph Henry Press), author Mary Mycio vividly describes an extraordinary - and at times unearthly - new ecosystem that is flourishing in this no-man's land, where radiation levels are too intense for people to live.

In 1986, people were already overwrought as a result of the tense and relentless brinkmanship presented on the nightly news in an era when two superpowers existed. As Martin Amis wrote: "Of course, the mid-to-late Eighties was one of the warmer phases of the Cold War: the time of the Reagan build-up, or spend-up; 'the evil empire'; Star Wars ('the force was with us'). Gorbachev had yet to show his hand, and it was hereabouts that Reagan accused the Russian language of having no word for détente." The threat of nuclear war always seemed imminent and our anxiousness was further heightened by the unsettling predictions of what would occur should a nuclear exchange eventuate.

Popular culture ensured that apocalyptic wasteland scenarios were welded in the public psyche. So when Chernobyl melted down, it was no surprise that the world's media painted a grim picture. As a reflection of that time, Mycio recalls how a friend called her up and exclaimed: "A nuclear bomb exploded in Ukraine!" Chernobyl may not have been the nuclear apocalypse that we were all waiting for, but it may as well have been. We were all obviously prepared for the worst.

As Mycio says, the very word "Chernobyl" has become a synonym for "horrific disaster," conjuring the frightful radioactive deserts that form the landscapes of Atomic Age science fiction and resonate deeply in modern imaginations haunted by the specter of nuclear war. Mary Mycio's first assumptions prior to visiting the Zone were probably not too dissimilar from anybody else asked to speculate on the disaster. "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," writes Mycio.

But Wormwood Forest tells an astonishing tale that while tragic, is in many respects uplifting. The book's important and remarkable observations come at a high price, but the Chernobyl disaster clearly demonstrates what happens to the environment when humans are not present. "Though Chernobyl is widely considered the worst environmental disaster in history, the Zone's evacuation has - paradoxically - allowed nature to flourish. Nature barely notices radiation - at least the type and levels of radiation Chernobyl released. Human activities are far more damaging. In a way, we are the environmental disaster," says Mycio. Ten years after the disaster, Mycio discovered a wilderness teeming with large animals, even more than before the nuclear disaster, with many of them members of rare and endangered species. Like the forests, fields and swamps of this burgeoning wilderness, everything is radioactive, and will be for the next 400,000 years. Packed into the muscles and bones of every animal inhabitant is Cesium-137 and strontium-90 respectively. But, quite astonishingly, they are thriving. Chernobyl's flourishing new ecosystem is: "one of the first examples of how, in the absence of human intervention, nature in the Zone could recover its balance - even in the face of radioactive: "ghost towns and villages [that] stand in tragic testimony to the devastating effects of technology gone awry," adds Mycio.

Mycio, originally from Long Island, earned a bachelor's degree in biology from Hunter College and a law degree from New York University in 1984. While working toward her degree, Mycio also spent a number of years in the East Village of New York, at the heart of the East Coast Ukrainian community, promoting Ukrainian affairs and issues. While working as a freelance journalist, Mycio felt she needed to write a book that dealt specifically with a Ukrainian theme. Mycio recently told The Ukrainian Weekly that after the Chernobyl disaster occurred, she became fixated on collecting as much information on the disaster as she possibly could in the hope of writing a book that exposed the criminal negligence of the Soviet government. However, the book was to become something even more fascinating and useful than a railing against the machinations of the Soviet government. "What I tried to do was weave personal travels with lyrical explanations of the natural history and science of Chernobyl. It's the story of my travels in a radioactive wilderness."

As it happens, Mycio's book release coincides with a 600 page Chernobyl Forum Report that was released in early September. The Forum is made up of 8 United Nations agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR), and the World Bank, as well as the governments of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. The report states that a total of up to four thousand people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster. This figure represents a massive departure from the original predictions made that suggested anywhere up to hundreds-of-thousands of fatalities. As of mid-2005 fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004, the report says. The report also notes that while 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children and adolescents at the time of the accident, have resulted from the accident's contamination, the survival rate among such cancer victims, judging from experience in Belarus, has been almost 99 percent.

According to The Ukrainian Weekly, the Chernobyl Forum report has drawn much criticism from groups in the Ukraine. Alexander Kuzma, executive director of the Children of Chernobyl Relief and Development Fund, says the casualty figures are "dubious, at best." Mycio can understand the frustration felt by such individuals, who she claims have had their concerns marginalized for years. Mycio told The Ukrainian Weekly that while there was nothing wrong with the environmental report, the predicted health effects are somewhat more controversial. "They based their prediction of future cancer on the people they studied, but they didn't study all the people who were affected," she pointed out. Mycio claims that there are about 1 million considered "highly affected" by Chernobyl, but the Chernobyl Forum only examined 600,000 of them, while ignoring 400,000. "They're making conclusions based on a limited, incomplete population," Mycio said. She also adds that the report states that there have been no increases in solid cancer tumors as a result of Chernobyl, yet there haven't been any epidemiological studies of these tumors. "That's logically incorrect," states Mycio. "Since there are no epidemiological studies on the changes in the rate of solid tumors, it's impossible to make any conclusions." Despite these concerns, however, Mycio believes that to some extent the Chernobyl case in regard to fatalities has been exaggerated.

The Chernobyl disaster also intersects with a number of other present day worries, such as our dependence on fossil fuels in spite of many scientists claiming that the Earth's once bountiful reserves have entered their twilight years. Not to mention the effects of global warming that will continue to linger as a legacy of our longer than necessary dalliance with fossil fuels. Having spent a considerable amount of time researching and writing on the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, Mycio's thinking on these important issues has been transformed in fundamental ways. "For the record, I have gone from adamant opponent of nuclear energy to ambivalent supporter - at least for giving a window of time for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels while pursuing research on alternative energy sources," says Mycio. She explains that: "Initially, the disaster made me oppose nuclear energy. In 1986 that was a painless position to hold, because the price of American dependence on foreign oil had not yet become two Iraq wars, the second of which still has undetermined costs and consequences. Nor had I yet moved to Ukraine, whose complete dependence on Russian fossil fuels seriously compromised the young state's political independence. It was also before I could feel the real evidence of global warming on my own skin."

Many people may find it unbelievable that Chernobyl's story can go from worst-ever-environmental-disaster-in-history, to flourishing eco wilderness, twenty odd years later. Mycio states emphatically that she has never been approached by anyone looking to influence her assessment of the Chernobyl situation. An apologist she is not. The book is as much about the resilience and tenacity of a woman eager to get at the truth of something close to her heart, as it is about the resilience of nature itself in the face of what we assume to be insurmountable odds. As Mycio says: "The extraordinary and unexpected fate of the evacuated 'Zone of Alienation' around Chernobyl provides only a part of the answer. I hope that the rest will form in the mind of the reader after joining me on my journeys through the fascinating, beautiful - and radioactive - Wormwood Forest."

Further reading:

Mary Mycio's Wormwood Forest homepage: http://chernobyl.in.ua/en/chapter_1/1
UN Chernobyl Forum Report (12 MB!): http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/Focus/Chernobyl/pdfs/05-28601_Chernobyl.pdf

Pics courtesy Mary Mycio, Kate Brown