It’s been one year this month since the series of explosions and meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor site in eastern Japan which led to the evacuation of 70 000 people that lived in the immediate vicinity of the plant. This does not represent the entire population of these communities, for there are those who have refused to leave, choosing to stay behind with their property and deal with the risk of radiation exposure.
The only modern parallel to Fukushima Daiichi in terms of scope and impact is of course the catastrophic 1986 meltdown at Ukraine’s Chernobyl(Ukrainian: Chornobyl) reactor, located near the tripoint of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Since 1986, a 30 km (19 mi) exclusion zone around the ruins of the reactor has been in place; the total number of people evacuated believed to have been around 200 000 people between the three countries. Known alternately as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone or the zone of alienation, the zone has remained almost completely uninhabited for the past quarter-century – the operative word being ‘almost’, as thousands of people refused to leave their homes and remained in the zone.
Beyond the exclusion zone, an estimated 150 000 km2 (57 900 sq mi) of land in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia was contaminated with traces of iodine (largely disappeared by now due to its short half-life), strontium-90 (a leading cause of leukaemia) and caesium-137 (a damaging element to the liver and spleen). Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Chernobyl_radiation_map_1996.svg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic licence.
Today (discounting the various government employees who work to guard, maintain, and rehabilitate the site), under 400 people still live in the zone of alienation. Most of the remaining population are elderly hangers-on – the rest of the populace having slowly faded away with time and age – along with a handful of families still remaining and a few vagabonds/marginalised persons having moved into the zone as well to live an intentionally rustic lifestyle. Some hangers-on did not wish to leave; some simply could not afford to because of the small amount of money from the government for relocation. About one-half of those remaining live in the town of Chernobyl itself; the other half are spread throughout the rest of the exclusion zone, living subsistence lifestyles. The key here is that the levels of radiation present in the homes they have returned to, while quite high, are not fatal for most people (although the incidences of cancer are abnormal, especially the increased levels of thyroid cancer reported which are expected to rise for years to come). Consistent exposure to higher-than-typical levels of radiation is less dangerous than a suddenly huge blast of radiation taken in all at once.
Not only do hangers-on continue to live in the zone of alienation, but organised tours of the region, including the primary ghost town of Pripyat, are available for tourists. One US architect has even gone so far as to plan out a completely air-tight visitor center that could be constructed in the ruins of Pripyat to let visitors tour the ghost town without the threat of radiation.
Most of the forests killed in the immediate 10 km2surrounding the reactor (the ‘Red Forest’) were bulldozed and buried with new pine saplings planted on top of them, which means radioactive particles may still be leaching from the decaying remains of trees into the groundwater below and are certainly present in the new trees that have sprung in the Red Forest over the past 25 years. Background radiation levels with the exclusion zone remain highest within the Red Forest area.
Warning signs such as this one are present throughout even the lushest areas of the exclusion zone. Source: J. Springett, http://www.flickr.com/photos/thejaymo/5906103673/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-2.0 Generic licence.
The flora and fauna of the zone of alienation have been affected, but not necessarily in the manner one may think. There was certainly an increase in level of mutations seen in the environment (physical deformities and animals, stunted tail feathers on birds, and leaves on trees changing shapes, for example), and countless animals died or were rendered sterile in the immediate aftermath of the meltdown, but the continued lack of substantial human presence has allowed nature to reclaim the zone to a degree. With a lack of human activity, the exclusion zone is a refuge for those animals that have adapted to the radiation levels – a so-called ‘involuntary park’. Species formerly rare or in decline in the area such as beavers, moose, deer, wolves, storks, and wild boar (boars multiplied eightfold within a handful of years) have increased greatly in number, even in the area of the Red Forest (these animals are still far too contaminated for humans to hunt and eat, however). Birds nest inside the steel-and-concrete sarcophagus placed directly over top of the reactor.
Vegetation reclaims the land around an abandoned house in the zone of alienation. Source: E. Filatova, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Deadzone.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-2.0 Generic licence.
Bumper cars at the Pripyat amusement park. Source: G. Thomas, http://www.flickr.com/photos/jacobsroom/4986958232/. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-2.0 Generic licence.
This is not to say it’s mostly good news here; the trees that have arisen from the pine saplings planted on top of the buried trees are stunted with erratic needle length and over-branching. And while birds still live inside the zone, their numbers are not healthy, thanks in large part to feeding on insects living in the highly-contaminated upper surface of the soil. Humans are also affecting the fauna of the area: Przewalski’s horses released into the zone in the late 1990s in order to further enrich the biodiversity of the area are being poached faster than they can breed.
For a rather fascinating 2009 one-hour documentary from Animal Planet on the resiliency of nature in the zone of alienation, Chernobyl: Life in the Dead Zone, click here.
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