Chernobyl and Ecological Recovery

The Earth Only Endures book coverExcerpt from: The Earth Only Endures: On Reconnecting with Nature and our Place in it

  • Publisher: Earthscan
  • First published: 2007
  • ISBN: 978-1-84407-432-7
  • Chernobyl gallery

It all started in the 1970s, when the USSR built two nuclear plants on the banks of the meandering Dniepr River in its wide floodplain of marshes and birch and pine forests, by the northern Ukraine border with Belarus and Russia. By 1983, two more reactors were completed, part of a grand plan to construct eight in all. But reactor four lasted only three years, and the remainder would never be built. On April 26th 1986, the catastrophic Chernobyl accident occurred, now known to be a result mostly of human error. Some staff at the plant were conducting a test to check the plant’s capacity to continue to provide electrical power to the cooling system under conditions of a sudden loss of power. Unfortunately, they do not tell the operators of the nuclear part of the plant, and the combination of a series of unlikely events and decisions lead suddenly to an uncontrollable power surge, resulting in two violent explosions at 1.23 am. The 1000 tonne sealing cap is blown off the plant, the reactor is destroyed, and the melting of the fuel rods at 2000° C cause the graphite cooling rods themselves to catch fire. A plume of fissile material – gases, aerosols, and six tonnes of fragmented fuel – reaches a kilometre into the sky, and leads eventually to the deposition of radioactive material across the whole of the northern hemisphere.

And since then, Chernobyl has entered the psyche of people worldwide (though incorrectly spelled: it is Chornobyl locally). An industrial disaster of the greatest possible magnitude. The incompetence of people and safety mechanisms. The health consequences born not by political leaders and technocrats, but by common people. No wonder, then, that international political pressure led to the closure of all the remaining nuclear reactors by the end of the year 2000. But it is here that fact and fiction start to diverge. Chernobyl has now emerged as a site of ecological recovery in the almost complete absence of people. And neither are the health effects as expected – these are mostly social and psychological rather than caused directly by radiation. The acute effects were limited to the heroic firefighters, who of course had little personal choice at the time.

Today, you approach the Ukrainian exclusion zone from the east by crossing the blue-green Dniepr marshes, and passing through a finger of Belarus. At the checkpoints, young immigration officers in light green uniforms and aggressively peaked caps check and stamp every piece of paper several times, and in the fullness of time let the car pass. Ahead, a roe deer scampers across the road, which then sweeps from the forests to cross the great cooling ponds, now home to giant two-metre catfish. The exclusion zone itself is now the subject of a unique experiment on what happens when people leave. When civilisations end, and people disperse or die off, what then happens to nature? What happens, too, to the few people who might survive?

Pripyat Before Pripyat After

Pripyat SignYou come into the town of Pripyat along a street crowded with silver birches. This former town of 49,000 people is now an eyrie reminder of how civilisation treads on thin ice. One day it is a vibrant city, then it is abandoned. Today, there are only ghosts in the crumbling infrastructure. One day it will be completely overrun by nature, lost in the forests, perhaps to be discovered in the future by amazed archaeologists as were Tikal, Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. We park in the central square, a light wind rustling the birch and poplars, raising a worrisome dust on a day of sparkling sunshine and azure sky. Some street surfaces are clear and grey, as patrols do pass on occasions. But everywhere else, the green of trees, grass and flowering plants dominates.

Chernobyl Palace BeforeIn one meadow, grown up over paving stones, local scientist Igor Chernivsky and I count some forty species of plants in flower. Sergey Gachuk, of the Radioecology Laboratory in Slavutych, has recorded 226 species in Pripyat alone. Walking across the main square towards the grand steps and wide windows of the Palace of Culture, we see the clumped droppings of moose. In the old fountains, a reed bed has established, and red dragonflies and neon-blue mayflies flit across the water. Above, swifts swoop and chitter. We crunch over broken glass, and into blocks of flats and official buildings. A case for a trumpet lies forlornly, a child’s stuffed toy on the stairs. The temptation is to gather up some of the smaller items of this modern archaeology, a film strip or old pens, but then you remember they are likely to be hot, and so best remain. Memories are safe, but artefacts are likely not.

Chernobyl Palace AfterSilver birch has sprouted along the upper balcony of the palace of culture, and are beginning to fill the spaces formerly taken by huge plate glass windows. There is something strange about the glass. It is all broken, and clearly not by the blast of the accident. Vandals must have later come to cause this damage. Perhaps some latent desire by we moderns to destroy our own civilisation, acts that can be undertaken with impunity as there are no police or citizenry to stop such actions. A vandal’s paradise. We push through tall grass meadow to come upon a seemingly ancient theme park, rusty rides, peeling faded paint, rotten wood, and a great ferris wheel with yellow silent cabins, bright against the sky. You turn around once, and then again, and there is only silence. Open spaces, concrete riding up where the roots of an apple tree are bursting out. The purples, reds, blues and yellows of flowers are everywhere.

We climb the 16 stories of the tallest block of flats, first fighting our way through thick vegetation to reach the hidden front porch. A door hangs on a broken hinge, and we crunch up the crumbling stairs, flakes of pale green paint covering every surface. Up we go, counting the floors and trying not to breathe too deeply for fear of inhaling the dust, until we find a ladder in a dark loft. The rusty door creaks, and then gives way, and we are on the roof. And here the view takes our breath away. On the east horizon, the River Pripyat and cooling ponds, the power plant complex standing tall beyond the town. On the other three horizons, the forests of pine, willow and birch stretch away. Before the accident, a fifth of the region was forested, now it is 80%. This reminds me vividly of climbing the Mayan Temple of the Giant Jaguar at Tikal, and emerging from the rainforest to gaze down on the tree tops full of howler and spider monkeys, stretching away in a sea of green to Belize and Mexico. Here, we look down on roads cramped by invading grass, trees sprouting through concrete. Rows of flats march into the distance, every one of them empty.

From horizon to horizon, the land is green. The city is tiny by comparison. After the accident, people had to leave in a day or two of utter chaos, and now all is serene. And in this way civilisation is abandoned. Will it be like this elsewhere in the world? What will it be like when our numbers fall, or when climate change affects the viability of some regions? Settlements will surely be abandoned, whole suburbs forgotten, towns where economic activity dries up will be left to nature. Perhaps Pripyat is the first of many to come during the next couple of centuries. Which, then, are doomed? We have never had to ask such questions. No civilisation ever conceives of its own failure, of the likelihood of departure, of abandonment to nature. And we will have to face nature anew as it reinvades. If whole ecosystems arrive, then they will bring predators too. Perhaps there will be no problems – but ask how people feel in India on the edge of national parks where tigers are now abundant, or those in Boulder, Colorado, where mountain lions have reinvaded urban areas, or indeed the people of this exclusion zone, where wolves eat the domestic dogs as they are easy prey. Or perhaps by then we will have wreaked such harm on certain parts of nature that there will be little left to invade.

Later, we walk through villages hanging onto their own histories. After the accident, all the domestic animals were rounded up and shot, and the people trucked off to distant cities. Some came back, and strangely enough they seem happy. An 81 year old, Anastasia, her headscarf and blouse a riot of flower-design and smile of silver and gold, recalls her 60 years of marriage in this village. She was sad at first that only twenty people came back to the village formerly of 2000 people, but now she says she feels fine. She has land, a pig and some cows, and friends. The children sometimes come up from the south, and they eat and sing songs. An old man and his wife, Vassily and Maria, were both born in their village more than seventy years ago, and now they are the youngest in the village. They sit under the shade of an apple tree by the empty road, and complain about the lack of transport. This gnarled man, with stubble half-shorn, teeth at all angles, with the blue serge jacket of peasants the world over. They like it here because it is home. They like to talk too, as no one ever comes this way except for those making occasional and clumsy attempts to remove them.

Chernobyl WomenWe walk across a farm with Hannah, as she darts between potatoes and peas in brightly-coloured slippers. She grows cabbage and carrot, maize and onion, red and white beets, squashes and courgettes, and spindly tomatoes. She has two pigs – one is to be killed at the new year celebrations. All villagers still gather plants and animals from the forests, and should leave the hot mushrooms and berries alone, but do not – they like them too much. They are approaching their own end times, and have come to terms with the patchy and invisible threat of radiation.

Chernobyl HouseBut the children will not come back, and new people will not move here. These forgotten people seem happy and content, living where their identities have been shaped over centuries. But soon each village will steadily decline in numbers, until the last woman or man standing has it all to themselves. How will they feel? What will they do then? Move to another village, or simply wait? We walk into the abandoned wooden houses, with glassed-in verandas at the entrances, kitchens centred on great stoves attached to raised bed platforms to keep warm in winter. Some windows are broken, but fewer than in Pripyat.

A vine twists around a window, an ancient pear tree hangs branches across a roof, currant bushes run wild in the yard, a pigsty roof has collapsed, great banks of nettles thrive on nutrient-rich soils. The roofs of some buildings are made of flaky asbestos, probably more hazardous to health than the local sources of radiation. It is warm today, but in the middle of winter it will be bitterly cold, and people will huddle around their stoves and let their local vodka warm them from the inside. And they will count the winters away until they, too, are gone.