Chernobyl

Chernobyl, Ukraine. Child’s shoe left behind in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Mark de Jong, Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Alex Thornton, Senior Writer, Formative Content


For more than three decades Chernobyl has been a byword for the potential dangers of nuclear power. The world’s worst nuclear accident had a devastating effect on the surrounding area in what is now independent Ukraine and Belarus. But a generation on, nature and people have adapted in sometimes surprising ways.

The events of April 25th-26th 1986 are now well documented, despite the Cold War-era secrecy of the then Soviet Union. A safety test went wrong, leading to an explosion that blew up part of reactor number 4, and a fire that burned for more than a week.

A cloud of radiation was released into the atmosphere that spread first across the local area, and eventually over large parts of Europe. It’s estimated that the amount of radioactive material was 400 times more than the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Emergency workers showed enormous courage in the immediate aftermath of the accident. Thirty-one people died as an immediate result of the explosion or acute radiation sickness. Hundreds of thousands of people worked to decontaminate the area over the following months and years. The total death toll is difficult to calculate, but the World Health Organisation estimates 4000 people will eventually die as a result of the accident, from cancers and radiation poisoning.

A 30 kilometre exclusion zone was put in place, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have never been able to return. Dozens of towns and villages were left crumbling and abandoned.

The effect on the local environment was catastrophic. A nearby woodland became known as the “Red Forest”, from the rust coloured needles dropping from the dead pine trees. It is still one of the most radioactive places on earth. Animals and plants suffered mutations, stunted growth and behavioural anomalies.

But Chernobyl today is far from the wasteland of popular imagination.

 

The damaged reactor was initially covered in a giant concrete sarcophagus, to stop more radioactive material escaping. In 2016 the New Safe Containment shield was put in place – the largest moveable steel structure ever built, acting as a giant hangar over the entire nuclear power plant. Within it, workers are still busy keeping the site safe. They monitor radiation, and eventually plan to dismantle the concrete sarcophagus and remove the nuclear fuel.

Tourists have even returned – although they are kept out of the most radioactive sites. Every year tens of thousands now visit, often to see the haunting ruins of abandoned towns.

Opposite the old nuclear site, a new power plant has started generating clean power. Solar panels produce enough electricity to power 2,000 apartments. It’s a project that is as much about symbolism as economics. For the people of the area, it is a sign of recovery and new growth.

That recovery is most evident in the natural world. Although animals and plants inside the exclusion zone still show some effects of radiation, life is finding a way to adapt. For example, frogs living inside the exclusion zone are darker than those outside, which may give them extra protection against radiation.

In fact, parts of the exclusion zone have become a haven for biodiversity. Researchers have seen brown bears, lynxes, European bison, boar and Przewalski’s horses in growing numbers. An unexpected side effect of evacuating people from the area has been to create a wildlife sanctuary, where species can live untouched by human activity.

As a result, some scientists have come to two conclusions. First, animals and plants may be more resilient to radiation than we had originally thought. And second, the effects of the world’s worst nuclear disaster may be less damaging to the natural world than the continuing presence of people. Whether that is a lesson of hope, or a warning about our everyday impact on the planet, is up to you.