The Chernobyl disaster happened 34 years ago. Since then, an area of 30 km around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant has been an exclusion zone. More than 116,000 residents of this territory were evacuated after the accident. Until now, you can get here only by special passes. How did the Chernobyl zone become the largest nature reserve in Ukraine?
Will people ever be able to return here? What is happening at Chernobyl and around? How could a nuclear disaster take place to become a haven for the development of alternative energy? And why has the exclusion zone become a magnet for foreign tourists? BBC News Ukraine went to the exclusion zone to learn about the future of this territory.
The 30-kilometer exclusion zone does not have the shape of a circle, as it is sometimes mistakenly believed. Radiation pollution was stained, and several traces were formed due to wind and weather conditions. Thus, the exclusion zone stretched for more than 60 km from east to west, and from north to south – for 30 km.
Today, there are neat streets in the center of Chernobyl where people walk and communal services rush about. However, these are mainly only employees of the zone and service enterprises: the staff of the State Agency for the Management of the Exclusion Zone and its divisions, the Eco-center chipboard, which monitors the radioactive background, scientific and research institutes. In total, there are up to 10,000 employees in the exclusion zone. But so far there is no question of returning people to this territory to live.
Of course, there are settlers – people who, despite the ban, independently returned to the exclusion zone after the accident to their homes. Now, there are about 130 people left, the majority lives in the city of Chernobyl, 18 km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where the infrastructure is most developed.
People do not belong here
Completely unsuitable for people to live in is a “dirty” 10-kilometer zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which occupies about a third of the entire territory of the Chernobyl exclusion zone. This territory is contaminated with transuranic elements: uranium, plutonium, americium. They have a very long half-life: this is 24 thousand years for plutonium 239, and 6500 years – for plutonium 240.
To date, a bill has been registered in the Ukrainian parliament, the purpose of which is to declare this territory unsuitable for human habitation for life. In the rest of the territory, which is about 70% of the exclusion zone, the level of pollution is such that even now it is possible to allow cultivation of agricultural land there. But the entire infrastructure, in particular social, is completely destroyed there, so there is no reason to recommend people to return to these territories.
As you know, there are many other very good places to stay in Ukraine. Therefore, it is more rational to turn this area into a radioecological reserve, and to establish a special industrial zone on the territory of very high pollution. Today it is important to help the territories around the exclusion zone.
Not all residents agreed to leave after the accident, so people still live in separate places. These territories are still considered “territories of compulsory resettlement”, therefore, a number of restrictions are imposed, including on their economic use.
An industrial site
Despite the fact that the Chernobyl NPP has not been operating since 2000, it still employs more than two thousand people. However, the staff is gradually being transferred to work in the city of Slavutich, which was built after the accident to replace Pripyat.
The destroyed fourth power unit was covered with a new safe confinement two years ago. To date, measurements of the radioactive background show that this background has decreased significantly after the approaching arch.
But the arch is not only a covering, it is a very complex technological object, it has many functions for monitoring, support, work inside the Shelter object. A new safe confinement isolated it from the environment.
But there is an old building inside it and now the task is to disassemble unstable internal structures in the heart of the new confinement. It is designed for a hundred years. During this time, mankind must figure out how to disassemble and bury 200 tons of radioactive waste remaining from the molten reactor. While there are no such technologies, according to the initial plan, this will be done by robots.
A storage facility for spent nuclear fuel from the first, second and third power units of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was also built in the ten-kilometer zone. It was built by the American company Holtec with funds from international donors. Fuel will be transferred here from the old storage facility on the territory of the Chernobyl NPP within ten years, because the validity period for which it was designed has already expired. Testing of the new storage facility is ongoing.
The Vector complex is also under construction – it`s a special plant for the management of radioactive waste and materials, where spent nuclear fuel from Ukrainian nuclear power plants is stored.
Green energy instead of nuclear one
Alternative energy sources are still being developed at the site of the largest nuclear disaster in the world. Last year, a solar power plant of the Ukrainian-German project with a capacity of 1 MW was launched on the territory of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, next to the destroyed reactor. This may seem like a small capacity compared to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant – only one unit of it had a thousand times more power.
But the pilot solar station can only be the beginning. According to the plan, the territory of a ten-kilometer zone can be covered by solar power plants. Today, the exclusion zone has every chance of becoming a promising element of the future “green economy of Ukraine”.
According to the latest data, more than 60 applications for land acquisition for the implementation of the “green energy” project from domestic and foreign investors, in particular from Denmark, the USA, China, Germany, France and Belarus, have been received over the past two years.
It is offered 25 square kilometers of free land within the exclusion zone for potential investors for the development of “solar” energy. And at the end of last year, a plot was allocated for the construction of the first Ukrainian wind farm, part of which lies in the exclusion zone.
Paradise for nature
The Chernobyl Radiation-Ecological Biosphere Reserve began to operate in the exclusion zone in 2017. Its territory occupies two thirds of the exclusion zone. In Belarus, a similar reserve was created two years after the accident, in 1988.
But then, the main activity remained in Ukraine: the Chernobyl NPP, electricity production, radioactive waste management. Issues of nature management were considered secondary and were considered by the then leadership on the residual principle.
Today, the Chernobyl Radiation-Ecological Biosphere Reserve is the largest reserve in Ukraine, with an area of more than 2000 square kilometers. “Simple animals live here, such as wolves, lynx, bears, elk, which are typical symbols of the European forest,” biologists say. In total, the reserve has more than 300 species of vertebrate and more than 1400 plant species.
Radiation killed almost everything after the accident, but soon nature recovered – the benefits of the absence of people exceeded the harm from radiation. Today, scientists conduct observations of animals on the territory of the “red forest”. The forest turns green around, birds sing, nothing reminds of the past disaster.
“Mankind did not limit the development of vegetation, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and the forest was restored. It was very impressive, ” researchers in the exclusion zone say. According to them, deer, wild boars, lynx and brown bears appeared here after the accident. Scientists say that in the exclusion zone there is the highest number of mooses and wolves in Ukraine. It sounds paradoxical, but the accident has become very useful for animals, since it removed people from here. Where there is no man, paradise life for animals and plants sets in, ” biologists say.
Due to the fact that the Reserve was created, nature itself and its researchers have a unique opportunity to restore and preserve the diversity of the fauna and flora of the exclusion zone.
Tourism: interest is growing
We meet about eight buses on the day of the visit to the exclusion zone at the entrance, two of them are especially large. Waiting for their turn to enter, foreign tourists take pictures and examine souvenirs at a local kiosk, from which a loud jazz melody is heard. The kiosk has everything from cards and magnets to gas masks and condoms with the sign of radioactivity.
Tourists from Britain say that they came here because they had heard about Chernobyl since childhood and read a lot about the ghost town of Pripyat.
Today, several tour operators organize excursions to the Chernobyl zone, and most of them deal exclusively with Chernobyl tours.
According to the Ministry of Ecology of Ukraine, 63 thousand people visited the exclusion zone only in 2018. This is almost eight times more than it was five years ago. Guides and tour guides say that there are about a thousand visitors per day. “There used to be a lot of Poles, now the majority are British,” Vitaliy Poyarkov, who accompanies the groups, says.
He says that an information center appeared at the entrance to the zone in the fall of 2018. There is a hotel and hostel for tourists in the zone itself. However, the word “tourists” isn`t liked in the exclusion zone. “We usually use the word visitors. We are not engaged in advertising, but we believe that if people have a certain interest to come and see, then why not give them such an opportunity? ”
The city of Chernobyl, the name of which became the goal for visiting Ukraine by many tourists, is now actually the administrative center of the exclusion zone. Despite the lack of population, the infrastructure is maintained here.
The city has official buildings, a post office, police, fire services, utilities, dormitories and four shops; there is electricity, gas and water. At first glance, the center of Chernobyl is no different from another small town in Ukraine. But the eye quickly grabs the empty abandoned houses, and it becomes obvious that the inhabitants have long left here, leaving their homes to nature itself.
This is what attracts visitors – how nature takes its toll after people left the territory. And, as practice shows, such interest is only growing over the years.