An area of 4 thousand square kilometres was in the exclusion zone after the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which occurred in 1986. Chernobyl returns to life 33 years after the experienced apocalypse.
According to some scholars, sooner or later it will heal like an ordinary city, as it was before the disaster. Standing already on the dry bottom of the former Chernobyl cooling pond, Ukrainian scientist Gennady Laptev shares his thoughts on the disaster experienced.
“… More than half of my life has passed here. I was only twenty-five when I first came here as a liquidator. Now, I am almost sixty. Thousands of liquidators were brought here as part of a large-scale and dangerous operation after the explosion in 1986 – the worst nuclear disaster in history. Gennady shows a small platform, the purpose of which is to collect dust. The bottom of the pond dried up even when the pumps that pump water from the neighboring river were turned off in 2014 – this is fourteen years after the closure of the three surviving reactors. The resulting dust is studied for radioactive contamination, and this is only a small part of many years of research on this huge abandoned piece of land. The accident turned it into a giant poisonous laboratory where hundreds of scientists examine the problem of restoring the environment after a nuclear disaster.”
The experiment turned into a tragedy for the whole planet
Reference: On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., Chernobyl engineers cut off the power supply to individual systems of the fourth Chernobyl reactor to test how the reactor would work in the event of a complete power loss. However, the engineers did not know that the reactor was already unstable.
Turning off the current slowed down the operation of the turbines, which supplied water to the reactor for cooling. In a smaller amount, water began to evaporate quickly, which led to an increase in pressure inside the reactor. When the workers realized what was happening and tried to shut down the reactor, it had already benn too late. A powerful steam explosion tore off the roof of the reactor, revealing its radioactive zone to the air.
Two workers died immediately. The wind blew the fire to such an extent that it took ten days to extinguish it. Clouds of radioactive smoke and dust spread throughout Europe. As deadly smoke spread from the reactor, the first liquidators were already hurrying to it. 134 liquidators were diagnosed with acute radiation sickness, 28 of them died in the next few months, and at least twenty in the following years.
Gennady Laptev, a famous scientist and ecologist from the Ukrainian Hydrometeorological Institute, began working in the Chernobyl zone three months after the evacuation.
“… We flew here daily by helicopter from Kiev and collected water and soil samples,” Gennady Laptev says. “Then we had an important task to establish the extent of infection in order to outline the first maps of the exclusion zone,” the researcher adds.
The exclusion zone covers not only Ukrainian but also Belarusian territory. It has an area of more than 4 thousand km2 – this is more than two of London. Residents of all settlements within a radius of 30 km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant were evacuated and resettled, and without the right to return.
But the authorities quickly forgot about the vicinity of the exclusion zone, and some residents of some villages quietly returned home a few months after the accident. Unlike the 30-km zone, which is strictly guarded, you can get into half of the abandoned territory bypassing checkpoints. It is here that Narodichi is located – an urban-type settlement where more than 2500 people live.
Strict rules apply to this officially infected territory – land is not allowed to be used for growing crops and building. However, today this part of the territory is not so easy to divide into “infected” and “clean”.
Studies show that the consequences of Chernobyl are more complicated, and local environmental conditions are sometimes more surprising and interesting than you might think, reading a list of everything that is officially banned in Narodichi. It is possible that fear of radiation harms the people of Narodichi more than radiation itself.
Chernobyl has less radiation than during a flight on an airplane
There is the nuclear plant itself behind Gennady’s back. A new giant steel sarcophagus shines in the sun, which covers the fourth reactor now. It was built over the epicenter of the disaster in 2016. Directly under the dome itself, remote-controlled cranes dismantle 33-year-old radioactive ruins.
Gennady Laptev`s colleague, British professor Jim Smith from University of Portsmouth, is working together with Gennady, he has been studying the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster since 1990. Jim shows the dosimeter, which constantly measures the level of radiation – atoms continue to decay spontaneously in the dust from the nuclear fuel scattered here by the explosion in 1986.
For example, the dosimeter showed 1.8 micro-sievert per hour during a flight from Kiev, while in the immediate vicinity of the Chernobyl nuclear power station it can be 0.6 – about a third of what a person receives during the flight. Jim explains that we live on a radioactive planet, and everywhere we are exposed to natural radioactive radiation.
He says it comes from the Sun, from the products we consume, from the earth’s surface. It is not surprising that the dose is higher at an altitude of 12 km above the earth, because the level of protection of the atmosphere is minimal there.
Jim explains: “Yes, the Chernobyl zone is infected, but if you compare the local radiation level with the rest of the world, you can see that only a few “hot spots” stand out against the general background.”
Nature is radioactive everywhere. The level of radiation varies from country to country, from one place to another. In most of the exclusion zone, it is smaller than in places with natural radioactivity.
It’s better not to linger in hot spots
The boundaries of the exclusion zone have remained the same, but the surroundings and landscapes have changed beyond recognition. People were evicted – nature was populated. Wild vegetation in the middle of abandoned buildings, farms and villages causes post-apocalyptic sensations.
Scientists are constantly collecting samples here for various studies, as well as installing cameras and voice recorders, discreetly recording data on what life forms populate the area that people have left, and how radiation affects it.
The Red Forest is one of those “hot spots”, which “absorbed” the maximum amount of radiation at the time of the accident in 1986, due to the direction of the wind.
The dosimeter shows 35 in the forest – it`s almost 60 times more than the level of radiation near the former cooling pond. “It’s better not to linger here,” Jim Smith says. Together with his colleagues, he quickly collects soil samples, takes some photographs and hurries back to the car.
Horses adapt well
The situation is different in the abandoned village of Buryakovka, which is at a distance of only 12 km from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. A team of scientists slowly inspects the area. The dosimeter shows 1.0 – it`s even less than during a flight on an airplane. The suddenness of human loss becomes apparent inside the tiny wooden house, which has already crumbled a bit.
The coat thrown over the back of the chair is covered in thirty years of dust now. However, the gardens and orchards left by people unexpectedly became a generous shelter rich in food for wild animals. Long-term studies indicate that in abandoned villages the fauna flourishes more than in other parts of the zone.
Brown bears, lynxes and wild boars are regularly found here.
A researcher from the Kiev Zoo, Marina Shkvyrya, has been tracking and studying large mammals for years, who settled here after people left. Some studies show that birds from the most infected sites to this day suffer from certain mutations in the DNA.
However, the work of many scientists inexorably testifies to the life of wild forms in most of the exclusion zone. Marina Shkvyrya says that the example of the Chernobyl wolves is especially striking. We studied them for 15 years and have a lot of information about their behavior. Chernobyl wolves are closer to nature than most other wolves in Ukraine.
You need to understand by “closer to nature” that there is very little “human” food in their diet. Marina explains: “Typically, wolves stay close to human settlements. They eat cattle, crops, sometimes even pets.”
But not here – they have to hunt wild animals in the exclusion zone. Chernobyl wolves catch deer and even fish. Pictures from hidden cameras also testify to their love for more “gourmet food”: in the photographs, wolves enjoy the fruits from former private gardens.
There are also animal populations in the zone, which in principle should not have lived there, but have taken root in it wonderfully. In 1998, a research team of zoologists released into the zone 30 horses of Przhevalsky – a species that is under threat of extinction. This was done so that they eat excessive vegetation and thereby reduce the risk of forest fires.
Now there are about sixty horses – their herds are scattered, both on the Ukrainian and Belarusian territories of the exclusion zone. Their home is the Mongolian steppe, so no one expected that Przhevalsky’s horses would fit so well in a wooded area with foci of abandoned settlements.
“But they very skillfully use the provided conditions,” Marina explains. “We installed cameras in old sheds, buildings, and we see that they are hiding here from mosquitoes and heat, sometimes they even sleep in rooms – that’s how they adapted to the zone,” scientists say. How not to think about a logical conclusion here – nature, despite the most difficult tests, seeks to self-preservation.