Chernobyl: A Quiet Wilderness, Teeming With Life

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In early 2011, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone — a 60-mile area that's been off-limits for over two decades — was opened to tourists. Outside Magazine's Henry Shukman visited the area and discovered lush forests, families who live there and the radiation that lingers twenty-five years later.

NEAL CONAN, host:

As the nuclear crisis in Japan continues, we hear reporters and experts advise that it may be bad, but certainly no Chernobyl - small comfort.

The explosion at the Chernobyl reactor in 1986 spewed radiation that affected broad areas of Europe and poisoned an enormous area on both sides of the border between what's now Ukraine and Belarus.

Officially off limits ever since, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was opened to tourists earlier this year. Henry Shukman, a contributor to Outside Magazine, visited and found an eerie wilderness teeming with life.

If you have questions about the legacy of Chernobyl, give us a call. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And Henry Shukman joins us from his home in Sante Fe.

Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. HENRY SHUKMAN (Writer, Outside Magazine): Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: And when you first arrived, was it what you expected?

Mr. SHUKMAN: No, altogether in every way, it was all very unexpected. First of all, there were no obvious precautions that we were asked to take. You know, we didn't have to wear special suits or carry Geiger counters or anything like that.

And then, you know, the first thing that is really so striking is that the towns in the exclusion zone, including Chernobyl itself, have - large areas of them are being completely taken over by forests. So, you know, you can be driving down what was a road and there's just sort of a little gap for a vehicle to creep through between the bushes and the birch trees and so on.

And so, you know, the whole area was essentially a farmed region until this exclusion zone was set up, whereupon a hundred thousand people or so were moved out, along with something like 135,000 cows and all the domestic animals and all the species that live around humans, you know, were gone. So this whole area has had a chance in spite of the radioactivity to regenerate as a forest.

CONAN: As a Russian forest specifically. And you begin your story by describing an encounter with a wild boar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHUKMAN: That's right. There are something like 5,000 wild boar now in the region, you know, which just come back all by themselves. And there are also bison, European bison. There are roe deer, elk, red deer and 25 wolf packs. And, you know, it's really kind of the Europe of the Middle Ages.

CONAN: And indeed, there are a few people farming there and living there as they might have in the Middle Ages.

Mr. SHUKMAN: It's extraordinary, actually. There are - you know, there are something like 91 villages in the zone, and most of them are still either completely abandoned or indeed, in some cases, buried. They were deliberately bulldozed and buried. You know, the most radioactive ones were just simply buried.

But among - you know, there's a handful where a few people who, you know, had lived there for generations soon after the creation of the exclusion zone when, of course, they were evicted, they came back, because they didn't want to live in, you know, an apartment building on the edge Kiev. They would rather have taken the risk of living in their sort of contaminated homeland.

CONAN: And you joined one of these farmers for dinner, and the way you describe it: You go in, and you see these unbelievably luscious looking mulberries but really the one thing everybody told you before is don't eat anything that grows there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHUKMAN: I know. Well, of course, there are - that is what I was taught. But, you know, there are hundreds of people living there who do, indeed, eat what they grow. They're self-sufficient farmers, and they sort of have no choice. They - you know, they eat fish from the river. They grow potatoes, you know, barley, oats and they raise animals and eat the animals, eat their eggs, in the case of chickens and so on. So they're completely immersed in the, you know, the sort of nutrient system of that part of the world. And they've just taken the decision that they would prefer to run the risks and live that way.

And, indeed, actually, so far the research seems to suggest that they're not significantly worse off, which is surprising on various levels. But the cancer rate among those farmers is only slightly higher than the Ukraine, generally. And, you know, it's such a small population that it's not considered statistically significant.

CONAN: Yeah. And it's interesting. Your guide and other people who work there and - yes, things have not changed so much in the former Soviet Union that you're allowed to wonder through an area like this without a minder. But your guide and all the other people who work in and around the site are - you know, there's that sort of perverse pride. Of course, we're tough enough to withstand a little radiation.

Mr. SHUKMAN: I know. They thought nothing a bottle of vodka won't clean up in the Ukraine, you know, that's sort of the attitude. But it's - I think it's a rather confusing and baffling situation. You know, first of all, yes, there are a few thousand people who come in to work in the region. But they're only allowed to come in in two-week shifts. And they have to have an annual medical. And if there's any sign of ill-health that shows off in that, that could, in anyway, be connected with radiation, they're not allowed to work there anymore. And they receive three times normal government pay for working there. So, obviously, there's a danger to doing that.

The other thing, you know, is the - something like 2.7 million people have or are suffering - have suffered or are suffering from the Chernobyl fallout. And the worse period was, obviously, the explosion itself. But then, in the months following it, the clean up operation - which involved 650,000 people - that the Soviets undertook, you know, most - many, many, many people who worked in that and their descendants are still suffering horribly from it.

The population that comes in now, to work in Chernobyl, generally speaking, weren't involved in that. So, you know, possibly that explains why they, apparently, are suffering less if you see what I mean.

CONAN: Yeah. We're talking with Henry Shukman about his piece in Outside magazine, "Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden."

If you'd like to take a look at it, there's a link to it on our website. Go to npr.org. and click on TALK OF THE NATION. 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Shannon is on the line, calling from Davenport, Iowa.

SHANNON (Caller): Hi. I was calling - I was listening to another expert on a lesser radio program yesterday, and she was a pro-nuclear energy individual. But she had put the death toll from Chernobyl at 65 and I - would seemed a little low. But I was just wondering if your guest could comment on exactly on how they arrived at the numbers in terms of deaths.

Mr. SHUKMAN: Yes. Well, you know, the pro-nuclear lobby puts out all kinds of information, which, in a certain way, maybe correct in that, for example, not that many people actually died directly from exposure to the explosion at Chernobyl. But the clean up operation that followed went on for two years. Over that period, many, many people contracted diseases either then or later.

I mean, that's one of the things that causes radiation is that the harm it does doesn't always show up right away, obviously, maybe years later but traceable back to an exposure to radiation earlier.

CONAN: So is there any reasonable estimate of those who may have been killed as a result of the explosion, then later, radiation?

Mr. SHUKMAN: You know, there's a museum to Chernobyl in Kiev which puts it at hundreds of thousands. But they are factoring in, you know, all deaths that could conceivably be linked to it.

CONAN: And there's an element of anti-Sovietism involved in that.

Mr. SHUKMAN: There certainly is, although the, you know, the Ukrainian government has not been particularly forthcoming, either, with information about the health effects of Chernobyl, even to this day. The Soviets, you wouldn't expect have been, but nor does the Ukrainian government.

CONAN: Interesting.

Mr. SHUKMAN: The problem being that if somebody is proven to be suffering or have suffered a health problem from Chernobyl, they're entitled to various benefits, so they have a vested interest in reducing the numbers.

CONAN: Shannon, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next - this is Roy and Roy is with us from Binghamton, New York.

ROY (Caller): Yes. Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

ROY: Yeah. I'd like to commend the gentleman for the piece in the Outdoor magazine. I live in a similar area, in a kind of a Garden of Eden between the Susquehanna rivers and the Delaware River. And we're facing a - not a Chernobyl exactly, but we're facing the onslaught of the natural gas industry and the effects that that's going to have on our virtually pristine aquifers and land. And it's very interesting, the research that the gentleman has done in Russia, seeing that, you know, with the success of the wild boar and how they were able to come back.

If we - you know, should these chemicals be allowed to be used in the upstate that - what affect it would have on people that depend on the deer and the fish that we have in quite abundance at the present time.

CONAN: Well, these are apples and oranges, if you'll excuse the expression. Radiation, quite different from the kind of chemical contamination that you're talking about.

ROY: Well, actually, that's not particularly true because the wastewater from the Marcellus Shale tests particularly high in radioisotopes.

CONAN: But not in - any where near the same quantities, so - but...

ROY: Well, these quantities are huge because the wastewater treatment plants in Pennsylvania are already having a very difficult time.

CONAN: I still don't think it's quite on the same level as Chernobyl.

ROY: No, I'm not saying that, yet, because it just recently started, the (unintelligible).

CONAN: So let's not make the comparison quite yet.

ROY: No, you're right.

CONAN: But Henry Shukman, the evidence of effect of this radiation on plant life and on the animals there is, well, quite fascinating.

Mr. SHUKMAN: Yeah. I mean, if I could just speak to that. I mean, I think, you know, we should bear in mind, I mean, 25 years later, sheep farmers in Wales -there are still some sheep farmers in parts of Wales who cannot sell their land because of Chernobyl fallout.

I mean, the thing with all these - I mean, I don't really know about the natural gas - the chemical used and natural gas extraction and so on, but, you know, whatever - these things are not very easily contained, and radiation is the worst of that.

I mean, actually, just last summer, thousands of wild boars shot in Germany couldnt be sold for their meat because they were too radioactive - and again, that was from Chernobyl. So, you know, the problem is that it travels very erratically and unpredictably. It travels with the rain. It travels with clouds and wind. And, you know, radioactive particles can be, of course, microscopic, you know, and in their billions.

So - and in a case like Chernobyl, where you have this explosion of a nuclear reactor, you've got the fissile materials, you've got the products of the reaction, you've got all the various materials that are exposed to radiation in the course of functioning in the reactor, all of that, exploding. So the amount of radioactive debris and waste, not to mention particles, you know, is just, sort of, uncountable.

CONAN: We're talking with Henry Shukman about his piece in Outside magazine, visiting Chernobyl 25 years later. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And in your piece, you describe some species of trees that have - birch trees, for example, that don't grow as trees in some places, but as bushes, and some animals that have adapted in strange ways and, well, unpredictable ways, really.

Mr. SHUKMAN: Yeah, that's right. I mean, you know, the story that Chernobyl had become this sort of wildlife refuge, I mean, as far as I'm aware, it started sort of circulating a few - two or three years ago. I know the BBC did a piece on it, and so on, in 2008. What - what has come to light is that actually the idea that it's now this sort of fecund, happy, natural region - I mean, happy for nature, that is, as it were - is not right.

There have been all kinds of genetic anomalies and changes and - happening to the various species that live there. For example, there are - there's a high proportion of albino swallows among the swallow population, just one example there. There are birds with asymmetry in their feathers. In other words, their wings aren't don't look the same, you know? There are - as you say, there are birch trees that have no trunk.

So when we look at the large mammal population, which, of course, in a certain way had a kind of romantic appeal, you know, these - the wild boar and the elk and bison and so on, you know, it might seem like a wonderful success story for nature, that these animals sort of unknown since the dark ages, you know, have come back naturally.

Actually, they are the boar - for example, they're eating meat from their prey that - much of it is radioactive. What is really happening - I'm sorry, not the boar, the wolves, the...

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. SHUKMAN: ...200 odd or few hundred wolves that live in the region. You know, what that is doing to their genetic structure is not known yet. But it is known that mice that have been studied in the region are developing new characteristics, such as resistance to radioactivity, you know, so - some scientists talk about the region as a laboratory of microevolution.

CONAN: Post-apocalyptic microlaboratory.

Mr. SHUKMAN: Something like that, exactly. You know, things are changing at the, you know, deep in their DNA that will have unknown results, presently unknown possibilities. You know, there may be new species already in the making.

CONAN: We're - you can read more about what's happening in the Chernobyl exclusion zone and Henry Shukman's article in Outside magazine. Again, there's a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Henry Shukman, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. SHUKMAN: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with an update on the deteriorating nuclear power plant in Japan. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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