NPR logo Life, Thriving In The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Life, Thriving In The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

An abandoned ferris wheel and carousel in the amusement park of the ghost town of Prypyat, adjacent to the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

An abandoned ferris wheel and carousel in the amusement park of the ghost town of Prypyat, adjacent to the Chernobyl nuclear plant.

Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

I barely remember the Chernobyl disaster — as a kid, I was pretty well shielded from the coverage — but it's hard not to be fascinated by it. Earlier this year, Ukraine opened up the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to tourists. Henry Shukman went, and managed to experience the zone beyond the official tour.

And what he found there was absolutely entrancing. Lush forests, thriving wildlife and families living happily, and simply, deep in the zone. At first, Shukman's scared to belly-up to the table for a meal, but out comes the local whisky, and out the window, his inhibitions.

A couple of samogon shots later, my fears have abated and I'm tucking in like the rest. The fish is so smoky my eyes water, and soon my hands are stained bloodred from all the mulberries I've eaten. A bird starts singing. Flakes of sunshine shift over us. The hay is in, there's a pig fattening for Easter, and the oats are almost ready for the scythe. If this isn't rustic life at its timeless, bibulous best, what is?

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But, of course, there's a darker side. The radiation lingers. "On the surface," biologist Igor Chizhevsky says, "the wildlife seems to be thriving, but under the fur and hide, the DNA of most species has become unstable." But they've also uncovered some radiation resistance in mice. It's a fascinating read, check it out here — "Chernobyl, My Primeval, Teeming, Irradiated Eden."