Holly Morris: What Can We Learn From One of the World's Most Toxic Accidents? Filmmaker Holly Morris talks about her time with the "Babushkas of Chernobyl" — the elderly women who decided to stay in Chernobyl, Ukraine, after the worst nuclear accident in history.

What Can We Learn From One Of The World's Most Toxic Accidents?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Toxic - ideas about human change and resilience in a world full of toxins and chemicals. So let's start in one of the most toxic places on Earth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #1: There has been a nuclear accident in the Soviet Union. And the Soviets have admitted that it happened. The Soviet version is this - one of the atomic reactors at the Chernobyl atomic power plant in the city of Kiev was damaged. And there is speculation in Moscow that people were injured and may have died. The Soviets may have...

HOLLY MORRIS: I think a lot of people would say Chernobyl is among the most toxic places in the world. Certainly, 30 years in the life of nuclear contamination is not a very long time.

RAZ: Holly Morris is a filmmaker who's been to Chernobyl. It's a decommissioned nuclear power plant in present-day Ukraine where 30 years ago...

MORRIS: On April 26, 1986...

RAZ: Something went very, very wrong.

MORRIS: The accident actually - because it was Soviet times and there was a lot of secrecy, there wasn't like, hey, guys, hello world, we've just had a big accident. They kept it under wraps. And in fact, it was a nuclear power plant in Sweden...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #2: Radiation monitors in Sweden and Finland this morning are showing unusually high readings...

MORRIS: ...Where the alarms started going off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #2: At the moment, the source of those emissions is a mystery. But speculation has arisen of a nuclear power plant accident inside the Soviet Union.

RAZ: And for days after, Russian officials denied how bad it actually was.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #3: An official announcement from the Council of Ministers. There has been an accident at the Chernobyl atomic power station. One of the atomic reactors was damaged.

RAZ: Russian officials said the loss of life was minimal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR #4: This evening, Soviet television repeated the claim that only two people have died. They assured viewers all is under control.

RAZ: All the while, in the area around the Chernobyl plant...

MORRIS: The nearest town to the plant is called Pripyat, which is essentially the company town.

RAZ: Everyone there was evacuated.

MORRIS: They were told they would be gone for three days. And they were loaded into buses and taken away. And, of course, they never returned home again.

RAZ: The accident caused a nuclear fire that burned for more than a week. Dozens of workers died at the plant that day. And in the years to come, thousands more people in the area would die from thyroid cancer. And even to this day, the area where they lived - known as the exclusion zone - remains empty. Well, almost.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BABUSHKAS OF CHERNOBYL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

RAZ: This voice is a woman from a film Holly Morris made. It's called "The Babushkas Of Chernobyl."

MORRIS: A babushka is actually the Russian word for grandmother.

RAZ: This babushka in Holly's film visits her family's plot in a cemetery, points out her relatives one-by-one.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BABUSHKAS OF CHERNOBYL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

RAZ: She's one of just a hundred women who were allowed back into the area around Chernobyl shortly after the accident. And they've lived there ever since.

MORRIS: Now what's important to remember in terms of their survival is they were in their 50s at the time of the accident. And the older you are, the less detrimental the effects of radiation is. So the young people of Chernobyl who, of course, were certainly not allowed to return to those villages really took the brunt of the contamination at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BABUSHKAS OF CHERNOBYL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

RAZ: So why make such a dangerous choice? Here's Holly on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

MORRIS: Chernobyl is one of the most toxic places on Earth. The soil, the water, the air are all contaminated. And the nuclear fire that burned for 11 days back in 1986 released 400 times as much radiation as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The point being, no human beings should be living anywhere near the dead zone - but they are. And almost all of them are women. The men having died off earlier in part due to overuse of alcohol, cigarettes, if not radiation. Hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated at the time of the accident, but not everybody accepted that fate.

These are the last survivors of a group who defied authorities - and it would seem common sense - and returned to their ancestral homes inside the zone. As one woman put it to a soldier who was trying to evacuate her for a second time - shoot me and dig the grave, otherwise I'm going home. I mean, why would they return to such deadly land? Were they unaware of the risks, or crazy enough to ignore them, or both? The thing is, they see their lives and the risks they run decidedly differently.

RAZ: So, OK, so they move back and you decide to tell their stories. And when you encounter these women, what was your life like?

MORRIS: It - you know, you come up on a village, like, there's a woman in the film named Hanna Zavorotnya. And I remember my first time - I was going to the village. It's beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BABUSHKAS OF CHERNOBYL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

MORRIS: It's a village that you might think of from a hundred years ago. Right? There's beautiful cottages. There's no cars. There's wind blowing, the light is lovely.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BABUSHKAS OF CHERNOBYL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

MORRIS: And the women themselves are - have these beautiful gardens, you know. It's strangely bucolic. On one hand you're passing abandoned, collapsing houses and villages along the way. But then you show up at Hanna Zavorotnya's house and you're like - and you see this sort of spritely woman welcome you and start offering you moonshine and dumplings and...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BABUSHKAS OF CHERNOBYL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

MORRIS: ...You're like, wow, I'm in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, yet this experience is happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE BABUSHKAS OF CHERNOBYL")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (Foreign language spoken).

RAZ: Our modern lives are filled with convenience and technology - shrink-wrapped vegetables and crystal clear swimming pools and plastic bags. But increasingly, those things are making our world and our bodies more toxic.

So today on the show, we're going to explore some of the toxins in our environments, in our foods, even toxins our own bodies produce, and what we might be able to do about it.

MORRIS: The women of the zone have chosen to live in a contaminated environment. They had a choice. And that kind of choice is going to be seen all over the world in the decades to come because environmental disasters are going to continue to happen. And it's not going to be realistic or maybe even the choice of people who live in those areas to leave. So the babushkas of Chernobyl, you know, are an early and curious example of this.

RAZ: More on the babushkas later and how they've survived, even thrived for so long.

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