After 25 years, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has seen an unexpected rebirth in wildlife

April 20, 2011

Worldview and Kate Dries

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(Getty Images/Daniel Berehulak)
An abandoned fun park in Pripyat. The town was once home to 30,000 people but has been abandoned since the Chernobyl disaster.

Next week marks the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl (Chornobyl) nuclear disaster, when a nuclear meltdown of a power plant in the Ukraine forced 60,000 people from their homes and exposed extraorinarily high levels of radiation to hundreds of thousands more. At the time, there was little information released about the potential danger of the radiation; residents of the area were not evacuated for several days after the explosion, and many expected to be back shortly. It is only now, a quarter of a century later, that we are beginning to see the long-term effects the disaster has had on the area, and on the world. We begin a series today commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl (Chornobyl) nuclear disaster with writer Henry Shukman, who took a rare extended trip into the zone for the March issue of Outside Magazine to explore the transformation of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone from an irradiated wasteland into what some call Europe’s largest wildlife refuge.

"I was just fascinated to go and see it. There was a bit of morbid curiosity; you know, what does Armageddon look like 25 years on?" Shukman explained about his impulse to visit the exclusion zone. "But mostly, I think I really was drawn by the appeal of going to somewhere that was kind of like Europe a thousand years ago, which you can’t find anywhere else really, where nature has been allowed to run its course without human interference. It’s odd and ironic really that it takes a disaster of that magnitude and of that human cost – you know, 2.7 million lives affected by it – that it takes so much to create a space where nature can do his own thing."

Wildlife in the Exclusion Zone

Shukman is referring to the surprisingly abundant wildlife that has taken over the area, which is now teeming with birds, wild boar, elk, deer, lynx, bears, and large wolf packs, creating what he calls a reversion "to a pre-human eco-system."

Citing the work of biologist Igor Chizhevksy, who has been researching the genetic health of large wild mammals exposed to radiation, Shukman noted that it's been hard for scientists to really get a grip on what impact the radiation has had on the animals, as they can't test a large portion of the population, and they can't gather a history of the animals living there prior to the disaster. The largest body of research that has been done has been with mice, who have been exposed to similar levels of radioactivity and studied afterwards. This work has indicated that genomes have shifted, and that strains of mice have developed radiation resistance. 

Living in the Exclusion Zone

Shukman emphasized that though tourists are allowed to visit some sections of the area, it is not like "hundreds of people are pouring in." It's also important to note that the small groups that do visit are escorted by guides, who point out dangerous areas. But excluding tourists, there are still roughly 300 people who live in the vicinity of the Chernobyl plant, most of whom are elderly and returned soon after they were relocated to Kiev. They are quietly living there, and according to Shukman, life is "even more old-fashioned" than before the explosion, with very few modern accomodations.

Shukman believes a culture of secrecy in the Soviet Union led to a slower evacuation at the time of the disaster than necessary.  Additionally, "...the notion of setting up an exclusion zone is inherently a bit flawed because you’re trying to contain something that simply doesn’t travel in a containable way," Shukman said.

Shukman noted that though the population of individuals living near Chernobyl is small, and it is difficult to get reliable statistics about their health. He notes that some of them have been living there for over twenty years and "seem to be fine." As seen in parts of Northern Iran and China, where the terrestrial radiation levels are one hundred times higher than the earth average, cancer rates are lower under such conditions, and exposure can be good for the immune system. 

Worldwide Ramifications

To Shukman, this by no means validates the use of continued nuclear power. "My own personal conclusion is that we should not build anymore nuclear power stations," he said. "I don’t want to give the impression that because the wildlife is apparently doing well, it's not a human disaster, because it is.