This book by Mary Mycio was given to me by a friend who told me I would love it. He was right. It describes the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in 1986 that scattered 20-40 tons of radioactive materials across large areas of the Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. The area is designated the “Zone of Alienation,” and 350,000 people were evacuated and resettled. There are over four million people still living in areas that are contaminated with at least one curie of cesium per square kilometer. The book has detailed information about the levels of contamination of the Zone and the effects on the animals, plants, insects, and fungus. Many sections are difficult to read because of the amount of technical information. However, I’m glad I read it.
The book begins with a quote from Revelation to explain the title. The quote is about a star called Wormwood that falls on the earth “…and the third part of the waters become wormwood; and many men died of the waters because they were made bitter.” Chornobyl is the Ukrainian name for the wormwood plant and Chernobyl is “…the Russianized version…” The wormwood herb and other plants have thrived since the reactor disaster. There have been effects, such as pine trees that have grown into distorted shapes called “pine bushes.”
It was believed people would never be able to enter many areas contaminated by the disaster, but the author joined the fad of “atomic tourism” by obtaining permits to tour the Zone wearing her camouflage protective clothing and dosimeter. She writes she was shocked to discover the area “…has become Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary, a flourishing—at times unearthly—wilderness teeming with large animals…” There are large herds of wild boars, healthy populations of wolves and lynx because of the proliferation of their prey, wild horses, and a large variety of birds. The author observes that “…very little is known about the radioactive animals of Chernobyl. What is known is that there are many, many more of them than before the disaster.
The book is undoubtedly controversial in many aspects. For example the author writes although plutonium is a heavy metal and therefore toxic, the myth that it is the “…deadliest substance known to man…” is not accurate. There are other toxins such as arsenic that win that distinction. I expect the effects on people and the various species described in the book will reinforce the opinions of those who oppose nuclear power and the general absence of longer term devastating effects will reinforce the opinions of those who are proponents. One of the author’s tour guides observed that there has not been mutant animals in the zone. He admitted when pressed that “Because with wild animals, mutants die.” Toads and frogs often develop malformations when exposed to toxins, but those are seen more often in the United States than in the Zone.
There were hundreds of children exposed to radioactive iodine who developed thyroid cancer. However, “… perhaps one of the greatest mysteries is the disaster’s impact on people.” “Samosels,” or squatters, originally hid to prevent being evacuated from the Zone. They are dying at the expected ages despite being exposed to twice the maximum dose “allowed.” “Moreover, it seems impossible to tease the health effects of radiation out of the tangle of poverty, alcoholism, smoking, poor diet, and other factors that plague public health in the the places in the former Soviet Union that were unaffected by Chernobyl and that made life expectancy—especially among men—the lowest in Europe.” It is also observed the Samosels inhale “…too little plutonium to influence their dose.”
The “involuntary park” (a term coined by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling) appears to be proving wildlife will thrive after being made radioactive by cesium, iodine, strontium, and plutonium where there is little human activity. Touring the Zone converted the author from “…adamant opponent of nuclear energy to ambivalent support—at least for giving a window of time for reducing our dependence on fossil fuels…” She describes how she believed life would be mutated if it managed to survive the holocaust, but Chernobyl showed her a different view. The ghost towns are a “…tragic testimony to the devastating effects of technology gone awry. But life in the Wormwood Forest was not only persevering, it was flourishing.” Of course there were and are numerous media ventures to “…exploit Chernobyl’s inherent spookiness.”
There are interesting bits of historical background about the areas impacted by the disaster. For example, it is mentioned that Stalin’s forced collectivization created an artificial famine in the Ukraine that starved ten million people to death in 1932-1933. There are also bits that were fun to read. One example is that the ugly blob that formed after the reactor meltdown cooled is called the “elephant foot.” The authorities wanted to take a sample, so a machine gun was fired at the blob until a chip came off.
One of my favorite passages in the book was a discussion of the author attending a third grade class trip to the New York Hall of Science. There was a terrarium with a sign: “The Impact of Radiation on Rats.” There was nothing in the terrarium except plants, and author decided the radiation had made the rats invisible. Another passage tells a joke about a “babushka” selling apples labeled “Chernobyl.” A passerby notes that no one will buy apples from there and is told people will certainly buy them for their husband, wife, and mother-in-law.
I was interested in the author’s willingness to expose herself to the radiation levels during her tours. She writes she did not wear a cumulative dosimeter. She calculated an estimated exposure of a few hundred millirems, which isn’t much, but she judged her exposure to be “enough.”
Anyone interested in taking a tour of the Zone of Alienation around Chernobyl should read this book. Approval for a visit is obtained by sending a fax to Chernobylinterinform.
I’m going to let the author have the final say with words written in her closing. “If a nuclear disaster really is …in your metaphoric backyard…it seems best not to think about it too much. Not, at least, until many years have passed, and the bountiful evidence of nature’s nearly miraculous resilience and recovery makes the thinking more bearable.”