In the early hours of Saturday morning, 26 April 1986, 130km north of Kiev, a low-power test at the Chernobyl nuclear power station started to go wrong. The crew manning Reactor 4 wanted to monitor how the system would respond to an electrical failure. They’d reduced power as planned, but the output dropped so drastically they were forced to disable the automatic emergency shutdown system and start withdrawing control rods. If they could boost nuclear fission, increase output and get the test back on track, everything would be okay. But the resulting surge in power, a hundred times greater than normal, was too much for the reactor to handle. The core began to overheat, the water cooling system turned to steam and ruptured. Disaster was inevitable. The reactor exploded, ripping the building apart, blowing out a chunk of the core, turning parts of the structure into radioactive lava, and starting a vicious chemical fire that would rage for nine days.
Some of the operators were killed instantly, their bodies annihilated by the blast. In an attempt to quell the blaze, firefighters were forced to climb on to the roof of the disembowelled power station, while 5,000 tonnes of soil, sand and lead were dropped on the burning core by helicopter crews. 29 more died because of the massive radiation exposure.
Chernobyl retains the horror-honour of being the worst nuclear disaster in the world – worse still than the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan in 2011 – because of the thousands of tonnes of radioactive material that were blown into the sky. Prevailing winds spread killer dust across the western Soviet Union (now Russia, Ukraine and Belarus) and west across Europe, as far as Norway, the south of France and northern England.
The majority of the nuclear fallout, containing radioactive isotopes Iodine-131, Caesium-137 and Strontium-90, settled in the regions directly around the stricken power plant, in what is now northern Ukraine and southern Belarus. The Strontium and Caesium isotopes have half-lives of 29 and 30 years respectively, but scientists have calculated that heavily contaminated areas will be dangerous for anything up to six centuries.
Information about the Chernobyl disaster was released slowly by officials and for those living nearby, the official response was traumatising. More than 115,000 people from the purpose-built power plant workers’ city of Pripyat, the surrounding villages and the old town of Chernobyl were hastily evacuated. Many were told they’d be away for just a couple of weeks.
‘They said it was a precaution. We left everything, we were expecting to go home,’ farmer Ivan Ivanovitch, 77, tells me as we sit on a bench outside his home. His face is deeply tanned from a life spent outdoors. His voice grows husky as he recalls the events of 30 years ago. ‘Then they said, actually we would live somewhere else. But most of us didn’t want that.’
Ivan and his wife Maria Kondrativna, 76, were both born in Parashev village. They’d married, farmed and raised their family there. When they were moved to a town 60km away, their new neighbours couldn’t adjust any better than Ivan and Maria.
‘They were scared of us. They thought we were poisoned – contaminated – like Chernobyl. When I went into the shop, the other women would run out. The shopkeeper would throw the money on to the counter – he didn’t want to touch my hand.’ Maria shrugs, but the memory is still clearly painful. She’s bent-backed and curled with age. Clad in layers of thick wool, she’s the picture of an indestructible Soviet babushka.
A 30km Exclusion Zone – encircling 2,800sq km around the power plant and spanning the Ukraine-Belarus border – is still heavily controlled, although some sections are now relatively clean. More than 500,000 workers known as ‘Liquidators’ were brought in to dig enormous dump pits, strip away contaminated topsoil, clean roads and bury debris. Construction teams built a vast concrete sarcophagus over Reactor 4 to shield the remaining fuel cores and contain the leaking radiation. The labourers weren’t aware of the hazard, and many have suffered years of ill health since.
Work is now underway to construct a ‘New Safe Confinement Structure’, as the hastily-built 1986 model is crumbling. Constructed next to Reactor 4, the 31,000-tonne building is set on rails and, when complete, will be wheeled 330 metres into place over the reactor and hermetically sealed.
It’s the biggest land-based moveable structure in the world, and once in place specialists will use remotely-operated cranes to dismantle and contain the tonnes of highly radioactive material still waiting inside.
Other parts of the Exclusion Zone remain heavily contaminated. The Red Forest – so-named because the blast and massive fallout caused the pine woodlands to die instantaneously and turn rust-red overnight – is still lethal. It’s an eerie sight from the outside, a thick, dead forest still standing 30 years later. Radiation levels are so high that even the bacteria that would ordinarily decompose the organic matter can’t function – so little of the woodland has rotted away.
Nearby sectors, each labelled with rusting hazard signs, are relatively safe to enter, as long as full precautions are taken.
‘It’s easy to underestimate the risk, because you can’t see or feel the danger,’ Iain Thomson, an expert in radiological risk protection, tells me. ‘People don’t realise how often they brush against things they walk past, or touch their faces with their hands. And you probably wouldn’t know you’d been affected. You’d get cancer in 20 years’ time and wonder if this had something to do with it. You simply can’t afford to be complacent.’
As part of a TV documentary crew, I’ve been invited to join some of the scientific research teams working in the Exclusion Zone. It means I’ll be going into areas the short-stay disaster tourists aren’t allowed, where contamination levels are higher and where radioactive dust could be disturbed. Thomson drills us on the correct procedures to avoid contamination. ‘The important thing is to minimise your exposure. Stay there for as little time as possible, maximise your distance from any radioactive source, and utilise all physical barriers available.’
We wear protective oversuits, shoe covers, dust masks and goggles. I’m issued with a thick, claustrophobic, full-face gas mask that can eliminate even the smallest dust or ash particles. We wear three pairs of gloves (a sacrificial pair, a second pair to operate in, and the pair that’s the last line of protection). I’m told to tie my hair back and wash it every night as soon as possible.
Well-briefed, fully kitted-out and suitably nervous, I join biologist Professor Tim Mousseau, who heads the University of South Carolina’s Chernobyl Research Initiative. He’s been conducting research inside the Exclusion Zone for more than 16 years, looking at the impact of radiological contamination at all levels – from the functioning of the ecosystem as a whole, to cellular mutations in microbes, insects, birds and mammals.
As we clear the first security checkpoint, I see an unofficial memorial to the Liquidators and other workers who sacrificed their lives and health. It’s small and slightly ramshackle, covered with scarves and hardhats, the Ukrainian flag flapping above. Then the first abandoned village rolls into view, wooden houses peeping out from the thick forest foliage. It looks like the set of a post-apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster.
Broken windows reveal kitchens that still have cups and plates, sheds that boast workbenches covered in tools and a thick layer of radioactive dust. Gardens have melted back into woodland, and trees, now three decades grown, have pushed through the tarmac of roads and playgrounds. The eeriest sight is that of the fairground in Pripyat city, which was scheduled to be opened the day of the accident. The only time the Ferris wheel turned was while the evacuation buses were being loaded, as a distraction for the frightened children.
When the people left, it meant a huge area of farmed and managed land was left to its own devices. Chernobyl has been described as an unexpected nature reserve, where wildlife – particularly large mammals like wolves, bear, boar and elk – is thriving. Certainly removing people has had beneficial impacts: there’s no hunting, no competition between humans and wildlife, and land that had been intensively farmed has reverted to a more natural mosaic of habitats.
‘Large mammals can roam through areas of the Exclusion Zone. They’re likely to be spending more of their time in less contaminated areas, so their exposure may be limited,’ Professor Mousseau explains. ‘If you look at species that are geographically constrained – voles and mice, for example, or small bird species – there are clear impacts. In more contaminated environments, there are fewer species. Among the animals that are present, there are more mutations: deformities, albinism, tumours, cataracts. Breeding adults have fewer offspring, and their young show evidence of reduced brain size.’
Mousseau’s is a sobering message. But it’s not all bad news. Some rapidly reproducing species are evolving to suit their new environment. It was quickly noticed that many birds within the Zone have become much less brightly coloured, although outside the Zone the same species are still brightly plumed. For barn swallows, discolouration is a disadvantage – the ‘mutant’ birds don’t reproduce as successfully. But in some tit species, the drab birds are doing better than their brightly-feathered kin.
‘We think it’s because there’s been a change in melanin production, which is giving them a selective advantage against oxidative stress – the cell damage caused by radioactive isotopes. So brown feathers, but fewer tumours,’ Mousseau says.
Early results from another study team suggest that supplying woodland rodents with antioxidant-rich ‘superfood’ supplements can significantly reduce the negative health impacts of radiation.
The implications for medicine are vast – cancer prevention and treatment, the management of survivors’ healthcare in both Chernobyl and Fukushima, as well as data on how we can help ecosystems recover following contamination.
Professor Mousseau believes the research should also help the dispossessed human communities from Chernobyl, whose poor health has, until now, been attributed more to psycho-social trauma than radiation. Evacuated Chernobyl communities have officially been described as suffering from ‘paralysing fatalism’. It’s claimed they consider themselves invalids, with the mark of death over them. The outcome, according to the World Nuclear Association, is a culture of chronic dependency, with poor mental health, increased substance abuse and social breakdown.
‘Our animal populations don’t know they’re victims,’ Mousseau counters. ‘They don’t know they live in a contaminated place. If we can show that these mice have reduced IQs, and fewer successful strategies for finding food and raising offspring, then we may go a step towards explaining similar findings in human communities that have also survived in contaminated environments.’
Attributing a case of cancer to radiation exposure is often difficult, and estimates vary enormously on the numbers caused by the Chernobyl disaster. The undisputed cases are from exposure to Iodine-131 which causes cancer of the thyroid, particularly in children. So far, there have been more than 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer in children exposed to Chernobyl fallout, although few have been fatal.
Strontium and Caesium radioisotopes are more pernicious. If you’re eating and drinking contaminated food, the dangerously unstable molecules become part of you, bound into your cells, continuing to fire off radioactive particles from within. The higher up the food chain, the more contaminated particles there are in every mouthful.
Strontium ends up in your bones and teeth. It’s closely linked to cancers of the blood. Caesium acts like potassium, eventually excreted by the body, although not quickly enough to prevent it damaging your internal organs.
But not all the victims of Chernobyl are willing to be invalids. Ivan Ivanovich and Maria Kondrativna, aware of how much they’d lost when they were evacuated, decided to take a radical step. They chose to return to their village within the Exclusion Zone, regardless of the risks. Although not strictly sanctioned, the government turned a blind eye to returnees, as long as they were beyond child-bearing age.
Around 150 of these elderly ‘Resettlers’ live inside the Zone, surrounded by the crumbling ruins of their former communities. Ivan and Maria grow potatoes, corn, carrots, and onions in their contaminated fields. They keep pigs and chickens, eat fish from the river and mushrooms picked in the forest.
Not everyone shares their feelings. Marko is a government-employed firemen, posted deep in the Zone to work three weeks on – three weeks off, so as to limit his radiation exposure. He’s the first line of defence against forest fires. With no forestry management and large expanses of woodland with no access roads, a fire here would be extremely dangerous. There’s a lot of fuel to burn, and all of it would produce radioactive dust and ash that could drift far beyond the contamination zone.
Armed with little more than a bicycle, Marko is the human early-warning system for this sector and is Ivan and Maria’s closest neighbour. ‘The old people are tied to the land, but they don’t know what’s good for them,’ he frowns, pointing out the piles of crumbling asbestos littering the farmyard, and broken windows stuffed with rags. ‘I wouldn’t want my parents to live like this. The time has come – they should be removed from the Zone, and rehomed in places where they can get healthcare and proper help.’ Even if that’s not what they want? He laughs. ‘You can’t always have what you want. It’s crazy that they let them back in at all!’
Nevertheless, Ivan and Maria quietly show me the baskets of produce that will keep them going over the winter, when they’ll hunker down and live in one room of their dilapidated farmhouse, sleeping next to the fire, until the worst weather has passed. I ask if they worry about the contamination and the strain of such a tough existence. Ivan is adamant. He says they feel they’re the lucky ones because they’ve come home. ‘Our children live in Kiev. They keep telling us to come and stay with them. But what will we do there? We were born here. We want to die here. We’ve had long lives, radiation can’t kill us now.’
This was published in the May 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.