The single biggest man made disaster in the history of the world. The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl was an accident of epic proportions worsened by the refusal of major powers to admit to the problem (sound familiar?). But it’s not all doom and gloom as I discovered on a recent trip to the nuclear exclusion zone.
When reactor number 4 failed to initiate the cooling system on a safety test on 4th of April 1986 all hell broke loose. An endothermic explosion followed releasing nuclear radiation into the atmosphere at a catastrophic rate. Despite heroic efforts from the power plant staff, firefighters and miners in the lengthy cleanup that ensued radiation leakage had been detected throughout Europe. An area of 2,600 km2 extending to Belarus had to be completely evacuated and sealed off. Chernobyl was declared uninhabitable for 20,000 years.
But within a decade vegetation took over the city. Over time wildlife returned. Bears, bison, lynx, wolves and dogs (that had escaped the attempted extermination) have claimed back the land in an unprecedented show of resilience. Studies predicted the land would be condemned, but here, without the presence of people nature has found a safe haven in which to thrive.
Murals of these animals have started popping up around Pripyat, the perfect Soviet vision of a nuclear workers city. Pripyat now lays abandoned after the evacuation, decontamination and the looting that inevitably ensued. Trees are now pushing up through the thick grey concrete. Birds nest on the empty supermarket shelves and the high skyscrapers provide thermals for birds of prey. Nearby ghost villages crumble while the undergrowth slowly takes over, only disturbed by the odd tourist taking a wrong turn.
The Red Forest was the name for the area of land that had the direct hit from Nuclear fallout. Trees turned red from radiation and everything inside perished. Is it possible that even here in the dead zone life could recover?
After the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991 and Ukraine gained it’s independence several organisations from Western Europe showed an interest in helping maintain the still dangerous site. In 2017 a French company funded by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development amongst other contributors provided the New Safe Confinement (at a cost of around €2.15 billion) to cover reactor number 4 and prevent further leakage of nuclear radiation. Charities started entering the site providing humanitarian aid to the people still living and working inside the zone.
One such charity, SPCAI , turned it’s attention to the dogs of Chernobyl. Left abandoned after the rushed evacuation they have been left uncared for, often suffering diseases such as rabies as well as having to endure the bitter winters without proper shelter. The American charity actually managed to find new homes for 50 young dogs of Chernobyl in 2018 after treatment and radiation testing. But the main responsibilities are to neuter, vaccinate and provide shelter for the dogs that remain, in order for them to live a happy life.
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Tourism is now booming. Since hit the HBO series documenting the events of Chernobyl aired, tourism has increased by 40%. Visitors are given a Geiger counter and strict rules to adhere to whilst visiting the zone. Like any dark tourism site, it provides an incredible first hand insight into a horrific chapter in human history. Perhaps most importantly it reminds us of the terrible impact we can have on the planet whether purposefully or not.
The actions that led to this disaster are almost unbelievable, but somehow it’s still a hot topic even today. The nuclear bombed city of Hiroshima is another example of man’s appetite for destruction. The nuclear museum at Hiroshima warns of the still very real threat of nuclear weapons around the world, but also of the Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT signed by major world powers to ensure nothing like Chernobyl or Hiroshima can ever happen again. It’s something we must all be aware of as well as the other negative impacts we, as a species, are having on the planet.
You can’t help but leave Chernobyl with a sense of hope though. Here in a zone closed off to people for just 30 years nature has recovered. Scientists condemned the land as uninhabitable yet here wildlife is thriving. And this is not just confined to Chernobyl, around the world National Parks and Marine reserves are being created to protect the natural world from industry and destruction. Have we finally learned our lesson? Only time will tell.