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Chernobyl Fires, Then and Now – 2 – “The Silent Summer”

June 21, 2018

Six legged deer, one of many mutated animals from the post-accident Chernobyl exclusion zone

Nuclear Notes – 2

The area of a terrible nuclear accident, now safe for animals and people?

Over the years, largely because I visited the place long ago, (see Chernobyl Fires, Then and Now – 1), I have checked in with the developments at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine that exploded as the result of an accident on April 26, 1986. The top of Chernobyl’s Reactor Four was blown off, releasing 400 times the amount of radiation from the Hiroshima bomb into the atmosphere.

The explosion contaminated significant areas of the northern Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and much of Europe. The United Nations estimated that over the next twenty years some 600,000 people died from Chernobyl related negative impacts (cancer, leukemia, circulatory and other chronic diseases). There are other estimates suggesting that the figure is greater yet, surpassing a million victims.

According to the World Health Organization, just after the accident, in the spring and summer of 1986, 116 000 people were evacuated from the area surrounding the Chernobyl reactor to non-contaminated areas. The evacuations included Chernobyl, nearby Pripryat and approximately 180 villages in the effected areas. Another 230 000 people were relocated in subsequent years.

Among those evacuated were the 50,000 residents of the nearby town of Pripryat, home to many Chernobyl employees at a time. Authorities first lied, telling them the residents the accident posed no danger to them, even pressuring them to participate in open air activities in conjunction with May Day, International Workers Day, which proceeded as scheduled as hundreds marched in the open air saturated with high levels of radioactivity.

Shortly thereafter, however, Pripryat was suddenly and swiftly evacuated. Again, the Soviet government misinformed them, telling Pripryaters they would be able to return to home within a few days. That never happened.m Believing the evacuation was a temporary measure residents left all personal belonging in their homes. They were prohibited from returning once the scale of the disaster was recognized. Pripryat remains abandoned, a kind of modern-day Pompei.

Then a few days afterwards, the town was ordered evacuated. “Blocks of flats and schools where children’s toys, books and handwritten notes still lie abandoned and a big wheel still rises above an amusement park on the central square, ” one article on the Chernobyl tours notes. I saw that chilling abandoned site too in 1989.

As with the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant facility northwest of Denver, Colorado, there are claims that the Chernobyl exclusion area – the area most heavily effected by radioactive contamination – is safe now for animals and humans.

In their academic journal article on Chernobyl tourism [ (2014) Dark and toxic tourism in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, Current Issues in Tourism, 17:10, 929-939],  Ganna Yankovska & Kevin Hannam quote Mary Mycio (2005, p.2), author of Wormwood Forest, describing the exclusion zone as ‘Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary.’ Mycio goes on to explain that ‘radiation is no longer ‘on’ the zone, but ‘of’ the zone. It is part of the food chain.’ Radiation “a part of the food chain?”

Adding a bit more cyanide to this particular brand of cool aid, some documentaries about the revival of wildlife in the region, including one by National Geographic, another by the New York Timeshave also been made. I’m glad that the Przewalski’s horses, near extinct remaining wild horses with a rich evolutionary history, are on the rebound in nearby forests.

But declarations that the area is some kind of “restored Eden brimming with wildlife” overstate the seriousness of what happened and underplays the dangers of radioactivity. And the fact that Chernobyl become a heavily visited “wildlife preserve” strikes me as yet another case where once again the profit motive (there are four Kiev based tourism companies that run tours there) trumps science and any modicum of common sense.

Unless it can be stopped by protesters, including former plant employees, Rocky Flats, too, is  about to be turned into a wildlife preserve despite stiff opposition, much of it spearheaded by the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center out of Boulder to which I have long contributed. The arguments as to why one of the most polluted areas in the country and the world, Rocky Flats, would be turned into a wildlife preserve bear an eerie resemblance to the rationals for opening up Chernobyl to tourism, ie, government claims that in both areas, radiation levels are “under control.”

There are two scientific problems involved in both cases:

  • Firstly that the studies suggesting that the areas are safe and that levels of radioactive contamination are “acceptable” were done by government agencies that have close ties to nuclear power industries
  • Secondly that there is still an ongoing debate about the impact of what are referred to as low-level doses of radiation in the first place. Can one speak of safe levels of radioactive contamination?

There really isn’t scientific debate on the impact of low-level radiation. A number of studies done in the 1970s through 1990s, including the work of Rosalie Bertell and Dr. Helen Caldicott, among others, have dispelled any doubts that low-level radiation levels remain extremely dangerous and that for centuries if not millennia. Yet government reports, heavily influenced by industry participants and money continue to argue the contrary, keeping the door open for nuclear energy development as well as projects like the Chernobyl and Rocky Flats Wildlife areas.

Concerning Chernobyl…

On the one hand, there has been an explosion of wildlife in the forest and swampy regions abandoned by most human activity in the exclusion zone, suggesting that high radiation levels have had a minimal effect. The revival of wild life there is an established fact and much has been made of it.

The work of Dr. Timothy Mousseau

On the other, the studies done by Dr. Timothy Mousseau suggest a darker more troublesome patterns. Mousseau’s work deserves more serious attention than what are, in essence, the shallower, more anecdotal claims that all is well with post accident Cherobyl nature. He’s studied the animal life in the exclusion zone for more than a decade. He speaks of the exclusion zone as being a kind of “silent summer,” – a summer where death still outpaces life as a result of radiation poisoning.

Mousseau’s studies reveal that “life has been far more slow to recover than previously believed.” The area that he has studied within the exclusion zone has much higher levels of radioactive exposure than most species can tolerate. He hopes to shed light on the lasting effects of radiation on species, including humans.

Among his findings…significant genetic damage in both plants and animals and higher cancer rates. In contrast to certain claims to the contrary, there is no evidence any kind of comprehensive adaptation of plants and animals to radiation. The most important conclusion from Mousseau’s work: there is a major difference between what government reports suggest – the so-called authorities on the topic – that the kinds of doses of radiation as a result of the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents would have no major consequences for wildlife on the one hand and the results of many publications later, that the evidence is overwhelming that, to the contrary, radiation is having significant consequences on wildlife.

“Basically we’re seeing all the same kinds of issues that were seen in atomic bomb survivor studies,” “Every rock we turn over shows some signal of this radioactive contamination,” Mousseau is quoted during a 2016 presentation. Specifically:

  • Most studies of plant and animal life in the post-Chernobyl accident exclusion zone show some form of genetic damage, and in fact large and significant genetic consequences
  • The abundance of many species of birds are depressed in the areas of high contamination leading to a decrease in biodiversity on the order of 50% fewer species in hot areas than there should be without radioactivity in the area. All major groups of animals show lower numbers in the affected areas. Same basic patterns for post accident Fukushima
  • As a general rule, the higher the dose of radioactivity within the effected areas, the fewer the critters
  • studies of bird sperm from different species of male birds in the exclusion zones reveal lower sperm counts, higher levels of mutated sperm and lower reproductive rates.
  • In the hottest (radioactive levels the highest) parts of Chernobyl, many of the birds are completely sterile (in the so-called red forest areas
  • Mousseau has seen much higher frequencies of tumors and physical abnormalities, like deformities like deformed beaks among birds compared with those from uncontaminated areas
  • Like the human victims of Hiroshima, birds and mice in post accident Chernobyl have higher levels of cataracts
  • Also in a pattern similar to atomic bomb survivors, bird and mice offspring tend to have smaller brains.
  • The length of the calling song in cuckoos is much shorter than the frequency of cuckoo calling songs in non-contaminated areas
  • He’s measured declines in insects and spiders and has found that the webbing material of spiders in the effected zones is lacks the density, had less structure from those outside it.
  • Plant life (mushrooms, indicator species for all kinds of pollution) show high levels of radioactivity.
  • Recently cut trees in the zone show a dramatic change in the color of their rings exactly in 1986
  • Trees grow in strange patterns
  • The frequency of aberrant color patterns on the backs of insects is directly proportional to how radioactive the area is.
  • Radiation in the hottest areas reveals “pollen inviability” in many plant species, a contributor to plant viability, plant productivity

Of course each one of these are small indicators but when taken together they become a powerful indictment of what has been a reckless and cynical decision to suggest the exclusion area in Chernobyl (or that in Rocky Flats) is safe for tourism.

Pripryat, April 1989. (R. Prince photo)

Tourists Roll into Chernobyl

In spite of the dangers, there has been nothing short of a surge in tourism within Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. Last year, in 2017 nearly 50,000 people visited the place, a 35% increase over 2016, 70% of the visitors being foreigners.

It is even possible to stay a few nights in a basic hotel or one of two hostels near the power station. For the less cautious adventurers, it is possible to spend a night or two at one of the two hostels or in a basic hotel within the exclusion zone. Tours of from one to seven days are priced between 25 to 650 euros ($30 to $790). As an example of what such tours offer:

The activities on offer include viewing the new shield covering the damaged reactor, feeding gigantic catfish in the radioactive waters of cooling pools, and driving past the “red forest” – where pine needles turned from green to red after the accident due to absorbing massive levels of radiation.

The trees were felled and buried during the clean-up operation, but even now, when a tour bus drives past the area without stopping, the tourists’ Geiger counters all start beeping frenetically, signalling a very strong increase in radiation

Tourism to Chernobyl began within a decade of the nuclear accident. But up until 2012, at least in principle, tourism to the exclusion zone was  regulated by the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Entry was generally limited to foreign scientists, journalists and former residents of the territory visiting the remains of their homes and graves of relatives and friends. There was one tourist agency that was given a permit to give guided tours in the exclusion zone for others that functioned on a limited basis.

However, as Yavkovaska and Hannan note  of the Chernobyl exclusion area, quoting Phillips and Ostaszewski, “the area has never truly been an exclusion zone.” It has long been characterized by lax security, shoddy and broken-down fencing with wildlife and people roaming in and out at will.

Claims of reduced radiation levels after 2006 led the Ukrainian government to loosen the visiting standards, the number of approved tourism agencies given permits to visit the exclusion zone increased to four in 2011. From that time onward there has been nothing short of a Chernobyl tourism boom.

My thoughts on Chernobyl tourism remain ambivalent.

On the one hand, visiting Chernobyl, like visiting Auschwitz, Hiroshima, World War One and Two battle sites, the site of the Sand Creek Massacre or the grounds of the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant here in Colorado are important.

My own experience is that actually visiting such sites, with some historical background beforehand enriches our understanding of what transpired at such places, opening up the mind. It brings one in touch with history with events that are far away in time and place. Although such visits by themselves only scratch the surface, still, they remind us the dark side of the human experience…and we all, particularly people living in world powers with a history of ignorance and arrogance of the rest of the world, need such exposure.

I’m for it.

I wish every American, geographically isolated from Asia and Europe could at least once visit a Nazi concentration camp and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It might result in a more sober appreciation of the horrors of war, and in the case of atomic bombing targets, the likely consequences of nuclear war.

But the way that Chernobyl (and now Rocky Flats) are being opened up to the public doesn’t border on the irresponsible, it goes beyond that. It is market driven, cynical and thinking about it more in a not so subtle way highly ideological in a disturbing sense. How so? Prematurely and frankly recklessly, opening such facilities to the public seriously downplays the dangers of nuclear radiation. It is a way of making nuclear war more palatable, suggesting that a world run on nuclear energy is still safe or at best not that dangerous as ten or twenty years after the Chernobyl accident the radiation levels have become safe. True that some radioactive isotopes do dissipate quickly, in less than a decade or two. This is true of radio-active iodine with its half-life of eight days, and cesium that dissipates thirty years.

But then plutonium has a half-life of 24,000.


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