Monday, April 28, 2014

30 years later: Chernobyl

Normally, I save my "nuclear stuff" posts for my writing blog, but we've had some crossover episodes before and this is interesting.

30 years ago (and a few days), Reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine had a meltdown. The explosion left the radioactive core entirely open to the world until they built the Sarcophagus , which is a big old (now crumbling) concrete bunker around it. So, lots and lots of Bad Nuclear Stuff was in the air, and as a result, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was formed for a 30 kilometer radius around the plant. The only people who still live there are the ones who refused to leave their homes, though some have become very sick as a result. Here's a selection of the first photos taken at Chernobyl; the pictures are foggy like that because that's what radiation does to camera film.

The interesting thing about the zone, though, is how it's affected the wildlife.

(Chernobyl sign from Wikimedia commons)

Radiation affects everything living, that is a fact. There is a portion of the Zone called the Red Forest, because the pine trees all died from the radiation they absorbed. There are fallen trees there which have not rotted, because the radiation killed even the bacteria which would normally break down fallen plant matter. That's what makes things like wild boar meat from the Zone so dangerous (and why I can't imagine people would still poach there); boars eat by rooting around on the forest floor, where a lot of radiation is still present.

Many deer, though, aren't nearly so contaminated. And there's a live functioning wolf pack there, where few wolves had ever been before.

You see, without human intervention in such a large space, nature has been able to take it back somewhat. Przewalski's horses have been released there to have their own habitat, where previously they were unknown in the wild anymore.

One of the few mutations they've noticed in animals in the time since the accident was albinism in barn swallows. From reading Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl by Mary Mycio (that's an affiliate link, but it's also an amazing book, even if you just get it from the library like I did [though I'm going to buy it one of these days]), I learned that the catfish in the Chernobyl plants coolant pool are huge. Not because they're mutated, but because fish will grow essentially indefinitely. Again, without the interference of Man, animals are able to get as large as they're supposed to, or have the social groups they're supposed to. Such a thing is referred to as in involuntary park, and has also occurred in the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Why am I so interested in Chernobyl? Really, I don't have a solid answer. Maybe it's because it's such a symptom of what happens when we take sticks and poke at things we ought not. Watching and reading about nuclear test videos is why I can never actually remember the NATO phonetic alphabet; I start out thinking it's "Abel, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy" not "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo" There was a nuclear core, referred to as the Demon core (since used in one of the Crossroads tests in the Pacific) involved in two laboratory accidents; messing around with it was referred to as "tickling the sleeping dragon", if that gives you any indication that these were adults doing things they knew they shouldn't. And did anyway.


  1. I remember the Chernobyl event quite well. I even worked with a couple of young Russian brothers who had emigrated to the US from the Chernobyl region after the disaster. They were pleasant fellows and we all used to joke with them about "glowing in the dark". (not very nice in retrospect). I wonder if they are even still alive at this point........

    1. I was too young to know about it at the time, and heard about it in a circumspect way for years until I went "Y'know, I'd like to know what happened." I was promptly hooked and have read about it ever since.

      I've never known anybody from that area, at all. I wonder if they are too; some people even still live in the Zone there, they might well be fine.