Wormwood: A Revelation
As agnostic as I am, I thought I’d start this blog on a dramatic note. As I recently entered my fifth decade, I was given a gift by my extended family of a trip to the Ukraine, in particular to Chernobyl, the site of the most disastrous nuclear accident in history. With friends like that etc….It has, along with countless others, always held a curious fascination over me, so it was a trip that I greatly anticipated.
The merits of ‘dark tourism’ can be debated another day, but I do think that it is important to remember the event itself, and the (at least in terms of human timelines) eternal consequences of the event. The name of the city of Chernobyl is the same as the Ukrainian name for Mugwort or the common wormwood plant, hence the apocryphal reference at the start. Anything can be chilling with enough hindsight, but the scribes really outdid themselves with that doozy.
Through a catastrophic series of both systemic and human errors, an explosion occurred in Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the early hours of the 26th of April 1986. It was one of only 2 ‘Level 7’ nuclear accidents (the other being Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan in 2011). Subsequent to the initial explosion, which itself released a huge amount of radioactive material into the immediate vicinity, a fire raged for 9 days releasing an equivalent amount of fission products into the atmosphere, leading to fallout over coming weeks in the USSR, Western Europe and, most cruelly and widespread, Belarus, immediately north of the of the accident (where it is estimated that up to 25% of the land is contaminated, compared to <5% of the Ukraine). An exclusion zone, controlled by the military, was established which extends 30 kms in all directions from the plant, most of which will be unsafe for human habitation for 20,000 years (over 4 times the length of recorded human history, or 800 generations, take your pick). This zone is peppered with radioactive hotspots where fatally radioactive debris, trees and structures were bulldozed into the ground, or where fallout was particularly bad. These spots remain uninhabitable for hundreds of thousands of years. I know, it’s like choosing between hit by a bus or a train; neither is good news.
The human cost of the accident was vast, subject to debate, frequently contrary and yet to be determined or indeed understood. Glasnost (or Openness) was just starting to flower, and the powers that be were slow at releasing news and statistics. The fiscal costs were also immense for the USSR, estimated to be around 18 billion rubles for the clean-up operation (this was when the ruble almost had parity to the US dollar), with the deployment of over 500,000 workers. The cost to the nuclear industry was disastrous, leading indirectly to several countries phasing out nuclear power, such as Italy and Germany. It has become a horrific cautionary tale, and it could be argued that it led to the proliferation of fossil fuel based power stations during the 1990’s and 2000’s, the climatic effects of which we are currently reaping. A broad brush stroke opinion, but this is my blog. Efficient renewable energy technology was in its infancy at this stage, so the choice was broadly nuclear or fossil.
As I wandered around the reclaimed by nature streets of Pripyat, the town immediately north of the reactor which was evacuated forever the day after the accident, I was mainly struck by a sense of sadness. The town’s population of 50,000 had an average age of 26, and was a jewel in the crown of the USSR. With high employment, a well-planned infrastructure, excellent facilities and an optimistic pro-communist population, it must have been a nightmarish day for the population of young families. My guide said that there were plans to apply for the city to become a UNESCO heritage site. This in itself throws up almost metaphysical arguments. Heritage sites are, broadly speaking, sites of human achievement, breath-taking beauty and historical importance. Although Pripyat (and the entire exclusion zone for that matter) absolutely has its own eerie beauty, and is certainly of historical importance, it is, I think, the equivalent of a photographic negative of human achievement. It is what happens when we get things terribly, terribly wrong. Also, how do you preserve a site that’s very draw and attraction is the fact that it is slowly decaying? What buildings do you preserve over others? When does it become something that it never was? I feel extremely lucky to have seen it in its current state, as I’m almost certain that most buildings won’t exist in another decade; several have already collapsed.
I’ll end on a positive note. How do you solve a problem like Maria? What do you do with land that is uninhabitable and unfarmable for thousands of years? The elegant solution (without being flippant about a tragic situation) is solar power. Recent investment by German, Ukranian and Chinese corporations (in particular the Chinese who have a long history in reconditioning contaminated land and fitting it for renewable energy) in prototype solar farms has led to this being the only viable future for the exclusion zone.
A solar, renewable future rising from the ashes of a nuclear disaster is the best outcome that we could have hoped for. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.
- Emmet Nolan