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General News    H1'ed 4/16/11

Zone of Alienation: Chernobyl 25 Years Later

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It is actually an abandoned country road, overgrown with the forest. Though Pripyat was evacuated within two days, the rural areas took much longer.  As more and more contaminated areas were identified,      350,000 people were resettled in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine over the decade after the disaster.  


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Some people returned, despite the prohibitions, especially the elderly.   In 1987, there were 1200 so-called "self settlers".   Some left, but    most died from natural causes. These days, there are only about 300 -- and 200 of them are women.  

 


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Some are gregarious, and enjoy having visitors.  But I have seen some very isolated and sad people on my zone travels. People who live in radioactive no man's lands don't usually have happy stories.

 


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One of the strangest international borders must be the one between Belarus and Ukraine that runs through the middle   of the evacuated region.   Crossing the border is illegal, though, because there are no border checkpoints in the zone.   It is amazing how isolated the two zones are from each other. There is virtually no communication     between them. My trip from Chernobyl to the Belarus side involved quite a bit of derring-do.

 


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These swamps in Belarus were drained for farmland in Soviet times      but have been re-flooded, becoming a magnet for aquatic birds.   Thousands of ducks, swans, egrets and rare black storks took off      right before I took the picture. The white speck in the middle is the    last egret.  It is a very radioactive area. The roadside readings were    20 times normal and birds can be very sensitive to strontium-90 because it imitates calcium, concentrating in eggshells and bone.  Reports of strontium around Fukushima are very worrisome.

 


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This moose watched us from the other side of the road.   Large     animals have rebounded in the zone. I have seen more wild boars, elk, moose, roe deer, wolves and other animals around Chernobyl than anywhere else in my life. Radiation is affecting them. Small creatures are especially vulnerable. But  because the health of wild animal  populations is  measured by their numbers, Chernobyl's large animals are healthy -- even if the health of individual members suffers from the effects of radiation.  If they live long enough to reproduce, they are biologically successful.


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Przewalski's Horses went extinct in the wild in the 1960s but they     have been a captive breeding success story.   There are now so many  of them worldwide that breeders have decided to try releasing them      in the wild. But few populated places are safe for wild horse herds.   Ukraine's Askania Nova is one of the world's largest captive breeding centers. In a a controversial program 21 horses were released into       the wilds of Chernobyl in 1999. By 2003, the herds had expanded to 65. Today they number over 90 and young stallions and mares have     started forming new herds.

 


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The Elephants Foot is at the very center of Chernobyl  but belongs to   no creature known before.   It is the nickname for a mass of melted    fuel that melded and solidified in room 217 below the reactor.       Instead of the 180 tons of fuel you would find in an intact reactor,     the Sarcophagus holds 3000 tons of fuel melded with building      materials too lethally radioactive to approach.   Scientists had to shoot the Elephants Foot with an AK-47 to knock off a piece that they could study remotely. It will be radioactive for what may as well be forever.

 


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Mary Mycio has been fascinated by nuclear issues since her 5th grade teacher said that her misbehaving class would die in a nuclear war because they didn't follow instructions. Her book "Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl" is available (more...)
 
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