Context (Moscow Times)
January 27-February 3, 2006
A Man-Made Eden
Cursed land or untouched paradise? Two decades after the Chernobyl disaster transformed dozens of communities into ghost towns, a book by Mary Mycio assesses the damage.
By David R. Marples
Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl
By Mary Mycio
Joseph Henry Press
259 Pages. $27.95
The appearance last fall of "Wormwood Forest," Mary Mycio's absorbing book about Chernobyl, coincided with the release of a controversial report by several agencies of the United Nations and the governments of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus on the environmental and health effects of the 1986 nuclear disaster. Together, the two studies offer an antidote to more pessimistic analyses -- an indication that the effects of the accident might be less bleak than initially predicted, and that a reassessment is warranted of the evacuated areas and of medical casualties, both now and in the future.
That Mycio, a Kiev-based reporter and lawyer who also holds a degree in biology, has been working on this book for some time is evident. Her initial findings appeared in the Los Angeles Times almost 10 years ago, and, in the preface, she describes how her research transformed her from "adamant opponent of nuclear energy to ambivalent supporter" as she came to understand that alternative forms of energy have also taken a heavy toll on her ancestral Ukraine. Rather than the expose of government lies she initially meant to write, "Wormwood Forest" dwells on the wildlife, vegetation and people of Chernobyl, alternating between explanation and storytelling in a way that is easy to follow and frequently anecdotal.
The eight chapters are offered as a sort of travelogue, with the author wandering from the Belarussian side of the border to the Ukrainian, accompanied by various officials from the so-called Zone of Alienation, an area of highly contaminated land extending 30 kilometers out from the accident's epicenter. The fourth reactor unit at the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded on April 26, 1986, as operators were testing whether energy from turbines could continue to supply electricity and maintain coolant flow for as long as it took to switch to diesel emergency power. Mycio thoroughly explains the environmental damage that ensued as radioactive material began migrating through the soil. Among the most immediate social consequences was the widespread evacuation of extensive areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Mycio takes a hard look at the merits -- or lack thereof -- of the evacuation, asking which country actually suffered the most.
There is no clear answer to that question. Mycio provides a detailed table listing the people affected by Chernobyl through 2000 -- 5.85 million in all -- and shows, surprisingly, that over 2 million were from Russia, slightly more than the 1.94 million from Ukraine and 1.82 million from Belarus. In an objective and balanced assessment of the evacuation, she concludes that although the initial exodus was necessary and had an important impact on reducing radiation doses, the ones that took place more than a decade after the disaster did more harm than good because of the social and economic stresses involved.
Mycio is particularly informative when looking at animal life, and particularly at the boars, deer, bison and various rodents that took advantage of the absence of humans and proliferated in their new natural habitat. Focusing on the successful breeding experiments with Przewalski's horses, she dispels the myth of genetic mutations, noting that if there had been such mutations, these animals would have quickly died out. The author's descriptions of journeys into various parts of the zone to examine these horses are never less than entertaining.
More sobering is her discussion of the water situation; strontium levels in certain waterways doubled between 1986 and 1994. One of the many ironies of the fallout is that, today, the highest exposure to radiation through water consumption occurs not in Kiev but lower down the Dnieper River where the water is used for irrigation. This gives the radioactive particles a suitable pathway into the food chain. Though there are no mutants among mammals or fish, data collected 15 years after the accident showed all fish exceeding official limits for radioactivity. The most dangerous area, close to the reactor, is termed the "right-bank floodplain": "Each of its five square kilometers was contaminated with as much as 1,600 curies of cesium and 450 curies of strontium."
Mycio is at her best when she focuses on the human element, providing poignant descriptions of the samosely, or voluntary settlers, who wandered back to their homes in the wake of the accident. From some 1,210 samosely in 1987, the number of settlers dropped to only about 300 by the start of the 21st century. Yet people legally living outside the zone are not immune to Chernobyl's effects; radiation levels in the soil of some nearby areas measure from 15 to 40 curies per kilometer. Mycio refuses to speculate on the dangers, however, noting that much depends on the food consumed and the environmental variations from one region to another.
The key problem -- one that is implicit though understated in the UN report -- is that there is no consensus on the effects of small or chronic doses of radiation. As Mycio notes, it is difficult to compare Chernobyl populations with those that do not undergo regular screening. Not surprisingly, the health effects appear far more evident in people who are closely monitored. Further, it is almost impossible to distinguish deaths due to Chernobyl-induced cancers from those arising from other factors.
Rarely will one find a book that covers so much ground while remaining so accessible to the reader. Unfortunately, the lack of footnotes makes it at times impossible to discern whence various data derive. In her breakdown of the number of people affected by Chernobyl through 2000, for example, Mycio uses categories such as "people living in contaminated territories" and "invalids" without explaining what level of radiation constitutes a contaminated territory and how an invalid is defined. Equally frustrating is the table's division of "liquidators," or decontamination personnel, into two separate lists, one clearly pegged to the years 1986-1987 but the other (presumably for 1988-2000) not specified.
Similarly, some arguments are advanced and then left undeveloped, particularly Mycio's assessment of charitable associations and of the health vacations offered to children abroad. The author criticizes Chabad's Children of Chernobyl project for bringing affected children to Israel for medical treatment, calling it "a monumental waste of money" that would best be spent on establishing medical institutions in the contaminated areas. But is the same true for all charitable associations? And would such international efforts be possible in Belarus, which traditionally has never worked in harmony with non-governmental organizations and continues to imprison scientists who disagree with its assessment of Chernobyl's impact? Mycio stops short of answering these and other important questions.
While one can only admire the author for her fortitude in working in the zone, the impression she leaves of a great nature reserve rising like a phoenix from the Chernobyl ashes will surely be used to strengthen the case of those who believe that the disaster's consequences have been exaggerated. The historian might comment that the abandonment of settlements that have existed for eight centuries is an eternal indictment of nuclear energy. Mycio does not, and that is her privilege, but this book, which has many merits, will not end the debate.
David R. Marples is a professor of history at the University of Alberta and the author of three books on the Chernobyl disaster.