Is Chernobyl a Wild Kingdom or a Radioactive Den of Decay
The pine trees framing the entrance
to the forest appear to be normal. Unremarkable. But the crackling dosimeter says otherwise. On this freezing February afternoon, about 2 miles from the concrete sarcophagus that now entombs the number four reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, Gennadi Milinevsky, a physicist from a university in Kiev, walks along a path carpeted with pine needles and patches of recent snow. The size of a transistor radio, the dosimeter emits a sharp click when it detects a radioactive particle. Milinevsky waves the instrument: Its digital readout indicates levels of radiation 120 times higher than normal. As he walks, the staccato popping gets faster as the levels climb to 250 times higher than normal. “It’s not good,” he says. He ventures toward a wide clearing littered with the trunks of dead trees. Milinevsky suggests stopping the tour here. On the far side of the clearing, he knows, the dosimeter will begin to make a sound no one wants to hear: a terrifying snowstorm of screeching white noise, indicating highly toxic levels of gamma radiation some 1,000 times above normal.
This is the poisoned heart of the Red Forest, nearly 4,000 acres of pine trees that were blanketed with radioactive isotopes of strontium, cesium, plutonium, and microscopic pieces of uranium that roiled from the blazing core of reactor number four over 10 days in April and May of 1986. The pines died in a matter of days, the russet needles marking the windblown path of the most deadly radioactivity to escape the burning reactor. Twenty-five years later, it remains one of the most contaminated ecosystems on earth.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone now encompasses more than 1,600 square miles of northern Ukraine and southern Belarus, a ragged swatch of forests, marshes, lakes, and rivers. Cordoned off by a fence and armed guards soon after the accident, the perimeter was first drawn up according to airborne surveys of gamma radiation contamination conducted in the days after the explosions, and it has since been expanded more than once. The current zone extends up to 60 miles from the power plant, the main entrance on the Ukraine side blocked by a paramilitary checkpoint equipped with radiation screening tools. Deeper within the region, a 6-mile zone designates the most heavily contaminated areas around the plant.
In the months after the accident, Soviet authorities undertook drastic measures to deal with the catastrophe. Almost 1,000 acres of the Red Forest had perished, and nearly 4 square miles of topsoil around the sarcophagus was scraped away and buried as radioactive waste. Of the 250 settlements and villages in the zone that were evacuated, the most radioactive were bulldozed in their entirety and interred. Contaminated livestock were slaughtered, and abandoned pet dogs were shot by teams of local hunters. By the time the process of liquidation was finished, the land surrounding the reactor had been transformed into a sterile moonscape, a nightmarish post-nuclear wasteland flattened by machinery and sprayed with chemicals designed to trap radioactive particles close to the ground... Continues on for about 5 pages