October 2012

No. 4 Reactor, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Chernobyl is most remarkable for what it does not reveal: radiation.  You cannot see, hear, smell or feel the region’s best-known product.  During my time there I relied on a hand-held dosimeter to record the level of nuclear contamination.  The April 26, 1986 explosion of the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant released cesium, strontium and plutonium in such a random pattern that it’s difficult to predict which areas are hot and which not.  I found it disconcerting to revel in the beauty of a birch forest turning gold with autumn only to find too hot to tarry there.

Still, it was exhilarating to be a journalist in this iconic place talking to scientists about the changes in plant and animal life over the last 26 years.  I am working with a colleague in Japan, contrasting the effects of land management in Chernobyl with what’s planned and already underway in the Fukushima region.  Among the highlights of my three-day visit to the Chernobyl exclusion zone: 

  • Soviet-style breakfast – shredded cabbage, diced beets, porridge of warm milk and last night’s left-over noodles.  And that’s just the first course!
  • Przewalski’s horses – two bands of this species extinct in the wild before relocation here.  They move en masse like a school of fish.
  • Abandoned houses – clusters of rural homes with vines entwining hearthstones deserted for relocation in strange cities.  No one tends the cemeteries.
  • Most bizarre moment — Pushing our ancient Ford Scorpio to jump-start the dead battery in the parking lot of the world’s worst nuclear accident.