Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places, p.1
VISIT SUNNY CHERNOBYL
DAY TRIPS THROUGH A RADIOACTIVE WONDERLAND
THE GREAT BLACK NORTH
OIL SANDS MINING IN NORTHERN ALBERTA
PORT ARTHUR, TEXAS, AND THE INVENTION OF OIL
THE EIGHTH CONTINENT
SAILING THE GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH
DEFORESTATION IN THE AMAZON
IN SEARCH OF SAD COAL MAN
E-WASTE, COAL, AND OTHER TREASURES OF CHINA
THE GODS OF SEWAGE
DOWNSTREAM ON INDIA’S MOST POLLUTED RIVER
This is a work of nonfiction. I have changed names when it seemed appropriate and made occasional, immaterial rearrangements of chronology. While allowing minor editing for clarity, I have striven to put words in quotes only when they were actually said—in that form, by that person. I have tried always to leave outside of quotation marks anything that I chose to rephrase, whether because of the limitations of my notes and memory, or for purposes of brevity, or due to the grey areas of on-the-fly translation. When so imprudent as to include facts or figures, I have attempted to be scrupulous in my choice and interpretation of sources.
For photographs, further maps, and more information about the places, people, organizations, and issues touched on in this book—or if you think I got anything wrong and would like to tell me so—please visit:
“EVEN WHAT IS MOST UNNATURAL IS PART OF NATURE.”
—GEORG CHRISTOPH TOBLER, “DIE NATUR”
We come in smooth, coasting, sliding between stands of reeds, water lapping against the metal sides of the rowboat. A host of dragonflies dances around us. They land on the dented edges of the boat, on the oar handles, on my hands. A little one lands on my nose. As I row, the oars catch on thick colonies of lily pads, rising out of the water ripe and green. They glisten for a moment in the midday sun, then plunge back under with the following stroke.
Sitting on the bow, a young woman gazes out over the water, over an expanse of marshy islands extending in every direction. The air vibrates with a shrill chorus of frogs.
A high beep breaks the reverie. Olena looks down at the device in her hand. It’s a radiation detector. We bought it in Kiev a few days ago.
“It says twenty,” she calls out. “I guess we’re going in the right direction.”
I look down at the tattered photocopy of a map, handed to me onshore by a smiling weekend fisherman. It shows part of the Kiev Sea, a broad, placid reservoir that greets the confluence of the Pripyat and Dnieper Rivers. I’m almost certain we’ve already reached our destination. Here, somewhere among the dragonflies and lily pads, we have crossed a boundary. A border guarded only by coasting herons and warbling frogs.
We have just infiltrated the world’s most radioactive ecosystem.
This is the Exclusion Zone, site of the infamous Chernobyl disaster. A radiological quarantine covering more than a thousand square miles of Ukraine and Belarus, it is largely closed to human activity, even a quarter century after the meltdown. Entry to the zone is forbidden without prior permission, an official escort, and a sheaf of paperwork. A double fence of concrete posts and barbed wire encircles it, and guards man the entrances.
On land, that is. By water, the zone is open for your enjoyment. Or if not exactly open, not so closed that anything stands in the way of an afternoon paddle. All you need is a rowboat and some way to get to Strakholissya, the town closest to where the Pripyat River flows out of the zone. You might not even need your own rowboat. In Strakholissya, after a picnic of strawberries and sandwiches, we met an old woman who let us make off with hers. When we asked her what it would cost, she seemed to take it as a philosophical question. “What would such a thing cost?” she said, refusing the money. We paid her in strawberries.
I keep rowing. The tall grass slides along the side. I warm myself in the sun. This is the rest of the infiltration plan. Only this. To peer at the dragonfly on my nose. To watch a vast thunderhead erupt from beyond the horizon, billowing into the sky.
Years ago, I spent six months in India. I saw any number of exotic sights there, from traditional villages in a remote corner of Rajasthan to the gilt sanctuary of a Buddhist monastery perched like a citadel on the slopes of the Himalayas. I watched as traditional fishermen pulled nets full of writhing fish out of the Arabian Sea for sale right on the beach. I contemplated sacred carvings in thousand-year-old Jain temples.
You know. The usual crap.
And then there was Kanpur. Newly awarded the title of India’s Most Polluted City by the national government—which says something in India—it was not an obvious destination. In fact, hardly anybody outside India has ever heard of Kanpur, and few people inside the country would give it a second thought. But I was traveling with an environmentalist, and environmentalists can have unusual sightseeing priorities.
What followed was an intensive, three-day tour of dysfunctional sewage-treatment plants, illegal industrial dumps, poisonous tanneries, and feces-strewn beaches. The crowning moment was our visit to a traditional Hindu bathing festival in which scores of pilgrims dunked themselves in a rank stretch of the sacred—but horribly contaminated—river Ganges, collecting bottles of holy, chromium-laced water for use back home. All this, and not another tourist in sight.
Inexplicably, Kanpur became the highlight of my entire time in India. Kanpur. I couldn’t account for it. Did I have a thing for industrial waste? Was I just some kind of environmental rubbernecker?
That wasn’t it. In Kanpur, I had found something. Something I hadn’t encountered anywhere else. I couldn’t shake it: the sense of having stumbled into a wholly unexpected place. Of having seen something there, among the effluent pipes and the open latrines. A trace of the future, and of the present. And of something else—something inscrutably, mystifyingly beautiful.
Leaving the country, I looked up Kanpur in my guidebooks to get their take on the place. Nothing. As far as Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide were concerned, Kanpur—a city of millions—was literally not on the map. It was a noxious backwater to be avoided and ignored.
And for any traveler curious enough to find a place like Kanpur interesting, well…there was just no way to find out about it.
VISIT SUNNY CHERNOBYL
It began on a train. Vienna to Kiev, rocking back and forth in a cabin of the Kiev Express. There was a certain Agatha Christie-meets-Leonid Brezhnev charm to it. Long oriental rugs ran the length of its corridors, and the passenger compartments were outfitted with a faux wood-grain veneer and dark red seats that folded up to form bunks.
It’s not actually called the Kiev Express. If it were an express, it wouldn’t take thirty-six hours. In fact, train is no way to make this trip. I bought my ticket only because I believed, unaccountably, that Vienna and Kiev were close to each other. They are not.
I was going to Chernobyl, on vacation.
Trains are for reading, and I had brought a pair of books: Voices from Chernobyl, a collection of survivor interviews, and Wormwood Forest, an investigation of the accident’s effect on the environm
My companion in the passenger compartment was Max, a rotund, smiling man in his early thirties. Max spoke in a high, oddly formal voice and looked like a grown-up Charlie Brown, if Charlie Brown had grown up in the USSR. Originally from Kiev, he now worked in Australia as a computer programmer. He had an endearing way of stating the obvious. I would wake up from a nap, my book sliding onto the floor, and look out the window to see that we had stopped in a station.
“We have stopped,” Max would say.
We spent the first night crossing the length of Slovakia. A beautiful dusk settled over the cracked smokestacks of deserted factories.
In the morning, we reached the Ukrainian border and rolled into a cluttered rail yard, coming to rest between a set of oversize jacks, taller than the train car itself. A team of crusty rail workers set themselves wrenching and hammering at the wheels of the train, and soon the jacks were raising the entire car into the air, leaving the wheel trucks beneath us on the rails.
The train tracks in the former Soviet Union don’t match those in Europe, you see. So they were changing the wheels on the train.
“They are changing the wheels on the train,” Max said.
By afternoon we had entered the flowered alpine landscape of the Carpathian Mountains, and Max had become curious about my plans. I chose not to tell him that I was embarking on an epic, years-long quest to visit the world’s most polluted places. I just said I was headed for Chernobyl.
His face lit up. He had stories to tell. In the spring of 1986, when word of the disaster got out, he was eleven years old, living in Kiev. Soon, people were trying to get their children out of the city. It was nearly impossible to get train tickets, Max said, but somehow his family got him onto a train bound southeast for the Crimea. Even though tickets were so hard to come by, the train was nearly empty, and Max implied that the government had manufactured the ticket shortage to keep people from leaving the city.
“When we arrived,” he said, “the train was surrounded by soldiers. They tested everyone and their things for radiation before allowing them to move on. They were trying to keep people from spreading contamination.”
He stayed away from Kiev that entire summer. From his parents, he heard stories about life in the city during those months. The streets were washed down every day. Bakeries that had once left their wares out in the open on shelves now wrapped them in plastic.
Max talked about the possibility that cancer rates in the area had increased because of Chernobyl, and he told me that his wife, also from Kiev, had abnormalities in her thyroid, which he attributed to radioactive exposure.
“It’s very lucky Kiev didn’t get more radiation, thanks to the winds,” he said. Then, in his very polite, clipped voice, he asked, “And what do you think about nuclear energy?”
That night I lay restless in my bunk and imagined—as only an American can—the post-Soviet gloom slipping by outside, felt the train shudder as it pushed through the thick ether left behind by an empire. In the book of Chernobyl survivors’ stories, I read an account by a firefighter’s widow. They were newly married when her husband responded to the fire at the reactor. One of the first at the scene, he received catastrophic doses of radiation and died after two weeks of gruesome illness.
Desperately in love, his wife had snuck into the hospital to accompany him in his ordeal, even though his very body was dangerously radioactive.
“I don’t know what I should talk about,” she says in her account. “About death or about love? Or are they the same?”
Kiev is a beautiful city, a true Paris of the East, a charming metropolis whose forests of horse chestnut trees set off its ancient churches and classic apartment buildings like jewels on a bed of crumpled green velvet. The trick is to come in the summertime, when a warm breeze blows across the Dnieper River and the bars and cafés spill out into the gentle evening. You can stroll down the Andriyivskyy Descent, lined with cafés and shops, or explore the mysterious catacombs of the Pechersk Lavra, with its menagerie of dead monks. Or you can dive into the city’s pulsing downtown nightlife.
I went straight for the Chernobyl Museum.
There’s a special blend of horror and civic pride on display at any museum dedicated to a local industrial disaster, and the Chernobyl Museum is surely the best of its kind. The place incorporates history, memorial, commentary, art, religion, and even fashion under a curatorial ethos that is the mutant offspring of several different aesthetics.
In one of the museum’s two main halls, I found a bizarre temple-like space. Soothing Russian choral music emanated from the walls. In the center of the room lay a full-size replica of the top face of the infamous reactor. A dugout canoe was suspended above it, heaped with a bewildering mixture of religious images and children’s stuffed toys. I tried to understand the room’s message, and could not. Empty contamination suits lingered in the shadows, arranged in postures of bafflement and ennui.
The second hall housed a definitive collection of Chernobyl memorabilia, as well as a tall aluminum scaffold hung with mannequins wearing nuclear cleanup gear. They seemed to be flying in formation, a squad of unusual superheroes. Their leader, arms upraised, wore a black firefighting suit with large white stripes and a metal backpack connected to a gas mask. Through the bubble of the helmet’s face guard, I could just make out the cool, retail gaze of a female head, with full eyelashes and painted plastic lips.
Underneath, there was a cross-sectioned model of the reactor building in its pre-accident state. As I peered into it to get a view of the reactor’s inner workings, two docents lurking by the door noticed my interest. Moving with the curt authority of guards, they rushed forward to turn the model on, groping at a control panel attached to the base. The model reactor glowed warmly, showing the normal circulation of water in the core. But the women were unsatisfied. Fussing in Ukrainian, they began flipping the switch back and forth, wiggling and slapping the little control panel with increasing fervor. Finally, they jiggled the switch just right, and the rest of the reactor’s systems—water and steam pipes, cooling systems and boilers—flickered to life.
To understand the Chernobyl accident, it helps to know something about how electricity gets generated and, specifically, about nuclear power—though not so much that your eyes glaze over.
In general, power plants generate electricity by spinning turbines. Picture a big hamster wheel and you get the idea. Each turbine is connected to a generator, in which a conductor turns through the field of a strong magnet, thus creating electricity by magic. Men in hard hats then distribute this power to entire continents full of televisions and toaster ovens.
The ageless question, then, is just how to spin all those damn turbines. You can build a dam to collect huge volumes of water that you can let rush through your turbines. You can build windmills with little generators that get powered by the turning rotors. Or you can boil a lot of water and force the steam into the turbine under high pressure.
This last one works great, but you need a hell of a lot of heat to make enough steam. Where are you going to get it? Well, you can burn coal, natural gas, or even trash, if you like. That, or you can cook up some nuclear fission.
Oh, fission. People make it sound so complicated, but any chump can get the basics. It involves—to skip most of the physics—piling up a giant stack of purified uranium to make your reactor’s core. You’ll have to mix some graphite in with the uranium, to mellow out the neutrons it’s emitting.
We good? Okay. Once you’ve got the core together, install some plumbing in it so you can run water through to carry off the heat, and then just stand back and cross your fingers.
A few of the uranium atoms in your core will spontaneously split—they’re funny that way—and when they do, they’ll give off heat and some neutrons. It doesn’t matter if y
So far, so good.
The problem with this chain reaction is that, by its very nature, it tends to run out of control. So to keep your reactor’s apocalyptic side in check, you should slide some rods made of boron or hafnium into the reactor core. (Remember to make room for them while you’re stacking the uranium.) These rods—let’s call them control rods—will be like sponges, absorbing all those lively, bullet-like neutrons. With the control rods duly inserted, you’ll get…nothing.
The trick, then, is to find the happy medium, while remaining on the correct side of the line that separates air-conditioning from catastrophe. To do this, you’ll need to pull the control rods out of the core far enough to let the chain reaction begin, but not so far that it runs out of control. Then you can heat water and spin turbines and generate electricity to your heart’s content.
But pull the control rods out slowly, okay? And for the love of God, please—please—put them back when you’re done.
With the Chernobyl Museum taken care of, I had a couple of days to kill in Kiev before my excursion to Chernobyl itself, and I spent them exploring my new neighborhood. I was living in style, sidestepping Kiev’s overpriced hotels by renting an inexpensive apartment that was nevertheless nicer than any I had ever lived in back home. The front door of my building opened onto the bustling but cozy street of Zhitomirskaya, and it was an easy walk to Saint Sophia Square. There was also a nice terrace park where the young and hip of Kiev would gather in the late afternoon to throw Frisbees, play bongo drums, and drink beer in the glow of the sunset.