March 9, 2008
Written by Cory Chandler
Robert Baker, Horn professor of biology, is one of the world’s foremost experts on the repercussions of radioactive fallout on plants and animals near the Chernobyl disaster site. He first visited Chernobyl in 1994, eight years after a nuclear meltdown decimated an area that was once home to 120,000 people, and has visited more than 20 times since then.
My first time in the zone, I have no idea what to expect. The Geiger counter says there’s a lot of radiation. I don’t know if it’s damaging my body or not. I think there might be a price to pay for visiting.
One of the first nights I wake up and my feet are burning. They feel hotter than they should. I sit up in bed and feel my feet and of course they aren’t hot. I think ‘brain, don’t do that to me. Don’t start making up things that you don’t really have data for.’
The area where the radiation was strong enough to kill the trees in the red forest is not pretty. There are dead trees littering the ground. But the flowers and the grass, the new trees, are doing well and they’re growing. They look healthy.
The animals are incredible. Packs of wolves roam the country and there are lots of moose, lots of road deer – a huge number of pigs.
The bird populations are abundant and there are black storks, which are endangered. You never see those outside the zone. It’s a gorgeous fauna.
You fly to Dallas. You fly to Atlanta. Then it’s on to Amsterdam or some other place in Europe. Then Kiev (the Ukrainian capitol). You leave here at four in the afternoon and you arrive about 24 hours later. After that there is a two-hour car ride from Kiev.
If you stay in Slavutich, the city built to accommodate the people who worked at the reactor after the meltdown, you have to cross through Belarus. If you’re using the highway, that means customs. Every day: customs driving one way and then customs driving the other. It’s a pretty frustrating experience.
There is a duty-free shop in Belarus. Not an elegant place. It’s pretty austere. But you can always find something – beer maybe, a can of Nescafé, some cookies. One time I found an entire case of my favorite red wine on the dock, so I bought that for $6 a bottle, which is really magnificent.
The area is clearly restricted, though they’ve made it into a kind of nuclear Disneyland now. Tourists can go to Kiev, get a guide and take a tour through the zone. They even have a museum set up just outside of Reactor 4. It’s still highly regulated; they don’t just let tourists wander through that part of the country.
We wander just about anywhere we want to, though. At first we were highly supervised and the government sent somebody in with us, but we know what we’re doing. Over time they’ve allowed us more freedom.
These days, I don’t think that going into Chernobyl and walking around in that region for a week or two has any consequence to my genetics. If there were alpha radiation there would be, but gamma radiation probably doesn’t do that much. The beta just isn’t that powerful. So I have grown to really enjoy being there. I respect it. And if there is a consequence, the probability of it being detrimental is certainly pretty low.
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