Wilderness is retaking the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a restricted area in the Ukraine and Belarussia. A nuclear accident here in 1986 turned this region into the greatest wildlife refuge in Europe.
Because time travel to Pleistocene Georgia is technically impossible, I suppose, if I really insisted on living in a real wilderness, I could bribe a Russian official to let me live with the few peasant squatters who still inhabit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Officially, no one is supposed to reside here, but the Russian government lets a small group of people enjoy living a pre-industrial lifestyle here. Before the 1986 nuclear meltdown, Pripyat, formerly the largest urban center in the zone, was a thriving industrial city of 50,000. Chernobyl originated as a port town run by Jewish merchants, but the Soviet government chose the site for the construction of nuclear reactors, and nearby Pripyat became a fast growing city, a home for the workers. The area around the city consisted mainly of collectivized farms, and agricultural land was expanding because engineers were draining the vast wetlands adjacent to the major river.
Soviet engineering incompetence is legendary. Here’s a famous Russian joke that illustrates this ineptness perfectly.
How do you sink a Russian submarine?
Put it in the water.
Ironically, a safety test caused the Chernobyl meltdown. The safety test malfunction, then human error and design flaws compounded the disaster. The Chernobyl nuclear reactor was the only one in the world constructed with no containment room–that alone would have been enough to prevent the catastrophe. The Soviet government evacuated everyone living in Pripyat and all the surrounding towns and farmland. Most of the residents thought the evacuation was temporary, and they left most of their stuff behind. Today, looters scavenge this radioactive contraband. Nuclear fallout spread throughout Europe, and contamination is still a problem as far away as Great Britain in some localized areas where nuclear rain happened to fall.
The Soviet Union established the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone encompassing 1660 square miles where no one is officially allowed to reside with the exception of 2000 workers who live in shifts in Pripyat. It’s still necessary to maintain the reactor even though it’s useless for energy production. Workers suffer an elevated risk of cancer. They’re frequently given physical examinations, and if cancer is diagnosed, they’re fired. Since the Soviet Union collapsed, Belarussia and the Ukraine have split responsibilty for the zone.
The infamous red forest within the CEZ. Radiation turned the pine trees red in the forest immediately adjacent to the nuclear reactors.
The CEZ rapidly converted back to a wilderness that is far more impressive and interesting than any of America’s overcrowded National Parks. A forest composed of pine, oak, birch, aspen, and chestnut grows on abandoned farmland and even within city limits. Beavers tunneled through dikes and built dams on manmade canals, restoring the original grassy and woody marshes, peat bogs, and wet meadows. Unchecked forest fires and storm damage diversifies habitats. Overgrown fruit orchards provide abundant food for wildlife. Radiation poisoning is only visually evident in a small stretch of land adjacent to the nuclear plant known infamously as the “red forest.” Radiation turned the green pine trees red. Workers bulldozed and buried much of this contaminated environment, but pine trees resprouted, and they’re still red and in some cases stunted. The return of wildlife has been spectacular. Apparently for wildlife, the presence of humans is worse than radiation poisoning.
Wild boar romping in the CEZ.
5000 wild boar roam the CEZ, making them the most common ungulate. The males are huge, chest high, beasts weighing up to 500 pounds, and they are fierce and dangerous to humans. Elk (called red deer in Europe), moose (called elk in Europe), and roe deer are also common. European bison and Przewalski’s horse have been re-introduced, giving the zone a real Pleistocene feel.
Check out this youtube video of wild horse galloping across the plains of the CEZ. Looks like a scene from the Pleistocene. The herd should number 200, but instead is just 60 due to poaching. The economy in this part of the world must be pretty bad, if people are desperate enough to eat radioactive horse meat.
Rumors among the locals suggested a wolf population approaching 300, but a scientist studied the wolves here and estimates the population to be closer to 120–still impressive. One incident demonstrates how wild the CEZ has become. A scientist found himself surrounded by a wolf pack, and he had to shoot every one of them to escape.
Other rare European mammals have returned, including brown bears, lynx, otters, and beaver. The population of badgers, rabbits, hares, and squirrels is on the rise.
The Pripyat River, 10 miles wide in some places, has always been a destination for birdlife. Birds like to nest on the numerous grassy and woody islands and swamps in this maze of wetlands. Over 120 bird species utilize the CEZ for seasonal or year round residence, and now rare species are increasing in number. White-tailed eagles, great spotted eagles, Eurasian eagle-owls, cranes, marsh sandpipers, and golden-eyed ducks; some of these species completely extirpated in most of Europe; exist here in healthy numbers. White storks, which prefer the company of man, have left the area, but black storks, denizens of deep wilderness, are now nesting here.
Catfish and carp swimming in the canals adjacent to the reactor are growing huge–up to 80 pounds. The fish live a long time when there is no danger from human fishermen, and once they reach a certain size, they’re too big for most common natural predators. White-tailed eagles do prey on surprisingly large fish here. The PBS nature series, fittingly called Nature, recently had an episode about the CEZ entitled “Radioactive Wolves,” that showed the remains of several 40 pound carp. Eagles had dragged the heavy fish out of the water and consumed them. However, the fish bones were too radioactive for humans to even handle. Fish from the Pripyat River are safe for humans to eat because the flowing water flushed the radioactivity downstream.
Some scientists dispute the notion that the CEZ is a wilderness paradise. They note the high rates of mutation, such as albinism. Radiation increases the rate of mutation, and most mutations are detrimental to a species survival. They’ve determined the area immediately around the reactors acts as a population sink. They studied barn swallows and discovered the favorable habitat attracts lots of birds, but fewer survive here due to the radiation. Other scientists reject their findings. Most animals can endure more radiation than humans and because they don’t live as long, they have less of a chance to develope cancer. One species of mouse has even evolved resistance to radiation.
I think the U.S. government made a mistake by de- emphasizing the development of nuclear power. The risk of radiation contamination is small and is not nearly as bad as coal and oil pollution. Mountain top removal mining permanently destroys the land, mercury poisons our water, coal smoke ruins the air, and oil spills devastate the land and the sea. Clean alternatives will always be inadequate. Wind doesn’t work on calm days; solar doesn’t work at night and on rainy days. Every source of energy has its drawbacks, but nuclear power has the least. Anyway, what’s the worse thing that can happen? A meltdown could occur, forcing humans to abandon a sizeable territory back to nature. What’s wrong with that?