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Chernobyl Today

AFB/Corbis

Photo: AFB/Corbis

On the day the Ukrainian government finally shut down the last working nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, I was flying in a battered helicopter over the contaminated landscape of Belarus, Ukraine's poor northern neighbor. The doors on the old chopper were shaking and so were the pilot's hands. It was 10 a.m. The pilot, Leonid, had been drinking vodka until five that morning. I knew this because I'd been with him.

I tried not to think about Leonid's condition as I squatted in the cramped cargo space with an English cameraman named Lawrence and a Russian hunter called Oleg. Lawrence and I were making a National Geographic documentary about the wildlife in the "exclusion zone" surrounding the site of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. It sounds like a sick joke—a freak show of deformed and irradiated animals. But against all expectations, nature appears to be thriving.

The landscape below us was all part of the exclusion zone. The Russian words for it—zona otchuzhdenia—literally mean "zone of alienation." Normal life ended here on April 26, 1986, when the explosion and subsequent fire in Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station spilled 100 million curies of radioactive material into the atmosphere. That is 100 times more than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs combined. Some 115,000 residents were evacuated after being exposed to the radiation; another 650,000 people were involved in the cleanup.

There still is considerable debate over the effects of the disaster, which cost 31 lives owing to fire and radiation exposure, and has resulted in a huge increase in thyroid cancer among the children who lived nearby. Because of the time it takes for some cancers to develop, scientists say the full toll will not be determined for decades.

The section we were flying over was reclaimed marshland that had been farmed until the disaster. Long stretches of tall grass were broken by clumps of birch and pine trees. Occasionally, when the winter sun pierced through the low clouds, we could glimpse abandoned farmhouses overgrown with shrubs. It was December, but there was no snow on the flat, empty ground. Everything was still in the funereal colors of late autumn: brown mud and leaves, yellow fields, gray skies.

The helicopter banked steeply and swooped in low alongside a small herd of wild boars. About a dozen animals surged through the long grass, turning this way and that to avoid the wash of the rotor.

The tall yellow grass flattened as we passed close to the ground. Oleg aimed his shotgun. Lawrence and I tried to keep out of his way without leaning against the helicopter's rear door, which seemed to be secured by little more than a frayed strap. A gunshot blast filled the cabin.

Moments later, Leonid's unsteady hands set the chopper down in head-high grass. The dead boar lay on its side. With its huge square body and tiny legs, it looked like a suitcase that had fallen off a luggage carousel.

Oleg and Leonid cut the boar open and unpacked its guts. They removed its testicles and broke off its tusks with an ax. The organs would be analyzed, the tusks kept as a trophy. But there was no question of making the poor beast into kolbasa.

The animals here are highly contaminated. Boars are omnivorous and particularly fond of mushrooms—a potent source of radioactive particles. As he wielded his bloody hunting knife, Oleg explained that some of the boars he shot turned out to contain 1,500 times the normal level of radiation.

And yet the species, as a whole, seems to be flourishing in the area despite the radioactive diet. The boar population has doubled to about 3,000 since the mishap. Other species are thriving, too—rare and endangered birds have returned to the zone, and the numbers of wolves, moose, and roe deer have increased. Bison, hunted to extinction in this region in the 19th century, have been reintroduced by the government.

This part of the exclusion zone is now a nature reserve. Hunters pay to come here on radioactive safaris and help "take samples" of the animals. The fact that there's any wildlife in the exclusion zone is surprising enough. That there's enough to exploit commercially seems incredible.

THE RESURGENCE WASN'T WHAT WE'D EXPECTED WHEN we arrived in the zona otchuzhdenia just as Ukraine was gearing up for the closure of Reactor No. 3, which had remained in operation after the accident. At the border, the guards kept us waiting while they studied the paperwork that had taken so long to obtain. Entry to the exclusion zone is strictly regulated.

It was only mid-morning, but it seemed like twilight on this overcast day. Andrey Arkhipov, a scientist who has been studying the effects of the accident for 15 years, turned to me and said, "Welcome to the exclusion zone."

I returned his smile uneasily. My misgivings about coming had intensified ever since the documentary's original director had pulled out of the project at the urging of his physician girlfriend. When I told Andrey this, he laughed and said it happened all the time. The zone's fearsome reputation is a source of amusement to the people who work there. Chem dalshe, tem strashneye, they say: "The farther away they are, the more they worry."

Once we drove past the border, there was little evidence why the landscape should inspire such fear. Flat, untended fields stretched from both sides of the road under the weak winter sun. Leafless birch trees glistened with ice.

Although its 1,600 square miles are partly in Ukraine and partly in Belarus, the exclusion zone resembles an independent nation. It has its own rules, its own borders, and its own small population of researchers and elderly squatters who have returned, unable to part with this poisoned land. It reminded me of the mysterious Zone in Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 Russian film The Stalker—an evil and dangerous place, which nonetheless holds the power to grant everyone's deepest wish. The longer we worked on our three-week assignment, the more did life in the exclusion zone seem like an omen. This overgrown, underpopulated land might prefigure one of mankind's possible futures.

THE ZONE BEGAN AS A CIRCLE ON A MAP, A RING 18 MILES in diameter, drawn around the epicenter of the catastrophe power station—which is about 10 miles from the town of Chernobyl itself. Over the years, the zone's perimeter has expanded to include additional contaminated areas.

The place is not uniformly poisoned. Parts of it are relatively clean, others dangerously hot. Without a guide or a Geiger counter, there is no way to tell them apart.

The nucleus of the zone, of course, is the structure that houses the remains of Reactor No. 4. The shattered reactor is entombed in a concrete-and-steel covering, called either ukrytie, "the Shelter," or, more evocatively, sarkofag, "the Sarcophagus."

The Sarcophagus is the ugliest building I have ever seen. Even if it weren't shielding the remains of the world's worst nuclear disaster, it would still be repugnant. It is stark, crudely made, and sinister. Thrown together in a desperate rush in the months after the accident, the building's armored sides bulge like the hull of an enormous tank. There are still fragments of nuclear fuel on the roof. Birds circle overhead, presumably sensing warmth.

"This is the future of nuclear power," joked Viktor Korneev, our guide to the Sarcophagus. "It's been working around the clock without a break since 1986." His bleak wisecracking suggested he'd been telling the same jokes for years. "Don't worry," he said, "Soviet radiation is the best in the world. It makes hair thicker and men more potent."

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