The land around the Chernobyl reactors is poisoned. Yet in this bleak, inhospitable environment — in the absence of man — wild boars, moose, deer, and wolves are thriving. So are cows, although scientists fear they may be retrogressing on a genetic level
| Credit: 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."

Here was the moment I'd been dreading most: I was zipping myself into two pairs of cotton overalls to enter the remains of the reactor. Even though masks would prevent us from inhaling radioactive dust, there was nothing we could do to protect ourselves—or our posterity—from the gamma radiation inside. For the duration of our time in the Sarcophagus, radiation would be attacking our cells.

I tried to think of it the way a scientist might. Radiation behaves according to the laws of physics, and every day we're exposed to its rays. There are safe limits, which we weren't even close to exceeding. But I'm not a scientist, and I have an instinctive fear of a danger I can't see, hear, taste, smell, touch, or even understand properly.

I put on special overshoes, tucked my hair into a cotton cap, and followed Viktor out of the changing room. We had taken a long time to get ready, and he was impatient—not because of the danger, but because he didn't want to miss his train back home to Slavutych. I tried to explain my anxiety in faltering Russian. "Purely psychological," he snapped. He'd made this trip hundreds of times and no longer bothered with a mask. In a conscious echo of Tarkovsky's film, some people call the guides "stalkers." The movie's stalker has an almost extrasensory ability to predict the hazards of the Zone. I hoped ours was similarly gifted.

As we crossed open ground, I pointed one of my dosimeters at an exterior wall of the Sarcophagus. A measurement exceeding 1 millirem an hour would qualify as a restricted area in a nuclear power plant. Here the dosimeter was registering 25. Men wearing masks were working directly in the path of the radiation. The stalker said the time they spent here was carefully monitored. Still, it's sobering to think they absorb as much radiation in 10 hours as most of us do in a year.

Viktor led us through a warren of stairways and buckled passages to the remains of the old control room. In the dim light, it looked like a cheap copy of the bridge on the starship Enterprise. Outmoded dials and instruments covered an entire wall. This is where the accident began. A botched test of the backup power system caused the reactor to overheat. There's a gap in the panel where the button that launched the test had been anchored before someone hacked it out as a souvenir.

CHERNOBYL ITSELF IS THE UNOFFICIAL capital of the exclusion zone. The town is semi-derelict, home to a small community of scientists and bureaucrats. It is full of wooden houses falling into graceful obsolescence, many entangled in a riot of new trees and shrubs. I enjoyed Chernobyl. It has a ramshackle charm, and there's a collegial atmosphere among the scientists who work there.

They are tough, pragmatic men who enjoyed tweaking us about our radiophobia. One day, we set traps for mice in a heavily irradiated area called the Red Forest. When we were done, a scientist named Sergei Paskevich asked me if I had children. I told him I didn't, but hoped to start a family someday. He looked at me with a deadpan expression and said, "After the Red Forest, it's just a dream." Then he cackled with laughter. (I smiled, happy that I'd had my sperm cryogenically preserved before departing for Russia.)

The scientists who moved to Chernobyl following the accident are radioecologists. Their discipline is a legacy of the Cold War: they study how radiation affects the environment, or, in more baldly military terms, the science of what to do after the bomb is dropped.

The words we use to describe nuclear war—holocaust, Armageddon, doomsday—imply that life afterward is unthinkable. But in a coldly practical way, both sides have long known that some kind of life would carry on. If a hot war were inconclusive, the decisive battles would be nonmilitary, conducted in fields and milking stalls as shattered nations struggled to produce food from poisoned lands.

AT AN EXPERIMENTAL FARM IN THE ZONE, radioecologists are breeding cows, the descendants of a bull they found grazing in contaminated grass a year after the event. The scientists christened him Uran—"Uranium"— because of the high levels of radiation in his system.

In a dim and musky milking stall, a two-month-old calf licked my hand. She is Uran's great-great-great-granddaughter. Far from being impotent, Uran turned out to have priapic capacities for reproduction. The farm is full of animals he has sired.

But Andrey told me there have been changes in the cows on a genetic level. They seem to be losing the capacity for milk production that had been bred into them over time. Uran's offspring, in other words, appear to be regressing to a beefier, more basic species.

Scientific temperament makes Andrey cautious about his assertions. Uran is one bull; the results aren't conclusive. But Andrey was suggesting that regression is the price of survival.

THE EXCLUSION ZONE'S INHABITANTS were evacuated shortly after the disaster. The 50,000 who'd lived in Pripyat, a town built for the nuclear-plant workers, were put on buses 36 hours after the accident. They never returned. Pripyat today is a ghost town—a kind of atomic-age Pompeii, frozen at an irrecoverable moment in Soviet history.

Pripyat is strange beyond imagination. From the top of a building the scientists call Mount Fujiyama, you can gaze upon a completely deserted city. Poplar trees have burst through road surfaces. Climbing plants are pulling the concrete facings off apartment blocks. Boar and deer tracks cross what used to be the town's soccer stadium. Yet, there remain signs of Pripyat's former life, scattered in empty apartments and along deserted streets: a calendar, children's toys, decorations for the 1986 May Day festivities (which was never celebrated—at least, not there).

I went to Pripyat with Sergei Gaschak, a scientist studying wildlife within the zone. "It's like a Mayan city in Mesoamerica," he said as we hiked across the crumbling bleachers above the stadium so he could point out a particularly vigorous variety of vine. It's astonishing how quickly the town has returned to its natural state. We're so accustomed to the relentless spread of human settlement that it's extraordinary to see the opposite.

Sergei broke a chunk of plaster off a wall with his gloved hand. "In one hundred to two hundred years, this will all be natural forest," he said. He seemed to be smiling to himself. Scientists who work in the zone say that it exerts a powerful draw on them. One of the most intoxicating aspects of this place, I realized, is that it grants you a vision of the future—not necessarily a bleak future, just one from which human beings are almost entirely absent.