[Wormwood] - Living in the Dead Zone

Op-Ed Contributor: Living in the Dead Zone

December 22, 2004


OUTSIDE, a hard winter's afternoon settles on the village, but inside their cottage Nikolai and Nastia lay out a spread: apples from their orchard, pickles from their
garden, mushrooms from the woods around and full glasses of samogon, otherwise known as Ukrainian moonshine. Samogon, the locals say, offers protection from radioactivity, a consideration since we are in a "black village" written off for human occupation in 1986 after the explosion of Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station a mere dozen miles away.

"You grow your own food?" a guest asks.

"All of it," Nastia says.

The guest takes a discreet
glance at his dosimeter.

The village is called "black" as in abandoned. But as if to make the name literally true, the neighboring houses have turned black and tilted into a slow slide into the earth. Trees reach in and out the windows. The yards are littered with bureaus, picture frames, chairs. At the beginning of the cleanup, the authorities buried the most radioactive houses, until it dawned on them that they were doing an excellent job of poisoning the groundwater. So the contaminated houses stand. For how long? According to an ecologist at the power station: "In 250 years everything is back to normal. Except for plutonium - that will take 25,000 years."

Nikolai and Nastia's cottage is basically one room around an oven with a built-in shelf to sleep on during the coldest nights.

"It's home," Nastia says. She wears a sweater and shawl permanently. Her smile is bright steel and her blue eyes shine with delight and a certain sense of collusion. Visitors are rare in the 19-mile-radius Zone of Exclusion around the reactors and, of course, she is not supposed to be there at all. Nastia and Nikolai were evacuated like everyone else, but sneaked like partisans back to their cottage in the woods. So much for zone security.

Since then, the authorities have largely let Nastia and Nikolai alone among the zone's phantom population of returnees, scavengers and poachers. Almost perversely, the wildlife there is flourishing; poachers hunt wild boar, served later in the finest restaurants of Kiev and Moscow. Scavengers cut up abandoned radioactive cars and trucks are to sell as parts in the chop shops of Russia.

Nikolai and Nastia aren't on the run, they've just become invisible. They didn't vote in the recent presidential runoff election; there were no polling booths in the black villages. (To vote, they would have had to be bused out of the zone to cast a ballot bearing the address they had been assigned to and escaped from.) Doctors warned Nastia that if she remains in her village, radioactivity will give her cancer in 25 years. Nastia is 75 now. She says she'll take her chances.

Nastia sings a traditional harvest song in a young, birdlike voice. The samogon has brought out a fine sweat on every brow.

What amazes me is not that two elderly peasants have become invisible, but that Chernobyl itself has, as if it were a subject too awful to contemplate. In the rain, the sarcophagus, the 10-story steel-and-concrete box heroically constructed over Reactor 4, leaks like a radioactive sieve into groundwater that drains in the Pripyat River, which feeds the Dnepr, which is the drinking water for Kiev. Ninety percent of the core is still in the reactor, breaking down and heating up, and the station's managers say that the sarcophagus itself could collapse at any time.

How dangerous would that be? Estimates of deaths from the explosion range from 41 to more than 300,000. The Zone of Exclusion is not an area of containment, no more than a circle drawn on the dirt would stop an airborne stream of plutonium, strontium, cesium-137. Seven million people live on contaminated land in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. People around the world carry in their chromosomes the mark of Chernobyl.

We search in Iraq for weapons of mass destruction, while a more likely danger is another explosion at Chernobyl. It may not be a meltdown, but it will be the mother of all dirty bombs. (A better sarcophagus is promised in five years, but at the site there is little sign of activity, let alone urgency.)

And in all the drama of the recent election, the inspiring rallies in Independence Square, the spirited presidential debate on Monday and the apparent triumph of good over evil, the subject of another nuclear disaster rarely came up, and then mostly in nationalist rhetoric: it is an article of faith that the West forced Ukraine in 2000 to close the perfectly good reactors that remained at Chernobyl. The truth is that you have to sympathize with Viktor Yushchenko, the likely winner in the rerun of the presidential runoff on Sunday, because he will have to deal with Chernobyl.

Or not.

So, no wonder we're drinking samogon. The air is yeasty with it. Nastia sings and I picture her and Nikolai plucking apples off their poisoned tree, digging potatoes from their poisoned earth, fishing in their poisoned stream.

Martin Cruz Smith is the author, most recently, of "Wolves Eat Dogs."


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