The Zone of Alienation … the mavericks & the desperate.


Inside the zone of alienation the mushrooms lure the wild boar to feast upon their flesh. Little else can be heard except for the winds sweeping through the forests. Human kind left these parts more than twenty years ago. Now the zone of alienation has become one of Europe’s largest ‘unofficial’ wildlife parks. Smack bang in its centre sits Chernobyl.

On BBC4 tonight Cooking in the Danger Zone entered the Ukraine’s radiation heartland, a 30km off-limits security area. In 1986 one of Chernobyl’s nuclear reactors blew its top after going into meltdown as a result of a series of errors during a regular safety check. The resulting explosion released radiation 100 times that of Hiroshima across a wide area of Europe. The nearest town of 20,000 Chernobyl workers was evacuated. Today it’s still a ghost town. On the day of the explosion the local town’s folk were gearing up for their May day celebrations. A brand new fairground stood waiting to carry their laughter into the night. The celebration never came.

Today, some 300 folk have returned to the zone. Predominantly old peasants with nowhere else to go and nothing else to lose. They are the mavericks, the few who insist on eating food grown within the zone. Twenty years on the cleaning and clearing work continues at Chernobyl. There is a hotel on site for these workers and all their food is brought in from outside the zone. Most of the workers live in market towns on the edge of the zone, desperate for the work. The food they buy from their local markets has to be tested for radiation levels. There is a lab within the market for this purpose.

After the reporter was finally coaxed by a lovely old peasant women to share her homemade lunch (against his producer’s wishes) he decided to have his body scanned for radiation. The contents of his stomach were reading at 8 times over the levels acceptable to the human body. Needless to say the reporter looked rather nervous.

The scale of the Chernobyl accident may be a one off. Maybe human failings can be ironed out within a new risk control regime for newly built nuclear facilities. Then again …. maybe not. If the fall out did hit our shores one sunny day, would we want to join the desperate and the mavericks? ………. I think not.

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9 Responses to The Zone of Alienation … the mavericks & the desperate.

  1. earthpal says:

    Well after twenty years since the Chernobyl disaster, we are still waiting for a totally safe and risk-free nuclear power. Accidents and incidents continue to occur and there is still no solution to the waste and storage problem.

    The word Chernobyl still sends shivers down the world’s spine and its legacy will be with us for years and years.

    Interesting post. Isn’t it very sad to know that there are such desperate people with little to loose who will compromise their own health and safety just to make ends meet.

  2. matt says:

    Yes, I guess if one can’t see or feel the radiation & they need the money for the basics of life, then denial of the dangers becomes easier. The soldier that took the journalist around kept complaining of headaches but, he didn’t throw his uniform away & walk out of that life.

    One Europe? Hardly. The differences of opportunity are just too stark.

  3. Pete Smith says:

    There are those, of course, who maintain that radiation isn’t necessarily bad for you.
    Background radiation has been shown to play an important role in maintaing the body’s repair mechanisms
    Research suggests that 200,000 premature cancer deaths in the US could be prevented each year by radiation supplementation.

    Speaking as someone who was unwittingly walking around in the rain 20 years ago when the hot stuff from Chernobyl was passing through, all I can say is I don’t think I have quite the usual level of irrational dread of radiation .

  4. matt says:

    It is according to this report, difficult to estimate the cancers directly applicable to the Chernobyl accident;

    As very little is known about the effects of the fall-out on the populations of Europe it is of course easy for someone 20 years later to puff out their chest and exclaim ‘I don’t think I have quite the usual level of irrational dread of radiation’. That attitude doesn’t in any way change the fact that authorites will act in a situation such as the Chernobyl accident by clearing whole communites, disrupting their lives & never allowing their return.

  5. Pete Smith says:

    I’m familiar with the IARC report, it is the definitive post-Chernobyl study. However, its projections of future cancer occurence rates are based on linear models which are regarded as controversial by many nuclear academics.

    I don’t much care for your use of the phrase “puff out their chest”. If you’re implying I’m boasting about it in some way, you’re completely mistaken. I was out in the rain not as an act of bravado, but because I had to be. When information gradually emerged over the next few days that radiation had been dumped on the UK, I was frankly worried sick. I probably had more than the “usual level of irrational dread” in those early days. 20 years on, it’s probably less. Nothing to be proud of, just a statement of fact.

    Lke it or not, fear of radiation is irrational, at least at the levels at which the man in the street encounters it. The concepts of hazard and risk have come to be used interchangeably. The fact that radiation is invisible and outside our control causes a ‘dread’ that magnifies its risk factor, in spite of a lack of concrete evidence of health risks and growing opinion that low to medium radiation levels are not harmful and may be beneficial or even essential to immune systems. Contrast that with smokers’ refusal to give up in the face of proven high health risks. For a discussion of hazard, risk and dread, see Barratt (2003), pp 59-61.

    Barratt, R. (2003) ‘Design for Urban Environments’ in Blowers, A. and Hinchcliffe, S. (eds) (2003) Environmental Responses, Chichester, John Wiley &Son/The Open University

    Government responses are likely to be just as irrational as the individual’s reaction, leading to exessively low radiation safety thresholds and disproportionate evacuation policies.

  6. matt says:

    OK. Understand your points but, if radiation isn’t so dangerous why is the UK looking to update Trident as a defence system (baring in mind that Chernobyl was an explosion 100 x Hiroshima – yes this was a bomb & Chernobyl an accident but, apart from the agression in the former I don’t really see the difference between the two when it comes to hazard).

    PS. I do understand btw that background radiation is a natural occurrance with varying degrees of potential hazard to people within homes built upon such an environment.

  7. Pete Smith says:

    Chernobyl was primarily a fire, there was no nuclear blast. The internal steam explosions were caused by overheating and were sufficient to disrupt the core and fracture the ‘containment’ (Hint: there wasn’t one). The hazards came from (a) the very local effects of the exposed core and (b) the plume of smoke carrying particles of (mainly) radioactive iodine and caesium across Europe.
    A nuclear weapon is designed to cause damage primarily by blast (with the exception of the neutron bomb from the 80s). The radiation hazards are largely secondary from a tactical point of view, although they can be exploited. You get the initial gamma radiation immediately after the strike, pretty much lethal short-term, followed by fallout containing alpha and beta particles. The fallout plume derives from the massive fires caused by the initial blast, and would behave similarly to the Chernobyl incident.

  8. matt says:

    Thanks Pete. That’s certainly clearer for me now. Sat the 24th; I’ll be there. 🙂

  9. “Speaking as someone who was unwittingly walking around in the rain 20 years ago when the hot stuff from Chernobyl was passing through”, I am another of these in the UK.

    In fact our whole family was out. No ill effects. Except – soon after, my mother contracted breast cancer, and died from it within 2 years. There may, or may not, be a link – who knows?

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