Twenty years have passed since Chernobyl’s Unit 4 reactor exploded on April 26, 1986. In the months following the disaster, 116,000 residents from 188 towns and villages were evacuated, leaving an area nearly twice the size of Rhode Island uninhabitable. And although partisans from both the pro- and antinuclear lobbies continue to debate the number of deaths directly attributed to the disaster, the allure of nuclear energy has only grown in the past decade.
Today, the Exclusion Zone remains a depopulated field experiment, part wildlife sanctuary and, increasingly, a destination for tourists. Early this year, the Speaker of Ukraine’s Parliament suggested that extreme tourism might be the only way to “derive some practical good out of this tragedy.” And for a few hundred dollars, writes Peter Finn of the Washington Post, the adventurous traveler can spend a day in the Exclusion Zone, wander the empty streets of Pripyat, whose 45,000 residents were evacuated after the explosion, and observe the Unit 4 reactor, one of the few monuments left.
Chernobyl itself, like the villages and towns that once supported the eponymous power plant, has largely disappeared from the public imagination. The survivors too have disappeared, their stories eclipsed by the dramatic collapse of Soviet Communism and the intangible experience of those who, as Svetlana Alexievich notes in her devastating collection of monologues, Voices From Chernobyl, “are already living after the nuclear war.” Chernobyl in many ways foreshadowed the precipitous decline of the Russian countryside following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Village life is dying. Life expectancy continues to fall and is among the lowest in Europe. Young people, if they can, are leaving for cities.
Assessing the impact of Chernobyl has been complicated by a rise in morbidity throughout the contaminated region, which encompasses parts of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. “A major confounding factor in mortality studies,” according to a working draft of a report published by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Chernobyl Forum, “has been the significant decrease in average lifespan in populations of all three affected countries.” Yet this does not explain the wildly different conclusions regarding the number of deaths attributed to the disaster. The International Atomic Energy Agency contends that fewer than fifty people died in the mishap and that, at most, 4,000 may ultimately die. A more recent report by leading doctors and scientists concludes that some 500,000 have died and that 30,000 more are expected to die of cancers directly linked to Chernobyl.
Chernobyl’s impact and its fate, as evidenced by the wrangling over the number of deaths, remain contested. The debate over the future of nuclear power, on the other hand, is not. On the eve of Chernobyl’s twentieth anniversary, the world’s industrialized powers are laying the groundwork for a massive capital investment in nuclear technology. According to a leaked copy of the G-8’s action plan scheduled for publication in St. Petersburg July 16, “We believe that the development of nuclear energy would promote global energy security.”