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Getting in the Zone
By Margaret Black

Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl

By Mary Mycio

Joseph Henry Press, 259 pages, $ 27.95

In April 1986, when evidence of the explosion and meltdown at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor No. 4 filtered into radiation detectors in Sweden, end-of-the-world scenarists began quoting Revelations, that font of hyperbolic disaster predictions: “. . . and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters because they were made bitter . . .” The Russian word chernobyl is often—but inaccurately—said to refer to the biblical bitter herb wormwood. Nevertheless, it amuses Mary Mycio, author of Wormwood Forest, that varieties of Artemisia (or wormwood) have indeed pushed up through the clay and packed soil covering radioactive hotspots in the “Zone of Alienation”—the area officially closed to human habitation—that now surrounds Chernobyl’s sullen Sarcophagus, the leaking tumulus shrouding the dangerous remains of Reactor No. 4.

Well, there was a lot to worry about. Although the actual explosion was only the equivalent of 30 to 40 tons of TNT, Chernobyl released many times the radiation of the Hiroshima bomb every day for several days. To make matters worse, on May Day 1986, the reactor began heating up again, spewing ever-increasing amounts of radiation through the material that the “liquidators”—the people sent in to clean up the area and contain the radiation—believed had safely sealed the reactor. Then suddenly, five days later, the core melt stopped, for reasons no one understands. The Soviets estimated that only about 3.5 percent of the core was released, however, which means that under the Sarcophagus it is quite possible another nuclear chain reaction could begin. In the meantime, radioactive material now buried deep in the soil is being plowed up by animals, growing up into trees, leaching into the water systems, and occasionally burning into the air in forest fires.

No one knew what was going to happen, and whether from habit or fear, the Soviets weren’t exactly forthcoming with details. When that empire finally collapsed, the areas most immediately affected became parts of Ukraine, Belarus, and the new Russia. People in the Ukraine talk fairly freely and conduct the most visits to the site; Russia has released many documents previously kept secret; but in Belarus the good old traditions of a secretive dictatorial state still flourish. Mycio, an American of Ukrainian descent, states outright that there’s a Ukrainian spin on most writing about Chernobyl. At this point, however, poverty is the problem. Although the worst of the cleanup was accomplished by the Soviet Union’s liquidators, there are no longer the funds to keep track of contaminated-material burial mounds or monitor radiation carefully. Everyone’s counting on the European Union, which certainly has a vested interest, since some radionuclides emanating from the zone “will be a problem for all of imaginable time.”

The first time Mycio actually ventures into the Zone of Alienation, she finds, much to her surprise, what some have called an “involuntary” wildlife preserve, teeming with birds and animals, some of which haven’t been seen there for centuries. Bird species thought extinct are flourishing. Wolves, elk, roe deer, and moose abound. Yes, many animals—especially the wild boars—are highly radioactive, with meat that is totally unsafe for human consumption. But they breed—well, like pigs—and produce offspring that in turn produce others. Where radioactivity causes serious genetic misadventures, the offspring don’t survive. Horribly mutated creatures don’t exist. The significant thing missing from the Wormwood Forest—for the most part—is humans, and despite radioactivity, nature is doing extraordinarily well because of this.

Mycio’s account includes a fascinating natural history of radiation, the mechanisms by which it affects living things, and how what poses radiological danger changes over time. She also sneaks in fascinating nuggets of information: At the end of the Ice Age, humans inhabited the Chernobyl area, where they built houses of mammoth tusks; millions of years ago a natural chain reaction that lasted hundreds of thousands of years occurred in what’s now West Africa. But what makes her story particularly engaging is its combination of humorously honest personal experience and informed analysis. Her background in biology helps her convey what’s significant in the Wormwood Forest, and her obvious concern with the welfare of the region makes the locals open up to her, but perhaps most winning are her flaws and failures.

She’s really, really uncomfortable on her first trip into the zone when the dosimeter measuring background radiation starts flashing huge numbers. Yet soon she’s tromping nonchalantly with the best of her guides over seriously contaminated locations. She’s thrilled by all the new species in the zone, but she never quite manages to see a lot of them. “ ‘There’s a black grouse,’ a guide exclaims. I turned to look but caught only a black flash as it flew away.” Of the moose that Mycio is dying to see: “They were only shadowy forms to my unaided eye, like wave functions of large deer-like creatures that had not yet collapsed into a specific species.” Of the inglorious, highly contaminated mushrooms, she says: “Although we see only a part of them, fungi are such an integral part of the forest that if you removed all the trees and soil and just left the fungi behind, you’d still be able to see the outlines of trees and soil.”

Some readers may come to this book, like me, after reading Martin Cruz Smith’s terrific mystery novel, Wolves Eat Dogs, set largely in the Zone of Alienation. That certainly whet my appetite, but it’s Mycio who answers my questions, painting the broader, more detailed canvass and providing the penetrating analysis.

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