Having made roughly twenty trips into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine, researcher Darmon Richter paints a compelling portrait of the region and its inhabitants, three decades on from the disaster.
Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide by Darmon Richter, published by FUEL in October 2020, offers a unique insight into the past and present of the Zone, as Ukraine and the world mark the 35th anniversary of the nuclear catastrophe this year.
Richter ventured deep into the irradiated forests of Chernobyl and documented what perhaps is the most striking illustration of the Anthropocene—the ruins of infrastructures and ghost towns reminding of Soviet-era utopianism, the belief in progress, and new ecologies formed in the space abandoned by humans.
In his book, he combines photographs of rare discoveries made in parts of the Zone rarely visited by tourists, and the numerous accounts of those who witnessed history—engineers, scientists, police, and evacuees.
According to Richter, the book is “a study of Chernobyl not as a dead zone where history was suddenly halted in 1986, but as a new Eden populated by scientists, settlers, and scrap-metal thieves; where hordes of tourists come by day to explore a living memorial to the fragility of civilization; and where ‘stalkers’ conduct their own nocturnal quests: rites of passage born from a blend of post-Soviet counter-culturalism, sci-fi escapism, and perhaps a yearning for spiritualistic self-discovery.”
Below is an excerpt from the book:
Chernobyl today is a territory defined by extremes. Visitors gaze at outdated Soviet megastructures—the Duga, the power plant, the cooling tower—in a landscape forever changed by events that occurred at an atomic scale. In one day, they’ll learn about issues that will impact this planet for longer than our own civilization has existed.
The explosion at ChNPP on April 26, 1986 released a cloud of radioactive isotopes into the environment. Two of the most dangerous contaminants were strontium-90 and caesium-137, each of which has a half-life (the time it takes for the level of radiation emitted to decrease by half) of roughly thirty years. While human bodies reject caesium, strontium has a similar molecular structure to calcium, which means the body can mistakenly use ingested strontium in the production of new bone matter. Plutonium-239, another of the contaminants released, is the primary isotope used in the creation of nuclear weapons, with a half-life of more than 24,000 years. It is generally considered safe only after a period of ten half-lifes (or a quarter of a million years) has expired. If we’re living in what some geologists are calling the Anthropocene—the period in which human activities begin to have a profound and significant impact on the Earth’s ecosystems—then there cannot be a better illustration of it than the infamous Chernobyl disaster.
Beneath the New Arch lie yet more problems. The fuel used by Chernobyl’s RBMK reactors contained three isotopes of uranium: U-234 has a half-life of 246,000 years, U-235’s half-life is over 700 million years, while the half-life of U-238 is around 4.5 billion years. Experts believe around 200 tons of melted uranium fuel remains somewhere inside the ruins of Block 4. But Dmytrii Korchak, a communications specialist with ChNPP, tells me that no one really knows for sure what’s going on within the Shelter Object. “We can see that the temperature is changing,” he says. “There’s a self-contained reaction inside. Something is still there, but I don’t know if anyone can say for sure how much material there is, or what type it is.”
All things considered, the Chernobyl liquidators did an extraordinary job of cleaning the region after the disaster. But their work still represents just the tip of the iceberg. A significant quantity of nuclear by-products remains unchecked in the environment, while the project to dismantle, clean, and secure the contaminated remains of Reactor 4 is ambitious to say the least. The New Arch over it has been guaranteed for a lifespan of 100 years, but no one can say for sure if that will be enough time to finish the work inside. Even after that, the arch itself—tainted by its contents—will also need to be disassembled and stored as radioactive waste. There is still much work to be done.
The safe, long-term storage of nuclear waste is one of the greatest challenges faced by the societies of the Anthropocene. No nuclear storage facility in use today offers a permanent solution. Even the new ISF-2 facility at ChNPP, with its capacity for 75,000 cubic meters of nuclear waste stored in secure double-walled canisters, will inevitably be deemed unsafe after it passes its 100-year expiry date. For now we are simply postponing the problem in the hope that future generations might be able to solve it. In France and Sweden, efforts are underway to construct “deep time” burial sites, while Finland’s Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository is already on track to begin disposal—but the structure itself is still only half the answer. The future security of this deadly material will also depend on any containment being able to withstand human curiosity—and as a species, we’re not very good at listening to the warnings of our ancestors. The citizens of Feudal Japan, for instance, marked the coastline with “tsunami stones” that warned future inhabitants against building below the danger line. The inscription on one such stone in Aneyoshi, Iwate Prefecture, reads: “High dwellings ensure the peace and happiness of our descendants.” Hundreds of these stones exist today, some of them having been in place for six centuries, and yet many people have been killed by tsunamis after ignoring their warnings.
This problem gave birth to a new field of study, named “nuclear semiotics.” Since the 1980s, deep-burial projects such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico have been welcoming multi-disciplinary attempts to solve the problem of devising warnings that will last for many millennia, and will continue to be understood by all future generations across potentially unimaginable changes in culture, technology, and language. One proposal came from the Polish science-fiction author Stanisław Lem (a colleague of the Strugatskys, whose novel Solaris was also adapted for cinema by Tarkovsky). He suggested a mathematically coded warning could be bio-engineered into the DNA of “atomic flowers,” to create a whole crop of warning signs that could perpetuate themselves, generation after generation. Emil Kowalski, a Swiss physicist, envisaged storage structures so advanced they could only be opened by cultures with at least an equal level of technology to ours. Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri—a French author and an Italian semiotician—imagined a species of genetically engineered cat that changed color in the presence of radiation, thus warning its human companions of nearby danger. Other approaches involved altering the landscape itself. In 1992, architectural theorist Michael Brill designed his “Spike Field,” or “Landscape of Thorns,” an installation so unwelcoming as to deter future human incursion into the territory. (Although as British writer Robert Macfarlane points out, “such aggressive structures might act as enticements rather than cautions… Prince Charming hacked his way through the briars and thorns to wake Sleeping Beauty.”)
However, the possibility remains that the Earth itself may take an active part in the decontamination process.
The curious relationship between radiation and fungi has been observed and theorized for almost as long as humans have worked with nuclear power. More recently, research in this area has accelerated with the growing availability of field laboratories at Chernobyl and other sites of nuclear testing, storage, or disaster.
In 1998, the Biochemical Society published a study investigating “Fungi as potential bioremediation agents in soil contaminated with heavy or radioactive metals.” The paper explains that, whereas cleaning contaminated water is relatively straightforward, the decontamination of soil is a more complex process—and so the discovery that radioactive caesium released during the Chernobyl disaster had since been absorbed and contained in plants and fungi was a noteworthy new development. It was shown that at Chernobyl, caesium-137 in particular was being absorbed by fungi 270 times faster than plants could absorb it.
In 2004, a group of Ukrainian scientists demonstrated that soil fungi was attracted to sources of ionizing radiation. In a span of fifteen years prior to the publication of their results, the team discovered around 2,000 strains of 200 species of fungi at ChNPP. Many of these were capable of growing among “hot particles”—such as contaminated graphite from the reactor—and decomposing them. The implication was that this directional growth was not random, but that beta and gamma radiation were promoting it: the fungi appeared to be trying to reach the source of the radiation.
This work caught the attention of Ekaterina Dadachova and her colleagues at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who had previously been studying ways to treat fungal diseases in immunosuppressed patients. One of the options was radioimmunotherapy – the treatment of fungal diseases using radioactive isotopes. During research, they discovered that many fungi were extremely resistant to radiation, the doses of radiation needed to kill them being several thousand times higher than the dose fatal for humans. The New York team also discovered that certain types of fungi selected for their tests grew faster in the presence of ionizing radiation.
Inside the ruins of Chernobyl’s Reactor 4, there are varieties of “black fungi”—such as the melanin-rich Cryptococcus neoformans—that have been shown to adapt and even thrive in the presence of radiation, their resilient melanin molecules breaking down the radioactive isotopes into a form of weakened energy which they can then use for growth.
Essentially, they seem to be feeding on radiation, a process some researchers have referred to as “radiosynthesis.”
Where nuclear semioticians have largely proposed one-off interventions to guard the distant future against the dangers of radioactive waste, perhaps ultimately, more organic, evolutionary approaches are more likely to succeed. In human cultures too, ideas are most effectively transferred across vast periods of time when encoded into organic, flexible systems of cultural practice—such as religions—as opposed to fragile, time-sensitive messages carved in stone.
In pre-colonial Igboland, a region of south-eastern Nigeria that is home to the Igbo people, advanced local iron-working traditions were interwoven with religious practice. Smiths became ritual workers, priests guarded the shrines of iron deities, and in this way complex metal-working techniques were preserved through many generations in the form of an inherited sacred tradition. Perhaps this was the kind of thing linguist Thomas Sebeok had in mind, when in 1984 he proposed the creation of an “atomic priesthood.”
Sebeok hypothesized a system in which “information be launched and artificially passed on into the short-term and long-term future with the supplementary aid of folkloristic devices, in particular a combination of an artificially created and nurtured ritual-and-legend.” Initiates would pass down warnings about nuclear burial sites and by adapting these warnings into narrative myths, they might survive across changes in culture, technology, and language. Rather than appealing to our descendants’ scientific caution, he wrote, “accumulated superstition [would be the reason] to shun a certain area permanently.”