By George Johnson
As we walked among the empty houses of Zalesye, the last thing I expected to see was an inhabitant. But suddenly there she was. Striding from her cottage in heavy boots, a scarf tied on her head, Rosalia greeted us in Ukrainian and proudly showed us her potato patch.
The sole inhabitant of the village, she is one of about 100 older people, mostly women, still living in the Chernobyl exclusion zone — 1,000 square miles of Ukraine that were evacuated in 1986 after a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power plant.
A new documentary, “The Babushkas of Chernobyl,” directed by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart, tells a different story — of the spirited women who insisted on going back.
They eat vegetables grown in their gardens and berries and mushrooms picked in the woods.
“Starvation is what scares me, not radiation,” Hanna Zavorotnya, 83, tells the camera as she sits outside her house peeling mushrooms to sauté with onions. She draws water from her well as the chickens she keeps for eggs scratch about the yard.
You don’t hear much about people willing to return to Fukushima, only accounts of the many who refuse to go back to areas now declared safe. With memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they have their reasons to be leery. For the people of Chernobyl, the horrors of World War II were non-nuclear.
“All of the medical studies are flawed, and flawed in such a way that partisans on both sides of the nuclear debate can argue that the studies prove their point,” she says. “You don’t come here for clear answers.”
What she described is happening now in Fukushima. The scientific consensus is that the radiation will probably not cause any excess cases of childhood thyroid cancer, as it did in Chernobyl, according to a report released in August by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The exposures were much lower, and the Japanese government quickly took measures to discourage the consumption of milk and other foods that concentrate radioactive iodine.
But a paper last month in the journal Epidemiology claimed to have uncovered a thyroid cancer epidemic that had somehow gone unnoticed. The results have been seized on by antinuclear activists and disputed by skeptics who find flaws in the methodology. They make a persuasive case that the epidemic is an illusion.
Beneath the layers of spin and interpretation, there is presumably a fuzzy edged truth. When it comes to living on Earth, the babushkas of Chernobyl have it figured. Life, they know in their bones, is a matter of balancing risks.
It’s fine to celebrate resilient aging women who have chosen to make their own way after Chernobyl. Yet this article uses them to peddle the view that the principal harm of radiation exposure is the stress caused by radiophobia, rather than any real, biological impairment of health. No one disputes that a nuclear disaster is stressful, and that stress is not good for life. It affirms the actions and views of the Japanese government trustingly, which few Japanese, of whatever ideological stripe, would be likely to do. It is not that the “thyroid cancer epidemic … had somehow gone unnoticed.” The epidemic has been noticed; its cause is what’s contested. Johnson uses a study showing high incidences elsewhere in Japan to dismiss the recently published Fukushima study. Why not acknowledge that those rates of occurrence need to be addressed as well?