“Chernobyl was a beautiful place,” she says. “I don’t know why they put this disaster there.”
In April 1986, Chernobyl’s reactor 4 exploded as scientists were conducting an experiment at the plant. The explosion sent clouds of radiation particles across Europe. Almost 100 villages in Ukraine were evacuated as hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the across the former Soviet Union, including Belarus and Ukraine, were sent in to clean up and contain the damage.
Now, 32 years later with $700 billion spent, Ukraine is still cleaning up. The country has created a 1,000-square-mile “exclusion zone” around the disaster that prohibits people from living there. Scientists take samples of the soil, wood and vegetation inside the zone to monitor radiation levels.
Nina’s potato field isn’t in the zone, but for a while, scientists also monitored the soil in her village. Sometimes the levels were just as bad as those in the zone.
Why? Because the soldiers sent to clean up after the disaster stayed in her village.
Almost 80 miles away from Nina is a block of Soviet-style buildings on the outskirts of central Kiev. It’s here that scientists Valery Kashparov and Valentin Protsyk work for the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology (UIAR). They’re the people who monitor the soil, wood, plants and animals inside and outside the exclusion zone.
In the first years after the disaster, the focus was the cleanup. Around 800,000 soldiers, firefighters, miners and engineers — collectively known as “liquidators” — were tasked with cleaning up the radiation. In 1991, they were able to “stabilize” the areas surrounding the plant. That’s when they implemented the exclusion zone, which includes the northernmost portions of Kiev and Zhytomyr oblasts. Cities closest to the plant will never be inhabitable — like the city of Pripyat, which once had a population of nearly 50,000.
At the radiation institute, down a long, dark hallway, are rooms where bags full of soil, wood and grass lay on the floor. These samples were taken from within the exclusion zone and are waiting to be tested for radiation levels. As Kashparov explains, it’s not the external radiation they worry about, these days — but rather what gets consumed. Stuff like iodine and cesium, which has a long half life. How do they get in the body? By drinking milk, for example.
“Because of the settlement, we had very low level density of contamination with cesium, but very high transfer of cesium from soil to grass from the root — and from grass to the animals as milk. And people use this milk and obtain the internal radiation after it,” explains Kasparov.