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#ChernobylFrogs16 Chernobyl Recap: the Zone

As soon as you tell anyone that you are going to do fieldwork in Chernobyl, you start getting questions about if it is possible, or safe, or wise… So, here are my impressions about how is to work inside Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

First, two big surprises. We arrived to the Zone on the 9th of May, and this is World War II Victory Day, a day highly celebrated during the time of the Soviet Union, and a bit less nowadays, but still a date in which a lot on people visit old graveyards and commemorative monuments. And so, it is also a pretty special day at the Exclusion Zone. An area that normally is forbidden for people not working inside (and a few tourists) is open to everyone. People can freely move inside, and this includes kids and people having picnic on shorts in any place, without caring much about radiation levels. At the time we arrived at the entrance checkpoint, we encountered a queue of ca. 200 cars!! Thanks to our special permit, and not without annoying a few drivers that tried to block our pass, we avoid queuing and entered into the zone.

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During the rest of the day we encountered people almost in any place we passed during our fieldwork, and cars full of people in roads that are normally empty. This was something I was not expecting at all, not the kind of Exclusion Zone I was thinking about…

My second surprise came when we headed for our hotel. I was thinking (I don’t’ know why) we were going to stay outside the Zone, and going in and out every day. Well, no. Our “Chernobyl Hotel” was actually inside the Zone, about 20 km in straight line from the entrance checkpoint and 15 km from the Nuclear Power Plant. The hotel is located in Chernobyl or Chornobyl city/village, founded in 1193, and at the time of the Chernobyl accident occupied by ca. 14.000 residents. Still today (another surprise to me) is the home of 700-800 people, mostly men working on the construction of the new sarcophagus for the reactor number 4 or in radioactive waste management. Our hotel was a modest, but more than correct, hotel with ca. 20 rooms and free Wi-Fi!! That was also something that I was not expecting at all, staying overnight inside the Zone with free Wi-Fi…

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The Zone itself is now a mostly forested area with a mixture of pines and birches, and scattered areas of oaks. There is also plenty of water everywhere, with several rivers crossing the area, the big one the Prypiat River. There are plenty of small lakes, ponds and bogs surrounded by reeds all across the Exclusion Zone. A potential paradise for amphibians J (I will talk about Chernobyl wildlife in an oncoming post).

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Moving across the Zone in our amazing 4×4 car (donated to the Chornobyl Center by the Chinese Embassy by the way) we only passed by an additional checkpoint almost every night during the fieldwork. Strange looks and additional papers given to the guards on each occasion, but nothing more.

During our driving in the Zone, we passed by a few abandoned villages and many derelict cottages, a vivid reminder of the human impact of the Chernobyl accident (more than 350.000 people were evacuated from the Zone). I didn’t visit the famous abandoned city of Pripyat (3 km from the reactor and with ca. 50.000 people living there at the time of the accident), something to look for during my next visit at the end of August. On our final day of field work, I had the opportunity to walk around an abandoned village (in otherwise a clean area), with many houses surrounded by trees, fallen roofs and some personal objects left by..

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One of the things that caught my attention in these areas was that one the first indications I saw of a previously inhabited place was the sight of lily trees emerging in the middle of a forest patch. Only when you approached a bit more and look more carefully, it was possible to discover the rests of a house, in many cases in the middle of the forest by now and covered by climbing plants. Thinking on the people that used to live by (and care of) these lilies, was a quite sad feeling.

Regarding my work there, it was almost as normal as doing fieldwork anywhere else. Nothing similar to the images that you can see in many documentaries about the Zone that presented it as an extremely dangerous place and a devastated wasteland. I recently show e.g. the Animal Planet “Life after Chernobyl”, a sad example of over-sensationalistic documentary about the Zone with people covered in ultra-protective gear, showing scary faces and literally running away from hot places… During the field work, I never wear any special suit, any mask or any protective glasses, except normal vinyl gloves to collect the frogs (also in part because I was interested in examining skin microbiome…).

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We had always our dosimeters with us, so we could have a clear idea about the radiation of the places we were visiting and the total radiation accumulated during our stay in the Exclusion Zone. Overall, I accumulated 54 microSv during my stay in the Zone, most of them (35 microSv) during the night we expend collecting frogs 1.5 km away from the reactor 4. We passed by a locality, Glyboke lake, with radiation levels in some areas up to 77 microSv/h. On our final night of sampling, we moved across and area around Uzh River that, although inside the exclusion zone, is completely clean.

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To put these numbers into context, normal background radiation ranges between 1000-3000 microSv/year, and people get 100 microSv from a dental x-ray or 3000 microSv from a mammogram. I myself was exposed to ca. 5000 microSv during three brain CT scanners I went through last August. Overall, knowing the area (and we have the best expert with us, Sergey Gaschack) and the very different levels of radiation within, it was a perfectly safe area to work (I am not saying a perfectly safe area to live, let’s have this clear).

I definitely want to come back next year and continuing with this work!!

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