Ever visit this website? According to Mary Mycio, author of Wormwood Forest, the photos of the Chernobyl area were taken during a regularly scheduled bus tour, not by a hot chick riding solo on a motorcycle. Mycio spent a great deal of time in the contaminated zones and actually talked to the driver of that same tour bus (who I will assume was telling the truth). I just finished reading her book and although there have already been several good posts on the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, I thought readers could stomach maybe one more.

Reality doesn’t always sell that well. One of my favorite science fiction books is called A Canticle for Leibowitz. Replete with a two-headed-mutant and deadly zones of radioactivity, it sent chills down my spine every time I read it. Apparently, the closest thing to a mutant you will find around Chernobyl are a few birds with some extra white feathers on their heads and some slightly asymmetrical stag beetles — neither of which are having much luck with the ladies and will probably be weeded from the gene pool. There are also some plants with unusual growth patterns in the most contaminated zones. Humanity has another data point, and post-nuclear apocalypse stories will never be the same.

Although known to exist statistically, Chernobyl-related cancers have proven difficult to single out against the backdrop of the almost ten million cancers that are normally found in the 75 million people living in the areas most affected by the radiation. The U.N. estimates there may have been as many as ten thousand extra cancers caused by the accident over the last two decades; Greenpeace thinks it’s about ten times that amount. Unbelievably, they have not even been able to detect an increase in leukemia among the 800,000 liquidators (the poor bastards hired to clean up the radioactive mess). Not to say that the higher rate isn’t there — the problem may be that too many people who never actually entered the contaminated zones have claimed liquidator status and have therefore corrupted the database needed to statistically show a higher cancer rate.

Thyroid cancer is another story. It is normally rare among children and lots of children got it and lots of people are still getting it. Although not fatal, removing the thyroid commits the patient to a life of hormone therapy (my mom and sister both have defunct thyroids and are dependent on thyroid medications). Most of those cancers could have been prevented had the children been given powdered milk to drink immediately following the disaster, along with proper prophylactic medications. The same bumbling government that allowed the disaster to happen dropped the ball at crunch time. Sounds familiar.

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I learned a lot from this book. For example, the Chernobyl power plant continued to operate for several years after the accident, shutting down in 2000. There just seems to be something wrong with this picture: thousands of people commuting to the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster for work everyday.

I found these paragraphs especially enlightening, and their tone is representative of the rest of the book:

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With hyperbolic interest groups trying to either exaggerate or downplay the disastrous effects, it’s little wonder that Chernobyl’s long-term health effects remain so controversial, allowing the nuclear industry to claim limited consequences, while some politicians, activists and the victims claim a profoundly negative impact on health.

Journalists, both domestic and foreign, fuel the fire with their macabre tendency to focus on sensationally deformed children even if they were born far from Chernobyl and the maladies cannot be traced to the disaster. In fact, the descendants of A-bomb survivors have shown no increase in congenital deformities and the same is true of Chernobyl survivors. What deformities occur are those that sadly occur in any population.

One thing is for sure; the disaster was a godsend to the plants and animals in the contaminated zones, now Europe’s largest wildlife preserve. Being radioactive is less detrimental than living in close proximity to human beings — and believe me, I am not suggesting that being radioactive is a good thing.

The author mentions James Lovelock’s idea of seeding rainforests with radiation to keep people out. I agree with her opinion, that it is a dumb idea for several reasons. Seeding rainforests with radiation might keep wealthy condo developers and environmentalists out, but otherwise would only increase the cancer rates of the poor forced by circumstances to live in the contaminated areas. Ideas like this are fodder for authors like Crichton who write crap like State of Fear.

I suspect that the Chernobyl nature refuge will be a temporary blip. Pressure to use the contaminated zones for commercial purposes is already building. Poached radioactive fish and game are being sold to unsuspecting buyers. Radioactive scrap metal is also being stolen and sold. Give that place a hundred years and it will be covered with people again, people with much more than their share of radiation-related health problems.

My existing opinion of nuclear power was reinforced by what I learned from the book. Until we have technology that can safely extract energy from a nuclear reaction, and an acceptable method of waste disposal, we shouldn’t use it. The definition of what constitutes a safe reactor is the weak link in my argument. Fusion radiation converters (solar panels) are certainly considered safe. When was the last time you saw one of them blow up? Find ways to convert other forms of nuclear energy just as safely and I will be fine with it. The same can be said for biofuels. Find ways to grow them without covering the rest of our planet with monocrops to feed our cars and I will back it. Presently, all of our energy generation options (other than solar and, slightly less so, wind) come with a significant environmental price tag. Wind and solar are intermittent and can only supplement our needs. We don’t have enough environmentally benign solutions yet. If we will be forced to trash the planet to produce energy, then lets try to pick the sources that do the least amount of trashing, whatever those turn out to be.