The Invisible Disaster That Still Haunts Europe

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
A wolf in a wild wood near Ukraine's Chernobyl in April of 2012 (Sergiy Gaschak / AP)

Today marks 30 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. In our January 1987 issue, Mary Jo Salter, an American living in Rome at the time of the accident, described the fear and uncertainty of living with the fallout, as public information and government assessments of the danger kept changing. “Although we were living in an increasingly nuclear-powered world,” Salter wrote, “we had also been living in ignorance of the nature of radiation.” She continued:

The newspapers provided some of the information that, I suddenly felt, I should have known already: that iodine comes in a radioactive form, iodine 131, which is often the principal component of nuclear-reactor leaks and which has the relatively brief half-life of eight days. I learned that iodine 131 causes thyroid cancer, that it is readily absorbed by green plants, and, therefore, that it is found in the milk of grass-eating animals. I learned that cesium 137, with a half-life of thirty years, settles especially in muscle tissue and organs, and that strontium 90, with a half-life of twenty-eight years, settles in bones and so can cause bone-marrow cancer.

Almost everyone I knew in Rome had learned at least some of these facts within a few days—a few days not after we learned of the Chernobyl disaster but after we learned that la nube [the radioactive cloud from the explosion] had passed over us.

Salter had a two-year-old daughter at the time, and she and her husband faced agonizing worries over how to keep her safe. They closed the windows for fear of the air. Milk had become dangerous; eggs and vegetables, too, absorbed the poison. Life-sustaining food and water were suddenly vectors of death.

With soil in many parts of Europe still contaminated from the Chernobyl blast, the danger posed by radioactive flora and fauna lives on. Today on our site, Ron Broglio writes about the radioactive boars invading towns in southern Germany, several hundred miles from where the reactor exploded in Ukraine:

They become irradiated by eating plants downwind from the meltdown that contain residual traces of radioactivity—including truffles, tubers, and mushrooms that absorb high degrees of radioactive waste from the soil. Apart from anniversaries like this one, Chernobyl has faded from memory. But for the radioactive elements the disaster expelled, life has just begun. The disaster lives on, but invisibly.

Invisibility is probably the most terrifying part about the aftermath of Chernobyl. How can a threat so insidious as radiation be visualized or depicted, let alone faced? In a piece for us today on Chernobyl’s literary legacy, Michael Lapointe writes:

Through three decades of literary response, Chernobyl has undermined the sort of authoritative depiction that might bring closure. But something closed can be forgotten. The finest works express profound doubts about the power of language to absorb a disaster of this magnitude, and so continually reopen it to new ways of being remembered.

Alan recently curated a photo essay of the post-Chernobyl cleanup, attempting to render the invisible meanings of this disaster visible. The images of Pripyat, the now-abandoned town where the nuclear plant was located, show structures overgrown and fallen to pieces, grass poking between paving stones, branches twined around beams, and the encroaching vines and trees merging with the architecture:

A playground in the deserted town of Pripyat on November 27, 2012. (Efrem Lukatsky / AP)

And Broglio describes the animal life taking over the Exclusion Zone:

Rare species not seen in the region for hundreds of years have returned, including the Przewalski’s horse, the European bison, the lynx, and the Eurasian brown bear. Without fear of being hunted, the animals roam the forest and the ruins of cities in what has become an eerily post-human wildlife sanctuary.

Nature is taking back Chernobyl, which is almost reassuring until you remember that radioactive elements are still in the soil. Thirty years later, the legacy of nuclear disaster—which, Broglio notes, could ultimately lead to 4,000 deaths—perpetuates a paradox: Gradually, life returns to the dead zone; and gradually, death grows.