The Creatures That Remember Chernobyl

Radioactive boars and bunnies won’t let us forget about the nuclear disaster.

A fox roams the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor (Reuters / Vasily Fedosenko)

Radioactive, wild boar are invading towns in southern Germany. They travel in packs scavenging for food. They break through fences and roam the roads shutting down highway traffic. They take down a man in a wheelchair. Police scramble to restore order in urban centers. The boar are armed with a post-apocalyptic payload: Radioactive fallout from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which marks its thirtieth anniversary today. By foraging on radioactive plants, the animals embody the return of a disaster many seek to repress.

After the collapse and meltdown of a reactor at Chernobyl, over a hundred thousand people were evacuated from a 30-kilometer Exclusion Zone around the nuclear power plant. Residents exposed to the ensuing radiation suffered from leukemia, thyroid cancer, and other maladies. Some 4,000 people could die from illnesses related to the accident.

In the three decades since, a range of animals have taken up residence in the Exclusion Zone. They thrive in this occasionally mutant, non-human world where radiation remains 10 to 100 times higher than is safe for human occupancy. 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.

As for the radioactive boar several hundred miles away in Germany, 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.

Perhaps we should pay more heed to our fictions. After World War II, Godzilla, a fictional monster empowered by nuclear radiation, reminded Japan and the rest of the world that radioactive material is a beast more forceful and longer-living then humans can imagine. Allegorically, Godzilla made the otherwise invisible nuclear threat visible.

Other films followed suit. In the 1955 nuclear monster movie Them, an early atomic-bomb test in New Mexico mutates common ants into human-killing beasts. In it, the wise character Dr. Harold Metford (ominously played by the Miracle on 34th Street Santa Edmund Gwenn) observes, “We may be witnesses to a Biblical prophecy come true: ‘And there shall be destruction and darkness come upon creation and the beast shall reign over the earth.’” Mystery and ominousness ruled the day. “If these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945,” Gunsmoke cowboy actor James Arness asks of Gween’s Metford at the film’s conclusion, “what about all the others that have been exploded since then?” To which Metford replies “Nobody knows. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.”

Human control comes with a dose of repression. As a modern species, we hope to move forward from calamities like Chernobyl and Fukushima (where radioactive boar have also just been reported). We want to forget our vulnerability and get on with our lives. Humanity’s veneer of stability and progress must be maintained. But the animals won’t let us forget. They carry our past along with them. In eastern Germany alone, the radioactive caesium-137 levels in wild boar is six times the European Union limits for safe hunting and consumption of game. Geiger-counter stations stand sentinel to remind citizens of an invisible toxicity. There is nowhere to run from the geological time of radiation and the evolutionary time of its biological aftermath.

These accidental actors of ecological remembrance are not tricked out in Japanese monster costumes. There is no puppetry nor scale models. In fact, the Exclusion Zone and sanctuary around Chernobyl is also known by an almost existential title, the Zone of Alienation. And who is alienated if not we humans? First from a time outside of human time (the half-life of radioactive elements) and then from physical bodies that do not conform to planned technological progress. Even though they are more modest than our fictions imagined, creatures like boars have become the real Godzillas, invading our cities with their irradiated tusks to remind us of the limits of human control.

In 2010, a radioactive rabbit was found on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington state, the largest nuclear site in the Western Hemisphere. Hanford is the site of the first nuclear reactor and the facility that fed plutonium to the Fat Man Bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The bunny seems innocuous enough until one realizes that it, being a rabbit, breeds others—and with them more potential carriers of the radioactive conditions of their habitat. If there is one radioactive rabbit then there are other animals out there too. How many? As Dr. Metford says, nobody knows.

The Hanford reactor was put out of service in 1988 but left behind millions of tons of solid waste and hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid waste from its decades of producing plutonium. The waste is buried underground in pits and holding ponds where it has been forgotten. As the Department of Energy explains: “Depending on when the waste was buried, records about what was buried and where it was buried can be either very good, or in some cases, very bad.” As inhuman time moves onward, liquid waste has soaked into the soil. The membranes designed to separate nature and culture have worn down, and radioactive rabbits are the result.

Thirty years after Chernobyl, the boar and bunnies wandering in its wake have brought us an anniversary gift. The Chernobyl boar aren’t just visitors from the past, it turns out. Thanks to the longevity of radiation, they are also visitors from the future. To take their lesson seriously would require accepting the repressed detritus of human progress, and incorporating that aftermath into the idea of human progress rather than believing that it remains safely buried, cordoned off, and forgotten.