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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

By Mary Mycio
John Henry Press, 244 pages, $27.95
Life rises after Ukraine disaster

Forest around Chernobyl is contaminated, vast and beautiful

Reviewed by BERND FRANKE

The word “wormwood” stands for the biblical prophecy of Armageddon. It is also the name of a common herb in Chernobyl, Ukraine, where in 1986 a nuclear reactor melted down and caused widespread contamination with radioactive materials. Mary Mycio’s book Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl explains that the botanical name of the plant is actually more complex, and that typifies her style: She describes and analyzes myths and scientific facts alike, with an open eye to the human side.

Ms. Mycio, an American reporter with a solid science background, became the Kiev correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Her book takes you right into today’s forest around Chernobyl; it describes the trips and research she conducted, touring a vast area that today is simultaneously a no-man’s-land, a wilderness park, a research laboratory and the site of many human tragedies. Ms. Mycio’s writing style gets the reader hooked easily, in part owing to the way she describes the characters.

-- Itar-Tass/Victor Tolocho

In April, officers of Polessky State Radiological Reserve measure radiation in the village of Babchin within the contaminated area around Chernobyl, Ukraine.

In the aftermath of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown, about 350,000 people were resettled and more than 4.5 million still lived in contaminated areas. Almost 20 years later, the radiation in the area is too intense for people to live there safely, although quite a few live there anyway. Ms. Mycio’s intent is not to provide a harrowing account of the past. She presents a carefully researched and well-written travelogue that allows the reader to feel the atmosphere in what has become Europe’s largest wildlife sanctuary, with wild boars and other endangered species living in the forests, fields and swamps, despite the contamination with cesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium-239. It is indeed ironic and logical at the same time that some of the most contaminated areas in the world are among the most beautiful; another example is the nuclear test areas in the Marshall Islands.

Wormwood Forest describes the effect of radioactive contamination on plants, animals, groundwater, the ecosystem and on the homo chernobylus. Ms. Mycio takes the reader on a plutonium safari, visits several of the 800-plus nuclear waste dumps, goes bird watching, trespasses over borders and learns about the nightlife in Chernobyl. Ms. Mycio describes the simply unfeasible problem of trying to decontaminate the thousands of square miles of land. In order to prevent fires that would spread radioactive material, peat areas were flooded, creating a paradise for black storks and other birds. White storks, on the other hand, got rarer, probably because of the lack of human cultivation. It’s so beautiful -- and radioactive.

The book is captivatingly and passionately written and gives great attention to human emotion. One example is Ms. Mycio’s detailed description of the annual visit of former residents to the gravesides of their loved ones in the contaminated zone. Ms. Mycio reports many scientific findings, often in great detail. But rather than writing a scientific report, she focuses on the difficulties that scientists face to determine the truth. Anomalously high radioactivity levels were measured in groundwater not far from the Pripyat River that scientists could not explain. A local guide pointed out an old sewage pipe that is probably leaking. Ms. Mycio uses this example to show that “much of Chernobyl remains unknown and disputed.” She takes on many such stories and rumors with respect to Chernobyl, though the reality is interesting enough.

She also contrasts the difficulty in assessing the consequences on human health with the obviously unfair compensation schemes in what are today three independent countries: Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. How to do justice under the circumstances?

In a few isolated cases, Ms. Mycio’s attempt to provide simple explanations comes close to a distortion of the facts that may be attributed to the sources she selected. For example, she claims that in the mainstream view, the effect of radiation doses of less than 100 rem over a lifetime will be impossible to detect. However, there are many studies that indicate effects at smaller doses. She did not attempt to write a textbook on radioecology, although the reader may get that impression when she goes into great detail with respect to the numbers for radionuclide concentrations in groundwater, plants and sediments. A simple chart of units and their meaning with respect to radiation dose would have been helpful, and would have provided more clarity. Also, given Ms. Mycio’s detailed travelogue, her book could benefit from a better map identifying the degree of contamination in the region. Maybe that could be done in a reprint.

Bernd Franke, a biologist, is scientific director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Heidelberg, Germany.

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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