What do you do with a radioactive landscape? Leaving aside the devastation left in the Marshall Islands, eastern Kazakhstan and elsewhere by atmospheric bomb tests in the 1950s, the prime cases today are the exclusion zones created around Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011.
Each saw evacuations of more than 150,000 people from zones stretching 20 to 30 kilometres from the stricken plants, leaving towns, villages and agricultural and forest lands largely uninhabited. But interestingly, the public policies adopted within those two evacuation zones could hardly be more different.
At Chernobyl, the aim has been to manage the ecosystems within the exclusion zone to hold the radioactivity in soils, forests and wetlands. That seems the cheapest way of preventing its export on the winds or in river flows towards the Ukraine capital, Kiev, which is only 120 kilometres downwind and downstream. The forests, which now cover two-thirds of the zone, are being nurtured as stores of radioactivity; while wetlands near the reactor that received heavy fallout have been separated from the River Pripyat, which passes close by en route to the main water-supply reservoir for Kiev.
In the land around the Fukushima-Daiichi reactor, the Japanese authorities are spending trillions of yen to do the opposite. They want to cleanse the ecosystems. In the past six years, they have stripped away contaminated soils and vegetation, packing it all into three million black plastic sacks, which have been assembled into hundreds of giant pyramids across the exclusion zone, awaiting final disposal.
The government is timetabling the return of communities to their homes as radiation doses are brought down to safe levels. This month [ed: April], the 21,000 residents of Namie, a town just five kilometres from the power plant, became the latest to be invited to return. But it is far from clear how many will take up the offer. Fears run deep. In nearby Naraha, which got the green light in late 2015, only a fifth of the populace have so far gone back.
Around Chernobyl, I was told during a visit last year that the land would remain empty for hundreds of years. Most of the radioactive isotopes in the landscape would slowly decay. The caesium and strontium isotopes both have half-lives of 30 years. More than half are already gone. But the plutonium fallout would be in soils for millennia, always at risk of getting into local food supplies. Sergey Kireev, director of the Radioecology Centre in Chernobyl, which manages the area, told me the exclusion zone “is forever, or at least for thousands of years.”
So in both Chernobyl and Fukushima, a similar problem arises: what to do with the lands left empty by either continuing radioactive materials or a public reluctance to return.
One idea is to make space for the one successful consequence of their respective disasters: the return of wildlife. Round Chernobyl, wildlife is doing well in the absence of humans. Wolves, lynx, beavers, white-tailed eagles and many more species prosper. They may be radioactive – and there is concern that there could be a build-up of DNA damage in the irradiated populations – but the zone has become “a window into the past of Europe, when bears and wolves were the bosses here,” said Marina Shkvyria, a wolf expert at the Institute of Zoology in Kiev.
Recognising this wildlife invasion, the Belarus government as long ago as 1988 turned its half of the exclusion zone into a wildlife reserve. And last year the Ukraine government did the same thing – at least on paper.
There may be similar conservation potential in the Fukushima exclusion zone, certainly in the forested mountains west of the reactors. These areas bore the brunt of the fallout and are almost impossible to clean up. Last year, I saw for myself how wildlife is moving in. Most notoriously, wild boar are rooting around, digging up gardens and breaking into homes. During my brief visit to Namie, the public address system set up for construction workers warned that a bear had been spotted on the edge of town.
But the Chernobyl exclusion zone in particular is considering other options. One is green energy. A decade ago, the Belarus government proposed growing biofuels in the empty lands, though the plan collapsed when the Irish company behind the scheme went bust. Late last year, the Ukraine government announced a deal with a Chinese company to cover 25 square kilometres of the zone south of the power plant with solar panels. They would generate a gigawatt of power, coincidentally about the same as the reactor that suffered the accident.
The Japanese are adopting a similar idea in some coastal areas that were devastated by the 2011 tsunami that caused the reactor meltdown. Solar farms are going up where the shore is too vulnerable to future tsunamis for rebuilding with housing.
But the managers of the Chernobyl exclusion zone also have a further idea that is much more controversial: nuclear waste. A place largely devoid of people, and close to existing nuclear facilities, is an ideal location for the storage and burial of such nasties. And with Ukraine’s stand-off with Moscow over Crimea unlikely to end anytime soon, Kiev wants an alternative to its current arrangements for Russia to handle its nuclear waste.
A store for the nuclear fuel debris being removed from the burned core of the Chernobyl reactor is already under construction near the abandoned village of Buryakovka, a dozen kilometres from the plant. And Kireev told me that there were also plans for a deep burial site for the final disposal of nuclear fuel from Chernobyl and elsewhere. A burial site without pesky human neighbours to worry about could be built for two billion Euros, compared to as much as 70 billion Euros for a site outside the zone, he said.
The Chernobyl exclusion zone seems set to become a post-apocalyptic landscape of radioactive waste dumps surrounded by marauding radioactive wolves, lynx and bears. Could Fukushima go the same way? If the repopulation of the Fukushima zone falls foul of public reluctance to return to homes near the stricken power plant, then it might. At least the authorities there will have found a suitable home for all those black plastic bags.