A bitter dispute is raging over whether the fallout zone is a wasteland or wonderland. Now, a team of scientists is heading back into the contaminated area to find out the truth.
'We walked out into a wasteland, grey and desolate. The buildings had deteriorated, windows had been smashed. Trees and weeds had grown over everything: it was a ghost town." It reads like a passage from a post-apocalyptic novel, such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road; in fact, it's how Tim Mousseau describes his first visit to Chernobyl.
In 1999, this Professor of Biological Sciences from the University of South Carolina travelled to the site of the world's most horrific nuclear accident, alongside Professor Anders Møller, an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist from the Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. Their on-site research has sparked an intense controversy over the effects of radiation on humans and animals – one which they hope their latest trip into the fallout zone, which sets out in two weeks, will help to resolve.
The basic facts of Chernobyl are well known. At 1.23am on April 26, 1986, reactor number four at the Soviet nuclear power plant (sited in modern-day Ukraine) exploded, after an electrical test went horribly wrong. The radioactive material released was hundreds of times greater than the fallout over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, polluting about 80,000 square miles of land across Europe and spreading radioactive rain as far as north-west Ireland.
In the wake of the accident, more than 300,000 people were evacuated and an 800 square mile exclusion zone created around the reactor. Yet recently it has been reported that the abandoned town of Pripyat has become a wildlife haven. There have been sightings of wolves, bears and moose wandering through the deserted streets, and swifts swoop round abandoned office blocks.
The implication is that if wildlife can return so soon, nuclear radiation – and nuclear power – might be less dangerous than has been suggested. James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia theory, has even written that the natural world "would welcome nuclear waste as the perfect guardian against greedy developers… the preference of wildlife for nuclear-waste sites suggests that the best sites for its disposal are the tropical forests and other habitats in need of a reliable guardian against their destruction by hungry farmers and developers".