Monday, March 21, 2016

The Babushkas of Chernobyl - Film Review

On April 26, 1986, one of the reactors in the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine, exploded and caught fire. At the time, it was the world's worst nuclear accident (though in March of 2011 it was superceded by the earthquake and tsunami damage to the Fukushima reactor, a slow-motion catastrophe still in the making).  The area around the reactor was evacuated and closed, declared an Exclusion Zone. Within a 10 km radius, radiation levels are extremely high. Within the 30 km zone, levels are still toxic, but that zone is not depopulated.

The documentary The Babushkas of Chernobyl, directed by Anne Bogart and Holly Morris and released in 2015, explores that world.

Three groups of people spend time in the Exclusion Zone:
1. Scientists tracking radiation hot-spots and effects (new hot-spots keep showing up, since the radiation doesn't stay in one place), sampling soil, water, plants and animals. They are rotated out of the zone every 15 days to forestall toxic buildup of radiation in their tissues.
2. A group of enthusiasts of a post-apocalyptic video game called S.T.A.L.K.E.R., whose mecca is the 10 km zone. They seek the abandoned city Pripyat, quite near the reactor, to get there climbing barbed-wire fences and sneaking through the forest, their dream being to tramp through the deserted buildings of a once-thriving city - essentially playing high-risk hide-and-seek. On camera we watch young men fill bottles from the river and drink it, though the water doesn't look potable even if it weren't radioactive. They don't stay long. Police patrols arrest and remove them - when they can catch them.
3. The babushkas. In Russian, the word (pronounced BOB-ush-kuh; the pronunciation buh-BOOSH-kuh refers to a style of colorful kerchief worn by these women) babushka means grandmother, but more than that, it refers to the tough peasant women of a generation not much longer for this world, survivors of what they call the "famine of Stalin" and World War II.  In the aftermath of the explosion they were evacuated, but they longed to return to their motherland, the villages where they spent their lives. And because they were old (ages range from 70s to 90s and even older), there seemed no harm in letting them come back - the ailments of age would likely kill them before radiation did.

They live mostly alone, with chickens and pigs, planting, harvesting, distilling their own moonshine, and foraging for sustenance. In the Exclusion Zone there are no stores (no nightclubs, as one babushka laughs), only the labs. They're on their own. But the forest is beautiful, wild and lush, abundant with game and plant-life.  There are about 130 of these old women. They cheerfully share their raspberry jam, their potatoes and mushroom soup with visitors - it would be rude not to partake. Our young tour guide says she eats as little as possible then gets out of there. We watch one babushka lovingly add new soil to the planter box over the grave of her grandson, then plant flowers in it. Who will tend her grave?

When conditions are dry and the wind picks up, radioactive dust blows around - this is the most dangerous time to be in the zone. After rains, when the air is humid, it's a little safer. Groups of scientists visit the babushki, taking samples of their garden soil, their water, the buckets of mushrooms they've harvested for soup, eggs from their chickens, berries and tomatoes. The Geiger counters are clicking away, the levels far above anything considered safe. The babushki are, however, thriving: cheerful, independent, hard-working. They laugh about the crows that will maraud for eggs if they leave the coop open, or the wild boars that root in the garden eating potatoes. An almost toothless babushka demonstrates how banging on a pail eventually scares the wild boar away - after he's eaten his fill. But clearly she doesn't mind sharing her harvest. Another remarks that if she had stayed in Kiev, where she was evacuated, she'd be dead by now, what with the polluted air and the traffic and noise. The forest is her home. She impales mushroom caps on a tree at different levels: near the ground for the hedgehogs, at thigh level for the wild boars, and at eye level for the moose. She uses the diminutive form for each of these animals - they might as well be her children, the way she looks after them.

Our tour guide brings us near the damaged reactor, pointing out the porosity of the concrete sarcophagus originally built to entomb it. She shows us the new cover under construction, a giant arch of concrete which will be rolled into place, to seal in the radiation - for a hundred years. She seems very pleased with this new structure. It's worth remembering that the half-life of uranium-238 is something like 4,468,300,000 years (source: Wikipedia: Isotopes of Uranium).  We can't even imagine how long that is.

Those who tout nuclear power as "clean energy" conveniently ignore not only this timeline but the accidents which have already occurred.  It's time to admit humans have not even begun to grasp the task of coping with toxins so long-lasting, and that we have no way of either cleaning up, storing, nor containing such material until geologic-scale time finally renders it harmless.

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