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Fourty-three years after meltdown in Chernobyl, social and economic resilience help drive recovery

On April 26th, 1986 the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred at the Chernobyl power plant. 350,000 people living within a 30 km radius of Chernobyl, known as the exclusion zone, and its bordering villages were evacuated. The initial explosion resulted in 70% of the fall-out landing in Belarus and the remaining 30% landing in Ukraine and Russia. 

Social Resilience

Cautionary signs surrounding the Chernobyl exclusion zone warn people of the dangerous radiation (Source Flickr/Giles Thomas)
Cautionary signs surrounding the Chernobyl exclusion zone warn people of the dangerous radiation (Source Flickr/Giles Thomas)

In the months following the explosion, around 1,200 evacuated people returned to the exclusion zone. Although this was illegal and dangerous, many returnees chose to do so because of their strong connection to their land. Because many of these returnees had survived a man-made famine ordered by Stalin and a Nazi rampage, both of which killed millions of Ukrainians, they were reluctant to leave their lifelong homes for an enemy that could not be seen.

These returnees were going against both the law and the advice of researchers who deemed the soil, food, livestock, and atmosphere in the exclusion zone as dangerously radioactive. Today, just over 100 people remain. Once these remaining returnees pass away, no one else will be allowed to move into the exclusion zone due to the dangerous levels of radiation that still exist. 

Although the areas in the exclusion zone are still deemed inhabitable, many areas bordering the zone are safe to live in. In these low contamination areas, the radiation that accumulates in a resident over 20 years is equal to the radiation received during a CT scan. This allows people to safely live in areas bordering the exclusion zone. Because of this, people have begun moving into houses in these bordering areas. Many of these houses have been abandoned since 1986, resulting in rotting and the need for repair. The people who owned these houses prior to the explosion are selling them for a only a few hundred dollars, making them an inexpensive option for people without the resources to own homes elsewhere. 

Part of the impetus behind the move into once abandoned areas is the political upheaval in Ukraine. Since 2014, Ukraine has been in a state of conflict resulting in 10,000 people being killed and almost 2 million people being displaced. This conflict has caused families to seek shelter in different parts of Ukraine. Areas bordering the exclusion zone have become increasingly popular for those displaced by conflict looking for a quiet and inexpensive place to reside. This is creating social resilience as people regain a sense of normalcy after the disruption caused by the conflict.

Economic Resilience

The NSC was constructed to surround the radioactive reactor at Chernobyl power plant (Source Wikimedia/Tim Porter)
The NSC was constructed to surround the radioactive reactor at Chernobyl power plant (Source Wikimedia/Tim Porter)

Areas bordering the exclusion zone have also become an enticing option for entrepreneurs. Some of these areas are within 115 km (roughly 70 miles) of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. This close proximity to the capital combined with the low cost of property has made these areas desirable for entrepreneurs seeking inexpensive property, such as abandoned warehouses, to begin their business. In order to support economic resilience in contaminated areas in Belarus, the government has provided tax exemptions, incentives for healthcare for employees, clean food and water, and programs for economic rehabilitation. 

In addition to entrepreneurs looking to open new businesses, some jobs around the power plant itself have contributed to the ability for the area to maintain a small degree of economic viability following the catastrophe. Today, the power plant is contained in a steel structure known as a New Safe Confinement (NSC). This steel shield helps prevent more radiation from leaking from the power plant. Around 3,000 people currently work in the NSC. These workers monitor radiation levels and inspect the equipment that helps contain the radiation. Although these workers spend long workdays in close proximity to the highly radioactive remains of the power plant, the levels of radioactivity in the NSC are low and pose little threat to the health of the workers. 

There are also around 2,000 people working in other areas of the exclusion zone. Typical jobs include sentry guards, firemen, and service staff. All workers in the exclusion zone are restricted to a cycle of 15 work days in the zone followed by 15 days outside. This is to ensure that radiation levels in employees do not become dangerously high. With little industry left after the explosion of the power plant, many people in the surrounding areas were struggling to survive on a small government stipend. The increase of jobs in this area is allowing people to earn enough money to live comfortably. 

A Sustainable Future

Across from the remains of the nuclear power plant, a solar power plant has been created. At this power plant, 3,800 solar panels produce energy that is used to power over 2,000 apartments. This power plant was built in Chernobyl because of incentives put in place by the Ukrainian Government. These incentives include extremely inexpensive land and a paid premium for power generated there.  The Ukrainian Government is taking measures to rebuild with sustainable energy instead of nuclear energy. This proactive approach indicates that sustainable and resilient practices will play a part in the future rebuilding Chernobyl. 

Sources and Further Reading

The People who Moved to Chernobyl – BBC

The Women Living in Chernobyl’s Toxic Wasteland – Telegraph

Belarus Chernobyl Review – World Bank

Under the Shield: Inside the Chernobyl’s New Safe Confinement – RFE/RL

What’s Going on in Chernobyl Today? – World Economic Forum

Three Decades on, Chernobyl is Creating Solar Power – World Economic Forum

Chernobyl Solar Farm Opens Feet from Site of Infamous Nuclear Disaster – Fortune

Health Effects of the Chernobyl Accident: an Overview – World Health Organization

12 Facts about Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone 30 Years After the Disaster – Mentalfloss