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Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl Hardcover – International Edition, August 29, 2005
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From Publishers Weekly
Mycio takes us on a timely tour of the eerie, surprisingly vigorous area around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that's too radioactive for safe human habitation, yet where, 20 years after the explosion, flora and fauna are "thriving." Among abandoned towns, thousands of cormorants nest, and Przewalskis, a breed of wild horse, live seemingly unharmed on irradiated grass. A few people remain: workers decommissioning the plant, bureaucrats and scientists struggling with chronic underfunding, and samosels, elderly squatters so homesick that Ukraine finally let them stay. Mycio, former Kiev correspondent for the L.A. Times, is a good guide, clearly conveying the niceties of radionuclides; the elaborate, jerry-built structures containing the worst of the radiation; and the impossibility of cleaning the place up. She finds occasional humor and plenty of astonishment, as when a herd of red deer cross her path: "My recorder preserved my inarticulate reaction: 'Super. Wow. My God, they're beautiful!' " Mycio gives plenty of fuel for the discussion of nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuel. Not all readers will share her cautious optimism, yet her verdict, that Chernobyl is not simply a disaster but a terrible paradox, is convincing. B&w photos, map.
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"...a completely unexpected piece of natural history. ...Mycio displays only the best and most consistent journalistic instincts..." -- Providence Journal, September 25, 2005
"...tourists, (are) participating in what may be the strangest vacation... the packaged tour of the Chernobyl exclusion zone..." -- C.J. Chivers, New York Times, June, 2005
"A fascinating look at an isolated area that few will ever visit " -- Library Journal, September 15, 2005
"Mary Mycio takes the reader on a fascinating personal journey through a contaminated landscape that paradoxically thrives with wildlife." -- David Holley, Moscow correspondent, Los Angeles Times
"The new Chernobyl wilderness -- radioactive, yet greenly blooming -- has one of the strangest stories in the modern world." -- Bruce Sterling, author of Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years
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Certainly the horror of the melted power plant core and the pockets of high radiation levels present still hangs over the human inhabitants of "the Zone," as the area within a 30 km circle of the reactor is known, is palpable enough. This is especially so given the huge amount of human suffering engendered by the explosion, both in direct death by radiation for the firefighters to the increase of thyroid cancer in children. Still, as Mycio points out so eloquently, the worst predictions did not materialize and the Zone has become a wildlife (admittedly radioactive wildlife!) bonanza. Certainly selection for resistance to radiation took a terrible toll among the local mammals, birds, plants, and others. Sill the existence and even flourishing of the local biota is a surprising and hopeful development. Mycio has, in my opinion, done a very good job of describing this ambiguous result. Her style of writing is in fact very powerful in telling the story of Chernobyl.
It is obvious that no one (other than perhaps James Lovelock) would want to recreate "the Zone" in other localities on the planet and that the failure of the reactor is in every sense a cautionary tale. Until we can find some way to deal with the health effects to Uranium miners, the possibilities and consequences of failure in reactors, and the difficulties of dealing with radioactive waste, we have to look at nuclear power as a two-edged sword. On the other hand such countries as France have managed to handle the reactor construction and operation with few problems. However, they still have not addressed the first and last problems. Another problem in an age of terrorism is the security of the nuclear materials present. In my view nuclear power is only a short term solution at best.
The flourishing of wildlife around the reactor, especially mammals and birds- which are thought to be more susceptible to radiation damage- was surprising. However, it was already known that some lower organisms not killed immediately by the fireball, extreme radiation and shock wave of a nuclear explosion could rebound to higher numbers than before. Darkling beetles did so after explosions of bombs at the Nuclear Test Site in Nevada. In the process of describing the results of the Chernobyl explosion Mycio has shown us that in reality humans are more dangerous to other life forms, especially vertebrates, than is radiation!
Read this book! It clears away the fog and lets us confront both the real and imagined hazards of nuclear power.
In addition to a wealth of facts and figures, the book is loaded with personal anecdotes and as a result, Ms. Mycio's constant sense of amazement and underlying anxiety over radiation exposure adds a very human element to what could easily have become a dry academic treatise. Her account of the explosive recovery of the natural environment inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone covers all the most important scientific developments and research on the recovery interspersed with very human tales of the people who work there full time and those who have returned to live in the midst of radiation that is certain to shorten their natural lifespans.
Nature, it turns out, thrives in radioactive zones where long-term exposure is fatal to humans.