A sign in the nearly abandoned village of Karpylivka warns people not to go any further. Up ahead is a checkpoint before entering the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / PRI

By Allison Herrera
27 August 2018

(PRI) – Nina is worried about her potato field.

She’s standing in the middle of a two-lane road in the village of Karpylivka, Ukraine, showing me the bugs she’s just pulled off her plants in the field nearby. The insects squirm inside a small, tin bucket.

“I have no money for the pesticides so I just pull them out by hand,” Nina says in Ukrainian through a translator. Nina declined to give her surname for this story.

Karpylivka is about 70 miles — less than a two-hour drive — from downtown Kiev. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. There are forests, small roadside churches, fields of flowers and streams that snake through this bucolic eastern European landscape. You would never know that this village is less than 30 miles, about a 45-minute drive, from the epicenter of one of the worst nuclear accidents in history — Chernobyl.

“Chernobyl was a beautiful place,” she says. “I don’t know why they put this disaster there.”

In April 1986, Chernobyl’s reactor 4 exploded as scientists were conducting an experiment at the plant. The explosion sent clouds of radiation particles across Europe. Almost 100 villages in Ukraine were evacuated as hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the across the former Soviet Union, including Belarus and Ukraine, were sent in to clean up and contain the damage.

Now, 32 years later with $700 billion spent, Ukraine is still cleaning up. The country has created a 1,000-square-mile “exclusion zone” around the disaster that prohibits people from living there. Scientists take samples of the soil, wood and vegetation inside the zone to monitor radiation levels.

Nina’s potato field isn’t in the zone, but for a while, scientists also monitored the soil in her village. Sometimes the levels were just as bad as those in the zone.

Why? Because the soldiers sent to clean up after the disaster stayed in her village.

Almost 80 miles away from Nina is a block of Soviet-style buildings on the outskirts of central Kiev. It’s here that scientists Valery Kashparov and Valentin Protsyk work for the Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology (UIAR). They’re the people who monitor the soil, wood, plants and animals inside and outside the exclusion zone.

In the first years after the disaster, the focus was the cleanup. Around 800,000 soldiers, firefighters, miners and engineers — collectively known as “liquidators” — were tasked with cleaning up the radiation. In 1991, they were able to “stabilize” the areas surrounding the plant. That’s when they implemented the exclusion zone, which includes the northernmost portions of Kiev and Zhytomyr oblasts. Cities closest to the plant will never be inhabitable — like the city of Pripyat, which once had a population of nearly 50,000. […]

People forage for food in the village of Karpylivka, Ukraine, near the Chernobyl exclusion zone. A woman who's come to visit her mother picked berries from inside the exclusion zone. The berries are being measured with a geiger counter. The level is 0.12 microsieverts per hour. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / PRI

The day I met Nina, a woman named Maria approached us with a handful of berries she had just picked. Maria lives in Kiev, but drives here to check on her mom.

“They’re from the zone,” she explains in Ukrainian through our translator. The zone, meaning the exclusion zone, which starts about a mile away from Nina’s potato field. There is a fence that guards the perimeter of the zone, along with some police officers, but Maria and others found a hole in the fence they use to find food.

Nina says she got sick after the Chernobyl accident — a bad headache and vomiting, which are signs of radiation sickness. But after a while she felt fine and returned to Karpylivka. She lives off a small pension with her adult son.

Right now, the exclusion zone is the same as it’s been for the last 30 years and the Ukrainian government doesn’t plan on changing it. The monitoring continues. Protsyk says his study of the hotspots where soldiers stayed, like Nina’s village, will be complete next year.

“Our contribution to these people is that we can find these places of pollution and we are planning to destroy [the polluted places] so that [they] don’t bring harm to them,” explained Protsyk, as he pointed at the map of hotspots. He says when his team's report is done it will be the government’s job to decide what to do, such as whether to evacuate Karpylivka. [more]

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