On the Chernobyl media trip, a question that came up numerous times was "why don't you just move out of the area?"
Dr Shulyak of Rokytne, who cares for the 53,000 living in the contaminated region, actually laughed. "Yes, some have moved away. But the majority of the community do not want to leave. Their family and relatives are all here."
I did not fully comprehend the weight behind his answer. The doctor's laugh startled me and kept resurfacing in my mind. And then we met a couple who actually moved back inside the Exclusion Zone.
Maria and Ivan live in the village Paryshiv, close to the destroyed power plant. They were evacuated shortly after the accident, and then allocated an apartment with running water after their village became part of a permanent Exclusion Zone. "But we missed our home so much," Maria told us, "we heard that the radiation in the village was not so bad and we decided to move back." They returned to their home in 1988, and have lived there since. The village once had 500 residents, today there are seven.
We walked around in their small farm, examining their beautiful chickens, and a small patch of land where they grew vegetables. It was a sunny day, bird songs could be heard and a soft breeze was coming through from the nearby forests. "I told my grandchildren to come and visit – the fresh air and walks in the forest would do them good." Maria said proudly. For a moment I completely forgot we were in the biggest nuclear wasteland in the world.
And then it clicked.
We have such a tight bond to the land we belong to. Mortgage. Where you went to school. You and your friends' favourite meeting place. The home where you grew up. Local cuisine. How everyone speaks – complete with the local accent and the latest slang words. Where your ancestors are buried. Countless wars had been waged over territorial disputes. Yet we ask "why don’t you just move out of the area?"
Of course the doctor had to laugh at our naïve question. How much pain must lie behind that decision? – between staying, trying to get by with what’s left and surviving the radiation; or uprooting, leaving your home, everything you have, and life as you know it, for a totally uncertain future.
This is not a theoretical discussion. Two weeks ago, a 102-year old man in Iitate village near the Fukushima Daiichi power plant decided to take his own life when he was told to get ready for evacuation. Hundreds of thousands now face the prospect of uprooting themselves, perhaps permanently. Pripyat was a new town built for workers of the Chernobyl power plant, only 16 years old when it was abandoned. Fukushima city is 900 years old.
90 million people live within 30km of nuclear power stations today. The high population density means that a nuclear accident would do so much more damage. For large mega-cities such as New York, Mumbai or Hong Kong, the evacuation of large population becomes impossible. For many, there may not even be that choice.
It is very difficult to fully comprehend the full scale of destruction and suffering from nuclear disasters, simply because they are too great. But we mustn't ignore these terrible truths when discussing nuclear energy.
Because it does not need to be that way. Fukushima has offered us a choice – the choice is to not go nuclear.
Photo: © Wendela Hubrecht / Greenpeace
Iris Cheng is a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace International, based in Hong-Kong.