Chernobyl Has Turned into an Unlikely Poster Child for Environmentalism

Between the return of wildlife and a promised solar power project, Chernobyl isn't what you think it is.

Jul 28 2016, 10:00am

The Pripyat Ferris Wheel, viewed from the City Center Gymnasium. Image: Kadams1970

The name "Chernobyl" has become synonymous with the eerie, urban ruins left in the wake of devastating nuclear fallout.

But a new legacy has begun to blossom from the ashes of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ), the 1000-square-mile surrounding the remains of the ill-fated Ukrainian power plant and its neighboring city of Pripyat. Once the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history, Chernobyl is becoming an unlikely poster child for sustainable energy and environmental renewal.

The most recent example of the Chernobyl's green revival is a new effort to develop a solar power plant within the CEZ. For the past few weeks, Ostap Semerak, Ukraine's minister of ecology, has been pitching Chernobyl as a potential solar hotspot to both foreign and domestic investors.

"We propose for our partners and investors to look on this territory with a quite different understanding; not as a territory of catastrophe, but as a territory of future development," Semerak said during a visit to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) in London this week.

This is more than a symbolic rebrand, as much of Chernobyl's original infrastructure, including electrical transmission lines, can be repurposed to suit growing solar operations. The disastrous detritus nuclear power plant may find a second life supporting clean, safe, renewable power. Semerak said that Canadian, American, and local Ukrainian investors have already pursued the opportunity to develop in the CEZ. The goal is to install a four megawatt plant there by the end of 2016, according to Bloomberg.

Beyond this move toward solar power, Chernobyl is also gaining a reputation as a lush—and accidental—wildlife preserve. The forced absence of human settlement over the past 30 years has allowed plants and animals to flourish within the exclusion zone. Wolves, moose, boars, badgers, and wild horses teem in the unpeopled wilderness surrounding the abandoned community.

Wild boars return to Chernobyl. Image: Valeriy Yurko

In fact, studies show that Chernobyl's ecosystems are more robust and healthy now than they were before the 1986 meltdown, with the notable exception of outlier groups like invertebrates and birds, which appear to be more susceptible to radiation.

"The wildlife at Chernobyl is very likely better than it was before the accident, not because radiation is good for animals, but because human occupation is much worse," Jim Smith, a University of Portsmouth environmental scientist who has studied Chernobyl's wildlife, told me last October.

Thirty years ago, few people could have predicted that the Chernobyl region would ever recover from the fallout of the meltdown, let alone produce power again. But as the decades wear on and overgrowth reclaims its human-made structures, the zone's legacy has grown from a cautionary tale to a story of rebirth. Perhaps over the coming months and years, Ukrainian communities will come to rely on Chernobyl for energy once more.