From the hidden bars and convenience stores of a radioactive wilderness to the sacred but reeking waters of India, Visit Sunny Chernobyl fuses immersive first-person reporting with satire and analysis, making the case that it's time to start appreciating our planet as it is—not as we wish it would be. Irreverent and reflective, the book is a love letter to our biosphere's most tainted, most degraded ecosystems, and a measured consideration of what they mean for us.
Equal parts travelogue, expose, environmental memoir, and faux guidebook, Blackwell careens through a rogue's gallery of environmental disaster areas in search of the worst the world has to offer—and approaches a deeper understanding of what's really happening to our planet in the process.
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VISIT SUNNY CHERNOBYL
It began on a train. Vienna to Kiev, rocking back and forth in a cabin of the Kiev Express. There was a certain Agatha Christie-meets-Leonid Brezhnev charm to it. Long oriental rugs ran the length of its corridors, and the passenger compartments were outfitted with a faux wood-grain veneer and dark red seats that folded up to form bunks.
It's not actually called the Kiev Express. If it were an express, it wouldn't take thirty-six hours. In fact, train is no way to make this trip. I bought my ticket only because I believed, unaccountably, that Vienna and Kiev were close to each other. They are not.
I was going to Chernobyl, on vacation.
Trains are for reading, and I had brought a pair of books: Voices from Chernobyl, a collection of survivor interviews, and Wormwood Forest, an investigation of the accident's effect on the environment. I recommend them both, although when I say that trains are for reading, I don't mean that I was doing all that much. Really I was taking an epic series of naps, sporadically interrupted with books.
My companion in the passenger compartment was Max, a rotund, smiling man in his early thirties. Max spoke in a high, oddly formal voice and looked like a grown-up Charlie Brown, if Charlie Brown had grown up in the USSR. Originally from Kiev, he now worked in Australia as a computer programmer. He had an endearing way of stating the obvious. I would wake up from a nap, my book sliding onto the floor, and look out the window to see that we had stopped in a station.
"We have stopped," Max would say.
We spent the first night crossing the length of Slovakia. A beautiful dusk settled over the cracked smokestacks of deserted factories.
In the morning, we reached the Ukrainian border and rolled into a cluttered rail yard, coming to rest between a set of oversize jacks, taller than the train car itself. A team of crusty rail workers set themselves wrenching and hammering at the wheels of the train, and soon the jacks were raising the entire car into the air, leaving the wheel trucks beneath us on the rails.
The train tracks in the former Soviet Union don't match those in Europe, you see. So they were changing the wheels on the train.
"They are changing the wheels on the train," Max said.
By afternoon we had entered the flowered alpine landscape of the Carpathian Mountains, and Max had become curious about my plans. I chose not to tell him that I was embarking on an epic, years-long quest to visit the world's most polluted places. I just said I was headed for Chernobyl.
His face lit up. He had stories to tell. In the spring of 1986, when word of the disaster got out, he was eleven years old, living in Kiev. Soon, people were trying to get their children out of the city. It was nearly impossible to get train tickets, Max said, but somehow his family got him onto a train bound southeast for the Crimea. Even though tickets were so hard to come by, the train was nearly empty, and Max implied that the government had manufactured the ticket shortage to keep people from leaving the city.
"When we arrived," he said, "the train was surrounded by soldiers. They tested everyone and their things for radiation before allowing them to move on. They were trying to keep people from spreading contamination."
He stayed away from Kiev that entire summer. From his parents, he heard stories about life in the city during those months. The streets were washed down every day. Bakeries that had once left their wares out in the open on shelves now wrapped them in plastic.
Max talked about the possibility that cancer rates in the area had increased because of Chernobyl, and he told me that his wife, also from Kiev, had abnormalities in her thyroid, which he attributed to radioactive exposure.
"It's very lucky Kiev didn't get more radiation, thanks to the winds," he said. Then, in his very polite, clipped voice, he asked, "And what do you think about nuclear energy?"
That night I lay restless in my bunk and imaginedas only an American can—the post-Soviet gloom slipping by outside, felt the train shudder as it pushed through the thick ether left behind by an empire. In the book of Chernobyl survivors' stories, I read an account by a firefighter's widow. They were newly married when her husband responded to the fire at the reactor. One of the first at the scene, he received catastrophic doses of radiation and died after two weeks of gruesome illness.
Desperately in love, his wife had snuck into the hospital to accompany him in his ordeal, even though his very body was dangerously radioactive.
"I don't know what I should talk about," she says in her account. "About death or about love? Or are they the same?"
Kiev is a beautiful city, a true Paris of the East, a charming metropolis whose forests of horse chestnut trees set off its ancient churches and classic apartment buildings like jewels on a bed of crumpled green velvet. The trick is to come in the summertime, when a warm breeze blows across the Dnieper River and the bars and cafes spill out into the gentle evening. You can stroll down the Andriyivskyy Descent, lined with cafes and shops, or explore the mysterious catacombs of the Pechersk Lavra, with its menagerie of dead monks. Or you can dive into the city's pulsing downtown nightlife.
I went straight for the Chernobyl Museum.
There's a special blend of horror and civic pride on display at any museum dedicated to a local industrial disaster, and the Chernobyl Museum is surely the best of its kind. The place incorporates history, memorial, commentary, art, religion, and even fashion under a curatorial ethos that is the mutant offspring of several different aesthetics.
In one of the museum's two main halls, I found a bizarre temple-like space. Soothing Russian choral music emanated from the walls. In the center of the room lay a full-size replica of the top face of the infamous reactor. A dugout canoe was suspended above it, heaped with a bewildering mixture of religious images and children's stuffed toys. I tried to understand the room's message, and could not. Empty contamination suits lingered in the shadows, arranged in postures of bafflement and ennui.
The second hall housed a definitive collection of Chernobyl memorabilia, as well as a tall aluminum scaffold hung with mannequins wearing nuclear cleanup gear. They seemed to be flying in formation, a squad of unusual superheroes. Their leader, arms upraised, wore a black firefighting suit with large white stripes and a metal backpack connected to a gas mask. Through the bubble of the helmet's face guard, I could just make out the cool, retail gaze of a female head, with full eyelashes and painted plastic lips.
Underneath, there was a cross-sectioned model of the reactor building in its pre-accident state. As I peered into it to get a view of the reactor's inner workings, two docents lurking by the door noticed my interest. Moving with the curt authority of guards, they rushed forward to turn the model on, groping at a control panel attached to the base. The model reactor glowed warmly, showing the normal circulation of water in the core. But the women were unsatisfied. Fussing in Ukrainian, they began flipping the switch back and forth, wiggling and slapping the little control panel with increasing fervor. Finally, they jiggled the switch just right, and the rest of the reactor's systems—water and steam pipes, cooling systems and boilers—flickered to life.
To understand the Chernobyl accident, it helps to know something about how electricity gets generated and, specifically, about nuclear power—though not so much that your eyes glaze over.
In general, power plants generate electricity by spinning turbines. Picture a big hamster wheel and you get the idea. Each turbine is connected to a generator, in which a conductor turns through the field of a strong magnet, thus creating electricity by magic. Men in hard hats then distribute this power to entire continents full of televisions and toaster ovens.
The ageless question, then, is just how to spin all those damn turbines. You can build a dam to collect huge volumes of water that you can let rush through your turbines. You can build windmills with little generators that get powered by the turning rotors. Or you can boil a lot of water and force the steam into the turbine under high pressure.
This last one works great, but you need a hell of a lot of heat to make enough steam. Where are you going to get it? Well, you can burn coal, natural gas, or even trash, if you like. That, or you can cook up some nuclear fission.
Oh, fission. People make it sound so complicated, but any chump can get the basics. It involves—to skip most of the physics—piling up a giant stack of purified uranium to make your reactor's core. You'll have to mix some graphite in with the uranium, to mellow out the neutrons it's emitting.
We good? Okay. Once you've got the core together, install some plumbing in it so you can run water through to carry off the heat, and then just stand back and cross your fingers.
A few of the uranium atoms in your core will spontaneously split—they're funny that way—and when they do, they'll give off heat and some neutrons. It doesn't matter if you don't know what neutrons are, other than that they're tiny and will shoot off like bullets, colliding with neighboring uranium atoms and causing them to split. This will give off more heat and more neutrons, which will cause still further atoms to split, and so on, and so on, and so on. The immense heat created by this chain reaction will heat the water, which will create the steam, which will spin the turbines at terrifying speed, which will turn the generators, which will create an ungodly amount of electricity, which will be used to keep office buildings uncomfortably cold in the middle of summer.
So far, so good.
The problem with this chain reaction is that, by its very nature, it tends to run out of control. So to keep your reactor's apocalyptic side in check, you should slide some rods made of boron or hafnium into the reactor core. (Remember to make room for them while you're stacking the uranium.) These rods—let's call them control rods—will be like sponges, absorbing all those lively, bullet-like neutrons. With the control rods duly inserted, you'll get...nothing.
The trick, then, is to find the happy medium, while remaining on the correct side of the line that separates air-conditioning from catastrophe. To do this, you'll need to pull the control rods out of the core far enough to let the chain reaction begin, but not so far that it runs out of control. Then you can heat water and spin turbines and generate electricity to your heart's content.
But pull the control rods out slowly, okay? And for the love of God, please—please—put them back when you're done.
With the Chernobyl Museum taken care of, I had a couple of days to kill in Kiev before my excursion to Chernobyl itself, and I spent them exploring my new neighborhood. I was living in style, sidestepping Kiev's overpriced hotels by renting an inexpensive apartment that was nevertheless nicer than any I had ever lived in back home. The front door of my building opened onto the bustling but cozy street of Zhitomirskaya, and it was an easy walk to Saint Sophia Square. There was also a nice terrace park where the young and hip of Kiev would gather in the late afternoon to throw Frisbees, play bongo drums, and drink beer in the glow of the sunset.
It all filled me with a churning panic. I just don't like being a clueless foreigner in a strange city where I've got no friends. I was also having trouble finding a portable radiation detector for my trip to the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl. The detector would come in handy for measuring my radioactive exposure, with great precision, in units I wouldn't understand.
But Amazon didn't deliver overnight to Kiev, and so I was out of ideas. It was time to be resourceful—I had to get someone else to figure it out.
If journalism can teach us anything, it's that local people are a powerful tool to save us from our own fecklessness and incompetence. We call them fixers. In my case, I hired a capable young journalism school graduate called Olena. Skeptical at first, she soon realized that I was less interested in a simple rehash of the local disaster story than in exploring new touristic horizons, and she warmed to the concept. Olena set to work finding the radiation detector, calling one Chernobyl-related bureaucracy after another. To our surprise, nobody had any ideas. Even the government's Chernobyl ministry, Chernobylinterinform, was clueless. Measuring radiation didn't seem to be much of a priority among the citizens of Kiev. Maybe they just didn't want to think about what lay a short way upriver.
It's possible there is wisdom in such willful ignorance. The subject of radiation, after all, is so mysterious, and its units and measurement so confusing, that carrying around a little beeping gadget may not, in the end, leave you any better informed about your safety.
But every visitor to Chernobyl should have a working understanding of radiation and how it's measured. So let's review the basics. You can skip this section if you want, but you'll miss the part where I tell you the one weird old tip for repelling gamma rays.
Radiation, as far as tourists need be concerned, comes in three flavors: alpha, beta, and gamma. One source of radiation is unstable atoms—those same atoms that are so useful in building a nuclear core. In contrast to lighter, trustier elements like iron or helium, uncomfortably obese elements like uranium and plutonium are always looking for excuses to shed bits of themselves. That is to say, they are radioactive. These unstable elements will occasionally fart out things we call alpha or beta particles or gamma rays—the latter being the nasty stuff. This process—called decay- -leaves the atom a bit smaller and sometimes with a different name, as it is alchemically transformed from one radioactive element into another.
Once in a while, an atom will suffer a complete breakdown and split in half. That's fission. After the split, particles and gamma rays spew off in all directions, and two atoms of a lighter element are left behind.
Table of Contents
Author's Note vii
1 Visit Sunnay Chernobyl
Day Trips Through a Radioactive Wonderland 1
2 The Great Black North
Oil Sands Mining in Northern Alberta 41
3 Refinery Ville
Port Arthur, Texas, and the invention of Oil 73
4 The Eighth Continent
Sailing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch 117
Deforestation in the Amazon 157
6 In Search of Sad Coal Man
E-Waste, Coal, and Other Treasures of China 205
7 The Gods of Sewage
Downstream on India's Most Polluted River 247
Reading Group Guide
VISIT SUNNY CHERNOBYL
1. Before reading Visit Sunny Chernobyl, what did you know about polluted places around the world? Have you ever known anyone who purposely visited a less-than-desirable locale as an adventure or vacation?
2. Blackwell describes touring the ghost city of Pripyat near the Chernobyl reactor. How did his tour change your perception of this notorious nuclear “ground zero”?
3. The sites in the book that directly relate to oil consumption and productionthe refineries of Port Arthur, Texas and the oil sands in Canadagive a glimpse at the sheer scope of the energy industry and what it must do to meet global demand. Considering that almost everyone in the developed world drives a car, how do you feel about your own role in how these sites are treated?
4. Thinking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, do you know where your trash goes after it's picked up?
5. As the author says, India considers its rivers to be holy, and yet we see in the book that the Yamuna and Ganges rivers are among the most polluted in the world. How do you reconcile that? Is there a link to a more global attitude in the way the entire world considers the planet sacred, yet continues to destroy it?
6. Soy farmingproviding food and jobs to a large number of peopleis the primary reason we see the deforested Amazonian landscapes in the book. It's also the reason for the condition of many other destinations in Visit Sunny Chernobyl. Should planet come before people?
7. In general, when people book a vacation, they want to travel somewhere beautiful. The author discovered a genuine beauty in the horrible places he visited. Do you think this is a case of “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” or have you ever found beauty in ruined places or things?
8. One of the themes of Visit Sunny Chernobyl is learning to appreciate the planet the way it is, not the way we think it should be. Do you agree or disagree? Do you think the author is optimistic or pessimistic about the planet's future?
9. Has Visit Sunny Chernobyl changed your outlook on the current state of our planet, or how we view it from the safety of clean homes and perks like flushing toilets?