Night to Friday, April 26, 1986, No. 4 reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Large quantities of radioactive materials were spread over large areas, especially in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. More than 300,000 people were evacuated or relocated, and over 6,000 km2 of land in Ukraine were abandoned. Large areas are still severely affected by the accident. The UN has chosen April 26 as the UN's annual Remembrance Day for the Chernobyl accident.
Considering major changes in restrictions
Today, more than thirty years after the accident, Ukrainian authorities are considering whether to change the status of the evacuated areas.
"This includes the opportunity to open up the areas around the reactor for tourism, set up nature reserves and research laboratories, and open for resettlement and agricultural production in the other abandoned areas," says Professor Deborah H. Oughton of the CERAD Center for Environmental Radioactivity at NMBU.
The CERAD's researchers have been involved in investigations of the impact of the Chernobyl accident since it occurred. The research covers a broad range of fields, from the chemical composition of the pollutants, the impacts on the environment, radioactive substances in food and ecosystems and the societal consequences of the accident.
Great opportunities if restrictions ease
Outside the 30 km zone around the reactor, there are over 2000 km2 of land that was so contaminated after the accident that people were required to relocate and were offered housing elsewhere in the country.
"For many reasons, some of the people have returned to their home. Some missed the nature and surroundings they grew up in and some never got the housing they were promised by the state", says postdoctoral fellow Yevgeniya Tomkiv at CERAD.
Narodychi in northern Ukraine had almost 100,000 inhabitants before the Chernobyl accident, and was one of the cities outside the 30 km zone that was severely affected. Based on surveillance data after the accident, it was decided in 1991 that people should not live there. Nevertheless, the area has over 2500 inhabitants now. Here there are severe limitations: it is not alowed to build, own private property and use land for agricultural production. If the authorities ease the restrictions, there will be great opportunities for the residents there.
"Reusing land that is less polluted can create significant economic opportunities for the settlement. At the same time, this can also cause great concern and resistance in the local population against potential risks from radiation", says Tomkiv.
Many skeptical residents
Researchers at NMBU have conducted a round of interviews with residents of Narodychi to find out where they stand on the proposed changes.
"Citizens recognized that changing land use could have benefits for local development: increased number of jobs, potential investors and opportunities for further development of the area. But at the same time, they were concerned about the potential loss of social benefits from the state", says Tomkiv.
Some were also worried about losing the rights to housing in other unpolluted areas of Ukraine, although the previous allocation of such housing happened in 2003.
In addition, the study shows a complete lack of information about the radiological situation in the region and how the land use changes would be carried out.
"Citizens have no confidence in the authorities, and they wonder what these changes will mean for ordinary people. It is crucial that this information gap is addressed by organizing public meetings where local residents can communicate with international researchers and other relevant actors", says Tomkiv.
Challenging to find sustainable solutions
The planned changes in the management of these areas is a classic example of the challenging dilemmas that arise when trying to meet the UN's sustainability goals. There are many different actors with different interests and needs. Especially the boundary where considerations of people and nature meet can provide a basis for conflict.
Nature took over quickly after humans left the areas in the 30-kilometer belt around Chernobyl. A number of animals and plant species including red listed species returned to the areas around the reactor. How to care for these species?
"In 2016, the 30-km zone around Chernobyl was declared a biosphere reserve, but there is still a lot of work left to develop a sustainable management strategy for this nature reserve, especially because of many conflicting goals with the Chernobyl development. For example, a large increase in tourism could create great pressure on nature.
"In that case, it will be important that economic growth benefits the local population, especially those who are most vulnerable”, says Oughton.