[ RadSafe ] Book review: Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl

John Jacobus crispy_bird at yahoo.com
Thu Oct 13 12:16:03 CDT 2005

This may be of interest to some.  I have not read the
book myself, but it would be interesting to hear what
other say who have done so.

Nature 437, 955 (13 October 2005)

Nuclear reactions
Brenda Howard(1)

 - Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl
by Mary Mycio

Joseph Henry Press: 2005. 286 pp. $27.95

The Chernobyl nuclear accident in April 1986 was
swiftly followed by a large-scale evacuation of an
area around the plant, including territory in both
Ukraine and Belarus. Although the rural residents and
inhabitants of the major town of Pripyat were
evacuated, the exclusion zone is still occupied by
many thousands of people. Most of them are associated
with the continuing activities at the Chernobyl
nuclear facilities, but some are rural residents who
have returned to live in their previously abandoned

In Wormwood Forest, Mary Mycio, a journalist with an
ethnic Ukrainian background, provides the reader with
a vivid impression of what the exclusion zone around
the Chernobyl plant is really like. She first visited
the zone ten years after the accident, and describes
the many people who assisted her on her visits, the
local people she met, and the various bureaucratic
niceties involved in administering and visiting the

The book starts by correcting a commonly held mistaken
impression that Chernobyl takes its name from the
Ukrainian word for wormwood, a medicinal herb.
Chornobyl is actually mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, not
wormwood, which is A. absinthium. It is odd, then,
that the book is titled Wormwood Forest and has an
associated quote on the cover: "And the name of the
star is called wormwood; and the third part of the
waters became wormwood; and many men died of the
waters because they were made bitter."

A large part of the book focuses on the wildlife that
has flourished in the exclusion zone since the removal
of human influence, and describes how the extent of
radionuclide contamination varies with species. Mycio
describes her encounters with many animals including
storks, deer, moose, wild boar and the introduced
Przewalski's horses. Although the focus is on the
natural history of the zone, other key issues
addressed include radioactive-waste problems, concerns
about the various water bodies, and the radiological
consequences of the accident.

The author has clearly made a considerable effort to
understand the complex social and scientific issues
connected with the region and has managed to explain
them to the lay reader in a refreshingly clear, yet
interesting, style. The blend of social comment,
personal impressions and science is unusual and makes
for an informative read. Her explanations of the
basics of radioactivity and the issues relating to the
accident and its consequences are mostly sound and
easy to understand.

For scientists with some knowledge of radioecology,
however, her attempt to describe some of the issues
surrounding radioactive contamination in plain (and
sometimes rather colourful!) language has led to a few
conclusions being too generalized. Many
radioecologists might disagree with some of her rather
sweeping statements about the importance of processes
such as resuspension, fire or the lateral transport of
radioactivity. Some statements by people quoted in the
book seem to be incorrect, although they are at least
presented as quotes. And many scientists will be
frustrated by the decision not to use references when
discussing scientific studies, as there are always
some studies of which you are unaware (especially in
the Russian-language literature).

There is great variability in the extent to which
different ecosystem components have been contaminated
by the dominant long-lived radionuclides radiocaesium,
radiostrontium and plutonium, as the author
acknowledges. However, she sometimes refers to single
measurements with no indication of the associated
error (probably because in many cases it doesn't
exist). Conclusions based on such limited information
are inevitably susceptible to criticism.

For much of the book, Mycio refers to readings of the
external dose and to the colours of contamination maps
to give an impression of the extent of contamination
of each area. She often comments on how 'high' or
'low' the readings are and whether she feels this to
be safe or not. She uses a similar approach when
considering radioactivity in a food product, often
referring to the national limits on the number of
becquerels used by the Ukrainian and Belarusian
authorities. These limits are lower than
internationally agreed limits and those of many other
countries, so it would have been useful to have more
information about them to provide context for readers.

This book is not a key reference source for
information on radionuclide contamination of the
environment close to the Chernobyl reactor, but then
it doesn't claim to be. It is very much a personal
reflection that successfully debunks many of the more
outrageous myths and rumours about the region, and is
an interesting and mostly enjoyable read.

(1) Brenda Howard is at the Centre for Ecology and
Hydrology, Lancaster Environment Centre, Library
Avenue, Bailrigg, Lancaster LA1 4AP, UK.

On Oct. 5, 1947, in the first televised White House address, President Truman asked Americans to refrain from eating meat on Tuesdays and poultry on Thursdays to help stockpile grain for starving people in Europe. 

-- John
John Jacobus, MS
Certified Health Physicist
e-mail:  crispy_bird at yahoo.com

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