On my 17th birthday, a disaster unfolded in Ukraine. Reactor 4 failed which caused an explosion that killed two operators, some firefighters, and eventually many people in the town. Thirty years later, there seems to be irreversible ecological damage. I wondered then and now, where is God in all this?
Besides happening on my birthday, my life has intersected with the Chernobyl disaster. Christi and I met two children who were orphaned as a result. Their mom was from the little village in Russia where the orphanage is located. She traveled to Ukraine for work and fell in love with a firefighter. They were soon married. He was one of the brave firefighters who rushed into the reactor building to save lives. He died years later from multiple forms of aggressive cancer. She and her two young boys moved back to her home town where she eventually took her own life. This tragedy is a microcosm of that nuclear and ecological catastrophe. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, the waves from the disaster spiral outward, long after the initial event took place.
Our second time traveling together in Russia, Christi and I stayed in a Russian city named Шуя (Shu-ya), built along the banks of the beautiful and slow moving Teza River. As we crossed the river and headed into the central part of the city, I couldn’t help but notice the giant nuclear reactor cooling tower off to my right. I said, “Oh, look, a nuclear plant,” to which our attaché quickly replied, “That is not nuclear, it’s a steam plant.” After a short discussion, I found out that many Russian cities have centralized “steam plants” that provide hot water for the entire town. In my home state, we had nuclear reactors but they were intentionally located far away from major population centers. … for obvious reasons. Or, perhaps, not so obvious until after Chernobyl.
This past week, we watched a National Geographic show about Chernobyl thirty years later. It showed the “red forest” which is an area where most of the nuclear fallout landed. The trees turned red after the explosion. What I found surprising and scary is that the dead trees had not decomposed. There was a fallen tree which fell a year or two before the blast. It was as hard as a rock. No decomposing had occurred because the fallout had killed every single insect, organism and bacteria responsible for breaking down trees. The leaves were the same color as when they fell – three decades ago. No composting has occurred.
The most surprising thing to me, however, has to do with the cooling ponds. Originally, these were typical Ukrainian ponds with typical animal life. The nuclear facility used the water for cooling. Nevertheless, today there is an abundance of fish in the ponds. Somehow, the fish have developed enzymes and other processes that have reversed genetic mutation due to radiation (aka cancer). Likewise, several bird species are also adapting quickly to living in a toxic waste dump. The hope here is that if scientists can figure out how fish and birds are able to co-exist with their nuclear mutations, they might be able to unlock that capability in humans to cure cancer.
Wouldn’t it be surprising if one of the worst nuclear accidents of our time could end up yielding cures to cancer. If you’ve ever wanted to see the fingerprints of God at work around us, oddly enough Chernobyl seems like a good place to start.