Case Study: The women of Chernobyl’s toxic wasteland

I’ve always been a fan of TED Talks because the speakers always touch on such interesting topics! So I was really excited when I came across this. It talks of a small population of elderly woman who remained living in Chernobyl after the nuclear disaster.

The severity of the disaster at Chernobyl is well documented, hence I will not touch on that in this post. However, there are several interesting points regarding radiation contamination and pollution that this video introduces.

Some background information:

After the disaster, the (then Soviet) government declared the area within an 18-mile radius of the nuclear plant uninhabitable and undertook a massive resettlement program for residents. However, some 1,200 returnees made their way back a few years after the accident – illegally. In what is now known as the Exclusion Zone lies highly contaminated air, soil and water. However today, about 200 settlers remain, mostly who are women in their 70s or 80s.

Interesting points mentioned in the video:

1) “Wild boar, lynx, moose, they’ve all returned to the region in force, the very real, very negative effects of radiation being trumped by the upside of a mass exodus of humans”.

Research has also shown that the roe deer is also thriving. This situation is a far cry from the way things looked just after the accident – initially many animals died from the huge doses of radiation they received.

This forces us to rethink notions concerning environments affected by radiation pollution, especially on a massive scale like this. Is it all bleak and hopeless after a land is struck by such a disaster? The presence of wildlife perhaps indicates the adaptability of species to environmental stresses and the potential for revival of the environment.

2) “The women who have returned to their homes and lived on some of the most radioactive land on Earth for the last 27 years, have actually outlived their counterparts who accepted relocation, by some estimates up to 10 years.”

3) “Chernobyl evacuees suffer the trauma of relocated peoples everywhere: higher levels of anxiety, depression, alcoholism, unemployment and, importantly, disrupted social networks.”

The women who remain in Chernobyl have survived the Holodomor of the 1930s, the Nazis in the 1940s, and many of these women were shipped to Germany as forced labour. For them, environmental contamination may not be the worst sort of devastation.

For them, the pain of leaving their homes, their ancestral land and the graves of their parents is probably surmounts the risk of radiation contamination. In comparison, those who have relocated and are perceived in safety, suffer a fate that is not to be said any better than living in the Exclusion Zone.

From this case, I realised that we cannot look at environmental issues in a vacuum. Environmental pollution may have detrimental effects, yes, but ways of coping with the effects must be considered together with larger social factors as well. In the case of a nuclear disaster where there is an outbreak of radiation contamination, instinctively one would look to resettlement as the ideal way of coping with the immediate pollution effects. However this case goes to show the transformative power of one’s connection to home – though this conflicts with a logic thinking of risk management – and provides us with new ideas to think about.

Most importantly, I am inspired by the self-determination of these women to lead a life of their own in a land that is wild, radioactive and now a dead zone. It also gives hope to a place that is now commonly thought to be abandoned – but for these women it is clearly still home.

Thanks for reading!


Some images of the women living in Chernobyl:












Morris, H. (2012, November 8). The women living in Chernobyl’s toxic wasteland. Retrieved March 9, 2015, from The Telegraph:

Ravilious, K. (2006, April 26). Despite Mutations, Chernobyl Wildlife Is Thriving. Retrieved March 9, 2015, from National Geographic News :

TED Talks, June 2013

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