Book Review of Visit Sunny Chernobyl

Alice Friedemann’s book review of Andrew Blackwell’s 2012 “Visit Sunny Chernobyl and other adventures in the world’s most polluted places”

If you want to see photos from Blackwell’s travels, go to his website “Visit Sunny Chernobyl

Blackwell is the ideal travel companion, if only I could hire him to take along on my vacations, how much more fun they’d be!  He always manages to find something wonderful about all the places he visits, as he did in Linfen, China:

“Sometimes I despair at the prospect of growing old in my own country. In the United States, seniors are supposed to keep to the house, or at least stick to the park benches. You don’t exactly see them playing Frisbee in Central Park. In Linfen, though, citizens old and young come to exercise in the public square, and sing old songs, and play hacky sack. They dance, they slide electrically, they watch their kids or grandkids ride plastic tricycles around like lunatics. They write poems in water on the flagstones, and watch them evaporate. This place was pretty great”.

This despite the grim and polluted city streets, which he describes as “The smell of burning solder. Capacitors underfoot. Shattered components spilling from beneath a closed gate. Cellphone face-plates in heaps three feet tall, leaves raked up in autumn. We turn a corner. Ten-foot-tall drifts of gray computer plastic lie waiting to be sorted and recycled, like dirty snow dumped by a plow. Old keyboards stacked on pallets, cube on cube, bales of electronic cotton. A warehouse of keyboards, a soccer field’s worth of keyboards. A team of men shovel hay from the bed of a large truck, tossing it over the side into a heap. The timeless gesture of bodies shoveling hay, but it’s not hay. they’re shoveling circuit boards. naked and green, the clattering square fronds pile up…Women toss piles of scrap aluminum into the air with shallow baskets, separating the wheat from the chaff.  With broad, circular sieves, a family shakes out resistors and capacitors of different sizes…Did they use these tools on the farm?”

In a cab at night: “Beside the highway, the squat, flaring glow of a refinery floated by, bladerunner-like in the haze”.

A surreal description of the Linfen Spring Festival “Large mutant rabbits made of wire and fabric loomed over us.  It was the Year of the Rabbit, and although the Spring Festival had already ended, that didn’t save us from being leered at by cartoon bunny rabbits everywhere we went.”


After Chernobyl, Russia had workers hired people to be “liquidators”. They were exposed to a lot of radiation to clean up Chernobyl so radioactive waste wouldn’t be tracked out or blown into the air and spread further.  These workers are now entitled to benefits depending on how much radiation dosage they received.

It hadn’t occurred to me that every time there’s a forest fire, the fallout of Chernobyl continues, because trees take up radioactive particles, which are released by fire again.

After Chernobyl exploded, firemen rushed over and kept the fire from spreading to an adjacent reactor — most of them died, but their bravery kept Chernobyl from creating an 800 kilometer no man’s zone, instead of the 30 kilometer zone that exists today.

Russia is planning to put a concrete dome over Chernobyl that will last for 150 years.  Blackwell describes this as “The reactor building, though, will be dangerous for millennia. So maybe there will one day be a shelter for the shelter for the Shelter Object, and then a shelter for that, and we will continue down the generations, building–shell by shell– a nest of giant, radioactive Russian dolls.”

There are tours of Chernobyl, here’s a description from the book: “Dennis’s radiation meter topped out at 1300 micros, about 30 times the background radiation in New York City. He twisted around in his seat to face me. “Yesterday it was up to 2,000″. There was a hint of apology in his voice. Perhaps he was worried I might feel shortchanged for having received less than the maximum possible exposure …, as if I had come to Nepal to see Mount Everest, only to find it obscured by clouds”.

The Chernobyl core “was the size of a small building, a thick bucket standing several stories tall. It felt impossible to understand the power embodied in such a machine. A quarter ounce of nuclear fuel holds nearly as much energy as a ton of coal; the core had held more than a hundred thousand times that much”.

Fort McMurray Canada Tar Sands

Blackwell is imaginative and witty — check out his descriptions of the tar sands and mining machines:

“The mines themselves were nowhere visible, but at the north end of the lake rose the Syncrude upgrading plant, the flame-belching doppelganger of Disney’s Enchanted Kingdom, built of steel towers and twisting pipes, crested with gas flares and plumes of steam.”

“…then I saw the second truck. Four hundred tons of sticky, black earth–a solid mass as large as a two-story building, and enough to make 200 barrels of oil–slid smoothly off its upturned bed and down the maw of the hopper.  I had the sensation of having seen an actual physical organ of the animal otherwise known as our voracious appetite for fossil fuels“.

“The wheel itself was more than 40 feet tall, with two dozen steel mouths gaping from its rim, each worthy of a tyrannosaur, with teeth as large as human forearms. I stared up at it, nursing a euphoric terror, imagining how it once churned through the earth, lifting tone after ton of oil sand as it went.  It was the bastard offspring of the Eiffel Tower and the Queensboro Bridge, abandoned by its parents, raised by feral tanks”.

Pacific Garbage Patch vortex

Here’s a description of the sailing vessel he’s on in search of the giant plastic garbage patch:  “The sailing life is supposed to be the apotheosis of freedom and adventure, but it seemed notable to me mainly for its indignities, and for the endless tasks, both awkward and arcane, on which our safety depended. It was like owning a house, but more likely to get you killed.”

Amazon rainforest 

“A needle of pain in my thigh. I looked down to see a green dagger sticking out of my leg… The air’s suffusing odor of loamy decomposition suddenly took on new significance. It was the smell of the jungle breaking down and digesting anything that didn’t keep moving. The Amazon wasn’t just a lung. It was a stomach.”

“In the middle of the road, a thin cable of succulent green hung out of the sky. I held it, felt the elastic connection between my hand and the distant canopy–and then gave it a tug. It broke, length after length of vine spooling down on my shoulders.”

“We ran to the edge of the clearing and into the forest. A corridor of crushed vegetation led deeper into the jungle. Something had been through here. Tres were scraped and bruised where it had passed. From the forest, we heard the shriek and growl of an engine. It heaved into sight: the skidder. This was how logs were brought out from the inaccessible interior, where they had been felled. They were dragged out behind this narrow, streamlined tank, a low, blunt-nosed hedgehog of a machine that was now headed our way”.


And finally this image as he’s standing next to a river of S***: “A printed picture of a blue-skinned deity came floating downstream. Before I could make out if it was Shiva or Kirshna, the oar struck it on the downstroke, folding the image and plunging it into the black water”.

Where are the evil villains?

No matter how hard he tries, there are so many nuances and shades of gray and complexities, that it’s very hard to find the evil doers and pin them to the wall like an insect collection.  Each problem area is messy, there are no easy solutions, the environmentalists aren’t always 100% right.

Disaster travel books

If you enjoy the emerging field of disaster travel (coming soon to a place near you as the “9 boundaries we must not cross” extend themselves), you might also enjoy Craig Childs “Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth” and Jonathan Watts “When A Billion Chinese Jump: How China Will Save Mankind — Or Destroy It”

When I saw the latest 2013 list of the 10 most polluted places at Scientific American, I thought — great!  Now Blackwell can write a second book!  But then I read the descriptions and was reminded of the dangers he exposed himself to.  So I hope he’ll come up with a less dangerous theme for his next book.

Scientific American’s “The World’s 10 most polluted places” by David Biello


Recovering precious metals and other components of computers and electronic devices accounts for the bulk of the pollution at this dump in the city of Ghana. For example, recyclers burn off the plastic sheathing on copper cables and wires, often using locally available fuels like Styrofoam. As a result, heavy metals incorporated in the cables such as lead travel with the smoke before settling onto local homes and soils. Samples from the perimeter of the dump site where more than 40,000 people live have lead levels as high as 18,125 parts per million, or 45 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s lead contamination limit. Some workers have blood levels of heavy metals as much as 17 times higher than international standards. One solution might be to strip wires with hand tools but burning remains cheaper and easier—and the amount of e-waste both at Agbogbloshie and globally is only set to grow.


Despite the multiple meltdowns at Fukushima in Japan, Chernobyl remains the world’s worst civilian nuclear accident. Nearly 30 years later 150,000 square kilometers of land remain contaminated with various radioactive isotopes such as cesium 137 or plutonium that were released when the reactor exploded, putting as many as 10 million people at risk. “It is not possible to relocate five [million] or 10 million people,” notes Stephan Robinson of Green Cross Switzerland. “This is a pollution problem where there is no quick and easy fix, and probably even money cannot help.” But a new sarcophagus contains the radioactive remnants of the exploded reactor and Green Cross Switzerland has been teaching residents how to farm in ways that lessen the radionuclides taken up in crops as well as new cooking techniques that can reduce the risk of ingesting the radioactive particles.


At least nine million people live in the Citarum River Basin, which covers 13,000 square kilometers of the island of Java. More than 2,000 factories line the waterway, which also provides water for drinking and bathing as well as rice irrigation. Metal contamination has been found in the water above international safety standards, including lead, mercury and even the poison arsenic.


This city of 245,000 has been in the top 10 since 2006—and was dubbed the most chemically polluted city in the world by Guinness World Records in 2011—boasting a “white sea” in the middle of town that is the residue of Soviet-era chemical manufacturing. For more than 60 years at least 300,000 metric tons of chemical wastes were improperly buried in the region. Some 190 different chemicals have been detected in the groundwater, and life expectancy—47 for women and 42 for men—is 10 to 15 years lower than the already low average life expectancy in Russia.


Roughly 90 percent of the 270 registered tanneries in the country cluster in this neighborhood of Dhaka on roughly 25 hectares of land. Each day the tanneries dump some 22,000 cubic liters of toxic waste, including carcinogenic hexavalent chromium, into the main river, the Buriganga. Worse, at least 185,000 people live in Hazaribagh, although that may be an underestimate, thanks to informal settlements in the area. All of them may be being poisoned by the industry that employs between 8,000 and 12,000 people.


The second largest city in this southern African country was home to one of the continent’s largest lead smelters as well as ubiquitous lead mines that have contaminated the entire city in lead dust. Young men still mine the leftover lead ore for profit, releasing yet more of the toxic heavy metal. As a result, some children in Kabwe have lead levels as high as 200 micrograms per deciliter, or 40 times higher than the safe limit proposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The average blood concentration is between 50 and 100 micrograms per deciliter. The city remains on the most polluted list “because very little is being done,” noted Jack Caravanos, Blacksmith’s research director.


Here’s how millions of small-scale miners get gold around the world: Liquid mercury is added to ore; the mercury forms an amalgam with the gold that is then burned off, releasing mercury into the air as small quantities of pure gold are left behind. Such artisanal gold mining is the second-largest source of mercury pollution in the world (after coal-fired power plants) and it is the reason this area of Borneo is included on the list. More than 1,000 metric tons of mercury enter the environment each year, despite the fact that mercury is a known brain poison, accumulating in water and fish.


This 60-kilometer-long river basin in Buenos Aires is home to at least 15,000 small industries that pollute the river. As a result, soil along the banks hosts high concentrations of heavy metals. For example, chromium can be found at an average level of 1,141 parts per million, or more than 900 ppm higher than regulated levels in the U.S. The heavy metals also contaminate the drinking water for at least 20,000 people.


The global addiction to oil has turned the Niger River Delta into a sacrifice zone. This densely populated region of roughly 70,000 square kilometers has been polluted with petroleum since the 1950s, and at least 240,000 barrels of crude oil have been spilled into the delta each year, with attendant impacts on fishing, the ability to grow crops in the swamplands and human health. “People are breathing in a toxic mix and it’s gotten into the food chain,” noted David Hanrahan, Blacksmith’s chief technical advisor.


This city above the Arctic Circle retains the world’s largest metal smelting complex and, therefore, it’s place on this list due to terrible air pollution. As a result of the haze, trees do not grow within 30 kilometers of the city, founded only in the 1930s. The bad air is also not good for people and life expectancy in the city of 135,000 is 10 years below the Russian average. Respiratory disease is common, along with cancers of the lungs and digestive system. Upgrades to smelter equipment could cut down on the air pollution.



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