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BBC TwoCooking in the Danger Zone

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Last Updated: Friday, 11 May 2007, 11:27 GMT 12:27 UK
The Chernobyl diet
By Stefan Gates
BBC presenter, Cooking in the Danger Zone

For the BBC Two series Cooking in the Danger Zone, food writer Stefan Gates travels to Chernobyl in Ukraine and meets people who live and eat in the "radioactive zone".

"Niet! Niet!" screamed the cook.

'No entry: radiation' sign
It is very dangerous - and illegal - to live in the radioactive zone

I had asked her if it was possible to eat any of the local food, to which she replied: "Good God, no. We don't eat fish, meat, fruit. We don't eat anything. It's all contaminated. You can't. You can't."

In 1986, the world's worst nuclear accident took place at Chernobyl Power Plant here in northern Ukraine when an explosion blew the top off reactor number four and a fire sent plumes of radioactive material into the air, contaminating much of Europe.

Today a vast exclusion zone, the size of Lancashire, encircles Chernobyl and much of the land is still radioactive.

Despite this, several thousand people still work here decommissioning the plant, so the Chernobyl canteen cook has to import food from the farthest reaches of Ukraine.

'Zone of Alienation'

It turns out that the Chernobyl "Zone of Alienation" is home to several hundred mainly elderly people living illegally in the area, and their attitude to the risks of radiation is very different.

Anna (left) talks to Stefan
Anna has stubbornly refused to leave her home

They returned to their homes soon after the disaster and are now growing vegetables and raising livestock again, despite the fact that the entire region is now an empty, isolated and post-apocalyptic vision of abandoned villages and rampant wildlife.

Anna is a wonderful, garrulous 83-year-old babushka who has returned to the Zone of Alienation.

She was outraged to hear that the BBC had instructed me not to eat any of her food and she began a sustained bullying campaign, saying: "What's wrong with you? There's nothing to fear from my food - God will protect you."

Her reasoning was pretty simple: "If it were contaminated we would have died a long time ago, but we've been eating it for 20 years already!"

The ultimate test

It did seem odd that we were filming a fabulous cook making food but could not eat it.

Anna kept chipping away at my resolve, saying: "Just eat it! You won't die. God will protect you. We eat it and we're alive and you'll be alright too!"

Stefan eating at a table in the restaurant
I felt much more comfortable with the idea after Anna forced several glasses of her plum moonshine down my throat

My producer Marc Perkins was hissing: "You're NOT allowed to eat it," but when she produced her homemade butter and our local guides made me more confident by tucking in, my resolve crumbled.

I fell upon the food, much to her admiration.

It was just pork fat soup, but it tasted deep, smoky and very, very Ukrainian.

Admittedly, the fear of radiation had made my taste buds extra sensitive, but I felt much more comfortable with the idea after Anna forced several glasses of her plum moonshine down my throat.

Standard of living

The nearest functioning town to the Zone of Alienation is Slavutych, a town built to re-house workers who continued to work at the nuclear plant after the accident (strange though it may seem, the other three nuclear reactors at Chernobyl were restarted six months later and continued to operate until 2000).

Map showing radioactive zone around Chernobyl

Slavutych is only 50km (31 miles) from Chernobyl and land around here was also contaminated by the accident.

The local market even has a radiation testing lab and stallholders have to have their produce tested regularly.

Despite this, the residents are remarkably sanguine about radiation.

Lena Vasilenko, an English teacher, explained to me that radiation effectively provides Slavutych with employment and a higher standard of living than the rest of Ukraine, and the construction of the town was 85% funded by the company running Chernobyl.

Conditions here are better than in the rest of Ukraine, which is still recovering from the post-Soviet reform.

Death toll

We ate lunch with Lena's friends Yuri, Denis, Natasha and Anatoly, who seemed to be in denial about radiation.

A lot of people are eager to come here to work and we pay this price of not paying attention to radiation
English teacher Lena Vasilenko

"Nothing's happened yet," they say.

Yuri echoes a widely-held belief that vodka absorbs and flushes radiation out of the system, a dangerous attitude in a country so fond of hard liquor that 38% of men are classified as "heavy alcohol users".

The real toll of the disaster is highly disputed, with the authorities - represented by the Chernobyl Forum - predicting the total final number of deaths at 4,000.

Greenpeace, however, suggest 270,000 cases of cancer attributable to Chernobyl fallout with around 93,000 of these fatal.

If these numbers are right, it seems highly dangerous to turn a blind eye to radiation.

'National character'

The future for the Slavutych now looks bleak as jobs at Chernobyl begin to disappear.

Stefan holding a radioactive mushroom
We were shocked to see that the mushrooms were eight times over the safe levels

We met up with the town mayor, who was keen to put a glossy spin on the situation and took us mushroom-picking to prove his point.

Mushrooms are one of the foods most susceptible to radioactive contamination but Ukrainians love them, and in the forest next to the town, we found a carpet of fine ceps.

"None of the land around here is dangerous," he enthuses, "it's not a problem we have."

Just to be sure, we took the mayor's mushrooms to the market testing-station and had them checked for radiation poisoning.

Both the inspector and myself were shocked to see that they were eight times over the safe levels.

I called the mayor to warn him but he just said: "It doesn't matter."

I asked if he was really going to eat them and he said: "Yes. No problem."

I was shocked, but Lena said: "A lot of people are eager to come here to work and we pay this price of not paying attention to radiation."

Ukraine has a history of suffering. The country was on the frontline of world wars, faced appalling famines under Stalin and has been trying to rebuild itself since the fall of communism.

I ask if this attitude to radiation is part of the Ukrainian national character and Lena sighs. "Ah, yes, we are used to suffering."

On our last day in Ukraine I had a full body radiation check, which discovered unusually high radiation in my stomach.

The doctor told me that the levels were reasonable for someone who was just visiting the area briefly, and that I would return to normal pretty soon, but I realised that Lena and her friends were almost certainly being affected by the foods they ate.

They were gambling with their health.

The Chernobyl canteen cook was right. Just say "niet". But the people of Slavutych feel as though they have little choice.

Lena's friend Natasha put it very simply: "Why are we so tolerant? Radiation feeds us."

Cooking in the Danger Zone was broadcast on Sunday, 13 May, 2007 at 1900 BST.

SEE ALSO
Stefan's diary: Chernobyl
08 May 07 |  Cooking in the Danger Zone
Country profile: Ukraine
07 Mar 07 |  Country profiles
Cooking in the Danger Zone: Food that kills
01 May 07 |  Cooking in the Danger Zone

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