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Return to the fields of Chernobyl

After 24 years, a bold plan to let farmers resettle on the contaminated countryside is dividing Ukraine

Anyone for some delicious Chernobyl mushrooms? It might sound like a tasteless joke, but if the Ukrainian authorities have their way, the fields surrounding the infamous nuclear reactor could soon be used for growing fruit and vegetables again.

After the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986, the Soviet authorities closed off land within a 30km (18-mile) radius of the blast, evacuating all the residents. The zone is still out of bounds today.

Further large areas of modern-day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were also contaminated by the fallout from the accident, and growing produce on this land is still not permitted. Regular monitoring of radiation levels in fruit and vegetables sold at markets across Ukraine and western Russia still goes on, to make sure that produce is not contaminated.

But some Ukrainian officials feel that the time is now right to start a rehabilitation process for the land affected by the nuclear disaster. A number of studies are taking place to determine "which bits of territory we can use partially for agriculture, and which we can use fully," said a Ukrainian official Mikhail Bolotskikh, according to the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The government was quick to clarify that the studies did not concern the inner, 30km zone. "We're talking about the places where people are already living; the places that are not closed off," said Svetlana Borodina, a spokeswoman for the Emergencies Ministry.

"We're not yet looking at particular crops that could be grown there, but we just want to work out whether this land can be used at all." She said that a report would be published in March next year, ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in April.

One plan that has been mooted before involves growing rapeseed rather than edible crops in these areas. Rapeseed can be used to make biofuels and is very resistant to radiation.

Scientists in Ukraine were split over the plan. Some said that in areas where intensive rehabilitation programmes had been carried out, soil radiation levels could be reduced to levels approaching normal, but others said disturbing the land would risk catastrophe. "It is simply a crime – increasing air and water pollution by turning over polluted soil," a former official with the country's radiation and ecology watchdog told the Russian newspaper.

After denying that anything serious was wrong in the first hours after the disaster, the Soviet authorities eventually evacuated more than 300,000 people from areas around the reactor, including the entire town of Pripyat, which had 50,000 residents. The reactor burnt for 10 days and spewed out around 100 times more radioactive material than the two atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The World Health Organisation has estimated that over 9,000 people have died as a result of exposure to the radiation, although other estimates put the figure much higher. Greenpeace has suggested that the accident could eventually be responsible for more than 250,000 cancer cases.

Now, only a few hundred people live inside the exclusion zone permanently, mostly pensioners who decided they would risk the contamination and illegally return to their old homes inside the zone.

But the wider area is more heavily populated. In 2007, the UN General Assembly issued a resolution on Chernobyl, stating that the "emergency phase" was over, and it was time to move to the "recovery phase". At the time, it was said that 20 years of treating the residents of affected areas as victims had led to a culture of apathy, and that in many areas lifestyle issues such as alcoholism and smoking now pose a greater cancer threat for residents than radiation. Another plan to revive some kind of life in the inner zone is to promote tourism. Already, specialised agencies run occasional day tours for nostalgic former residents and foreign tourists with a gruesome interest in seeing one of the world's most notorious disaster sites.

One company offering such day trips from Kiev instructs potential tourists that when inside the zone, they may not eat or smoke outdoors, touch any buildings or vegetation, or wear any clothing that exposes skin, such as skirts or sandals. Tourists must also sign a declaration saying that the tour agency and Ukrainian government are not liable for "possible further deterioration of my health as the result of the visit to the exclusion zone".

Aside from the morbid fascination of visiting the site of the reactor itself, one of the major attractions is a visit to Pripyat. When it was evacuated, the Soviet authorities told residents that they would be returning in a few days. As a result, most people left all their belongings behind. What remains is a ghost town of apartment blocks, schools and even a fairground, preserved exactly as it was in the late-Soviet era.

For now, the specialised tours take only a few dozen people each month to the zone, but in future, the government wants to open the zone up to mass tourism. "If there is demand, then we should let people in and let them see for themselves," Ukraine's Emergencies Minister Viktor Baloga said yesterday: "We'll definitely open it up, and commercial companies can work there."