The Chernobyl meltdown on April 26, 1986, remains the most ruinous nuclear catastrophe in world history.

More than 30 people died in the immediate aftermath, and cleanup costs ran into the billions of dollars.

After the meltdown, the city and surrounding areas were evacuated, leaving 1,600 square miles of radioactive real estate rotting away in what was then the Soviet Union, now Ukraine.


The abandoned town of Pripyat and the Chernobyl power plant, through scaffolding holding a remnant of the Soviet Union hammer and sickle. Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images.

30 years later, we're still discovering the long-term effects of this devastating fallout.

The total body count is estimated to be in the tens of thousands now, although it's difficult to determine exactly how many cases of cancer and other health complications in the surrounding areas can be attributed directly to the toxic waste still lingering in the ground.

To this day, the area remains abandoned except for occasional workers still struggling to contain the wreck in its concrete sarcophagus. But even the milk produced at the farthest edges of the disaster zone still contains 10 times the acceptable radiation limit.

On the bright side — which, ya know, is a pretty low bar here — the general lack of human activity means that wildlife in the area is thriving. So that's nice.

Horses in Belarus near Chernobyl. Photo by Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images.

What do you do with 1 million acres of uninhabitable nuclear wasteland? It's no good as farmland, and you can't build houses...

But you can harvest sunlight.

These are actually in South Burlington, Vermont. But you get the idea. Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images.

That's right: The Ukrainian government is turning Chernobyl into one of the world's largest solar farms.

"The Chernobyl site has really good potential for renewable energy," Ukrainian environment minister Ostap Semerak explained at a recent press conference in London. "We already have high-voltage transmission lines that were previously used for the nuclear stations, the land is very cheap, and we have many people trained to work at power plants."

As crazy as it might sound to build another power plant on the site of such a famously poisonous disaster, we can be fairly confident that sun fuel doesn't come with the same toxic risks.

Ostap Semerak (right) examines a hot cell on the construction site of a spent nuclear fuel storage facility next to the Chernobyl plant on the 30th anniversary of the disaster. Photo by Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images.

If this Chernobyl solar farm reaches fruition, it won't just energize the country. It'll dramatically transform it on a political level, too.

The estimated $1.1 billion project would produce 4 megawatts of energy, or enough to power up to 4,000 Ukrainian homes. "We want to be a successful Ukraine, to show people in the conflict zone that life is better and more comfortable with us," Semerak said at the press conference.

Clean, steady energy would obviously have a positive impact on the lives of those families. But it would also help the country wean off its reliance on neighboring Russia, which still provides Ukraine with much of its natural gas supply (except for when they don't, which is sometimes).

The relationship between Russia and Ukraine is complicated, to say the least. So in addition to the power-producing benefits of this potential new solar farm, energy independence offers an opportunity for the Ukraine to ally itself more closely with the European Union. As Semerak said, "We have normal European priorities, which means having the best standards with the environment and clean energy ambitions."

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko speaks at Chernobyl on the 30th anniversary of the disaster. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

While Ukraine is still in the planning stages, this ambitious project represents a positive potential for a brighter, sun-fueled future.

There are still some hurdles to cross, of course. The big one right now is fundraising, which was the impetus behind Semerak's press conference in the first place. While solar power is undeniably more efficient and affordable, the up-front overhead costs run a little steep, even if they ultimately pay off.

There's also the fact that it'd be naive of Ukraine to enter into such a huge campaign without considering the full ramifications of nuclear fallout. Given the increased wildlife presence, it's entirely possible that the radioactivity has subsided enough that it would be safe to start a large-scale construction project — with proper precautions for the workers, just in case.

But this is definitely a situation where it's better to be safe than sorry.

Photo by Sergei Gapon/AFP/Getty Images.

Humans have done serious damage to the planet over the years. But if it does work out, the Chernobyl solar farm could be an inspiration for all of us.

This is not to the diminish the tragedy of April 26, 1986, of course.

But building a clean-energy plant on a radioactive graveyard is a strangely powerful reminder that our people and our planet can rebound from even the most terrible catastrophes.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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