A radioactive berry-picking boom outside Chernobyl

Vendors sell vegetables, birch bark juice, jam and other preserves on April 9, 2016, in Demydiv, Ukraine. Demydiv is south of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, whose reactor number four exploded on April 26, 1986, in the world's worst civilian nuclear accident.
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Vendors sell vegetables, birch bark juice, jam and other preserves on April 9, 2016, in Demydiv, Ukraine. Demydiv is south of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, whose reactor number four exploded on April 26, 1986, in the world's worst civilian nuclear accident.

While many rural towns across Eastern Europe face economic struggle, the Ukrainian region of Polesia, 200 miles east of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site, has become something of a boomtown for foragers seeking mushrooms and berries — nearly all of which are contaminated with radiation.

It has become a good, if unlikely, business, and helped Ukraine become a berry exporter to the European Union, University of Maryland historian Kate Brown writes in the magazine Aeon.

Brown notes that in 2015, Ukraine exported 1,300 tons of fresh berries and 17,251 tons of frozen berries to the European market. That is more than 30 times as much as in 2014.

The berry picking brings in money for locals as well. A picker can earn $20 to $30 a day, whereas a local schoolteacher earns $80 a month.

However, Brown also says there could be some hidden costs — the berries end up in the hands of European customers who often do not know they are ingesting foods containing radioactive isotopes. In addition, Brown notes, the berries can be labeled organic, since radioactivity is not covered under common organic designations.

And the locals who are harvesting the berries may be suffering the effects of accumulated radiation. There is evidence of higher rates of certain birth defects and diseases in some of the areas affected by the disaster.

To be sure, the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency have said radiation levels in Polesia are too low to cause health problems other than a "slight rise in the chance of cancer," Brown said.

A nuclear reactor at Chernobyl exploded in 1986, spewing tons of radioactive material into the air, and contaminating an area of thousands of miles around the reactor, spanning parts of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. On Tuesday, engineers placed a 32,000-ton arch over the site in an attempt to contain any other radioactive material that might make its way out.

The arch, known as the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement, is considered a feat of engineering, in part because safety demanded that the massive structure be built away from the site and then moved into place.

It seems more than a bit late to be building a structure around the site 30 years after the accident, but the structure is designed as an improvement over an existing one that was hastily built to contain seeping radiation. The new structure is meant to prevent against extreme weather, withstand earthquakes and seal off remaining sources of radiation, such as contaminated water that could leak out of the site. Further improvements are expected to make the structure airtight.

Some Polesian locals Brown interviewed appeared more concerned with eking out a living than with radiation levels in foraged food. One told her, "'OK, say the mushrooms have Chernobyl, we still pick them and eat them. We don't look. We don't pay attention to where the radiation is. We eat everything without boundaries. You go to a marketplace and hear: 'Oh, Chernobyl, Chernobyl,' but we have no Chernobyl. There is no Chernobyl for us. I work, I live, I carry on.' "

Though more than 100,000 people closest to the accident were resettled by Soviet authorities, villages a bit further out remained, eventually falling into neglect and economic decline as the Soviet Union fell apart. Authorities also discouraged foraging in contaminated forests, and still do. But as the years have worn on, the warnings have been heeded less and less.

CNBC reported in 2015 that some scientists were seeing the return of many animal species to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the area immediately around the nuclear plant entirely devoid of humans.

And two Chinese companies, Golden Concord and China National Complete Engineering, are reportedly making investments in the zone: They are planning to build a solar farm.