Loggers from Wallowa County are poised for a major role in expanded timber-cutting operations urgently planned for the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ), the approximately 19-mile-radius area encircling the site of the former Soviet Union's disastrous nuclear power plant accident of April 1986.
"The overriding concern in the zone is wildfire," explains Mike Wiedeman, president of a decades-old family logging business based in Enterprise and past president of the American Loggers Council.
Like nearly all other activities normal to the area before the accident struck, logging in the irradiated zone ground to a halt and has since been seen only on a small scale, allowing stands in the vast forest to grow dangerously dense.
Posing a potentially widespread threat would be the significant amount of radioactive smoke a large wildfire would produce. Although a 2011 study concluded that evacuations might not be necessary outside the zone, no one is eager to put that to a test. Researchers also concluded that people inside the zone were likely to suffer overexposure to radiation.
Wiedeman has grown increasingly interested in the CEZ, and the possibility of working there on a long-term basis, ever since someone in Ukraine's private sector approached him about becoming involved in a major project that would begin forest-thinning in earnest and convert the logged timber to energy. (This article avoids mentioning names of any private entities, other than Wiedeman's, that may currently be negotiating agreements connected to the proposed project.)
According to Wiedeman's son, Bryan Wiedeman, also of Enterprise, that initial contact occurred just last summer. By mid-October, Mike Wiedeman was aloft over the scene, assessing it from a helicopter. The October trip also included ground visits, along with CEZ officials and an interpreter, to the zone's modestly scaled logging activities and walks through several other prospective sites for thinning.
Apparently, meetings there were turning quickly productive. "Actually, I had free access to anybody I wanted to talk to," Mike Wiedeman said.
After he returned home, his discussions continued with the various players and likely players in the logging and energy project, and early this year the Wiedemans formed a new LLC in Oregon, International Forestry Solutions, through which they hope to perform work in the CEZ.
Among agreements that need to be finalized is one for an energy firm to build and operate what Mike Wiedeman said would be the world's largest "closed loop" biomass plant, gasifying wood to create synthesis gas (or "syngas"), which would then be burned to turn a turbine producing electricity.
The smokeless system has one anticipated waste disposal need inasmuch as it produces radioactive ash - according to Mike Wiedeman, at a volume of 0.4 percent of total mass burned. Once logging operations are at full speed, they should be feeding the energy plant around 260,000 metric tons of material per year, he said.
The Wiedemans expect the project to run for 20 years.
Enterprise attorney Rebecca Knapp, who is helping the Wiedemans to iron out all necessary agreements, says one will be in place with the Ukraine government's Ministry of Ecology, which has an oversight role, and International Forestry Solutions will be partnering with a Ukranian firm.
In addition to the energy company that will be a key to the overall project, another significant player will be the forestry side's equipment supplier. Mike Wiedeman thinks this distinction should bring considerable prestige. "There's tremendous PR value of being the chosen equipment to be used in the toughest environment on the planet," he said.
And in the CEZ, there's no such thing as sending equipment out for repair. Any machine that enters the irradiated zone is required to remain there - in theory, forever. This is why the zone is still littered with the hulking remains of all vehicles that were in it when the 1986 crisis unfolded. The zone also lacks a decent network of logging roads.
There's also the matter of training the people who will work there. While Bryan Wiedeman says he's looking forward to fine-tuning protocols to help ensure worker safety in the irradiated environment - an appreciable challenge - he adds that he and other loggers he knows can't seem to help but be drawn to the adventure of it all. "It's like logging on Mars," he said.
Rules in place in the CEZ limit workers' radiation exposure levels by strictly limiting how long they can work over a given period. Toward the zone's outer edge you can work around a dozen days per month, Mike Wiedeman explains, and the allowable work length continuously drops as you approach the zone's center. These necessary measures will have the effect of increasing the number of loggers employed and as well the number of work shifts, he said.
The Wiedemans figure to bring at least several U.S. loggers who would receive special training in Enterprise, but Mike Wiedeman said most of the zone project's work would be performed by locals. "Our objective is to train a native population in our methods and with them run the equipment," he said.
As a longtime advocate for the Northwest's entire logging industry, Wiedeman has developed a yearly routine of traveling to Washington, D.C., to discuss industry matters with various officials and leaders. In April, when he made his 30th yearly D.C. trip, he individually briefed some members of Oregon's congressional delegation on the quickly evolving project plans in Ukraine. Rep. Peter DeFazio later commented about it when contacted by the Chieftain.
"I was impressed by Mr. Wiedeman's ingenuity when I met with him in Washington," DeFazio said. "It is a fascinating project that seems to offer a win-win scenario for the environment and Ukranians. But it is slightly ironic, and says something about the state of federal forest policy, that Oregonians are heading halfway around the world to Chernobyl to work in the woods."