Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Chernobyl After 25 Years


Since 1993, renowned National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig has visited the site several times, creating an in-depth look at the many consequences of tragedy. The thawing of bureaucratic barriers in Ukraine enabled him to move freely within the Exclusion Zone and delve deeper into contaminated reactor than any other Western still photographer. "I know that my explorations are not without personal risk. However," he says, "I do this on behalf of otherwise voiceless victims who allow me to expose their suffering solely in the hope that tragedies like Chernobyl may be prevented in the future."

Wind blows through the desolate town of Pripyat. On April 26, 1986, this amusement park was being readied for the annual May Day celebrations when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded less than two miles away and severely contaminated tens of thousands of square miles.
The nearby city of Pripyat, once inhabited by 50,000 residents and brimming with life, now stands as a chilling ghost town. Built in 1970 for the scientists and the workers of the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, authorities did not warn residents of the accident, and issued the evacuation notice only 2 days after the explosion.
At 1:23 am on April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant operators committed a fatal series of errors here in the control room of Reactor #4, triggering a meltdown and an explosion that resulted in the world’s largest nuclear accident to date.
Workers wearing plastic suits and respirators for protection pause briefly on their way to drill holes for support rods inside the shaky concrete sarcophagus, a structure hastily built after the explosion to isolate the radioactive rubble of Reactor #4. Their job is to keep the deteriorating enclosure standing until a planned replacement can be built. It is hazardous work: radiation inside is so high that they constantly need to monitor their Geiger counters - and are allowed to work only one shift of 15 minutes per day.
Twenty-five years later, the empty schoolrooms of Pripyat stand as a testament to the sudden and tragic departure of the city’s residents. As nature takes over the abandoned buildings and homes inside the Exclusion Zone, it is a stark contrast to the fear-plagued lives of the people who survived the world’s worst nuclear accident.
When Soviet authorities finally ordered the evacuation of the nearly 150 villages within a 19-mile radius of the power plant, the hasty departure often meant leaving behind the most personal belongings. The Soviet Union only admitted to the world that the accident had occurred 3-days after the explosion, when scientists in Sweden noticed radiation on their shoes before entering a nuclear facility. The explosion unleashed radiation around the globe, more than tripling the world’s background radiation level.
Today, several hundred elderly residents have returned to their village homes, preferring to die on their own contaminated soil, rather than from a broken heart in anonymous city suburbs. Now tolerated, the authorities initially considered the returnees as illegal residents, and chased them from their homes. Generally without means of transportation, none of the few hundred returnees have easy access to medical help. To ensure basic health care, teams of doctors from the Chernobyl hospital make their rounds to the few inhabited villages each month.
This is only the second time since being forced to evacuate in 1986 that Ludmila S., 55, is able to visit her former hometown of Pripyat. She mourns at the grave of her parents and begs for their forgiveness for her long involuntary absence.
Suffering from thyroid cancer, Oleg S., 54, and Dima B., 13, receive care at a thyroid hospital in Belarus, where surgery is performed on a daily basis. As a liquidator, Oleg was exposed to extreme levels of radiation when razing contaminated houses near the destroyed reactor. This was his third thyroid operation. Dima’s mother claims that Chernobyl’s nuclear fallout is responsible for his cancer, but his doctors are more cautious: Belarusian officials are ordered to downplay the severity of the nuclear after-effects as the country is eager to start re-cultivating huge areas of contaminated fallow land.
Photographer Gerd Ludwig gearing up for a 15-minute entry into the highly contaminated Reactor #4 - the maximum he and the shift workers are allowed to spend in a single day.

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