Chernobyl 30 years after

Pierpaolo Mittica

2014 - Ongoing


Hundreds of thousands of hectares of contaminated land, death, disease and deep sorrow in the lives of just as many people: that’s what Chernobyl stands for. 30 years ago, on 26 April 1986, in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant the scarcely possible deemed total meltdown took place - and provoked the biggest nuclear disaster in history.

The Chernobyl station was built in in the years between 1970 and 1983 about 120 kilometers north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev on the border with Belarus. In the 1980s in the then existing Soviet Union it has been regarded as an exemplary showcase model facility. Besides the four reactor blocks that have already been built it was planned to construct two others. Each reactor was capable to produce 1000 megawatts of electric power. In unit 4 which was not put into operation before 1983 there were 1659 fuel assemblies with a total of 190,2 tons of nuclear fuel. On 25 April 1986, the reactor should be checked for safety. At the same time an attempt was planned. On the basis of a simulated power outage should be demonstrated that the nuclear power plant itself would produce enough energy without electricity from outside to ensure the emergency cooling of the reactor. Despite the fact that there were already recorded a number of technical faults on the same day, any safety regulations were ignored and the experiment nevertheless continued. But caused by operating errors and constructional faults the intended test came completely out of control. Due to a huge temperature increase the power of the reactor was abruptly raised thousand-fold. An uncontrollable chain reaction was triggered. The attempt to prevent it by an emergency shutdown failed. Within a few seconds, there was an extreme energy release in the fuels and the reactor core has been destructed. At over 2000 degrees Celsius the meltdown of the core began. Because of the large quantities of hydrogen that have been formed, a short time later were triggered two explosions causing such a force that the heavyweight cover plate of the reactor core like the roof of the entire building were blown up. Fuel elements and parts of the reactor core were emitted into the air. With the large fire which could be extinguished only days later, large amounts of radionuclides were sucked into the atmosphere. The radioactive emissions, especially iodine-131 and long-living cesium-137, were spread by the wind all over Europe. A first cloud passed over Poland to Scandinavia, a second over the Czech Republic to Germany and further westwards, and a third cloud distributed the fallout over

Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Besides the proximity to the site of the accident rainfalls influenced the degree of contamination on the ground.

In total 150 000 square kilometers in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia were contaminated. An area in which five million people lived at that time. The concerned States suffered an enormous economic damage: 1.4 million hectares of agricultural and forestry land got lost. But the worst hit was Belarus: 30% of its territory was rendered unusable.

Til today around Chernobyl exists an Exclusion Zone of 4300 km2. The area remains contaminated by radiation for a not foreseeable future. Under the old sarcophagus, which after the accident was constructed hastily over reactor unit 4, are still lying 200 tons of molten uranium. The material will still be radioactive for other billion years. Someday it should be eliminated, but until now nobody knows how this can be done. To date there is no technical equipment for the disposing.

Here are still working 8000 people, eliminating the worst damages of the nuclear disaster and trying to prevent new threats. In the power station workers are taking care of the cooling ponds of approximately 21,000 spent nuclear fuels. They build an interim storage, prepare the definitive closure of the reactors one to three and handle and store waste. About 2000 employees are involved in the construction of the New Safe Confinement. Because the old sarcophagus, a monstrosity of concrete and steel which closes the disaster reactor, is fragile and in danger of collapsing. If it would collapse, radioactive dust would be whirled up and spread by wind over the neighboring countries beyond the borders of Ukraine. After the Chernobyl disaster the consequences are well known, even if there are hotly debated until today.

According to official figures, there were 134 deaths in the first year and 116 000 people who was evacuated immediately after the accident. A total of 360 000 people left their homes because of the accident - partly forced by order, partly voluntarily. In extreme cases the evacuees were exposed to radiation doses of 380 millisieverts, the 150-fold value of the normal radiation level. Among the 600,000 soldiers, firefighters and volunteers, the so-called liquidators who participated in the cleanup operations, are about 1000 people who were exposed very high doses of radiation. The men who were involved in the fire-fighting and cleaning up during the first few days, up to 13 Sievert. From a value of seven Sievert radiation is considered fatal.

The not uncontroversial Chernobyl Forum, in which the IAEA, the WHO and the UN are collaborating, came to the conclusion that the total number of fatalities that were directly caused by the disaster is about 4000.

Organizations like the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War regard these assumptions for understatement. They accuse the members of the forum to be manipulated by the pro-nuclear lobby. A study of the IPPNW and The German Society for Radiation Protection assumes that until 2006 50 000 to 10 000 liquidators have died. Between 54 000 and 90 000 liquidators shall be invalid. Furthermore, at 12 000-83 000 children who were born in the region around Chernobyl, genetic damages occurred. Since 1986 only in Belarus more than 10,000 people with thyroid cancer were diagnosed. Hundreds of thousands suffer psychological trauma.

With the damages caused by the Chernobyl disaster the world will still have to deal for a long time. Even today only in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia 9 million people continue to live in heavily contaminated areas. 600 million of the European population lives in low irradiated territories. As it is assumed that even very low doses of radiation over a long period can affect negatively the health and even provoke genetic damages, consequently also them suffer the consequences of radioactivity. Although the extent is entirely unclear yet, the most effects will be visible only in the second or third generation.

It is also estimated that the most contaminated areas stretching over 260.000 square kilometers of land, (almost as large as Italy) will return to normal radioactive levels in about one hundred thousand years time. Almost 30 years have gone by, so we have another ninety – nine thousand, nine hundred and seventy to go …

Chernobyl, after 30 years, is only at the beginning of its story.

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  • An employee of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant inside the damaged control room of reactor no. 4, in which once the disaster was triggered, which has been widely regarded as the worst accident in the history of nuclear power in the world: On Saturday, April 26, 1986, here there was a meltdown and explosion of the reactor core, whereby the block was completely destroyed. After the disaster it has been enclosed in a concrete and lead sarcophagus. Since then the access is limited to certain workers only. The levels of radioactivity inside the control room of reactor no. 4 are 30 times higher than the normal level.

    Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, reactor no. 4, 2015.

  • Forest and wildfires are raging nearby the as a result of the reactor accident in 1986 evacuated and since then abandoned and neglected city of Pripyat.
    Fires are among the greatest threats which exists in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation. Through the fires radioactively contaminated trees and woods are burned. The resulting radioactive ashes are spread into the atmosphere provoking a new fallout.
    On April 27, 2015, there was one of the largest forest fires in the restricted area, which was built in 1986 with a radius of 30 km around the wrecked reactor block no. 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on the territory of Ukraine. More than 113 square kilometers of radioactive contaminated forest were affected, throwing back tons of radioactive particles into the air.

    Pripyat, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 2015.

  • The Ferris wheel in Pripyat hidden by nature.
    The fairground with the still existing Ferris wheel and dodgems is located in the heart of the city. It was supposed to be opened for the first time on May 1, 1986, in time for the May Day celebrations. However, due to the nuclear power plant disaster this did not happen. On April 27 the whole city was evacuated. Today, 30 years after the evacuation, the traces of abandonment are everywhere visible. The city resembles a ghost town. But in in the desolation life is stirring: Despite the high contamination of the area nature has gradually regenerated itself, albeit in a mutated form. The absence of humans for so many years has given place to the vegetation to develop itself in a completely uncontrolled way. Squares and districts which once were populated by employees of the nuclear power plant today are submerged by dense forest.

    Pripyat, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 2014.

  • A fox roams the streets of Pripyat.
    After the nuclear disaster, which spread hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive material into the air, many people assumed that the area around Chernobyl would remain for a long time a dead zone. But meanwhile not only dense forest grows rampantly here. There have also been observed animals, which otherwise in many parts of Europe are still hard to find. Besides wolves, foxes, wild boars or deer also elks and lynxes and even bears inhabit the area in which the radioactivity according to researches is still increased by ten to one hundred times.

    Pripyat, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 2015.

  • A doll left behind in the kindergarten “Zolotoj Kluchik” of Pripyat.
    Pripyat was founded on 4 February 1970 and was built at the eponymous river only about four kilometers far away from the nuclear plant in Chernobyl. Once the city was the residence of many employees of the nuclear power station and their families. The city grew rapidly; the residents were young and relatively prosperous. At the time of the disaster in 1986 lived here already about 50 000 inhabitants, all of whom have not been evacuated until 36 hours after the reactor accident, on April 27. That’s why many local residents were exposed a high radiation. Many suffered the long-term consequences. In the few hours in which the city was evacuated almost no one of the residents knew that he would never return. Besides important documents and the most necessary things which they were allowed to take with them, the residents left everything behind. What isn’t already decayed or was looted, can partially be visited still today in the original state. In many places there are still books, photographs, toys or dolls, which as silent contemporary witnesses keeps on to hold vigil.

    Pripyat, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 2014.

  • Anna, six months old, suffers from hydrocephalus.
    It is a medical condition in which there is an abnormal accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. It was once informally called "Water on the brain” and is one of the most common pathologies caused by accumulation of radioactive particles in the fetus.
    According to the Neurosurgery Institute, National Ukrainian Medical Academy in Kiev, after the nuclear disaster 98% of central nervous system anomalies were due to hydrocephalus. The average annual increase in central nervous system defects was about 39% among 2209 registered cases in the period from 1981 to 1985 compared with 4925 cases from 1987 to 1994. From 1987 to 2004 the incidence of brain tumors in children up to three years of age doubled and in infants it increased 7.5-fold.
    In the picture you can see Anna on the surgery bed before the operation, in which the liquor in her brain will be reduced.

    Pediatric Clinic of Neurosurgery, Kiev, 2015.

  • Olia and Ania during their inpatient treatment in the Pediatric Clinic of Neurosurgery in Kiev. The 14-year-old Olia is affected by an osteosarcoma, the most common form of primary bone cancer. In this moment she films her same age guitar playing friend, which is hospitalized because of thyroid and ovarian cancer.

    National Institute of Cancer at the Pediatric Clinic of Neurosurgery, in cooperation with the Zaporuka NGO, Kiev, 2015.

  • Vitali, 7 years old, suffers from a congenital defect called craniosynostosis.
    The craniosynostosis is a disease where the bones of the skull are welded together since birth and does not allow the development of the skull during growth. For this reason in the patients suffering from this disease, the crown is replaced with a titanium plate which must be periodically changed with a surgery during the growth phase.
    Natalia, the mother of Vitali, is showing the mold of his son's skull. The mold is used to build the titanium plate, which will help for a certain period of time to develop the growth of Vitali.
    When Chernobyl accident happened Natalia was 4 years old and lived in Ukraine, on the border with Belarus, one of the areas most affected by the Chernobyl radioactive fallout.

    Pediatric Clinic of Neurosurgery, Kiev 2015.

  • Vladik, 7 years old his one year younger brother Igor live with their family in a small village called Radinka. Even if it lies 300 m outside of the restricted area, it’s still highly contaminated.
    The medical scientist Prof. Dr. Yuri Bandajevski from the Coordinating and Analytical Center “Ecology and Health” in the last four years conducted many clinical studies to explore the impact of the through food or inhalation absorbed radioactive substances to the health of those children, who live in Radinka and other villages of the province of Ivankov. 80% of the 3700 examined children, who live close to the border of the Exclusion Zone, are suffering from heart rhythm disorders, which are directly related to the amount of cesium incorporated in their bodies. Besides that, at about 30% of children were larger quantities of the radioactive isotope 137Cs detected in the body; partially over 50 Bq per kilo; exactly that level in which any kind of disease can be developed.

    Radinka, province of Ivankov, 2015.

  • Sunken ships in the port of Chernobyl.
    Chernobyl is located in Polesia, a national region rich in rivers and lakes. Through the evacuation zone around the power plant flow rivers like Prypiat, Uzh, Sachan, Braginka, Glinitsa. Many large cooling basins of the power station, oxbow lakes and reservoirs are situated here. Especially in the first two weeks after the reactor accident many spring water, marsh and water protection areas have suffered a strong radionuclide contamination. Even today many waters present a high amount of radioactive materials which are particularly accumulated by the ground segments. Only the measured values of cesium-137 are at 11 to 30 million Bq/ m2 (the security level is below 2000 Bq/ m2). In the course of the years the radionuclides pass through numerous outlets in the only a few kilometers distant reservoir of Kiev and thus in the Dnieper, which supplies 30 million people with water.
    Chernobyl river port, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 2015.

  • A fireman is with his fire engine on the way inside the Zone.
    In the restricted area forest fires break out frequently. They endanger not only the wrecked reactor: By the fires can be released also radioactivity which is incorporated by plants and wood in the contaminated regions. Simultaneously radioactively contaminated soil or dust can be whirled up, carried off and redistributed by the wind.
    To extinguish the fires as soon as possible several fire brigade stations are placed inside the Exclusion Zone. The firemen work (as almost the whole staff in the zone) in shifts: 15 days they make their service, 15 days they spend with their families outside the zone.

    Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 2016

  • Volodimir 55 years former firefighter, lives in Terenzi, a village within the exclusion zone. Before the accident, and the following evacuation, the village had 300 people, today only 20 people live.
    Volodimir is one of the few firefighters who survived that tragic night of April 26, 1986. His brigade, consisting of six men, arrived first immediately after the explosion of reactor number 4 to extinguish the fire. Four companions of his brigade died for acute radiation syndrome in the following days hospitalized in Moscow. Volodimir survived despite years of sickness and suffering and today is a unique witness of that tragic event. A hero who saved the world. "That night they called us but without telling us what was going on actually. We realized immediately the gravity of the situation but we never thought about a nuclear accident. We spent all night to throw water on the reactor. After few hours we started to get sick, headache, metallic taste in the mouth, vomiting, fatigue, but we continued to work till the end of our strength. Then we were brought to the hospital in Pripyat.There finally we knew the truth and that we were in the midst of a radioactive hell. They decided to move us to Moscow, but I did not want to go and they moved me to Kiev. I made a promise: if I would save me, I will become a priest." Volodimir today is a priest and help the last survivors of his village community.

    Terenzi, Chernobyl exclusion zone, in 2016.

  • This is the last photographs I took about the reactor number 4 and the old sarcophagus. In fact on November 2016 the new safe confinement has been moved over reactor number 4, burying it. Today is not more possible to see the reactor number 4.
    The explosion of the reactor at Chernobyl spewed into the air contamination 200 times greater than the atomic bomb at Hiroshima.

    Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 2016

  • A worker passing the “golden corridor”, the passage between reactor units 2 and 3 of the wrecked power station. It got his nickname because of its coating of thick lead and zinc plates which were attached due to high radioactive contamination after the nuclear accident. The radiation values are still today 30 times higher than the normal level.

    Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, 2015.

  • Employees working in the control room of reactor no. 2 inside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The power station is currently undergoing a decades-long decommissioning process of the reactors no. 1, 2 and 3, which continued operation for years following the accident at reactor no. 4. Even if the last block has been removed from the network in 2000, up to the year 2065, when the nuclear power plant is finally scheduled to be demolished, workers have to continue monitoring and maintenance.

    Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, unit 2, 2015.

  • A worker involved in the construction of the New Safe Confinement taking a nap in his truck.
    A consortium of western companies is building the movable enclosure that will be shifted over the wrecked reactor and cover its fragile sarcophagus in order to prevent further contamination. The secondary goal is to allow a future partial demolition of the old structure.
    After the end of construction the New Safe Confinement will have a span of 257 m, a length of 162 m and a height of 108 m. The completion of the project was on November 2016. The total cost is estimated to be around 1,5 billion euro.
    The “new sarcophagus” has been designed for a lifetime of 100 years.

    Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, 2015.

  • Hanna Zavorotnya, 83, her sister Sofia and her friend Maria, preparing lunch at home, in a cottage in the small village Kupovate.
    They are among about 230 elderly Ukrainians who live within the Exclusion Zone despite an official ban on living in the restricted area. But authorities have long stopped bothering to enforce the prohibition.
    When reactor no. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded on April 26, 1986, strewing lethal radiation over a wide area, the Soviet government evacuated the 1000 square miles of Ukraine where the radioactive contamination from fallout was highest and took the zone under military control. About 120 000 local residents were displaced and forced to resettle in cities like Kiev or later Slavutych, leaving behind the pastoral life that once dominated their homeland, traditions and culture. So also Hanna and her relatives.
    But nobody could prevent their return. Only a few months later Hanna, her sister and other relatives (like other 1200 returnees) turned back to their homeland. Since then they live a life of self-settlers as self-sufficient persons.

    Kupovate village, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 2015.

  • Dimitri with his granddaughter Vlada in his kitchen at home in Polesskoye.
    Polesskoye is located within the restricted area on the river Uzh, a tributary of the river Pripyat. After the nuclear accident in April, 1986, Polesskoye became the main center of evacuation for the citizens of Pripyat city. But due to the first fallout of the detonated power plant, which went directly towards Polesskoye, the town was heavily contaminated and though it was more than 50 km from it to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, the level of radioactive pollution was in reality not much better than in Pripyat city itself. Only in 1993 Polesskoye became a zone of guaranteed voluntary resettlement. At that time, the town housed about 12 thousand inhabitants. In 1996, this resettlement caused that Polesskoye was no longer the urban hub of the region. In 1999 Polesskoye was removed from the settlement register, and the territory was transferred into the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation.
    Today only a handful of persons still lives there. However, Dimitris granddaughter is not among them. Persons under the age of 18 years generally are not allowed to stay in the restricted area. That's why Dimitri smuggles her illegally in the zone if they wish to spend a couple of days together. Usually Vlada lives with her parents in Kiev.

    Polesskoye, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 2016.

  • Maria in her house in Paryshev, a small village in the restricted area, where she and her husband Ivan Ivanovich lived their whole life. She died on 17 May 2016 at the age of 78 years.
    Maria was one of the last resettlers who still live in the Exclusion Zone. In the 1930s, as a child, she survived the famine during the Holodomor. 3-8 million Ukrainians died. Only few years later, in the 1940s came the Nazis. During the second world war other 11 million Ukrainians were killed. After all these experiences Maria was not scared about radioactive dust and invisible nuclear particles in the air, water and soil. Much more she feared to be separated from her homeland, to lose her home, her identity, her livelihood. When she should be evacuated, she rebelled, ignored all warnings of the authorities, scientists and medical doctors and stayed, defying the radioactive contamination.

    Paryshev Village, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 2015.

  • Fresh painted warning signs concerning radioactive substances or ionizing radiations are ready for the distribution inside the restricted area, which was established around the site of the wrecked reactor block of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
    In the ghost town of Pripyat there is a workshop where workers repair and renew the damaged warning signs, worn by time and weather. After repair they can be installed to indicate the most contaminated and dangerous places. A job, which, considering the rate of decay of the various radioactive substances, probably still have to be done for thousands of years.

    Pripyat, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 2015.