Life goes on at Chernobyl 35 years after the world’s worst nuclear accident

Although there were mass evacuations following the radioactive catastrophe, Chernobyl never fully emptied of people.

Radioactive particles can be sandblasted from the surface of metal to decontaminate it and prepare it for resale. The money is good but the risks are high as radioactive dust constantly swirls through the workshop.

Every April 25, as night deepens, people gather around an angel that stands atop a stone plinth in the northern Ukrainian town of Chernobyl. The angel’s entire body is made of steel—mostly rebar that makes a stark silhouette against the sky—and it holds a long trumpet to its lips. This sculpture represents the third angel from the Book of Revelation. According to the Bible, when that trumpet sounded, a great star fell from heaven, the waters became bitter, and many died.

This parable has become a symbol for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which began at 1:24 a.m. on April 26, 1986 when an explosion ripped through Reactor Number Four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, just 11 miles from the town. Although there were mass evacuations after the accident, the immediate area was never fully emptied of people, and it never could be. A radioactive catastrophe of this magnitude is too dangerous to be abandoned. To this day, more than 7,000 people live and work in and around the plant, and a much smaller number have returned to the surrounding villages, despite the risks.

On the night of the anniversary, a mix of residents, workers, and a few out-of-town visitors come together to commemorate an event so complex, and with so many long-lasting impacts,  it’s still difficult to grasp 35 years later. Those gathered hold thin beeswax candles that drip into the palms of their hands. They listen to songs and poems performed by some of the survivors, and the air is thick with emotion. Yuriy Tatarchuk, former Deputy Head of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Information Department, calls it “A great mix of bitter and sweet. It’s like Victory Day in any one of the wars—people are crying and smiling at the same time.” Even here, so close to the epicentre of the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history, there is a sense of community, even a sense of home.

In 1986, seconds before Reactor Number Four exploded, the temperature inside the reactor core reached 4,650 degrees Celsius; the surface of the sun is 5,500. The force of the explosion, equivalent to 66 tons of TNT, blasted away the roof of the reactor’s 20-story building, completely destroyed everything inside the core, and ejected at least 28 tons of highly radioactive debris into the immediate surroundings. It also began a radioactive fire that burned for almost two weeks and shot an enormous plume of radioactive gases and aerosols into the atmosphere that traveled north and west on the wind. Dozens of radioactive substances fell to the earth, often carried down by rainfall.

The fallout included iodine-131, cesium-137, and plutonium-239, none of which occur naturally, and all of which are extremely dangerous for humans and other animals. Each substance decays on its own schedule called a “half life,” which is the amount of time it takes to halve its radioactivity. For iodine-131, which quickly accumulates in the thyroid gland and causes thyroid cancer, that half life is eight days. For cesium-137, which persists in the soil and produces gamma rays that have hundreds of thousands of times more energy than rays of sunlight, the half life is about 30 years. Plutonium-239, extremely radiotoxic when inhaled, has a half life of 24,000 years. Though the main pattern of radioactive fallout—which is blotchy and unpredictable—was established soon after the accident, radioactive particles remain on the move to this day, still shifting on the wind and flowing through the water. (Related: Children born to Chernobyl survivors don’t carry more genetic mutations.)

While radioactive particles traveled far and wide, the clean-up effort focused on the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, everything within a 30-kilometer (19-mile) radius of ground zero. Evacuations of the zone began 36 hours after the accident, the first being the 50,000 inhabitants of Pripyat, a town just two miles away from the nuclear power plant and built to house its workers and their families. Pripyat, with its apartment buildings, playgrounds, and public monuments, remains a ghost town to this day.

At the foot of the angel statue, there is a large concrete slab in the shape of the Ukrainian portion of the exclusion zone. During the memorial event, it glows orange from the light of many small lanterns. A long row of signposts stretches away from the angel across a treed boulevard. Each post bears the name of a Ukrainian village that was evacuated, and there are more than 100 of them.

But even as tens of thousands of people were being evacuated from homes to which they would never return, tens of thousands of others were arriving. Most came under orders to work on decontamination, others came for science, and still others defied the orders to stay away and moved back to their villages as soon as possible.

The clean-up effort was officially called “The Liquidation of the Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident,” and workers were called liquidators. They had an impossible job. Radioactive particles are invisible and have no taste or smell, yet in the hot spots they contaminated everything, from bricks to livestock to the leaves on the ground. These particles cannot be destroyed; all the liquidators could do was inter them or try to seal them up in some way. Some worked around the villages bulldozing crops, cutting down forests, and even burying the top layer of the earth itself.

Around the nuclear power plant, some jobs—like lifting highly radioactive debris or pouring concrete to seal the reactor—were so dangerous the men could absorb lethal doses of radiation in minutes. Estimates for the number of liquidators vary widely because there is no official register of everyone who took part, but the number is in the hundreds of thousands, and likely over half a million. They came from all over the former U.S.S.R., and most were young men at the time. Perhaps 10 percent of them are still alive today. Thirty-one people died as a direct result of the accident, according the official Soviet death toll.  

Evgeniy Valentey has been an IT specialist here for 10 years, yet the disaster is never far from his mind: “I think of the people really victimized in the process of liquidation. In the Soviet Union, the method was to cover everything with human lives.”

Life in an abandoned town

Elena Buntova, along with other scientists, answered the call of Chernobyl for a completely different reason than the liquidators. As doctor of biology, she came after the accident to study the effects of radiation on wildlife. She never left.

“In the first years after the accident, the best scientists from all over the U.S.S.R. came to Chernobyl for work, so it was really interesting to cooperate with them,” Buntova said. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and also where she met her husband Sergei Lapiha. He grew up near Chernobyl, and they got to know each other in a café inside the exclusion zone. 

Lapiha worked as a photographer in what is locally known as the Object Shelter—the containment unit that acts like a sarcophagus to entomb the remains of Reactor Number Four. Over the years, he made a photographic record of the premises, including a notorious object inside the reactor building called the Elephant’s Foot. It’s a black, glassy slab of once-molten radioactive lava that flowed into the corridor after the meltdown before solidifying in place like a human-sized stalagmite. It’s so radioactive that five minutes with it, unprotected, would be a death sentence.

Because of their age and their connection to the place, Buntova and Lapiha are part of a small group of resettlers who have permission from the Ukrainian government to live in the zone full time. They admit that living in Chernobyl is risky and troublesome, especially because children are forbidden. They each had children before they met, but because anyone under 18 is more susceptible to ionizing radiation, their kids could never come inside the zone. Today, the same is true for their grandkids. Still, they have lived here for over 30 years, and now that they are in their 60s and retired, they don’t plan on going anywhere. When asked why, Lapiha thinks for a minute, then replies, “I am just happy in Chernobyl.” 

It’s cozy inside their little brick house. People like them have occupied abandoned homes over the years and fixed them up. There are plenty to choose from. The town of Chernobyl used to have a population of 14,000. In the living room, they have house plants by the window, some comfy chairs and a TV, and a glowing aquarium full of lively fish. Out in the yard, they keep honeybees and look after four dogs, all of which were rescues from inside the exclusion zone. Since Elena monitored wildlife as a scientist at the Chernobyl Ecology Center, she would know as well as anyone how contaminated they might be. Baloo is an enormous wolf cross and the youngest in the pack. As Lapiha grabs the dog’s face and plays with him, saying “clever wolf, clever dog,” he doesn’t seem too worried. (Discover how the wildlife in Chernobyl is faring decades after the disaster.)

Few people live inside the exclusion zone full time. Those who flouted the evacuation order and returned to their home villages after the accident are now in their late 70s or early 80s, and many have died in the last five years. Those who remain rely on food from their gardens and the surrounding forest, including large and abundant mushrooms that are especially good at absorbing cesium-137, which emits both beta and gamma radiation. Some residents roast these mushrooms inside their homes with wood burning ovens. The trees they burn for fuel can also be radioactive, so the smoke causes new mini-fallouts nearby. Radiation is a constant companion here. In the inhabited places, the background levels are generally low. In others they are dangerously high. But without a dosimeter or Geiger counter, which many people don’t have—and sometimes don’t care to have—measurement is impossible.

Who remains in the zone

Of the approximately 7,000 people who come in and out of the zone to work, more than 4,000 have shifts of either 15 days a month or four days a week—schedules devised to minimize exposure to ionizing radiation. They are security guards, firefighters, scientists, or those who maintain the infrastructure of this unique community. Because Chernobyl is their half-time home and not their permanent residence, they occupy some of the rooms and apartments that were evacuated in 1986. In the evenings, life is pretty quiet. Some people read or watch movies. When it gets hot, they might break the radiation safety regulations and go for a swim in the river.

The rest of the labor force arrives by train each day to work at the nuclear power plant. Though the plant no longer produces electricity, the decommissioning of the three remaining reactors will take until at least 2065, and there is an entire division within the Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants devoted to the containment of Reactor Number Four. In 2016, it got a brand new containment unit, which looks like an enormous Quonset hut, that should last 100 years, though the materials inside will be radioactive for millennia. 

The exclusion zone is less radioactive today than it once was, but Chernobyl has time-bending qualities. Thirty-five years is a lot in a human lifetime, and it's significant to materials like cesium-137 and strontium-90, with half lives of about 30 years. But it’s almost nothing for the radioactive materials that will take millennia to decay. How good is a safe containment unit that lasts one century when it protects us from something with a half life of 24,000 years? There are new threats as well, including forest fires that burn radioactive trees and can create new danger zones. (See photos taken on illegal visits to Chernobyl's dead zone.)

According to Bruno Chareyron, Laboratory Director with the Commission for Independent Research and Information about Radiation, humankind does not currently have the technical solutions or the financial means to manage a disaster like this. Simply put, though thousands of people still work on-site every day, “The Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, it’s not manageable at all.”

During his retirement, Sergei Lapiha volunteers to maintain the local Orthodox church. It’s exterior walls are crisp and white, with arches in bright blue and two golden domes on the rooftop. Compared to the abandoned buildings and rubble that surround it, the church looks brand new.

Before the annual gathering at the steel angel, an evening Mass is held on the night of April 25. After the service, participants walk outside and ring the bell of memory, which hangs from its own arch in the corner of the churchyard. They ring it once for each year since the accident, so this year it will toll 35 times.

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