Documentary, Photojournalism

Chernobyl: 30 Years After the Disaster

Image © Guillaume Herbaut, courtesy INSTITUTE

The greatest nuclear disaster in the history of mankind didn't stop 400 people, from a town of 50,000, from returning to their villages just a few miles from the reactor, and now concealed behind a fenced exclusion zone. The French photographer Guillaume Herbaut, in a new series repped by INSTITUTE, visited them in their homes.

At 1:23 am, on the morning of 26 April, in 1986, in the Ukranian town of Pripyat, an explosion tour through the sky.

The explosion took place at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, under the jurisdiction of the Moscow authorities of the Soviet Union. The plant was derelict, and operators had botched what should have been a routine safety test.

The reactor went into meltdown, they couldn’t contain it, and Chernobyl spewed radioactive particles high into the  atmosphere.

The nuclear waste, with a half-life of hundreds of thousands of years, spread over much of the western USSR and Europe. Even sheep on the remote islands off Scotland were found infected with radiation from Chernobyl. Long-term effects on the local and global environment are still being investigated.

Today, the Chernobyl Power Plant sits fenced inside a 30 kilometre Exclusion Zone.

The reactor itself remains encased inside a 24-story concrete and steel sarcophagus, one erected in a few hours after the accident.

Chernobyl is the subject of $2.2 billion clean-up. Workers, wearing protective suits and breathing respirators, can still only work one 15-minute shift per day. Today, new scaffolding and support beams are holding together the decrepit assembly. The completion date for the confinement has been pushed back repeatedly. It’s still feared the sarcophagus’ roof, which leans at an angle, may collapse again.

Recently, the ERBD announced funding is short by $850 million. Officials and engineers on the ground expect the reconstruction to be delayed until at least 2020 – but say so only off the record.

During the accident itself, 31 workers died. But the impact of the explosion spelled a much longer tragedy, one still felt by communities today.

Pripyat, a town constructed in the 1970s for the plant’s personnel, lies less than two miles from the reactor.

Thirty-six hours after the explosion, all of the town’s 50,000 inhabitants were forced to evacuate. Within the Exclusion Zone, dozens of abandoned villages remain, with houses slowly claimed by nature. But the lives of the families that once lived there are still evident: dolls in abandoned kindergartens; children’s cots with shreds of mattresses and pillows; a gymnasium where the town’s teens once trained together.

But, despite the radiation levels, 400 people, mostly elderly, have returned to their homes, inside what is now called the Zone of Alienation.

Inside the Zone, as well as in some sparsely populated villages adjacent to it, the inhabitants are mostly elderly women. Some have survived Stalin’s blockade and the war with the Nazis. Some returned only days after the accident, and still remain there.

The women live alone, on meager pensions. Many survive on small orchards, and harvest the forests within the Zone for mushrooms and berries. They burn firewood in their homes.

The work of French photographer Guillaume Herbaut, a founding member of l’Oeil Public, offers an insight into the lives of the people growing up in the towns near Chernobyl. Those who need to work often have little choice but to involve themselves with the repair process. Yet they remain, defiantly, in one of the most dangerous places in the world, next to a giant with feet made of clay.

See more of Herbaut’s photography here and see more photography from his series on Chernobyl at INSTITUTE.  

APRIL 2017 ISSUE:

Scratching the Surface: Daisuke Yokota and Thomas Mailaender take photography beyond the frame

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