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FEATURE of the Day
Chernobyl: Nuclear Past, Radioactive Future
    Chernobyl - Forest, nothing but forest, as far as the eye can see. Dense, thick and impenetrable forest. On either side of a stretch of asphalt scarred by potholes, ominous-looking pine trees stand tall while frost-covered birch trees make a ghostly view. Among the branches, overtaken by sprouts of weeds, bramble and underbrush, are a couple of abandoned red-brick houses, with their tiled roofs sunken, their windows wide open like empty eye sockets and their faded shutters flapping about in the wind. Here, at the start of spring, a shroud of snow covers the ground, frozen beneath a pale sun. Welcome to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

To enter, one need only consult one of the numerous agencies specialized in so-called ‘dark tourism’ a tourism of horror, of the macabre, of the morbid, which stems as much from genuine interest as its does from pure voyeurism.

The instructions are minimal: Don’t eat or smoke outside, don’t drink water from a well or river, don’t sit on the ground or touch the vegetation, don’t bring anything into the area or take anything back with you. Regardless, it has become a pretty popular destination: In 2015, 15,000 ‘adventurers’ came here to quench their thirst for thrills.

On April 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., following operational errors during a trial, reactor number four at the V.I. Lenin nuclear power station, located about 15 kilometers from the city of Chernobyl, exploded. The detonation shot a cloud of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. Over the next ten days, these spread over Ukraine, Russia and Belarus, but also a large swath of Europe. In the following months, 350,000 people were displaced, dozens of villages were razed and the ruins were buried in about a thousand trenches.

Thirty years later, nearly six million people still live in contaminated areas. The Chernobyl disaster released approximately a thousand times more caesium-137 than the Hiroshima bomb, and vast amounts of strontium-90.

Two exclusion zones were established: the first, stretching ten kilometers around the nuclear facility and where the 5,000 site workers toil away, commuting from the new city of Slavutych which was built for them about 50 kilometers to the east; the second, extending 30 kilometers in all directions, which has been left to the elements.

When it exploded, the reactor released only 5% of its total radioactive material. Its messy insides are still churning 1,400 tons of magma including 190 tons of uranium and plutonium, notes Julia Marusic, the manager of the plant. Trying be reassuring, she adds, 'Everything is being done to minimize the risk, which is still there' The huge new containment structure is designed to withstand just about anything: At 108 meters tall, 162 meters long and with a span of 257 meters. 'Novarka', the New Safe Confinement will cost 1.5 billion euros mostly financed by European Union. It is set to be pulled along rails toward the old structure by the end of this year, so it can be up and running by the end of 2017. That is, two years behind schedule. At that point, the dismantling of the old reactor can finally begin, inside a container designed to survive a century of extreme conditions: cold, heat and everything from tornadoes to earthquakes.

Many llegal residents lare living in contaminated ares, the so-called ‘samosely’ are fewer than 200 in Ukraine, and all are getting on in years. Once they die, the memory of the people of Chernobyl will disappear.

To meet them, one must go deeper into the woods and wander through forgotten hamlets filled only with absence and silence. Knocking on the door of a small house with a sheet-metal roof, we're greeted by a flock of chickens pecking at black dirt. Then Ivan appears: He is 86 years old, wears his ushanka hat askew and is wrapped in a fur coat that looks much too heavy. His wife Mariana, a year younger than her husband, wears a prune green kerchief, and is gazing into the distance. Their few belongings fill their humble abode a bunch of rags piled up on the floor or hanging from a string, tin plates filled with potatoes, dried beans and unidentifiable tubers.

‘I used to have a big farm, with pigs and chickens,’ Ivan recalls. ‘The day after the accident, soldiers came in trucks to evacuate us. I was out in my field. They told us not to panic, that there was no danger, that we shouldn’t bring anything, that we’d be back in three days, when in fact, we were gone for good.’

Two years later, the government authorized 140 families to come back, while others were refused access, and no one really knew why. Ivan and his wife returned to their old farm, and a small village started taking shape again, but the young people chose to go work in the city, in Kiev or on the outskirts.

Ivan clings tightly, protectively, to his wife. ‘We are happy here,'' he says. 'This is our village, our home. We were born here. We want to die here.’

Night falls. To get outside the 30-kilometer zone, you need to go through an old radiation detector, to make sure there are no radioactive particles on your shoes. The doors close once more on the exclusion zone and the forest where the first buds of spring are just beginning to show.

Credit Text: Le Monde
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