Share This Page

Nearly 28 years after Chernobyl disaster, life goes on in 'exclusion zone'

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A worker takes a break outside Chernobyl's Reactor No. 4 (background) on Thursday, March 27, 2014. The reactor meltdown on April 26, 1986, was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history.

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine — Misha Tefflenko's family of eight fled the village of Fabrykivka in 1993, when radiation levels rose too high.

They and 300 other townspeople were resettled across Ukraine.

“We were given a new flat, but my parents had to find new jobs, and my granny was settled in another town,” said Tefflenko, now 25 and a tour guide in what he calls “a rather unique place.”

He is checked for radiation exposure “all the time, and once a year we have to pass a medical test. … I have been here for three years. You see, no mutations,” he said, lifting his hands.

On April 26, 1986 — when Russia still ran things here — control-room workers at Reactor No. 4 of Chernobyl's nuclear plant committed a fatal series of errors during a safety test. They triggered the reactor's meltdown and the world's worst nuclear accident.

Today's “exclusion zone” — more than 1,000 square miles — remains one of Earth's most toxic sites. About 9,000 people work there in the shadow of the ruined reactor.

The Wormwood Star Memorial is a dirt road, flanked by signs naming the two towns and 184 villages evacuated because of radiation fallout; flowers adorn some of them.

In the city of Chernobyl, nine miles from the abandoned nuclear plant, a statue of a trumpeting angel marks what happened here.

Workers inside this part of the zone follow a routine: 15 days in the city, then 15 days out of the zone. Everyone is tested for radiation as they leave.

Shops, apartment buildings, fire and police departments, and a post office are staffed in the quarter of the city that is habitable. A hotel offers rooms for less than $20, a “radiation-free lunch” and souvenirs.

“All this area was contaminated in 1986, but it was cleaned up well,” Tefflenko said, leading six tourists and two journalists.

Visitors can rent Geiger counters to monitor radiation levels at various sites. In Chernobyl's inhabited sector, the counters register normal readings — “totally safe,” according to Tefflenko.

Some residents, mostly retirees, have returned here or to surrounding villages to die in their old homes. One brick house has cheerful purple window shades, but many are empty — overrun by trees, vines and weeds.

Tefflenko said these resettlers “tell me the main reason they come back here is because of poor housing” elsewhere.

Outside the 300-man municipal fire station, an enormous gray monument portrays life-sized firefighters battling the meltdown; 134 of them died in the disaster. A marble slab topped by candles proclaims: “To those who saved the world.”

“Hotter” portions of the exclusion zone lie under mounds of earth — contaminated buildings, buried to prevent radiation leaks. In Kopachi, an abandoned village deep inside the zone, mounds dot the grassy, lightly wooded landscape, topped by red-and-yellow radiation markers.

An abandoned nursery still stands in a wooded area. Tattered dolls are scattered inside; children's books, a pillow and a toy rabbit lie on small bed frames in a room with peeling green paint. Here, especially in the soil near trees, the Geiger counters begin beeping.

No one knows how many people died of radiation exposure. In 2005, the United Nations estimated 4,000 deaths; critics such as Greenpeace predict 93,000 cancer deaths in time.

“All that information is still kept secret,” Tefflenko said.

Radiation is an invisible enemy, he said, as birds chirp and Geiger counters beep. “You can't see it, you can't feel it, you can't taste it, you can't smell it.”

About 300 yards from Reactor No. 4, another memorial honors “Heroes … who protected the world from nuclear disaster.”

Exclusion zone workers speaking several languages pass by. They are decommissioning all of the reactors, building a sarcophagus to replace a concrete-and-steel cover erected over Reactor No. 4 in 1986, and monitoring the exclusion zone. Those who work in this high-risk area must leave nightly and return to Chernobyl.

Only 40 percent of the melted reactor has been examined because of radiation risks, Tefflenko said.

Pripyat, another ghost city, was designed to showcase the quality of Soviet life; a fifth of its 50,000 residents worked at the nuclear plant. All were evacuated 40 hours after the meltdown began. They left their belongings, told they would return. They never did.

Near Pripyat's entrance, a radiationmarker warns of the “Red Forest” — pine trees with needles turned reddish-brown by fallout. Wild boars, foxes, deer, lynx and horses roam here, Tefflenko said.

The place is post-apocalyptic: abandoned apartment blocks, a cultural center, a hotel, a supermarket and other buildings, some with trees jutting through their roofs. In an amusement park that hadn't opened before the meltdown, fading yellow bumper cars and a rusting yellow-seated Ferris wheel await riders who will never come.

A stadium's wooden bleachers are rotting; its soccer pitch is overgrown. The vegetation “is spreading the radiation contamination. It absorbs it and then recycles it,” Tefflenko said. Over a moss-covered “hot spot,” the Geiger counters beep furiously.

Some buildings appear looted; Tefflenko says any furniture deemed safe was taken to Chernobyl.

In an empty apartment, some furniture remains along with a calendar dropped on the floor. Its date: April 1986.

Betsy Hiel is Trib Total Media's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.