Nearly 28 years after Chernobyl disaster, life goes on in 'exclusion zone'
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.