25 Years Chernobyl
From Prypjat to Slavutych
On 26 April 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukrainian SSR suffered the worst nuclear disaster in history, killing dozens of people and setting free plumes of highly radioactive smoke into the atmosphere. The plumes drifted over large parts of Europe and the world was in uproar, leading to raised concerns about the safety of nuclear power in general. Only four kilometers away, the city of Prypjat was the closest populated place to Chernobyl. And although it was evacuated only 36 hours after the reactor accident had started, once the evacuation was on its way, the locals left hastily, leaving many of their belongings behind.
Now, 25 years after the nuclear disaster, Swiss photographer and director Siro Micheroli, has published an astonishing photography book - ’25 Years Chernobyl – From Prypjat to Slavutych’. In his book he captured the harrowing images of the ghosttown that once was Prypjat as well as pictures of the residents of Slavutych, a city that was built for Prypjat’s former residents within 40 kilometres of Chernobyl a year after the catastrophy.
Siro Micheroli was so struck by Prypjat’s ghostly emptiness, that he automatically started taking picture after picture. “You are overwhelmed by the bizarre beauty of the place, the weathered colors and this deadly silence”, recalls Micheroli. “Left behind by humans 25 years ago, nature is slowly reclaiming piece after piece of the former Soviet ‘model’ city. In a way it’s similar to walking through an antique town as a tourist. You can inform yourself about the place before you go, but once you get there and the events haven’t happened such a long time ago, and you can remember them from your childhood, then you have a really oppressive feeling when you walk through a place like that.”
After taking in the ghostly sight of Prypjat, Micheroli wanted to find out where the people had gone, that once lived there. “In Prypjat the word emptiness takes on a whole different dimension and you really wonder where the people are, that were evacuated back then”, says Micheroli. “I wanted to find out what happened to them and document how they live today, because not much is known about Slavutych. It was all about taking stock of the population.” On his arrival in Slavutych Micheroli was astonished to find out that many of the locals still worked as ‘liquidators’ in or around the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl. They have a direct train line from Slavutych to Chernobyl – a macabre pay-off for the still existing danger of radioactive contamination. “Someone has got to clean up the mess”, echoes Micheroli the stubborn attitude of many locals. “The people aren’t dissatisfied, because they’ve got jobs which you can’t take for granted in Ukraine. They’ve given in to their fate in their indifferent ways.”
The relevance of Micheroli’s book 25 years after the Chernobyl disaster couldn’t be more apt with the occurrence of the recent accident in Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, that sparked a new controversy about the existing dependence on nuclear power worldwide. As the need for energy rises all the time and the safety and environmental friendliness of various energy sources are under constant scrutiny, there is a definite need for a global re-thinking. There are pros and contras for all types of different energy solutions, but there is no definite answer to what’s the best way forward. What has become apparent though with the recent developments in Japan is the fact that nuclear power certainly isn’t the safest way forward. A sentiment that was echoed around the world 25 years ago after the Chernobyl disaster, but almost seemed to have been forgotten in 2011.
“It’s a difficult situation and the world is pretty fucked up right now”, Micheroli reckons. “Sadly enough it’s going to be impossible to find the perfect solution that will solve the problem of the world’s energy requirements.”
Words: Goetz Werner
Printed: Lodown issue 76