The plant in Pripyat has come to stand for all the things we fear most about nuclear power, but what is its real legacy?
In Bulgaria, a model made up of 400 gas masks sprayed bright yellow stands in front of the National Palace of Culture right in the centre of Sofia. Put together in 2014 by anonymous urban art collective Destructive Creation, a picture of the installation on Facebook carries the caption in Cyrillic that translates as: “30 years ago this happened… nothing”. On the 30th anniversary of a horrific nuclear disaster, this caption reminds us of the Soviet Union’s decision to keep its former territories and the communist eastern bloc countries in the dark about what happened at Chernobyl.
On 26 April, 1986, Reactor Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine began to fail. The 20-second shutdown system designed to prevent catastrophe was activated but, within seven seconds, there was a huge power surge. The chemical reactions that followed caused explosions of such magnitude that they blew the 1,000-tonne reactor’s top into the sky. The effects of that explosion continue to resonate today. The horror stories of Chernobyl; the deaths, the deformations, the model Soviet city of Pripyat now totally abandoned and declared unsafe for 24,000 years, all remain. This is a disaster that the former Soviet Union kept very quiet about at the time. And it’s a disaster story that continues to be avoided today, especially in Ukraine.
“People in Ukraine don’t like to talk about Chernobyl because it is seen as a bad part of their history, a terrifying place”
This silence is part of the legacy of the Soviet ruling elite’s habit of controlling information and continued attempts to hush up the disaster. Soviet authorities only admitted to an ‘accident’ a full 68 hours after the explosion had occurred and officials allowed a May Day Parade in Kiev, only 70 miles from Chernobyl, to go ahead. Scientists more than 1,000km away in Sweden were the first to raise the alarm over heightened radiation levels in the atmosphere two days later, at which point the Soviet authorities admitted that something had gone wrong.
Chernobyl was, and continues to be, a taboo subject in the country. “People in Ukraine don‘t like to talk about Chernobyl because it is seen as a bad part of their history, a terrifying place,’ says Nikolai Fomin, a tour guide working in ‘The Zone’, a 30km exclusion area around the Chernobyl reactor.
Finally, the current leadership in Ukraine continues to use nuclear power. The continuing war in the east, the annexation of Crimea and the loss of Russian trade has caused economic crises and coal shortages in Ukraine. Ukrainians are also very aware of Russia’s tight grip on gas supplies. Nuclear power now supplies over half of Ukraine’s electricity, meaning the ageing nuclear reactors that continue to function are essential to powering the country. And in order to keep those reactors going, Chernobyl needs to remain firmly in the past, lest any reminder of it causes attention and opposition to turn to the current nuclear situation. All of these things mean Ukrainians don’t talk about Chernobyl.
While the commemorations taking place in Ukraine have allowed its people to remember, outside the country Chernobyl has been on the agenda for the last 30 years. Photographers like Gerd Ludwig, Paul Fusco, Daniel Berehulak and Efrem Lukatsky have ensured that the legacy of Chernobyl isn’t forgotten, as have countless journalists and authors such as Svetlana Alexievich, whose Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster told the stories of survivors and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. Today, The Farm 51, a software developer from Gliwice, Poland, released the very first virtual reality tour of Chernobyl and the Pripyat area. Created using thousands of photographs, 3D models and 360 videos taken of the disaster zone on numerous visits to the area, the VR tour allows an unprecedented glimpse of the disaster zone.
Although the fall of communism ostensibly happened more than 25 years ago, the legacy of those long years under communist rule in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe have left habits of mind and ways of thinking about things that haven’t changed. The idea that information is a precious commodity owned by the ruling classes, not to be shared with the people, continues today. The governments of former Soviet states are still reluctant to see an empowered population. The people are just now learning the democratic habit of taking part in civic actions and having views and opinions that feed back to their governments to create a positive cycle of healing and better governance. In the west, the work of journalists, photographers and writers have, over the last 30 years, kept the story of Chernobyl alive. Today, however, the most important thing is that those former Soviet states and the countries across Eastern Europe remember their own legacy, with young people like members of Destructive Creation and The Farm 51 opening a dialogue for reconciling with the past.