A new book from National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig documents the worst nuclear disaster in history with sobering but stunning images. Ludwig visited Chernobyl nine times in 20 years to tell the stories of the lives of the victims, the exclusion zone and the abandoned city of Pripyat. The book also contains an essay from former president Mikhail Gorbachev on how the accident changed the course of the world’s history by accelerating the collapse of the Soviet Union
Victor Gaydack is now in his 70s and lives in a Kiev suburb. In April 1986 he was a major in the Russian army, on duty when reactor four at Chernobyl exploded. He was one of tens of thousands of fit, young “liquidators” sent in from all over the Soviet Union to try to make safe the stricken reactor. Since the accident, Gaydack has suffered two heart attacks, and developed severe stomach cancer.
Who is to say that Gaydack’s conditions were not caused by the accident or would have happened without the explosion? Or that the many mentally disabled Belarussian children and the thousands of people born in the fallout region who today suffer from thyroid cancers and congenital diseases were not also Chernobyl victims? Estimates of the eventual deaths, cancers, heart diseases, ailments and malformations that will eventually result from the accident vary enormously and are still bitterly contested by scientists.
What is certain is that about 350,000 people like Gaydack were evacuated and resettled from the high-level 2,600 square kilometre contamination zone that stretches from Ukraine into Belarus and Russia. It is certain, too, that the accident cost tens of billions of dollars in today’s money and that the area around the plant will be psychologically cursed for hundreds, if not tens of thousands of years.
“It is virtually impossible to connect specific illnesses to particular causes, but there is no doubt that the families and the doctors who work with the sufferers in radiation hospitals and who are brave enough to speak out have good reason to blame the disaster,” says Ludwig, who has documented the world’s worst nuclear disaster in nine visits over 20 years.
“Women exposed to the fallout as children have now reached childbearing age and fear giving birth to babies with congenital defects, worrying how radiation may have affected their genes. While some in the scientific community question that birth defects and retardation are directly attributable to the disaster, noted scientist Alexei Okeanov [of the International Sakharov Environmental University in Minsk, Belarus] calls it ‘a ﬁre that can’t be put out in our lifetimes’.”
At the Thyroid Centre in Minsk, surgery is performed on a daily basis. Amongst the patients in room #4 was Dima Bogdanovich, 13, who had just undergone his first surgery for thyroid cancer, and liquidator Oleg Shapiro, 54. He was exposed to high doses of radiation while remanteling small wooden homes in the villages close to the reactor. His commission was originally for six months. Blood tests were administered after three months and the workers were mysteriously sent home. Oleg says that out of the 300 workers in his brigade, one-third have since died. He himself has already been through three thyroid operations.
Read more at The long shadow of Chernobyl