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‘We have a chance to show the truth’: into the heart of Chernobyl via The Guardian

Three decades after the nuclear disaster, the concrete protecting the reactor is starting to crack. Yet people still live there – and a new virtual reality project will take many more inside the ‘death zone’

At first they thought it was just a fire, then the chickens started to turn black. When it comes to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, everyone has a vivid detail that is snagged in the memory; the absurdities or the obscenities. It might be the local village that, once evacuated, was claimed by a mob of pigs. Or the way milk would turn to white powder whenever the residents of Pripyat (the town built a few hundred metres from the doomed power plant) would attempt to churn butter. Or the cat that refused to be stuffed into a suitcase by its owner, who couldn’t bear to abandon his pet during the mass exile, 36 hours after the explosion. Who can forget that 70 Belarusian villages had to be buried under the ground? Or that Soviet soldiers shot every dog, in case it wandered, toxically, into a neighbouring city? Or that many of those same men risked their lives hoisting flags on the roofs of buildings every few weeks, whenever the old ones were chewed to lace by the radioactive breeze?

For many, it is the story of a 23-year-old pregnant woman, married to one of the brave and reckless firemen who put out the blaze at reactor number four in the early morning of 26 April 1986. Doctors at the Moscow hospital to which he was transferred warned her not to hug her husband. She refused, tending to him even when the nurses would no longer enter the room where he lay, naked, under a sheet of thick plastic. Two months after he died, she visited the cemetery where he was buried in a matryoshka nest of coffins: one zinc and, within that, one wooden. She knelt at his grave and promptly went into labour. At her late husband’s suggestion, she named the baby Natashenka. Due to the radiation, Natashenka was born with cirrhosis of the liver and congenital heart disease. She died less than four hours later in a tragedy of appalling symmetry: a child both conceived and destroyed in her parents’ lingering embrace.

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Today, Franchuk lives in the same village, just outside the death zone. It is illegal to live inside its radius, although the Ukrainian government ignores the few hundred samosely: mostly elderly settlers who have returned to their homes and villages on the otherwise forsaken land (most returned without registering; there are no official figures).

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Despite this wariness, an increasing number of tourists visit Chernobyl each year. There is no souvenir shop and no guarantee that you won’t injure yourself in the debris. The only working toilets are at the corrugated train station or the power plant. Franchuk, who is a kind of health and safety officer, has finished his first bottle of cognac by 11am. The second is done by 3pm. Still, the curious come at a rate of a few thousand each year. Most arrive via Kiev, an hour’s drive away. Around $200 (£140) will buy you a tour in a group of 40 or so other visitors, with a brief survey of the zone’s best known sights: Pripyat’s crumbling high school, its swimming pool and town square, with its redundant ferris wheel and dodgems; $600 (£415) will get you a better class of expedition, one run by 31-year-old Pawel Mielczarek, the organiser of my trip.

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Chernobyl VR, as the project is plainly titled, is due to launch this month. It’s just one of a number of projects around the world using this emerging technology to allow people to visit places that are otherwise difficult or impossible to access. French researchers have recreated the site of the Normandy landings; another team has turned scenes depicted in Van Gogh’s paintings into virtual rooms that can be entered and explored. The Chernobyl app will, initially, present three locations: the school, the swimming pool and an abandoned house in a more remote village. More will be added in the coming months.

It’s a major undertaking. Scanning a small room of about 20 sq ft takes four hours. An expansive site such as the swimming pool takes two days and requires 10,000 images. The team believes it’s worth the effort. “Chernobyl is such a mysterious, mystical place,” Grzesiczek says, as he moves the tripod a few feet forward to prepare the next shot. “We have a chance here to show people the truth. We can also capture it as it is now. Everything here changes so quickly.”
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It is a work of voyeurism, then, but also documentary. After all, this is a reality twice disappeared: the world of 1986 and the world of Soviet dominion. In the school, period books litter the floor, along with appallingly small gas masks, props of the cold war. Black-and-white photographs of Russia’s great leaders hang, staring down at rows of empty desks. A wall in one classroom displays Lenin’s slogan: “Study, study, study.” A veteran of Chernobyl, Sergey Akulinin, will offer commentary as we tour these scenes. Akulinin had been living in Pripyat for six years as a turbine operator when the explosion occurred. That night, he was on shift at a neighbouring reactor. Today, he is the only guide working in Chernobyl who survived the blast from such close proximity. Why did he decide to take part in this project. “Project?” he says, with a flash of irritation. “This isn’t a project for me. This is my life.”

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Before anyone who visits Chernobyl is allowed to leave, they must step into one of the Soviet radiation detectors housed at its myriad checkpoints. It’s a contraption rather like a public phone box, with two of the walls removed. You face a black screen and press your hands on sensor pads on the outer side of the machine. If it’s bad news, after a few moments, a light turns red and an alarm sounds. You are then held on site until either a doctor can examine you, or the security removes whatever toxic memento you’ve hidden in your bag (a few years ago, two visitors managed to smuggle some irradiated rags through the detector; they were caught at an airport, held for a few days and issued with a hefty fine). If you’re free of radiation when you step into the detector, a yellow light flashes: “chisto” – clean.

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The world is not over Chernobyl, either. Chernobyl remains emblematic of what can go wrong when the miracle that is nuclear power (statistically the safest power source) is mishandled. Extreme radiation’s effects, which vary wildly from person to person, can have the grotesque absurdity of a Grimm fairytale. According to eyewitness accounts, one man grew fat “like a barrel”, while another shrunk until he could wear only children’s clothes. Conservative estimates put the final death toll at 4,000. While a surge in cases of thyroid cancer among children (caused by drinking irradiated breast milk) was indisputably caused by the catastrophe, most experts agree that the broader health impacts cannot be meaningfully quantified.

Part of our interest is to do with past losses, then. And yet the futuristic threat remains. It is a myth worthy of the ancients: a great terror, encased in crumbling concrete, brought into the world by man, against which man has no adequate defence. We cannot send it back. The mistake cannot be undone. Thirty years later, whatever the damage, Chernobyl, and all that it represents, remains unfixed.

Read more at ‘We have a chance to show the truth’: into the heart of Chernobyl

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