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Why This Man Keeps Visiting Chernobyl

A photographer shares lessons learned from the nuclear explosion

By Jeanne Dorin

Over more than 20 years, National Geographic photographer Gerd Ludwig took nine trips to Chernobyl, documenting the long-term impacts of the disaster in several magazine pieces. Ludwig, 66, ventured deeper into the belly of the beast than any western photographer, showing the destroyed reactor, the abandoned town of Pripyat and generations of victims, from babies to the aged, who are afflicted with birth defects and disease from spilled radiation.

In his new retrospective, The Long Shadow of Chernobyl, Ludwig vividly shows the long-term devastation wrought by the Chernobyl meltdown and brings up provocative questions about the use of nuclear power and government responsibility.

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Next Avenue talked to Ludwig about the lessons learned from Chernobyl. Here are his insights, observations and opinions.

"A Post-Apocalyptic World"

"When I first went to Chernobyl in 1993, I immediately had the feeling that I was walking into a post-apocalyptic world. From that time on, I knew I wanted to come back again. I visited several times in 1993 and 1994. But in 2005 when I was sent there on a story to be published on the 20th anniversary of the accident, with the fall of Ukraine — and National Geographic's reputation — I was able to venture deeper into the nuclear reactor."

When Soviet authorities finally ordered the evacuation, the residents’ hasty departure often meant leaving behind their most personal belongings. The Soviet Union only admitted to the world that an accident had occurred three days after the explosion, when the nuclear cloud reached Sweden and scientists there noticed contamination on their shoes before entering their own nuclear power plant.
Opachichi, Ukraine, 1993

© Gerd Ludwig/INSTITUTE

The High Cost of Nuclear Power

"Nuclear power, given its instability, is not all that cheap. Producers of nuclear power usually get a lot of support from government to produce it, but in the end, the government is responsible for the clean-up. The Chernobyl clean-up is estimated to cost $235 billion and almost 30 countries have been involved in paying for it. The New Safe Confinement that is now being built to cover the power plant costs $2 billion alone and is only good for the next 80 years. When I talked to scientists inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, they said we should put a fence around certain areas and the sign should read: 'Not meant for human habitation for 24,000 years.'"

An aerial view shows the hastily repaired western section.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine, 2005

© Gerd Ludwig/INSTITUTE

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Migrating Radiation

"Chernobyl contaminated most of Southern Belarus (a country bordered by the Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia), more than the Ukraine, because the cloud drifted northwesterly. The nuclear accident was actually first noticed in the west by Swedish scientists because when they went into their own nuclear reactor in Sweden, the alarms went off. They realized that their feet were contaminated from radiation outside. It was the radiation that had drifted through the air from Chernobyl."

With years of sorrow, loss, depression, and fear etched into their faces, Chernobyl invalids line up to register in Kiev. Their ‘degree of victimhood’ will determine the compensation awarded to them.
Kiev, Ukraine, 1993

© Gerd Ludwig/INSTITUTE

Cover-Up in the Name of "Calm"

"The government was trying to conceal Chernobyl to keep the population calm. A telex (which we have on the cover of our book) was the first time the western press was informed of the accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. This was two days after the accident had happened. Meanwhile, during that time, children were playing in the streets of Pripyat, a mile-and-a-half away from where the meltdown was."

Children’s Home No. 1: 70 handicapped children, ranging in age from just a few months to six years, live in this home.
Minsk, Belarus, 1993

© Gerd Ludwig/INSTITUTE


"When looking for afflicted children in an orphanage that received major contribution from international Chernobyl funds, I was greeted by government officials questioning what I was doing there. I told them I was looking for kids who had been directly or indirectly affected by the accident. They said no one could be considered a victim there. But when I told them that if that was the case, I then needed to report that this institution didn't qualify for support from Chernobyl funds, they changed their minds very quickly and directed me to kids whose parents had been exposed to the fallout. People are still concealing the extent of the aftermath. Privately, doctors told me the defects among the children were related to Chernobyl, but they were officially asked not to state that in print."

Trees grow in a Pripyat school abandoned 19 years earlier. Today, nature is slowly dismantling the city, thriving among the evacuated homes and buildings, and standing in stark contrast to the fear-plagued lives of the people who survived the world’s worst nuclear disaster to date.
Pripyat, Ukraine, 2005

© Gerd Ludwig/INSTITUTE

The Children of Chernobyl

"The children were the real victims. Even the adults who were afflicted by the accident, I saw in a certain way as collaborators because they often supported the great Soviet system. But the children were the real innocents, which is why I focused on them.


The contaminated control room of Unit #4, where the engineers caused the fatal meltdown that resulted in the world's largest nuclear accident to date. A radiation worker is monitoring the area.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Ukraine, 2005

© Gerd Ludwig/INSTITUTE

Technology and Hubris

"The book is meant to be a warning about human hubris. We have to realize that not everything that is technologically possible is also wise. We think we can create technology that is foolproof, but humans are needed to operate the systems and human failure is part of the equation in operating nuclear power."

Kharytina Desha, 92, is one of the few elderly people who have returned to their village homes inside the Exclusion Zone. Although surrounded by devastation and isolation, she prefers to die on her own soil.
Teremtsy, Ukraine, 2011

© Gerd Ludwig/INSTITUTE

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Living Amid the Devastation

"People are returning back home, ignoring the dangers from the contaminated soil. You have to understand that in the Soviet Union, there was little mobility — families stayed in the same villages for many generations. Several hundred elderly have returned illegally. They have decided that they want to live out their lives on their own contaminated soil, radiation be damned, instead of dying broken-hearted in an anonymous city. They live among the devastation, surrounded by hundreds of empty houses."

During a one-day visit to the Exclusion Zone, tourists only have a few minutes to snap photographs of themselves in front of the sarcophagus that encases the failed reactor # 4. Its western wall, leaky and unsound because it was hastily erected after the accident, has recently been stabilized. “This is as close as you can get, hurry up,” announces the tour guide. Radiation is still so high that he asks visitors to stay on the paved paths “as radiation is substantially higher on the grass.”
Pripyat, Ukraine, 2013

© Gerd Ludwig/INSTITUTE

Danger Looms

"One has to wonder, given the current situation and with the Ukraine being bankrupt, how will they proceed with the construction of the New Safe Confinement area in Chernobyl. This is an urgent necessity because the roof of the current reactor is in danger of collapsing. If that happens before the New Safe Confinement is in place, we will have a catastrophe of similar magnitude all over again."

Each year, at the anniversary of the disaster, shift workers in Chernobyl gather in a candle light vigil. For hundreds of years to come, the shadow of Chernobyl will continue to darken lives – socially, environmentally, and physically.
Chernobyl, Ukraine, 2005

© Gerd Ludwig/INSTITUTE

The Human Factor

"We can't control nuclear power. I consider myself a nuclear power skeptic. We should all be more careful with using our resources and not allow our hunger for energy to blind us to using technologies that we can't control. We end up putting the burden on future generations."

Jeanne Dorin is a Los Angeles-based writer who often covers health and wellness.

Jeanne Dorin is a Los Angeles-based writer who often covers health and wellness. Read More
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