Life inside Chernobyl, one of the most polluted places on earth

Life inside Chernobyl, one of the most polluted places on earth

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Nearly 30 years after an accidental nuclear explosion reduced Chernobyl to rubble, Emma Thomson discovers the reality of life—and radiation—in this remote Ukrainian region as it begins to come alive again.

Ivan’s back is bowed as if the falling snow, gathering on his threadbare coat and Cossack fur hat, were leaden. He leans on his branch-whittled walking stick, trying to load splintered firewood onto a small sleigh. He’ll need it. Evening is falling and the mercury already reads -17° Celsius (1.4° Fahrenheit).

Eighty-two-year-old Ivan Semenyuk is a samosely, a self-settler; someone who refused to leave or returned the year after the 1986 nuclear disaster. He lives inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the 18-mile radius set up after reactor number four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant overheated, surged out of control, and generated an explosion the equivalent of 500 nuclear bombs on April 26, 1986. Situated 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev, it’s touted as one of the most polluted places on Earth.

Sitting in his sparse living room, Ivan recounts the events of that night. “We could hear the glass shaking in the window frames before the explosion,” he says. “We asked what it was, but were told they were just cleaning the chimneys. In the morning, we were told it exploded, but I wasn’t scared. We went in my neighbor’s car to get a closer look and saw the fires. I remember them handing out lots of alcohol to guard against the radiation.”

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Indeed, it took 36 hours before the first buses turned up to evacuate residents of Pripyat, the town closest to the reactor. People were told to take only necessities because they could come back in three days. “I wouldn’t have left,” admits Ivan, “but on May 6, the army forced us out with guns.”

It would be another eight days—a full two and a half weeks after the event—before President Gorbachev admitted to the world’s worst nuclear disaster on the national news.

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April 16, 2018 at 01:34PM

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