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Photos capture 3 decades of desolation since Chernobyl

Efrem Lukatsky
Associated Press

Kiev, UkraineEfrem Lukatsky, a Kiev-based photographer for The Associated Press, recalls the April 26, 1986, Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident and his efforts to document the aftermath.

In this file photo taken on Wednesday, March 19, 1996, five-year-old Alek Zhloba, who suffers from leukaemia, is held by his doctor in the children's cancer ward of the Gomel Regional Hospital, in Gomel, Belarus.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion was only about 65 miles from my home in Kiev, but I didn’t learn about it until the next morning from neighbor Natalia Finkel, a policeman’s wife.

There’s radioactive dust, she said; close all the windows and plug all the cracks. Later, my anxiety grew when I saw her husband Andrei taking off his clothes and putting them in a plastic bag before entering his apartment.

A friend, an Institute of Nuclear Physics engineer named Viktor Ivashchenko, called me a few days after the blast and urged more me to flee Kiev and never come back.

But I stayed, and went on to develop a photographic relationship with the ruined plant that lasts to this day.

Initially, only three Tass photographers were allowed in. I went myself a few months later, the first of dozens of trips, as a stringer for Ogonyok magazine.

I saw crews of soldiers and firemen hastily laboring to cover the destroyed reactor with a concrete and steel sarcophagus. They had no protection from the radioactive smoke and dust except for face masks that they tore off because of heat.

Photographer Efrem Lukatsky, wearing protective clothes to reduce the radiation impact, stands in front of the sarcophagus that covers destroyed reactor No.4 in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, in 1996 in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Lukatsky went to Chernobyl for the first time a few months after the disaster and has returned dozens of times.

I had no protection other than a gauze mask and a white medical-style coat and head covering, all provided by the plant, which also gave us a shower afterwards.

In all, some 600,000 people took part in the cleanup operations in the first five months of the work; in subsequent years, that group has registered a markedly higher rate of cancer than in the general population.

In 2000, after I had been hired by AP, I went to mark the closing of Chernobyl’s last operating reactor and got a look into the sarcophagus over the destroyed unit.

I put on two layers of thick white cotton clothes, rubber boots, a special hat and a helmet, padded jackets, gloves and a face mask.

My guide’s flashlight picked up the sparkle of dust slowly whirling around us. We tried not to take any deep breaths as we wove our way through dark, wreckage-strewn passages.

The shattered remains of the control room for Reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant are shown in a photo from Nov. 10, 2000.

We reached the old control room, long and poorly lighted, with its damaged machinery. This was the place where the Soviet engineers threw a power switch for a routine test on that doomed night, and two explosions followed.

We bent our heads to get through the dark, narrow labyrinth leading to the center of the sarcophagus. The walls were covered with lead plates intended to decrease radiation levels. There were piles of lead and boron powder dropped by helicopters to suppress the nuclear reaction.

My Geiger counter registered about 80,000 microroentgens an hour; normal background radiation is about 23 microroentgens an hour. It was time to leave.

The half-life of cesium-137, one of the most dangerous of the particles emitted by the explosion, is 30 years — as long as it has been since the blast.

At least three more of those half-lives will have to pass before the soil might be considered uncontaminated.

The catastrophe’s effects will outlive all of us who endured it.

In this photo taken on Wednesday, March 23, 2016, a crucifix and a radiation sign at the entrance to the out-of-bounds town Pripyat close to the Chernobyl nuclear power station are seen through a bus window.