“Half-Lives”: Chernobyl’s Nuclear Legacy

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The word “Chernobyl” strikes a very particular, fearful chord. The Ukrainian power plant was the site of the world’s worst nuclear reactor accident, back in on April 26, 1986.

Viktor Koshevoi, then the plant’s chief engineer and part of the liquidation (read: “cleanup”) team, was there. Photojournalist and multimedia producer Maisie Crow interviewed him and many others for the above Virginia Quarterly Review piece that chronicles what happened to the people who lived near and worked at the plant.

The film tells the story of Pripyat, a city of 50,000 that was forced to evacuate 36 hours after the disaster. Its residents were transplanted to the newly created city of Slavutych, which was essentially carved out of a forest. Many people who live there still work at Chernobyl, disassembling the plant, which was in operation until 2000.

Dmitri Stelmakh is one of them. He’s the head of strategic planning at Chernobyl, and is a second generation employee. Stelhakh predicts that the plant will be successfully decomissioned in the year 2064.

And then what? In a city created entirely for the displaced to work at the place that displaced them, what happens when that place no longer exists?

“We have no future for our children after they graduate from school,” says Chernobyl liquidator Lubov Nikolaevna. “Radiation isn’t scary to those who work at the plant. … And the people who live in Slavutych aren’t afraid of it either. They are tired of being afraid, that is why they are not afraid. They are afraid of that the city of Sluvatych will be shut down. That it will be a second Pripyat.”

FRONTLINE is dedicating two films this winter to nuclear power and what happened at Fukushima. The first, broadcast a few weeks ago, is Nuclear Aftershocks, which examines the global debate about this type of energy generation. Stay tuned for Inside Japan’s Nuclear Meltdown, airing Feb. 28, which chronicles what exactly happened during that fateful few weeks last March.

Also, watch last July’s The Atomic Artists, which explores how one Japanese art collective is challenging how its country thinks about nuclear. FRONTLINE partnered with PRI’s The World for the project, and reporter Marco Werman has much more about those forced to evacuate.

Lastly, for a rare glimpse into the lives of Japan’s “liquidators,” check out Vanity Fair’s “Heroes of the Hot Zone,” with accompanying photographs by the great James Nachtwey.

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