Chernobyl at 30: Perilous Still

In the 30 years since the world's worst nuclear disaster, Chernobyl has become a symbol of hubris and its toxic discontents.
Chernobyl at 30: Perilous Still Alexander Nazaryan for Newsweek

Exactly 30 years ago, there was an explosion in the Ukrainian countryside north of Kiev. In the nearby town of Pripyat, about 49,000 people slept. They lived here, in the thick forest on the Belarusian border, because they had been lured by jobs at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Most people believed that working and living near a nuclear reactor was safe. Soviet officials had assured them that nothing could go wrong at Chernobyl. It was all a simple matter of smashing atoms and boiling water.

We now know otherwise. In the 30 years since the meltdown of Reactor No. 4, Chernobyl has become a symbol of hubris and its toxic discontents. The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island seven years earlier never became a catastrophe on the level of Chernobyl. Fukushima, crippled by a tsunami in 2011, was arguably the worst nuclear disaster of all. And yet Chernobyl remains the one-word cautionary tale uttered by those convinced that nuclear power is an inherent danger.

I visited the site two years ago and found a strange mix of ruin, nature and industry (a slideshow of photographs is above). The Exclusion Zone is almost entirely abandoned, which has curiously turned the nuclear wasteland into a natural refuge. At the same time, hundreds of workers are toiling to create a new enclosure for the ruined reactor, a multibillion-dollar project imperiled by Ukraine's conflict with Russia.

The 30th anniversary of Chernobyl comes as the world's most powerful nations acknowledge, however reluctantly, that they must curb their use of fossil fuels. One way to do so is to build more nuclear plants, which provide cheap, clean electricity. Yet most nations, including the United States, are reluctant to invest in the expansion of nuclear fission plants. The reasons are many, but they eventually distill to a single word: Chernobyl.

In some parts of the Exclusion Zone around Chernobyl, the radioactivity is hardly above normal. In others, your Geiger counter goes wild. Alexander Nazaryan for Newsweek