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Sunday, April 17, 2011

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Radiant beauty: A warning sign 2 km west from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant warns the area is still contaminated. JUN NAKASUJI PHOTOS

WEEK 3

Capturing the eerie beauty of Chernobyl

Photographer Jun Nakasuji has now twice braved the danger zone


Staff writer

Pripyat, Ukraine, has been a ghost town for the last 25 years. On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant's No. 4 reactor experienced a sudden power surge resulting in several explosions and fires that sent a massive amount of nuclear debris into the air.

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A communist mural in a building in Pripyat, Ukraine, where plant workers once lived.

Thirty-six hours after the accident, the approximately 500,000 residents of Pripyat, many of whom worked for the power plant, were ordered to evacuate their homes and eventually told they could never return.

The accident killed two people instantly and a further 28 died of acute radiation in the three months that followed. One person died of cardiac arrest in connection with the incident. In a 2005 report titled "Chernobyl's Legacy," eight United Nations organizations (including the International Atomic Energy Agency) and the governments of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine estimated some 4,000 people could eventually die due to cancers caused by radiation exposure.

Although Pripyat lies within a 30-km radius surrounding the Chernobyl plant that is still off limits due to remaining traces of radiation, Tokyo-based photographer Jun Nakasuji received special permission from the Ukrainian government to go there and report from the area in October and November 2007 and May 2009. He then published a book titled "Haikyo Cherunobuiri" (Ruins of Chernobyl") in May 2008 and he will release the followup, "Cherunobuiri Haru" ("Chernobyl in Spring"), on April 22.

Both books feature photographs of abandoned homes and other buildings in the off-limits area, as well as reports in Japanese and English.

"When readers see the pictures, they will be able to realize (how much the residents have lost due to the disaster)." Nakasuji said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. "In Japan, I think about 80 percent of the Japanese populace has not been interested in the problems of nuclear power. However, I thought these pictures could show them what actually happened at Chernobyl."

On March 11, just 46 days before the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl incident, the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was hit by a massive earthquake and tsunami that caused problems at four of its six reactors. As a result, radiation released from the plant is threatening the lives of nearby residents and the environment of the surrounding area. On Tuesday, the government's nuclear watchdog raised its assessment of the severity of the crisis from 5 to 7 — the highest level under the international standard — putting it on a par with the Chernobyl disaster. However, Japan's nuclear watchdog said the severity of the Fukushima crisis is nowhere near the scale of Chernobyl's.

At the time of Chernobyl catastrophe, Soviet military helicopters dropped sand, boron and other materials on the reactor to extinguish the fire and shield against the radiation. In the case of the Fukushima plant, Nakasuji points out that Japan's Self Defense Forces took similar measures and used helicopters to drop water on the plant in an attempt to cool down overheating fuel rods.

"Human beings succeeded in gaining nuclear power by using highly developed technologies. But when that power gets out of control, people can only take simple and primitive measures to fix it. In terms of coping with a nuclear crisis, we have made no progress (over the last 25 years)," he said.

Within months after the Chernobyl disaster, a large concrete encasement referred to as the "sarcophagus" was hastily constructed to seal off the No. 4 reactor. However, that construction has been deteriorating over the past two decades according to the Chernobyl Shelter Fund, which was established by the European Union, the United States and the Ukraine, and is managed by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Inside the sarcophagus, more than 200 tons of uranium and close to a ton of radio-nuclides (which is a specific type of atom) exist, 80 percent of which are plutonium.

Funded by Chernobyl Shelter Fund, the Ukraine is currently constructing a new metal encasement in the shape of an arch at an off-site location, according to media reports. When the 108-meter-tall shelter is completed, it will be slid on rails over the existing cement sarcophagus. The Ukranian government has said the construction will cost €999 million (¥120.3 billion), according to Russian news agency Interfax. Nakasuji pointed out the enormous amount of energy and manpower required for the construction, and that it also risks the lives of construction workers.

"Given these conditions, apparently nuclear power is not at all friendly to the human beings or the environment," Nakasuji said. "And (people associated with the plant) will have to continue to maintain the shelter forever."

Nakasuji referred to the fact that not just the power plant but also the surrounding region has a number of contaminated areas of high-level radiation called "hot spots."

"In some areas (of the off-limit zone) I visited, the needle of my Geiger counter reached its maximum and eventually read 'error', " he said.

There is a contaminated area known as the "Red Forest," located 2 km west of the power plant, Nakasuji explained. The name came from eyewitness accounts that said the green pines of the forest turned red when they were exposed to radiation, which reached a level much higher than a fatal dose. The level is so high that even after the accident, workers constructed a road through the forest by piling up mounds of earth. That way, the road was much higher than the actual ground of the forest and allowed drivers to avoid radiation exposure, according to Nakasuji.

The forest was covered by lethal ash (radioactive fallout) billowing from the fire after the explosion of the reactor, Nakasuji said. He added that some dead trees still stood in the forest due to exposure to the radiation. In contrast to that scene, however, he said other areas surrounding Chernobyl were almost teeming with nature by the spring of 2009. Leafy green trees were growing high up the abandoned condominiums, flowers were blooming in the fields, and even families of wild boar were walking around.

"I took pictures of these spring scenes, which were tranquil but somewhat desolate, for the new book," the photographer said. "However, the resurgence of nature might be false."

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Poplars grow wild around abandoned apartments in Pripyat, located 3 km from the nuclear power plant (seen in the background).

Nakasuji points out that radioactive materials that were expelled from the No. 4 reactor included cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years. Thus it is likely that radiation has accumulated in the trees, flowers and could even be present in the area's wildlife. Thus, he is somewhat skeptical about the area's natural rebirth.

Nakasuji said that he hopes his pictures of Chernobyl will help people to figure out what judgements to make amid the current onslaught of information and speculation surrounding the Fukushima nuclear crisis. He added that if people were given the correct context they might not have panicked and stockpiled food, water and other goods.

While a huge amount of money has been spent on developing and constructing nuclear power plants in Japan, Nakasuji said it would cost less to install solar power panels on houses across the country. He also supports the development of wind, water and other renewable energy as an alternative to nuclear power.

"I hope this book brings the opportunity for people to rethink the fact that our everyday lives are dependent on electricity, which is provided by in part by nuclear power."

For more information of Nakasuji's books, call Futami Shobo Publishing Co. at (03) 3515-2313. Nakasuji is currently holding an exhibition titled "Chernobyl, the Revelation — Spring of Recovery" at Nikon Salon in Tokyo's Shinjuku till April 25. For more information, call (03) 3344-0565


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