If you worked at Chernobyl, would you stay?
To the world, Chernobyl seems a place of danger, but for locals, Chernobyl is simply a fact of life.
On April 26, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant changed history, sending radiation and political shockwaves across Europe. Radioactive fallout contaminated 56,700 square miles of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, a region the size of New York state.
In the popular imagination, the Chernobyl region is a wasteland—forsaken, hazardous and inaccessible. And yet, a generation later, life continues in these radiation-affected areas. Six million people still reside here.
The contaminated region is divided into four zones based on amount of radiation. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone with highest contamination is officially uninhabited. In truth, over 2,000 elderly villagers illegally resettled their homes and farms inside the Zone. Today nearly 400 remain. More than 3,000 workers manage the Zone, living in Chernobyl town during 4-day and 15-day shifts. Another 3,800 personnel commute daily to work at the Chernobyl plant from their new home in Slavutych.
After the accident, 188 nearby towns and villages were evacuated. Many were bulldozed. Some were simply abandoned. Beyond the Exclusion Zone are three further zones where radiation fell but evacuation was not mandatory. In Ukraine, this included 2,293 villages. The accident and indirect consequences continue to affect these residents physically, economically, socially and psychologically. Some overcome these difficulties; others surrender to them.
How much radiation is safe? No one knows. Comprehensive medical research has never been done to determine the health effects of long-term radiation exposure. In the absence of facts, people believe rumors, propaganda, and their own first-hand experiences.
Why do people stay? A lack of alternatives. A sense of duty. Deep ties to the land. Decent jobs. Because this is home.
The closer you are to Chernobyl, the less dangerous it seems. Instead of radiation, Chernobylites today have new fears. They worry about their future. Keeping their jobs. Opportunities for their children. Maintaining their hometowns.If you lived here, would you stay?
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Photojournalist Michael Forster Rothbart's work explores the human impacts of environmental change. His projects have taken him to Bhopal, India, the Semey Polygon nuclear testing site in Kazakhstan, oilfields in Azerbaijan, and the Canadian Arctic. A Fulbright Fellowship enabled him to spend two years in Chernobyl, photographing and interviewing those who remain a generation after the 1986 accident. He lived in Sukachi, Ukraine, a small farming village just outside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Forster Rothbart recently started a new project, Fracking Pennsylvania, documenting the effects of natural gas drilling on rural communities. Previously, he was a staff photographer for the University of Wisconsin and an Associated Press photographer in Central Asia. He now lives in upstate New York and photographs for magazines, newspapers and educational institutions.
See more of Michael's work at www.mfrphoto.photoshelter.com.