The 1986 nuclear meltdown is not forgotten, in these photos of what the site is like today.

To some, the Chernobyl disaster was the product of faulty design and a dysfunctional Soviet system.

To others, it showed something more fundamental: the general unsafeness of nuclear power.

Now, after Fukushima, the debate is shifting: several countries, particularly in Europe, have scaled back their nuclear building plans.

In light of Fukushima, Chernobyl, which is in Ukraine, doesn't seem like an aberration of a dying regime, so much as something that can happen anywhere to anyone.

That's certainly how Gerd Ludwig, an LA-based photographer, sees it, anyway. He's been into the Exclusion Zone several times, and even inside the sarcophagus itself.

On several reporting trips for National Geographic, he's catalogued the contamination, cancer deformities, and ongoing administrative disorder (the site is still covered by its original containment dome, which is crumbling by the day).

"I'm not walking around with a button saying 'I'm against nuclear energy'. But what I've seen in Chernobyl is that we're really not capable of handling it at this point," he says.

Ludwig's book of photos, which he's campaigning for on Kickstarter, includes 111 images in all as well as CIA documents from the time, interviews with local people, and an essay by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev says Chernobyl was a more important factor in the fall of the Soviet bloc than Perestroika, his program of liberal reform.

And he agrees with Ludwig about the signal from Chernobyl for future energy. "The Chernobyl catastrophe reminds us that we should not forget the horrible lesson taught to the world in 1986," he says. "We should do everything in our power to make all nuclear facilities safe. We should also start to work seriously on the production of energy from alternative sources."

2014-03-20

Co.Exist

These Stunning Pictures Of Chernobyl Today Show Nuclear Energy's Potential For Destruction

A photographer takes us to the disaster site, with its ongoing contamination, cancer deformities, and administrative disorder. How do you feel about nuclear energy now?

How we remember historical events has a lot to do with how we make future decisions. Take the Chernobyl disaster. Everyone agrees that the 1986 nuclear meltdown was horrific, the worst in history. But the exact causes--and lessons--are still debated. To some, Chernobyl was the product of faulty design and a dysfunctional Soviet system. To others, it showed something more fundamental: the inherent unsafety of nuclear power.

Until the Fukushima nuclear disaster, which was the only other "level 7" episode on the International Nuclear Event Scale, a lot of people probably accepted the Soviet-bumbling version of history. There was a tendency to downplay nuclear's risk, especially as we need carbon-free energy to replace fossil fuels. Now, it seems governments aren't so sanguine: several countries, particularly in Europe, have scaled back their nuclear building plans. In light of Fukushima, Chernobyl, which is in Ukraine, doesn't seem like an aberration of a dying regime, so much as something that can happen anywhere to anyone.

That's certainly how Gerd Ludwig sees it, anyway. But he probably has more right to speak on the subject than most of us. The L.A.-based photographer has been into Chernobyl's Exclusion Zone several times, and even inside the sarcophagus itself. On several reporting trips for National Geographic, he's catalogued the contamination, cancer deformities, and ongoing administrative disorder (the site is still covered by its original containment dome, which is crumbling by the day). "I'm not walking around with a button saying 'I'm against nuclear energy.' But what I've seen in Chernobyl is that we're really not capable of handling it at this point," he says.

Ludwig's book of photos, which he's campaigning for on Kickstarter, includes 111 images in all as well as CIA documents from the time, interviews with local people, and an essay by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev says Chernobyl was a more important factor in the fall of the Soviet bloc than Perestroika, his program of liberal reform. And he agrees with Ludwig about the signal from Chernobyl for future energy. "The Chernobyl catastrophe reminds us that we should not forget the horrible lesson taught to the world in 1986," he says. "We should do everything in our power to make all nuclear facilities safe. We should also start to work seriously on the production of energy from alternative sources."

[Photos by Gerd Ludwig]

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4 Comments

  • Kathy Papava

    While nuclear energy has risks, our present use of coal and oil is far worse. The climate change, air and water pollution effects are staggering. Nuclear power might just be our kast best hope.

  • Shaikh Farhan

    Please fix your images slider. All the image descriptions are cut off. And the images don't even slide with the navigation arrows, or even with the physical <- and -> keys on the keyboard.

  • Thanks for taking the risks to highlight this area. I think sometimes it is "easy" to forget an event after a while and not appreciate the after effects will happen for another generation. There is a scheme here whereby kids from affected areas can come and stay for a few weeks. They get medical checks etc but also get clean air, go and see different things, try different things and have a break.

  • Hi Ben, interesting article. I just wanted to respond to your subtitle. Chernobyl and Fukushima are awful accidents and nothing can be said against that. The future is in alternative energies. Nevertheless just to give fuel for discussion, information accessible today seems to show that the danger and risk associated to the nuclear power source used today is much less dangerous for nature and human per mega watt even taking in account the handling of waste than the fossil sources.
    Fear is a powerful motivator and is changing some minds to go to a more green energy but sadly is pushing even more to revert to old and more pernicious (as few care of the impact as it was used for so long) power sources that induce higher damages and higher casualties. Looking forward to discussing this with you.