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Marblehead photographer tours Chernobyl, 25 years later

Posted by Caitlin Rung  April 26, 2011 08:50 AM

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Hammer & Sickle.jpg

Peter Morris photos

The Soviet hammer and sickle symbol still stands in Pripyat, 25 years later.

In the early hours of April 26, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused unprecedented quantities of radioactive material to leak into the atmosphere, contaminating much of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. To this day, Chernobyl is considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history. Take a look at the photo gallery.

This April, 25 years later, Marblehead-based photographer Peter Morris traveled to the Ukraine to visit Chernobyl and document what he found there.

“I was really curious as to what had happened to it over the years,” Morris said. “Chernobyl actually bankrupted the Soviet Union and I was curious as to how they were going to present it.”

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In preparation for their May Day celebration, bumper cars and a Ferris Wheel were brought into Pripyat. Neither were ever used.

Morris also visited Pripyat, the town built to house the 50,000 people required to build and run Chernobyl’s six nuclear power plants, which is now completely deserted. The people of Pripyat watched the effects of the explosion and provided the fire service to contain the immediate effects. Two days later, Pripyat was evacuated. Part of the evacuation notice the people received states, “make sure you have turned the lights, electrical equipment and water off and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.”
The short term evacuation is now in its 25th year, though some of the people were allowed to return and collect more personal effects.  According to Morris, the insides of buildings were completely ransacked and anything of value had been taken. Sinks had been ripped off the walls and the copper piping was removed. The floors of buildings were covered in debris, gas masks, and forgotten items.   

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In an empty building in Pripyat, a cash register stands on a ground littered with gas masks.

After the disaster, many towns and villages were declared uninhabited and more than 350,000 were evacuated.  

“In the Chernobyl museum in Kiev, you go up the stairs and see all these names,” Morris said. “At the top you turn around and each name has a red band across. I counted 22 places that exist in name but not population.”

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In the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, Ukraine, crossed out signs list the ghost towns that were left completely deserted following the disaster.

The cleanup and displacement of people cost the Soviet Union approximately $645 million and devastated its economy. Morris saw firsthand the destruction the disaster caused, from the crumbling buildings to the complete ruin of the surrounding vegetation.

“All of the trees had only 20 years of growth,” Morris said. “The area was completely leveled.”

Although no one is sure how many deaths are attributed to the radiation from Chernobyl, 31 of the workers at the power plant died during the explosion. Chernobyl ranks as a Level 7 event, the highest level, on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The only other disaster to rank as a Level 7 is the Fukushima 1 Nuclear Incident that took place in Japan after an earthquake on March 11, 2011, according to the Japanese government's Nuclear Safety Agency.

At Chernobyl, portions of the contaminated ground are still highly dangerous and anyone who visits there must adhere to certain guidelines and remain within areas designated by signs. When Morris was at the site, a guide, who was placed with Morris for the trip, told him what areas were off limits. Morris’s radiation levels also were measured before and after walking the grounds at Chernobyl.

In the 25 years since the disaster, all working reactors on site have been shut down and Ukrainian authorities, along with The International Atomic Energy Agency, monitor radiation levels.


The protective sarcophagus placed over the reactor at Chernobyl is now 25 years old and is in need of replacing. A new sarcophagus would cost the Ukraine $1.2 billion.

On April 20, 2011, the director general of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, visited Chernobyl with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. During his visit, Amano stressed the importance of maintaining a safe operation while using nuclear power, to prevent other disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima.

In a statement he made at a conference in Kiev, Ukraine, Amano said, “The crisis at Fukushima Daiichi is still continuing. This latest accident demonstrates that, despite the great progress made in the last 25 years, more needs to be done to ensure that a "Safety First" approach becomes fully entrenched among nuclear power plant operators, governments and regulators.”

Amano seemed hopeful while speaking to Ukrainian authorities that strides can be made to keep nuclear power a safe energy source and avert any future disasters. 

“Safety First is the watchword that must underpin all of our work in the future, even more than in the past.” Amano said. “I ask all of you to give your unstinting support to the IAEA to help ensure that accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi never happen again.”

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