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Those who stayed in Chernobyl and Fukushima: An excerpt from the new TED Book brings you inside Control Room 4

Radioactive debris fills the inside of the destroyed Chernobyl Reactor 4. Workers almost never enter the unmaintained rooms where radiation levels remain highest. Small red, blue and green dots in this photo are traces of radiation hitting the camera. Photo: Sasha Kupny

In this strange and surreal image, a Chernobyl worker examines the radioactive debris that fills the inside of the destroyed Chernobyl Reactor 4. Workers almost never enter unmaintained rooms like this one, where radiation levels remain highest. The red, blue and green dots in this photo are traces of radiation hitting the camera. Photo: Sasha Kupny

In the new TED Book, Would You Stay?, photojournalist Michael Forster Rothbart travels to Chernobyl and Fukushima to try to understand why people refuse to leave these areas despite the risks. Pulling together stunning photos, moving words, recorded interviews and multimedia maps, Rothbart weaves a complex narrative and poses an even tougher question: If your hometown were the center of a disaster, would you leave?

As part of his research, Forster Rothbart goes along with a friend to see the Chernobyl plant for himself. Below, a short excerpt from the book that brings you inside Chernobyl’s infamous Control Room 4:

Planted among the rural farming villages east of the Chernobyl exclusion zone is the city of Slavutych. It’s a company town, housing most of today’s Chernobyl plant workers and their families.

My friend Sasha Kupny lives here. He looks like a mountain man — his bushy beard and Einstein hair are a sharp contrast to the buzz-cut, clean-shaven Ukrainian men around him. Sasha is the second in three generations of Chernobyl plant engineers. When his father retired, he was director of the object shelter. His son is now an entry-level safety engineer. Sasha works as a trainer for new nuclear personnel, but his passion is photography. And all week, he has been hinting about a secret photo he wants to show me.

Saturday morning I knock on Sasha’s apartment door. Right behind me arrives Sasha’s best friend, Sergii Koshelev. Sergii is an engineer and the Chernobyl plant’s official videographer.

“Years ago, workers used to sneak into the shelter object,” Sasha tells me.

My Russian is decent, but I doubt I heard correctly. “Snuck in? Isn’t it completely secure?”

“Of course it is secure. But workers have friends, and someone has the keys.”

Sasha pulls out a box from under the futon. He hands me a photo from a survey expedition to the central reactor hall. It shows an iron disk known as “Elena” and a figure standing beside it. This towering 20-ton disk once served as the lid of the reactor. The 1986 explosion threw it high in the air, and it landed on its side. The light is gloomy — one meter of solid concrete stands between the debris and the daylight outside.

Sergii plays a video. I see personnel climbing over radioactive rubble on the floor of the reactor hall. Several dosimeters beep constantly as they are bombarded with radioactive particles like an invisible shower. On the floor I see a nuclear fuel assembly, broken open, 18 fuel rods sticking out like stubby fingers. Just laying there for 23 years.

“Hurry up!” a voice calls out. “It’s reading 357 roentgen per hour right here!” By the end of a typical 15-minute expedition, the personnel received close to their daily dose limit of 1.0 millisieverts.

“Why go in?” I ask, and then they’re both talking at once and Sergii’s eyes glisten like a narcoman on speed. But when I ask, “What’s it feel like to be inside?” they fall silent.

“Have you ever climbed to the top of a mountain?” Sasha asks. “Know how it feels when you reach the peak and the whole world’s below you? You’ve gone as far as a human can go.”

“In there, in the dark, with the broken atoms flying around, it’s like seeing your own death,” Sergii tells me. “If I were religious, I’d say it’s like talking to God.”

Seeing Sergii’s video changed my mind about wanting to photograph inside the reactor hall. My definition of acceptable risk is broader than most, but I have limits. Nevertheless, when Sasha negotiates a chance for me to enter the “clean” maintained section of the shelter, I jump at it.

We leave Slavutych on the first morning train. We cross the Belorussian border twice, get our security clearances, and pass five different checkpoints. We put on our protective clothing — white Tyvek jumpsuits with matching skullcaps, masks, white boots, and orange helmets.

Some think I am crazy to go inside the Chernobyl plant, but the working areas have been cleaned regularly for two decades and are no longer dangerous. So my first flicker of fear comes only when we pause outside Control Room 4 to pull disposable rubber slippers over our protective boots. How puny we are, I think, in the face of such a monumental disaster. Here or anywhere, I wonder, why do we live our lives believing that we are safe from harm?

Inside, it is dark. One security light high above casts a small pool of light. We find and study the hole in the reactor control panel where the three big red emergency buttons used to be. (Yes, they really were red. Most of the buttons and controls were stripped long ago during decontamination.)

It’s a curious feeling to stand at the epicenter of a disaster. Here, in Chernobyl Control Room 4, things went wrong. Very wrong.

Early on a Saturday morning during the 41 seconds between 1:23:04 a.m. and 1:23:45 a.m., an operator desperately hit these buttons to insert all emergency shutdown rods back into the reactor. But it was too late.

The metal structures that remain don’t look real, more like a stage set, the house dark. The bridge from Star Trek. On the other hand, the room is not burnt out. I expected charred concrete and twisted metal. There is such debris at Chernobyl, but not here. Even though the exploded reactor is only 55 feet away, there’s a 10-foot wall of reinforced concrete protecting us.

The very course of world history changed here. The Cold War ended because of Chernobyl, some say. Even the Soviet Union itself ended because of Chernobyl: After the accident, people lost faith in their government, protests began, and the whole system crumbled. Like 9/11, Chernobyl marked the end of an era. Afterward, nothing looked the same. Will the same now be true in Japan?

Read much more, and see many more photos in the new TED Book, Would You Stay?, available for the Kindle or Nook, as well as through the iBookstore. Or download the TED Books app to get access to this title — and the entire TED Books archive — for the duration of your subscription. 

Below, some of Forster Rothbart’s stunning images that you’ll see in the book.

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In areas around Chernobyl, life goes on despite the risk. In Sukachi, 18-year-old cousins Yulya and Alina, and a friend, graduate this week from high school. Tonight, the class celebrates at their prom, with a grand banquet and dancing. After they graduate, will they stay? Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart

Ornithologist Igor Chizhevskiy holds a nestful of newly hatched chicks on a wooded hilltop above the Chernobyl cooling pond. Igor works for Ecocenter, a government research lab, in the exclusion zone. His research compares birth and survival rates of birds born in highly radioactive sites with those in less contaminated areas within the zone. The diminished populations in hotter areas could be caused by radiation directly or may be a secondary effect, due to a decrease in food sources such as insects.

Ornithologist Igor Chizhevskiy holds a nestful of newly hatched chicks on a wooded hilltop above the Chernobyl cooling pond. Igor works for Ecocenter, a government research lab, in the exclusion zone. His research compares birth and survival rates of birds born in highly radioactive sites with those in less contaminated areas within the zone. The diminished populations in hotter areas could be caused by radiation directly or may be a secondary effect, due to a decrease in food sources such as insects. Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart

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Fumiya Sekine, 6, and his mom, Kaori Sekine, play with his new pets, a pair of stag beetles. The family evacuated their village, 20 miles from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, due to high radiation levels after the meltdown. They’ve lived in a one-room temporary refugee apartment in Koriyama since June 2011. They have no idea how long they’ll stay. Photo: Michael Forster Rothbart