Review: The Long Shadow Of Chernobyl

Chernobyl power plan's control Room (Gerd Ludwig)

Though we try to keep a very positive focus here, PlanetSave isn’t just a blog about the wonders of the natural world and the glory of Mankind’s inventions. It also offers knowledge and a caution about our failures as individuals and as a species. We’ve all made mistakes before, big and small. By acknowledging anthropogenic problems and exploring creative solutions, humans nurture both personal growth and species survival. In doing so, we often exceed what we initially considered our own limitations.

In this spirit—the agony and hope of the Millennial generation (but not its exclusive province: older lifeforms are also capable of a progressive outlook)—PlanetSave brings you graphic evidence of one spectacular failure that unfortunately will keep us informed for millennia to come. It comes from the disaster at Chernobyl—Чорнобильська катастрофа, in Ukrainian.

On April 6, 1986, at the then peaceful Soviet nuclear power plant near Kiev, Ukraine, an explosion and fire suddenly released radiation into the atmosphere, creating a kill zone (euphemistically dubbed “exclusion zone”) many hundreds of square miles around. Spreading globally through the atmosphere, the radiation had its greatest effects on the western Soviet Union and in Europe. So far, the Level 7 meltdown qualifies as one of only two maximum-strength deadly wounds we have dealt ourselves. The other is the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi holocaust.

An unusual power surge 25 years ago initiated emergency measures at Chernobyl that appear to have caused an exponentially larger surge. This lightning bolt broke open a reactor vessel and caused sequential steam explosions. Three hundred fifty thousand people were evacuated. Belarus got the lion’s share of the fallout. Although only 31 people died in the blast, hundreds have perished since, and many thousands will succumb prematurely from radiation-induced cancers and leukemia. Over half a million local humans have worked on decontamination and cleanup. In monetary terms, Chernobyl has cost civilization around $500 billion to date.

Women watch the Chernobyl power plant meltdown (Gerd Ludwig)

Gerd Ludwig, an L.A.-based photographer, reported for National Geographic several times from the nuclear station’s sarcophagus and surrounding chambers of horror. He recently revisited the locale for the 25th anniversary of the event. Ludwig shows a few of his photos, past and present, in a short YouTube video. It’s also available as an iPod app.

Graphically, their shock value resembles the calm but ghastly literary depiction, by then-young reporter John McPhee, of events immediately following the American detonation of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Ludwig spoke with Ben Schiller of Co.EXIST:

“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.”

Ludwig wants to share 111 searing photographs of the disaster with us. He started a modest ($20K) Kickstarter campaign (still running) to enable their wide distribution in a book to be called The Long Shadow of Chernobyl.

“This kind of quality book is expensive to produce, and these days, photo book publishing is often only possible if the printing costs are paid for in advance. Your support will ensure that this book is printed to the highest standards, using quality paper, ink, and binding. This is why I am reaching out to the Kickstarter community.

I want this photo book to stand as a complete document of this man-made disaster—to remember the countless victims of Chernobyl, and to warn future generations of the deadly consequences of human hubris.”

Gerd Ludwig's The Long Shadow of Chernobyl

The project (noted in Slate) has achieved its initial goal and will be funded on Sunday at 11:37 a.m. CDT. Pledges are still available. Any more funding can only improve the clarity and drama of Ludwig’s photographs, enhance production values, and acknowledge the author/photographer’s riskiest of efforts. In my opinion, they deserve it. Edition Lammerhuber in Vienna, Austria, will publish a trilingual large-format slipcased hardcover from the photographs and associated material.

An interesting comment included in the work comes from an essay by Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev said:

“The Chernobyl catastrophe reminds us that we should not forget the horrible lesson taught to the world in 1986. 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.”

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