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April 26, 2020

20 Haunting Images by Russian Photographer Showing the True Scale of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

Igor Kostin (1936–2015) was one of the five photographers in the world to take pictures of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster near Pripyat in Ukraine, on April 26, 1986. He was working for Novosti Press Agency (APN) as a photographer in Kiev, Ukraine, when he represented Novosti to cover the nuclear accident in Chernobyl. Kostin’s aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was widely published around the world, showing the extent of the devastation, and triggering fear throughout the world of radioactivity contamination the accident caused, when the Soviet media was working to censor information regarding the accident, releasing limited information regarding the accident on 28 April 1986, until the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991.

Within hours of the explosion on April 26, 1986, comrade Kostin knew he witnessed an event that would be engraved in history books. He was right. Reactor #4 at the V. I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant near Chernobyl exploded, releasing 400 times more radioactive matter than the bombing of Hiroshima. He was a skilled photographer and dedicated to his work. His professionalism and unbreakable will have made him immortal. At the very least, his photography will remain for centuries to come.

On the late evening of 26 April 1986 a helicopter pilot whom he worked closely with for his journalistic activities alerted him that there had been a fire at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl. The fire had been extinguished by the time they arrived at Chernobyl via helicopter, and witnessed a war-like scramble of military vehicles and power plant personnel down at the scene of the nuclear power plant. He also experienced an odd feeling combined with high temperature and toxic smog, that was unusual for an accident scene. The motor of his cameras began to exhibit symptoms of radioactive-caused degradation after around 20 shots. The helicopter returned to Kiev after the cameras’ failure.

Kostin managed to develop the films, only to realize that all but one was unsalvageable - most of the films were affected by the high level of radiation, that caused the photographs to appear entirely black, resembling a film that was exposed to light pre-maturely. Kostin’s only photograph of the nuclear power plant was sent to Novosti in Moscow, but he did not receive a permit to publish it until May 5, 1986. His visit to Chernobyl was illegal and not sanctioned by the authorities. Pravda published limited information about the accident on April 29, 1986, but did not publish Kostin’s photographs.

This is the first photograph ever taken of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the only photo that survives from the morning of the accident. Igor Kostin was a photographer from Kiev who became world famous for his images of the the clean-up operation. The image is very noisy because the radiation was destroying the film in his camera. Of all the shots he took on that flight, this is the only one that wasn’t ruined.

The accident was interpreted as a major catastrophe by the global news media, even when the Ukrainian and Soviet authorities were trying to suppress any news regarding the accident. Kostin later received permits as one of the representative of the five accredited Soviet media to cover the accident site and the Zone of Alienation. On May 5, 1986 he ventured into the rubbles of the Chernobyl nuclear plant site and Reactor 4 along with the liquidators.

It was then that he covered the mass exodus of inhabitants of Pripyat and 30 km zone surrounding the nuclear power plant, before the 1 May Labour Day celebration. Dozens had died from the accident, mostly workers at the nuclear power plant.

Kostin died in Kiev in 2015 at the age of 78 in a car accident.

Liquidators clean the roof of the No. 3 reactor. At first, workers tried clearing the radioactive debris from the roof using West German, Japanese, and Russian robots, but the machines could not cope with the extreme radiation levels so authorities decided to use humans. In some areas, workers could not stay any longer than 40 seconds before the radiation they received reached the maximum authorized dose a human being should receive in his entire life.

The majority of the liquidators were reservists ages 35 to 40 who were called up to assist with the cleanup operations or those currently in military service in chemical-protection units. The army did not have adequate uniforms adapted for use in radioactive conditions, so those enlisted to carry out work on the roof and in other highly toxic zones were obliged to cobble together their own clothing, made from lead sheets and measuring two to four millimeters thick. The sheets were cut to size to make aprons to be worn under cotton work wear, and were designed to cover the body in front and behind, especially to protect the spine and bone marrow.

Liquidators clear radioactive debris from the roof of the No. 4 reactor, throwing it to the ground where it will later be covered by the sarcophagus. These “biological robots” have only seconds to work—time to place themselves by a pile of debris, lift a shovel load, and throw it among the ruins of reactor No. 4.

A team of human liquidators prepares to clear radioactive debris off the roof of the No. 4 reactor.

A liquidator, outfitted with handmade lead shielding on his head, works to clean the roof of reactor No. 3.

The remains of the No. 4 reactor, photographed from the roof of reactor No. 3.

A bulldozer digs a large trench in front of a house before burying the building and covering it with earth. This method was applied to entire villages that were contaminated after the Chernobyl disaster.

Following orders issued by Soviet authorities to mark the end of cleanup operations on the roof of the No. 3 reactor, three men were requested to post a red flag atop the chimney overlooking the destroyed reactor, reached by climbing 78 meters up a spiral staircase. The flag bearers were sent despite the dangers posed by heavy radiation, and after a group of liquidators had already made two failed attempts by helicopter. The radiation expert Alexander Yourtchenko carried the pole, followed by Valéri Starodoumov with the flag, and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Sotnikov with the radio. The whole operation was timed to last only 9 minutes, given the high radiation levels. At the end, the trio were rewarded with a bottle of Pepsi (a luxury in 1986) and a day off.

A helicopter decontaminates the disaster site on May 5, 1986. After the explosion, the nuclear power station was covered in radioactive dust. Aircraft and helicopters flew over the site, spraying sticky decontamination fluid that fixed the radiation to the ground. Workers known as 'liquidators' then rolled the dried remains like a carpet and buried the nuclear waste.

At Moscow’s No. 6 clinic, which specializes in radiation treatment, a patient recovers after a bone-marrow operation. A doctor examines the patient in a sterile room. The examination is carried out in an individual, air-conditioned chamber via specially created openings to avoid direct contact and contamination.

May 1986: In the 30km no-go zone around the reactor, liquidators measure radiation levels in neighboring fields using antiquated radiation counters, wearing anti-chemical warfare suits that offer no protection against radioactivity, and “pig muzzle” masks. The young plants will not be harvested, instead used by scientists to study genetic mutations in plants.

After the evacuation of Chernobyl on 5 May, 1986, liquidators wash the radioactive dust off the streets using a product called “bourda”, meaning molasses. Chernobyl had about 15,000 inhabitants before the accident.

Dead fish are collected by an artificial lake within the Chernobyl site that was used to cool the turbines, June 1986. The fish, which died from exposure to radiation, are abnormally large and flabby. They jumped out of the lake where they could be picked up by the bare hands of any passerby.

The majority of liquidators were men called up from military reserves because of their experience in clean-up operations or chemical protection units in the summer of 1986. The army did not have adequate uniforms for use in radioactive conditions, so those enlisted had to cobble together their own clothing made from lead sheets measuring 2-4mm thick. These sheets were cut to size to make aprons covering their bodies in front and behind, especially to protect the spine and bone marrow. “The clever ones also added a vine leaf for extra comfort,” said Kostin.

To mark the end of the clean-up operation atop reactor 3, the authorities ordered three men to attach a red flag to the summit of the chimney. A group of liquidators had already made two fruitless attempts by helicopter, so the three men had to climb the 78 metre chimney via a spiral staircase, despite the dangerous radiation levels. Radiation expert Alexander Yourtchenko carried the pole, followed by Valéri Starodoumov with the flag, while lieutenant-colonel Alexander Sotnikov ascended with the radio. The whole operation was timed to last only 9 minutes given the high radiation levels. At then end, the trio were rewarded with a bottle of Pepsi (a luxury in 1986) and a day off.

In a specialist radiation unit in Moscow, a liquidator is examined by a doctor in a sterile, air-conditioned room after an operation, January 1987.

The village of Kopachi is buried, house by house in August 1987. It was located 7km from the Chernobyl reactor that housed the control room and decontamination area in the months after the disaster. A bulldozer would dig a large trench in front of each house before burying the building and covering it with earth and flattening the soil. Entire villages would be buried this way..

1988: Relatives attend the funeral of radiation expert Alexander Goureïev, one of the liquidators who cleared the roof of reactor 3. These experts were often referred to as “roof cats”. Goureïev died as a result of contracting a radiation-related illness.

Kostin discovered this deformed child in a special school for abandoned children in Belarus, 1988. The photo was published in the local Belarus press and the boy nicknamed ‘the Chernobyl Child’. It was then subsequently printed in German magazine Stern and became a world-famous image. The child was adopted by a British family, underwent several operations and is now living a relatively normal life

(Photos by Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty)

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