Associated Press photographer Sergey Ponomarev spent five days
documenting life inside the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power
plant in April 2006 and June 2011. In April 2011, as the 25th anniversary of
Chernobyl approached, he photographed life in the city of Futaba, in the
evacuation zone around Japan's crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.
Twenty five years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the 30-kilometer
zone around the nuclear plant has become a well-explored territory. Guides take
you through the nearest town, Pripyat, and they know exactly where to go _ and
more importantly _ where not to.
They warn: Take pictures of the Orange Forest, where tons of dumped
radioactive dust still emit killing doses of radiation, from a safe distance.
If you see a parking lot full of helicopters and firefighting vehicles used to
extinguish the reactor, don't get near. But it's fine to walk right up to
the fence of The Sarcophagus, the reactor tomb with its concrete walls and
roof, and its towering exhaust stack.
Pripyat is something Futaba, where Japan's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant is
located, will turn into in another 25 years. It looks as if its residents
have just disappeared, but could come back any moment. But after seeing the
desolate Pripyat, one understands that people will never return to Futaba
In Futaba you are on your own. Each step takes you onto an uncharted
ground. There are no guides. It is a ghost town. Nobody knows the highly
radioactive spots, and every step around the corner can inflict harm on you _
perhaps, in years or decades from now. Radiation is something you can't sense.
The sun is shining and the wind is blowing just like everywhere else, and only
the beeping of your Geiger meter tells you that something is wrong here.
Unlike Pripyat, an urban wilderness with trees growing through cracked asphalt,
Futaba and its environs are a fresh wound. The Fukushima plant is still
unstable. It's a crisis still unfolding.
Back in April, Futaba's only inhabitants were emergency police, in
anti-radiation gear, working under the constant threat of radioactivity and
another explosion _ two buildings have already been destroyed by hydrogen
The only others who lingered on were a handful of the oldest locals.
Here, you understand that Japan _ more than virtually any other country in the
world _ is a nation of old people. Here, too, aged farmers have been reluctant
to leave. And they can’t leave any longer _ after more than a month after the
March 11 earthquake and tsunami that caused the meltdown, the evacuation zone
has been sealed.
Stray dogs and some cats in both cities remind you that people _ average
people _ used to live here. Pripyat has become a magnet for thrill-seekers and
artists, including the mysterious Banksy. Graffiti, often elaborate and
creative, cover walls throughout the town. In one, a little girl painted on a
wall tries to reach a real elevator button. Some artists rearranged toys in a
kindergarten to make them look like they are playing with each other _ without
humans. In another kindergarten, you can find a doll with a gas mask covering
its face. Painted shadows make one reminisce about of children, dancing, tears.
Futaba is still virgin to artists and adrenalin-seeking tourists. But
for how long?
The world will remember Chernobyl and Fukushima as words _ symbols _ synonymous
with nuclear disaster. Pripyat and Futaba are their faces _ the faces that are
no longer there.