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  • 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 either.

    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 blasts.

    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.