30 years after Chernobyl and 5 years after Fukushima, the towns ruined forever by nuclear.
A crucifix at the entrance of Pripyat. The town is now a guarded area and entry is via checkpoint. The crucifix is a homage to those who perished and those who were forced to leave.
Pripyat in northern Ukraine was a young and promising town. Established in 1970 it had all the markers of a great place to raise a family by Soviet standards - schools, recreation center, swimming pool, hospital and gainful employment at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
There was even an amusement park that was due to open. Already a ferris wheel, bumper cars, and merry go round were in place causing a giddy feeling of anticipation for the thousands of children and families.
But on 26 April 1986 disaster struck, and in the following days the entire city of about 50,000 was evacuated.
The ferris wheel at the Pripyat Amusement Park.
Fast-forward 25 years and to the other side of the world is the town of Namie in Fukushima Prefecture, Japan. With a population of almost 20,000 its economy was dependent on commercial fishing, agriculture and food processing.
On March 11 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake followed by a tsunami rocked the entire prefecture, causing the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Three reactors at the power plant, owned by Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) went into meltdown, contaminating everything within at least a 20km radius and beyond.
Like Pripyat, Namie was immediately abandoned. It was just 5-15 km north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
An abandoned convenience store in Namie and Japan’s famed vending machines with sake and other products, blocked off by tape.
The lives of the people living in those towns, and all around Chernobyl and Fukushima, have been changed forever. Both of these nuclear accidents have put populations at both physical and mental harm, permanently displaced large populations, torn apart community relationships, and left survivors stressed by their chronic exposure to radiation.
A sign reads ‘Pray for recovery’ at the Kunitama shrine, in the district of Namie.
Decontamination efforts have yielded fruitless results. Almost 30 years after the Chernobyl accident, 10,000 square kilometres are still unusable and 5 million people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia still live in contaminated areas. Similarly, tests by Greenpeace Japan show that radiation in the restricted areas of Fukushima is still high. Decontamination doesn’t get rid of radioactive contamination; it simply moves it to another location and community.
A Greenpeace Japan radiation specialist investigates radioactive contamination at a farm in the district of Namie (Feb 2016)
Greenpeace Russia takes samples of mushrooms and berries in a forest in the Bryansk region, Russia (Sept 2015)
A nuclear disaster is a disaster that never ends. That’s why, on these two significant anniversaries, Greenpeace have released Nuclear Scars: The Lasting Legacies of Chernobyl and Fukushima. This report tells the story of the nuclear victims. It describes how contamination touches every aspect of their lives – it’s in what they eat and what they drink, in the wood they use for construction and burn to keep warm. Every day they must make decisions on how to limit their exposure to radiation. This contamination will be with them for decades to come, and so will the related impacts on their health.
Pripyat has become a canvas for haunting graffiti like this one, to symbolise the ghost town and the lost souls.
Aerial view of Pripyat. In the distance is the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, about 2-3km away.
Can a nuclear disaster like this ever happen again? In countries like the United States, South Korea and France, it is a real possibility and these images and the report show what the consequences are.
Iitate district, northwest of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, was heavily contaminated by the March 2011 accident. Here, bags of radioactive waste pile up nearby abandoned homes (July 2015).
Greenpeace Japan documents the on going radioactive decontamination work in Iitate district, Japan. Despite tests showing the area is still uninhabitable, the Abe government is forcing people to return.
There is no “cure” for nuclear. Thirty years later and Chernobyl victims are still suffering: death rates are higher, birth rates are lower, incidence of cancer has increased and mental health effects are widespread. In Fukushima, a rise in thyroid cancer incidences amongst children has been observed, and almost a third of mothers living close to the damaged reactors show symptoms of depression.
Authorities in Japan and around Chernobyl have a responsibility to involve impacted people in decisions on their personal safety and survivors should be compensated for losses to their livelihood, property and for impacts on mental health.
For countries that opt to keep nuclear power they need to have emergency plans in place to address large-scale radiation releases like Fukushima or Chernobyl. Or better yet, find alternatives and invest in renewables.
The world does not need another incident like Fukushima or Chernobyl. This nuclear nightmare must end.
Rashid Alimov is a Senior Nuclear Campaigner with Greenpeace Russia.