The world's worst nuclear accident occurred 25 years ago at Chernobyl. While some Ukrainians have built a business out of the exclusion zone around the plant, others can't forget how the disaster shaped their lives.
It was a day like any other for Nikolai Isayev. On Saturday, April 26, 1986 he went to the bus stop, where workers at the Chernobyl nuclear plant gathered to be taken to work. However, during the short ride, he saw people with machine guns everywhere and sensed danger. "At the plant we were told that roof panels had been blown off due to steam and that we could work without worrying," he said.
Today, Nikolai Isayev is 56 years old. At the time of the accident he was working as an engineer for heat energy at the Chernobyl plant and lived with his wife and children in the city of Pripyat close to the reactor. The city was evacuated a day after the accident. Nowadays, Pripyat still remains a ghost town with high radiation levels inside the exclusion zone of Chernobyl, which spans around the plant in two sections of 10 and 30 kilometers (six and 18 miles).
Nikolai Isayev helped decontaminate the plant and is paying the price today
The engineer was one of several hundreds of thousands so called liquidators who helped decontaminate the plant and build a containment structure around the affected reactor number 4. Most of the workers were soldiers and reservists.
'Raised to sacrifice our lives'
On that fateful Saturday, Nikolai Isayev remained at work until the end of the shift like all his colleagues. "We were raised in the Soviet Union and had been prepared to sacrifice our lives for our country at any moment, if necessary," he said.
There was certainly enough for them to do for many years to come: The three other reactors were reactivated soon after the disaster. The last one was only shut down in late December 2000.
The nearby town of Pripyat has been deserted for 25 years
Nikolai Isayev stayed in his job until 1991, mainly for financial reasons. He had lost most of his belongings after the area was evacuated. Then a medical commission finally ruled he had been exposed to the maximum level of radiation.
Today he lives with his wife in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and suffers from more than 20 chronic diseases, which doctors commonly refer to as a bouquet of Chernobyl related diseases. "I am thankful to be alive, some of my colleagues died during the first days," he said.
Like many other former liquidators, he feels that the state has turned its back on them. Chernobyl victims and liquidators rarely benefit from compensation payments due to them by law. So Nikolai Isayev founded a victim support group called "SOS Chernobyl."
"None of us gets an adequate pension as promised in the special law and we don't receive free medical treatment," says Mikhail Umanez, who became director of the plant nine months after the accident.
Building a business on disaster
A monument to those men who built the containment structure stands in front of reactor number 4. These days more and more tourists stand and gawp at the disaster scene.
Reactor number 4 is still standing, but markedly changed
Ukraine is co-hosting the European football championships in 2012 and the government wants to expand tourism to the zone in time for the event. A day trip from Kiev costs around 120 euros ($175) and there are already several buses a day.
Chernobyl continues to provide a living to more than 3,000 people still working in the exclusion zone. Their wages are higher and they live and work for 15 days in the zone; then have 15 days off.
Fifty-year-old Sergey Franchuk has been on staff in the zone for 15 years as a maintenance worker and visitor guide. He lives just eight kilometers away from the exclusion zone and says he wants his own slice of the cake, when football tourists start flocking Chernobyl. "My friend and I have decided to open up a small hotel for eight to 10 people close to the zone," he said.
The official state agency managing the exclusion zone and all visits is also gearing up to make visitors feel welcome. New roads and pathways have been laid, buildings are being repainted and work on a memorial park and museum is under way.
Warnings of trivialisation
Experts, however, warn against too much normality in the zone. The high risks of radiation aside, they say the ramshackle containment structure, which could disintegrate soon and release a radioactive cloud, is a main worry. "This radioactive dust would also threaten other parts of Europe," said Heinz Smital, a nuclear physicist with Greenpeace Germany.
Construction of a new 1.6-billion-euro shelter almost came to a standstill recently. An international donor conference last week raised an additional 550 million euros, but even the planned new steel structure may only last for up to 100 years. The legacy of Chernobyl will be threat for generations to come.
Author: Mareike Aden, Pripyat
Editor: Rob Turner