Meltdown: Fallout from Chernobyl, 30 years later

  • The road leading to Poliske, an abandoned city in the Chernobyl zone, is blocked by nature overgrown in the 20 years since the city’s evacuation. 
  • A wolf found by firefighters in Chernobyl city. Approximately 10 months old, the wolf was taken to live in a paddock in the firemen’s barracks. 
  • A babushka walks along a deserted road, drawing behind her water she’s fetched from a city well. 
  • The ghost city of Poliske is located in the forbidden zone of Chernobyl. Here, nature gnaws little by little at the vestige of the human civilization. 
  • A babushka, one of the last remaining residents of Poliske, rests on a deserted street.
  • Wallpaper still dresses long-ago discarded walls in an abandoned apartment in Poliske.
  • Inside the home of Larissa, a 48 year-old resident of Poliske.
  • Larissa smokes inside her home in Poliske.
  • Dima, a poet, has lived part-time in Poliske since the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl. A resident of Kiev, Dima has converted an abandoned house into a Russian bath, where he spends his weekends.
  • The ghost city of Poliske, located in the forbidden zone of Chernobyl. Here, nature gnaws little by little at the vestige of the human civilization. 
  • Dima sits in the home he converted into a Russian bath, in the ghost city of Poliske.
  • Valery, one of the last residents of Poliske, had a ruptured aneurysm. Since then he has been unable to leave his house.
  • Valery rests at home.
  • Ground details in an abandoned Poliske apartment.
  • An abandoned apartment in Poliske.
  • Scavengers called “stalkers” venture into the city of Poliske, clandestinely, to take discarded metal.
  • Two young stalkers go into Poliske, in the forbidden zone of Chernobyl, to hunt for metal. 
  • A stalker wheels his findings out of Poliske, in Chernobyl. 
  • A dog stands on a quiet road in the abandoned city of Poliske, situated within Chernobyl’s forbidden zone. 
  • Inside what was once Poliske’s City Hall.
  • Each week a grocer comes into Poliske, providing the city’s few residents the only opportunity to come together and get what they need for the week.
  • A cape-clad Larissa walks down a road in Poliske.

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It has been 30 years since an explosion decimated reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl’s Vladimir Illych Lenin Nuclear Power Station, located in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of Soviet Union (USSR). A fire followed the blast, sending a radioactive cloud into the atmosphere and over much of western USSR and Europe. In the worst affected areas, radiation levels reached approximately 5.6 roentgens — a unit of measurement for X-ray and gamma ray exposure, up to several megaelectronvolts — per second, accumulating to more than 20,000 roentgens per hour. With a lethal dose of radiation occurring at just 500 roentgens over five hours, the rate of contamination at Chernobyl meant that workers received fatal doses in less than a minute.

By the time the dust settled, 500,000 workers had been affected, 31 people had died, and layers of contaminants had come to rest at the bottom of lakes, rivers and reservoirs —particles that could take 800 to 1,000 years to dissolve. The accident was the worst nuclear catastrophe in history.

In the years since, many have become familiar with Pripyat, the city where it all happened. Images of the long-lasting effects of radiation have circulated widely, illustrating what has become a history of human sickness, mutation in animals, and ghostly territories. But less commonly known is the story of the city of Poliske. Originally a town with approximately 20,000 inhabitants, Poliske was the next major location outside of Pripyat — and it was where many families went after the blast. But Poliske was evacuated 10 years later and today is the largest area within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, also known as “the zone of alienation.”

There, situated amid the deceptive invisibility of a radioactive pollution — odorless, tasteless, without sound or sight — live 10 residents who never left. They experience a kind of alienation that holds true to the zone’s categorization. The inhabitants age along with their surroundings, crumbling from dereliction, but the violent remains of the Chernobyl accident linger in the peeling walls and abandoned belongings, disguised by a natural mask of dirt and overgrown trees. In its quarantine, it is another world, visited clandestinely by “stalkers,” who seek out salvageable materials that still lay strewn about.

Guillaume Herbaut, a photographer with INSTITUTE, visited Poliske in 2010, capturing these people who move in and across the forbidden space. The result is a series of images that are recognizable while remaining uncanny. 

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography

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