Chasing Chernobyl

Photographer exposes shadow of nuclear power


In the age of Kickstarter, people seeking crowd funding can ask money for anything—even potentially harmful expeditions. Gerd Ludwig wants to revisit a ghost land in the Ukraine, a place they call the “zone of alienation,” where the worst nuclear accident in history occurred at Chernobyl 25 years ago. An acclaimed photojournalist, Ludwig is not out to reframe the past. In fact, Ludwig claims that Chernobyl is not old news, but rather an ongoing story that has not been fully reported. He wants to deliver the facts in pictures.

Ludwig, 63, has already produced poignant photo-documentation of the disaster site. But over time, locals have discovered that money can be made from visitors’ needs. “A car and driver that cost $60 a day five years ago now costs $600 a day,” explains Ludwig, who has turned to crowd funding via Kickstarter to raise the needed $25,000 for his project.

“You can bribe someone to get in illegally for a day or two,” Ludwig says, “but I am trying to go back into the reactor. I want to go to areas where nobody can go, so it’s mandatory that I go officially and with permits. You have to get a car and driver from the administration because the streets are overgrown, there are no maps.”

Ludwig, who’s accepted numerous assignments from National Geographic over the past 20 years, holds dual citizenship in Germany and the United States. He claims his interest in returning to Chernobyl is to contribute journalistic content for a critical and timely issue. “We have to remember that an accident is a possible outcome of using nuclear technology,” Ludwig said. “We cannot ignore the history. Before the BP oil spill, people told us, ‘Everything is safe!’ And now, in this worldwide effort to find energy sources, there are even these misguided attempts to paint nuclear energy as green energy.”

Years ago, Ludwig took photographs at the Chernobyl reactor when construction workers were reinforcing the failing roof of a hastily constructed cover over reactor 4. This robot-made sarcophagus is now leaking and failing; if it should collapse, just as much radiation might be emitted as was released during the 1986 accident. According to Ludwig, the contamination in reactor 4 is so great that crews are allowed to work only one 15-minute shift per day and have to perform their duties wearing gas masks and full-body suits with Geiger-counters and dosimeters.

Ludwig criticizes a U.N. report that appeared shortly before the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. “It said the whole accident is not that bad, that only about 4,000 people will eventually die of Chernobyl-related deaths,” said Ludwig. “But reputable environmental organizations claim the number of those who have died already is between 100,000 and 200,000.” Furthermore, Ludwig alleges that some of the major donors for that U.N. study were people who stand to profit from nuclear-energy developments.

Profits made from nuclear power plants might be weighed against a report by the BBC, issued last week, revealing that there is not enough money yet to complete the containment of radiation from the disaster that happened a quarter-century ago. As it stands, the plan is to seal the failing sarcophagus, but another $783 million is needed. Even if the money is found, and the hazardous area of the reactor is sealed, the same report noted that the Chernobyl area will be “contaminated for tens of thousands of years.”

Ludwig wants to photograph more of Chernobyl, post the images on his website, create an app about Chernobyl and produce an international traveling exhibit of 50 large photographs to bring Chernobyl closer to the public eye. “Chernobyl was caused by human error during a routine safety test,” he says. “When you convey the situation on the ground in the zone, it speaks for itself. I want to make compassionate pictures that will help change people’s minds about nuclear power.”

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