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'Reuters' Reporter Explores Life In Chernobyl 30 Years After Nuclear Disaster


Thirty years ago today, reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine exploded. It was the worst nuclear accident in history. Dozens of workers died in the days after the meltdown, and thousands more deaths have been linked to the disaster.

Matthias Williams is Reuters' chief correspondent for Ukraine. He's been reporting on Chernobyl and the 19-mile exclusion zone around it. He's with us now to talk about it. Welcome to the show.


MCEVERS: You just came back from the exclusion zone. What is it like today after all these years?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's very, very strange. I mean, the one very strange thing about it is, of course - are the people who still live there or that they returned from the place where they were evacuated 30 years ago to their homes. And they live off the land there in the village around Chernobyl.

So there's a 30-kilometer exclusion zone, and then there's a 10-kilometer exclusion zone. Within the 10-kilometer exclusion zone is a town called Pripyat, which used to house the atomic workers who were working in Chernobyl.

Now, that is a complete ghost town. It is totally uninhabitable, so when you walk around there, you can see old-style Soviet hotels. You can see an abandoned kindergarten with toys still strewn across the floor, with tiny chairs and beds. You can see a Ferris wheel that was due to open a week after the Chernobyl disaster struck. So it's a very eerie kind of time capsule of the Soviet Union, if you like.

MCEVERS: Talking about the place where - the parts of the exclusion zone where people still live or where people live again, what can you tell us about how radioactive that area is today?

WILLIAMS: Well, if you look at a Greenpeace report that came out recently in March to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the disaster, the area is still very dangerous indeed, and people are eating food and drinking water that is still very dangerous. They say that the people inside the 30-kilometer exclusion zone in particular are very much in danger when they're - and then shouldn't really be living there.

MCEVERS: I guess the question is, why do they live there?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think what we have to remember first of all is that the evacuation itself 30 years ago was extremely traumatic. First of all, the people within the area weren't really being told the truth about the disaster. They initially got told that they would only have to leave for three days, and then for some people, that turned into 30 years.

And in particular, some families, including one that we spent a lot of time with on Saturday, found it very, very hard to readjusted into the places where they were evacuated to. So put it quite simply, you know, Chernobyl is their home, and they really like the kind of lifestyle they have that is living off the land, living in the country.

MCEVERS: The huge sarcophagus that was built to contain the remains of reactor number four is aging, and it soon will need to be replaced. Is that right? What are the plans for that?

WILLIAMS: Right, absolutely. So there was a sarcophagus that was put in place straight afterwards made of concrete. And it's falling apart, and it needs to be replaced. So in about 2010, I believe, there was a plan for a giant arch that was going to cover nuclear reactor number four.

Now, that's fairly near completion now, so the arch, which we saw when we were there on Saturday - it's about the size of Notre Dame. It weighs 30,000 tons. And around about the end of the year, it's going to be slowly inched over the reactor on specially made tracks. And the idea is that that's going to contain the radiation for about a hundred years.

MCEVERS: That's Matthias Williams. He's Reuters' chief correspondent for Ukraine. He joined us from Kiev. Thank you very much.

WILLIAMS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.