Published: April 2006

Inside Chernobyl

Control Panel

The Long Shadow of Chernobyl

Twenty years after a nuclear reactor exploded, blanketing thousands of square miles with radiation, the catastrophe isn't over.

By Richard Stone
Photograph by Gerd Ludwig

In the wan light of a snowy spring morning, belongings scattered on the floor of an abandoned kindergarten speak of a time before the children of Pripyat lost their innocence. Musty sandals and ballet slippers for tiny feet. Cardboard pictures of Lenin as a young boy and as a youthful leader—the Soviet equivalent of baseball cards. In the next room, dolls in various states of dress and dismemberment, lolling on metal cots where the children once napped. Finally, on the gymnasium wall, photos of the children themselves—doing calisthenics, climbing monkey bars, balancing on boards.

Twenty years ago this month, life in Pripyat came to a shuddering end. Before dawn on April 26, 1986, less than two miles south of what was then a city of 50,000, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant's number four reactor exploded. Thirty people died in the blast and fire or were exposed to lethal radiation. The destroyed hulk burned for ten days, contaminating tens of thousands of square miles in northern Ukraine, southern Belarus, and Russia's Bryansk region. It was the worst nuclear accident the world has ever seen.

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