Though the turbines are still, and cranes dangle above two unfinished reactors, just as they have for the past 25 years, too radioactive to be moved anywhere else, this is not a ghost town. Trains arrive on freshly laid tracks, workshops in an un-Soviet shade of blue dot the grounds and steam billows from the chimney of a new gas-fired heating plant that sends hot water throughout the complex.
About 3,000 people work here, in decontaminated areas, maintaining and decommissioning the plant. An additional 4,000 work nearby, providing security in the 19-mile-deep exclusion zone — from which residents were evacuated and where entry is possible only with a permit. (The Fukushima zone has a radius of 12 miles.) Exclusion zone workers also handle water-management and forest-fire-suppression duties, part of the never-ending effort to keep contamination from spreading.
And beyond the exclusion zone lies the vast social structure of evacuees, former emergency workers and their families, farmers whose dwindling villages are contaminated but habitable — survivors, many in ill health, battling an implacable government for the care and assistance they believe they deserve.
“I so much hope the Japanese liquidators will be treated better than we were,” said Yuri Andreyev, who was a chief engineer at Chernobyl and now heads the Chernobyl Union, an umbrella group of advocacy organizations.
In its particulars, the Chernobyl disaster differs from Fukushima’s. A badly executed test, rather than a tsunami, led to the explosion at Chernobyl. Open to the air, a graphite fire burned for 10 days, spewing huge amounts of radioactive material; at Fukushima, with a different type of reactor, that couldn’t happen.
But the significance of Chernobyl for Japan lies in the question of what happens next. Even if the scope of contamination is smaller, Fukushima will demand of the Japanese a commitment of unforeseeable dimensions.
“My wife told me, you know the sarcophagus better than you know your own apartment,” said Grigory Panchuk, who until he retired worked to maintain the tomb encasing Reactor 4.
Panchuk lives in Slavutych, a planned community across the Dnieper River from Chernobyl. With its wind-whipped and featureless plaza, it is a model of late Soviet urban planning — except that in place of the usual war memorial stands one to the 30 workers who died after the April 26, 1986, explosion.
Slavutych residents commute by train to the power station. As they arrive, they pass the wide cooling pond, where pumps run full time to keep the water level above dangerously contaminated sediments. Farther on, they should soon be seeing a new sarcophagus.