Radioactive gold of Chernobyl

(Ukraine 2015-2016)

Inside the zone tons of metals lie abandoned, but over the years all this rusty gold has not gone unnoticed, and more or less illegally was recycled and today continues to be. Tons of metal leave the area each month. Since 2007, the Ukrainian government has legalized the recycling of radioactive metals with the blasting method. Half of this recycling is illegally made by smugglers, while the other half is legalized by the state.

Victor is the foreman of one of the three organizations allowed by the Kiev government to operate in the area. He works in the exclusion zone since 2002. The workshop is close to the never finished number 5 and 6 reactors of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, a huge warehouse where twelve men clean and recycle radioactive metals. His company recycles about 30 tons of metal a year.

The metals come from all over the area, in this period mainly from the railroad tracks, and the reactor number 1. But they also come from the buildings of the ghost town of Pripyat, from the port of Chernobyl where some sunk ships lie, and soon from the never finished reactors number 5 and 6.

The recycling method consists first of all in a strong blasting of the metal that effectively reduces the contamination at zero level. Once a complete decontamination is achieved the metal is ready to be sold, usually to Ukrainian companies but also to foreign companies with 30% of the price less compared to the market price.
In recent years, according to official estimates, about 40 thousand tons of metals were exported. Currently it is considered that still 1 million tonnes remain inside the zone with a value of one billion dollars.

During the weekend Victor goes back home, he lives in Kovalinka, a small and still contaminated village located 5 kilometers from the exclusion zone, together with his wife Nadezhda and three children Valeri, 16 years, Victoria 3 years and Alexander one year. He lives nearby, other workers are less fortunate, their families live far away, so they could go home only once a month.

Their work is terribly dangerous, almost a death sentence in slow motion, as it forces the workers to continuously inhale radioactive particles like caesium, strontium and plutonium. Safety equipment, although it is mandatory, virtually does not exist. Only a few of them use it. Most of them wander all day amid radioactive clouds created by the blasting process, breathing radioactive particles. But the fact of using or not the protections is a personal choice. A mixture of fatalism, popular beliefs and difficulties to wear the protections during the entire work shift. But the internal contamination is now the most dangerous aspect to the health of workers.
They keep on going, anyway, for free room and board, a salary higher than average (8,000 hryvnias can be earned monthly, almost 280 Euros) and a sadly false certainty, in the words of Sasha: "... and then vodka cleans it all..."



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