Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A vinyl souvenir from a trip to 'death incarnate'

An abandoned child's toy on the floor of an elementary classroom in Pripyat, a village in the shadow of the Chernobyl nuclear facility. Nic Hume photograph.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 25, 2011


Nic Hume reaches for a vinyl record, slips it from a cardboard envelope, eases it onto a turntable.

The scratchy sound of piano music fills his apartment.

The Cyrillic label indicates this melodiya was issued by the Soviet Union’s cultural ministry. The side we are listening to features Concerto No. 2 by the Ukrainian composer Levko Revutsky.

The last people to listen to this record had been sitting in a Grade 6 classroom in an elementary school in a village along a river.

For more than two decades, the long-playing record remained in a building abandoned in a panic. By the time Mr. Hume came across it, scavengers had long since pillaged the school of wire and metal, leaving behind yellowing books and broken chairs and dusty records. He brought this LP home to Victoria, a reminder of those who once lived in what is now a ghost town.

On his return, he had a friend at the university run a Geiger counter over the vinyl.

Tuesday marks the 25th anniversary of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, a name forever to be associated with catastrophe.

Entire villages were evacuated, abandoning lands that remain an “exclusion zone.” The guards seem to exclude only those unwilling to pay a daily bribe of about $400, which is how a curious Victoria photojournalist got to document a nuclear ghost town.

“I’ve always had an interest in the extremes of human existence,” Mr. Hume said. “To see what was the world’s only bona fide urban nuclear wasteland sounded like something worth seeing.”

Last month, the unique misery of those who lived and worked near Chernobyl was experienced by survivors of the earthquake and tsunami that crippled the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, the site of the only other Level 7 major accident on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale.

After entering the exclusion zone, marked by a fence of rusted barbed wire, after being waved past saluting guards in Soviet-era uniforms, Mr. Hume wandered within a few football fields of infamous Reactor No. 4.

He also explored the nearby villages of Pripyat and Chernobyl. He carefully walked through an empty school with rotting floors, photographed a wooden gymnasium floor through which a tree had sprouted, peered into a drained swimming pool in which families once frolicked.

At an amusement park, bumper cars had been abandoned as though commuters had fled a cataclysm.

At a hospital, he noticed jars of human blood scattered on the floor, their contents blackened through the passing of the years.

An earlier trespasser in one of the abandoned buildings had scrawled in red ink on a white board — “Pripyat forgive me for what I’ve done.”

He met a squatter who survived by selling scrap materials from inside the zone. No one knows where these materials wind up. The self-proclaimed King of Pripyat — a ruler with no subjects — described suffering from a dry cough, scratchy throat and persistent headache, the telltale signs of radiation exposure. He self-medicates with vodka, a common prescription in the area where it is believed alcohol flushes the thyroid.

Away from the exclusion zone, Mr. Hume interviewed one of the surviving firefighters who attended to the reactor in the frantic days . He also had supper with the family of Alexander (Sasha) Yuvchenko, a nuclear engineer who had been on duty the night of the disaster.

Mr. Hume, 28, is compiling a photographic project in which he records the human experience in the atomic age. He has been to Trail, B.C., where “heavy water” — deuterium oxide — was produced for the top-secret wartime Manhattan Project, leading to the explosion of the world’s first atomic bomb. He has made pilgrimages to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next on his agenda: Bikini Atoll, the site of nuclear testing. After that, Fukushima.

He hails from perhaps the most prominent journalistic family in the province. A brother, Steve, is a columnist and essayist for the Vancouver Sun, while another, Mark, is a reporter and columnist for this newspaper. Their father, Jim, known as the dean of the Legislative Press Gallery, still writes an engaging weekly column for the Times Colonist at age 87.

The youngest Hume will never forget the impression made by his visit four years ago to the crown jewel of Soviet nuclear technology.

“At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the place is death incarnate,” he said. “There’s no future there.”

On the anniversary of the disaster, experts are debating how best to complete the current $1-billion stage of the cleanup for a reactor core that will remain dangerous for about another 99,975 years.