FAIRBANKS — David Fazzino got an offer last year that sounds easy to refuse — he was given the chance to visit an abandoned, contaminated city that was once the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident.
Fazzino, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said it was an easy choice. A specialist in “disaster anthropology,” he traveled to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear failure to get a look at a continuing disaster than began 25 years ago today.
Fazzino felt the meltdown had vanished from the public consciousness when he made the trip in October, and he saw the visit as an opportunity to boost education about the catastrophe.
The common belief among many was that Chernobyl was a one-of-a-kind disaster in an otherwise safe industry, caused by outdated Soviet equipment and lax technology. For some, that position has evolved in light of the Fukushima reactor incident triggered by an earthquake last month in Japan.
Both meltdowns are categorized as “Level 7” incidents, considered the most serious.
“They were saying that Chernobyl is completely irrelevant today because the technology has changed,” Fazzino said. “It could never happen again.”
Fazzino was part of a nine-person group accepted into an Evergreen State College program that offered a rare sanctioned peek inside the Exclusion Zone, a
19-square mile area that was evacuated soon after the meltdown. The visitors, who included diplomats and scientists from across the United States, met with nuclear officials in the Ukraine and toured the abandoned city of Pripyat.
The trip started with an ominous briefing, warning that anyone who was tested for unacceptable amounts of radiation would be held until the levels were reduced. At one point he was just yards away from the infamous Reactor No. 4, where the meltdown that triggered the disaster occurred.
Thirty workers at Chernobyl were killed by the initial reactor explosion or the subsequent radiation exposure. The number of deaths attributed to Chernobyl since then vary depending on the source. Various studies have put the tally anywhere from several dozen to nearly 100,000 people killed by radiation-related cancers.
More than 336,000 people were forced to move once the exclusion zone was established.
Fazzino said his wife and parents had some worries about his trip, but the experience wasn’t especially scary. Although Pripyat has a deteriorating, creepy vibe — complete with an abandoned Ferris wheel prominently featured in the skyline — he said the travels become strangely ordinary.
“Eventually it was like walking in an abandoned town,” he said. “I wasn’t fearing for my safety.”
Although the radiation threat was discussed, Fazzino said the group was careful not to linger in any hot spots. Everyone passed a radiation inspection after leaving the zone.
Still, Fazzino said the site remains anything but normal.
Soviet pilots flew thousands of flights over Chernobyl in the weeks after the accident, dumping concrete, sand and other materials on the damaged reactor to seal off the site. The makeshift tomb was never considered a permanent solution, and the site continues to seep radiation.
A quarter-century later, fundraising to build a permanent shelter over the reactor site remains more than $200 million short.
“It’s a mess,” Fazzino said. “I didn’t get a sense from anybody that it’s something that was completely under control or ever will be.”
Despite the Chernobyl accident, nuclear power remains a dominant force in the region. About half the energy needs of the Ukraine are met through nuclear plants, and Fazzino said residents of the area remain generally supportive of the technology.
“Even among people who are somewhat opposed to nuclear power, there is still the recognition that this supplies a lot of energy,” he said.
On a personal level, Fazzino said the trip drove home a reality that all energy production carries sociological and environmental tolls. He hopes to make a return trip to the site to study some of the health concerns and other problems that linger in the area.
“There is a much more nuanced approach to nuclear power than I had before,” he said. “It’s like any type of energy — they all have costs other than what we pay for them.”
Almost on a whim, Fazzino borrowed a camera from the UAF Anthropology Department and filmed the experience. His wife, Dana Davis, is a filmmaker and helped him edit the footage into a short movie, “Chernobyl Dreams.” They expect a final version will be completed this summer.