Photo Gallery The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

When reactor four just outside the town of Chernobyl, Ukraine melted down in late April, 1986, authorities quickly evacuated locals. Twenty years later, the region remains a no-go area.
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Chernobyl's reactor number four was encased in a makeshift sarcophagus after the meltdown. Massive amounts of radiation still leak out, though. A new sarcophagus is currently under construction.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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The nearby town of Prypiat, which had a pre-Chernobyl population of some 50,000 people, was completely evacuated soon after the disaster. Now, it stands completely empty but for a few wild boar, feral dogs and elk.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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The Chernobyl exclusion zone, which originally encompassed 30 kilometers on all sides of the stricken reactor and has since been enlarged, contains hundreds of now empty villages. In winter, trees are still laden with unpicked fruit and 20-year-old bushes and saplings are rapidly taking over.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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Most residents of Prypiat left all of their belongings behind. Pillagers, though, managed to make off with much of the irradiated furniture. The town's culture center, pictured here, was gutted of much of its floor and wall coverings. The square in front of the building is slowly being taken over by grass and wild rose bushes.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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The city of Prypiat was preparing for the May Day celebrations when the disaster struck. Decorations had already been put up around the city with more to come. Here, a room in the culture center contains images of Communist Party leaders that were never put on display.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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The dangers that lurk in the soil, vegetation and air within the Chernobyl exclusion zone are invisible. The empty villages stand as testimony to a devastating disaster.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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Much of the supplies necessary to run the Chernobyl reactors were barged in on the Prypiat River. After the disaster, the irradiated ships were left to slowly disintigrate on their own.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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Complete evacuation of the exclusion zone was mandatory. Many, though -- mostly the elderly who had lived in the same village their entire lives -- elected to return. Now, some 400 people live within the exclusion zone. They receive food shipped in from outside and receive regular medical check-ups.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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The town of Chernobyl is now largely empty. But a few thousand people do live here -- mostly forest service workers intent on preventing the irradiated forest from going up in flames. A detailed radiation map of the city shows where one can safely go and where to avoid. Workers are regularly rotated out to avoid overexposure.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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Prypiat was dressed up for May Day celebrations when Chernobyl melted down. An amusement park in the city center is now a bitter testament to the disaster and has become one of the favorite images for photographers passing through.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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The Orthodox church in Chernobyl has recently been restored and a priest now lives there full time. He is aware of the risks of his posting, but says it is easy to forget. "You can't see the dangers that lurk all around," he says. He feels it is his calling to care for the souls of the workers now posted in Chernobyl.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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Radiation accumulates slowly in the human body, making short stays in the exclusion zone not terribly risky. But any fruits and vegetables that grow in irradiated soil function as efficient delivery vehicles for dangerous radioactive elements.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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Thousands of firefighters lost their lives attempting to extinguish the radioactive blaze at the Chernobyl reactor. Many of them had no idea they were being sent to certain death. A monument to their courage now stands near the road that leads from the town of Chernobyl to the reactor.

Foto: Charles Hawley
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