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Twenty-four years after the disaster, the no-man’s land strewn with military vehicles and equipment and the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine are favorite targets for looters. Every week, some 200 tons of radioactive metal disappears from the exclusion zone.

In the commotion after the explosion of Reactor 4 at Chernobyl power plant in 1986, the authorities tried to respond as quickly as possible, covering up highly contaminated villages, setting up disposal sites or “graveyards” to store tons of radioactive metal for centuries, building a metal fence around the town of Pripyat to keep out looters, and setting up areas of open land under surveillance to park vehicles that had been exposed to radionuclides. Even though this was done in emergency conditions while the site was being evacuated, the arrangements for disposing of and isolating the property were meant to be exemplary.

Now, a quarter of a century later, most of the graveyards have been emptied. The military vehicles and equipment, plus entire parts of the power plant have been systematically stripped. The town of Pripyat, where power plant employees lived was evacuated the day after the explosion, but has now been taken apart, inch by inch. By late 2009, scrap metal collectors had retrieved all the radiators in the apartments. When the weather is warm enough, they will go in to get the panes of glass that were also exposed to radiation.

Officially, the International Atomic Energy Agency based in Vienna (Austria) is not aware of the situation. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine in 1991, this vast expanse of land has been beyond the reach of the law. It now has its own rules and power games, with recycling firms and dealers of every kind – a state within the State, and with metal as a source of wealth.

Evidence of this parallel trade can be seen with the increase in the number of criminal cases. In 2007, a load of copper-nickel tubes from the radioactive waste disposal site in Buriakovka was discovered leaving the zone. The level of radioactivity was 23 times the allowable level. In May 2009, a ten-ton load of metal with radioactivity above 30 000 microRems (more than one thousand times the maximum level) just disappeared. On the night between September 10 and 11, 2009, a shipment of 25 tons of unprocessed radioactive material, mainly pipes retrieved around Reactor 4, registering thirteen times the legal limit, was stopped by the Ukrainian secret police.

According to a number of observers, some 8 million tons of metal was scattered across the exclusion zone after the explosion. Today it is believed that there is only 2 million tons left, and that, when sold on the market, is worth one billion hryvnias (€100 million).

Bruno Masi

Guillaume Herbaut

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