The Radioactive Gold of Chernobyl

When recycling is a job for dead men walking

They are loading rusty metal all day long, but a hot shower is not enough to be clean at the end of the day, as the metal is the radioactive one of Chernobyl. There is still a million of tons of it abandoned in the Exclusion Zone: it comes from Reactor One but also from ships, vehicles, rails. Recycling all this metal is a billion US dollars business, something handled for decades by smugglers, and just since 2007 (the disaster occurred in 1986) ruled and legalized by the Ukrainian state. Those “dead men walking” are just a dozen of people, led by Victor and working for one of the three organizations allowed by the Kiev government to operate in the area.

They work with very scarce, even though mandatory, protections, walking for hours in the middle of toxic clouds generated by the sandblasting process to decontaminate a metal soon to be sold at 10 Eurocents per kilogram (about 30% less than normal market price). 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. 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…”

( 2016 )