Into the Half-Life
On the eastern edge of Zholtye Vody, a city of 54,000 in the heart of the Ukrainian breadbasket, lies a gaping hole in the earth’s crust that once exposed rich deposits of uranium ore. Of the current population, no less than 40,000 are on hospital records, sick from various radiation related illnesses. This city, which sits on the eastern part of Ukraine close to the Russian border, was at the heart of the former Soviet “weapons polygon” that not only mined and enriched uranium, but also designed and built weapons of mass destruction. Here, death was designed and created for those faraway, but also for the very citizens who worked within this polygon. Nuclear waste was disposed of without regard for human safety. Many of the city’s residential house foundations, major streets and public buildings were constructed using radioactive materials from the enrichment factory and waste sites. Today people display a variety of illnesses which are usually beyond their financial means to treat, such as cancers like leukemia, bone marrow, lymphoma and thyroid, along with congestive lung disorders from nuclear dust and other radiation-related sickness.
The story has special urgency today because the world-wide energy crisis has brought uranium mining back into production to satisfy the rapidly accelerating demand for fuel. A widespread nuclear renaissance is not only inevitable but well underway. Global warming is weighing heavily on the international conscience, and with it comes a new-found sense of urgency to dispense with coal and other carbon fuels. The current thinking says that there is no alternative energy more developed, economically viable, and emission-free than nuclear energy. Since world electricity use is expected to double in the next few decades, nearly every industrialized country is considering a fresh build-out of nuclear power. China alone has broken ground on five reactors to feed that nation’s insatiable need for power. The World Nuclear Association says uranium mining would need to increase by almost 300% in the next two decades to meet the need for nuclear energy. Zholtye Vody is an ecological aftermath which dramatizes the stark choices we must face. No one can safely predict whether Chernobyl disasters of increasing magnitude won’t happen again; but Zholtye Vody shows us what happens to civil society, an ordinary urban city, when ordinary technical safeguards fail.
Originally from Toronto, Canada, Don is an award-winning photographer currently residing in Kiev, Ukraine. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2007, he also received the Lange-Taylor Documentary Prize and a World Press Award in 2006. Amongst other citations, Weber was named one of PDN’s 30 in 2008 and an Emerging Photo Pioneer by American Photo Magazine. Don has exhibited widely and has shown work at galleries and festivals worldwide. As a documentary photographer, Don believes in the power of the medium and has been involved in several major campaigns to provoke change. He has completed assignments for such international publications as: Business Week, Der Spiegel, Maclean’s, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Condé Nast Portfolio, Rolling Stone, Stern, Time Magazine and the NGO’s Medecins sans Frontieres, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and War Child. Don is represented by the VII Network, an agency started by the members of VII.