The disaster was the largest ever uncontrolled release of radioactivity into the atmosphere. The steam and hydrogen explosions at the plant's Unit 4 led to a rupture in the reactor vessel and a fire that lasted 10 days. Large amounts of radioactive iodine and cesium billowed into the air, mostly near the plant. But a region-wide evacuation had to be carried out and the wind sent radioactive fallout over Belarus, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and many other parts of Europe.

Steidl, the German publisher of McMillan's book of photographs, says he was inspired to risk visiting Chernobyl by his teenage memories of reading British author Nevil Shute's post-apocalyptic novel "On the Beach”, published in 1957. Shute's book imagines how, after a nuclear World War III has destroyed most of the globe, the few remaining survivors in southern Australia await the radioactive cloud that is heading their way, bringing certain death.

When McMillan first visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in 1994 he expected his movements to be restricted. Yet the photographer was not only free to roam the 1000-square-mile zone, he was able to get within metres of the damaged reactor.

Over the years he found the best methods to get in and to avoid the high-risk areas. Now 73, he typically visits for a week at a time, meaning that cumulatively he has spent months there. He finds in Prypiat the embodiment of an irradiated town still standing but empty of human life. It had been built to house the workers from the nearby nuclear power plant, and at the time of the accident there was a population of some 50,000, with several apartment buildings still under construction.

"The challenge was finding people who could get me in," he recalls. "I didn't know where to go; I was at the mercy of drivers and my interpreter. I had no real sense of (the danger). People just advised me that some areas were heavily contaminated, and that I should maybe only take a minute or two to photograph there."

Prypiat was considered one of the finest places to live in the Soviet Union, with plenty of schools, kindergartens, playgrounds, hospitals and cultural facilities. McMillan's trips have resulted in a series of eerie images documenting these derelict and overgrown buildings, and 200 of his photos can be seen in the glossy, sumptuously produced coffee-table book "Growth and Decay: Prypiat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone."

The "growth" refers to the way nature is recovering from the desolation, and the "decay" refers to the crumbling man-made structures that the elements are making increasingly dangerous and liable to collapse. It is the retreat of humankind and the reappearance of nature, as blossoming plants and trees burst through manmade structures. "People weren't around, and when nature wasn't being cut back and cultivated, it just grew wild and reclaimed itself," McMillan says. "I guess it was heartening to see this kind of regrowth, and inevitable to see culture vanishing." A photo of a tree of unpicked apples is particularly poignant.

Not surprisingly, few humans were around to be photographed: an evacuee is seen cleaning ancestral graves in her former village on Commemoration Day in April 1995 – it is a graveyard within the graveyard of the wider exclusion zone; two returned villagers are photographed in October 1996; a man holds large mushrooms found within five kilometres of the reactor in October 1996, a technician holds a fish from a cooling pond that will be fed to laboratory animals in October 1994; employees of the zone are seen fishing on the Prypiat River in April 1995.

Another photo shows a village war memorial in October 1998 – perhaps one day its four columns of names may be joined by those of the about 50 people who died in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. Beyond those fatalities, debate continues about the number of wider deaths due to increased cancer incidence in populations exposed to radioactive fallout. These figures are usually in the thousands.

There are reminders in the book of the political situation in 1984: a couple of busts and a portrait of Lenin, the former leader of the Soviet Union, the world's first communist state. It is informative to recall that the secretive political system he spawned failed to knowledge the Chernobyl accident immediately: it was two weeks before Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev addressed the nation. A Lenin bas-relief disappears between October 1997 and October 2004, and other shots show political slogans, a political classroom, and portraits of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, co-authors of "The Communist Manifesto", in a classroom.

The rotting ghost town is laid bare: railway station, Pioneer Camp dormitory, village hall, village school, village administrative office, children's hospital, dental hospital, kindergarten, Palace of Culture, public swimming pool, basketball court, bookstore, hotel room, boating club, ironworks, beauty salon, playgrounds, military radar, vehicles, a sinking boat, even a contaminated helicopter.

There is abandoned bedding, clothing, toys and dolls, paints, laundry poles, street lights, fading graffiti, alphabet cards, dental casts, medicines, patients' records, maps, a piano and a model of the supersonic aircraft Tupolev Tu-144, known as the "Concordski".

A telling series of seven photos depicts a dozen brightly-coloured flags of former Soviet republics affixed to a peeling kindergarten stairwell, all with the hammer and sickle. They are shown deteriorating in 1994, 1998, 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2013. By the time of the latest photograph, taken in November 2018, these have virtually disappeared. It is powerfully symbolic of an era vanishing into history.

McMillan lets his camera do the talking and only writes a short note about his experiences. An essay, "McMillan's Chernobyl: An Intimation of the Way the World Would End" by Claude Baillargeon, concludes the book. All in all, it is a sobering look at the detritus of a driven-away community, with nature taking back its place from destructive Man.


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