As I get older, I become more and more nostalgic for my youth. Times change, people grow up and move on with their lives, and it’s hard not to yearn for the simpler days when you were just a kid without a care in the world. Never do I feel this sentiment more strongly than when I return to the town where I was raised and see just how different it’s become since the level 7 radiological event.

I realize there’s no sense living in the past, but I can’t help but get a little misty-eyed whenever I think about how much the passage of time and a burst of 75 sieverts of ionizing radiation an hour and intense gamma ray exposure can change a place.

It’s hard not to notice every time I go back. As a kid I used to love walking downtown; back then the place positively bustled, full of friendly faces and fun things to do. But these days the sidewalks are mostly empty apart from the teams of contamination specialists in hazmat suits. And even though it doesn’t even feel all that long ago that I was hanging out with friends at Al’s Pizzeria, if you look around now you won’t even find the old red-and-white checkered tablecloths or comfy booths where I spent so many Saturdays and had a number of my childhood birthday parties. Nope, all you’ll find is a charred imprint on the ground and a few melted metal girders due to its proximity to the released core material.

And don’t even get me started on all the changes along Main Street. When I was a boy it was home to so many thriving mom-and-pop shops—a hardware store, a green grocer, a corner pharmacy—but they were replaced long ago by that big ugly Wal-Mart. Which has since been commandeered and occupied by the Nuclear Regulatory Committee response teams following the reactor criticality incident.

Yes, things inside my hometown and the surrounding 35-mile fallout radius sure have changed.

When I was young I knew the name of every kid on my block, and we used to spend our summer days biking around the neighborhood together or playing down by the pond that now emits its own heat and faint blue radiance at all hours. But nowadays it’s hard for me to even recognize the guys I went to high school with. Most of them have gone bald, or put on some weight, or had their faces and hands covered in thick layers of ulcerous radiation scars. In any case, when you run into people on the street, it seems like they don’t smile or say hello like they used to; they just kind of make a bellowing noise, curse their fate, and limp on past.

Of course, once the food and water supplies have been tainted with radioactive cesium and iodine isotopes, you can’t expect everything to stay the same. I know that. But still, there’s something sad about it happening to your town.

You feel the loss in unexpected ways: My elementary school’s gymnasium seemed huge when I was a kid, but now that it’s a makeshift morgue filled to capacity it feels tiny in comparison to my memory of it. And while that spot in the woods where we used to hang out as teenagers and drink stolen bottles of our parents’ liquor still exists, you can’t go there for the next 75,000 years, not until the spent nuclear fuel contaminating the area decays to safe levels.

Honestly, I wonder sometimes why I go back home at all.

Then again, who am I to judge? I’ve certainly changed a lot too. While increased ionizing radiation was inducing painful radiodermatitis and genetic mutations in my friends and family, I was undergoing my own transformation—finding my way in the world and becoming the man I am today. I went off to college, got married, even had two kids of my own. Considering everyone I grew up with has been rendered permanently sterile, maybe I’m the odd one out.

What I’m trying to say is that nothing’s immune to the ravages of a complete nuclear meltdown—whether it’s the old mini golf place that’s now closed, or all that empty farmland that has been replaced by a 90-square-mile dead zone, or even our beloved neighbors who lived next door for 20 years but have since moved away to a heavily fortified radiation-exposure quarantine facility—and that’s a hard truth to swallow. While I may miss the part of my hometown that has been evacuated, encased in 30,000 tons of concrete, and inscribed with pictograms warning future civilizations from ever disturbing its deadly waste, I must learn to accept that it’s gone.

Why waste so much of my time pining for a place that no longer exists? After all, our lives are short, but the half-life of uranium-233 is very, very long.