May 23, 2017
May 23, 2017
For as long as I care to remember, a visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has been on my long and still growing bucket list. I originally planned to go for my 40th birthday, but circumstances beyond my control (i.e. the birth of our second son) made me happily postpone the trip.
Five years later, I finally decided to make my way there. This page shows some impressions of this first trip - which in all probability won’t have been my last one.
On May 23rd 2017, a group of people led by Nadya and driven by Pasha of SoloEast Travel left Kiev in the morning and drove to Dityatki checkpoint to cross over into the 30-km Zone of Alienation around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
On one of our first stops, I caught a picture of a lone visitor to the Zone with his Volga. I’ve changed the numberplate to give him some anonymity.
The first village we stopped at was Zalissya. In 1986, around two thousand people lived here. After the accident, Rozaliya Ivanivna was the only remaining inhabitant until her death in December 2015.
Nowadays, the only immediately visible building from the road is this grocery shop…
…where the only evidence of products sold are heaps of broken bottles…
…and a ledger which ends on May 5th 1986, nine days after the explosion.
Behind the shop, several buildings can be made out spreading out through the forest…
…and in many cases the forest spreading through the buildings.
On what must have been the main square at some stage, the palace of culture of Zalissya shows how apt the name of the village has become over the years… “Zalissya” is Ukrainian for “by the forest”.
The outside of the palace shows that the 2015 decommunization laws haven’t reached the zone yet.
The floor on the way in is a bit treacherous…
…if it’s there at all.
The banner across the stage proudly proclaims “Хай живе комунізм — світле майбутне всього людства!” – “Long live communism, mankind’s bright future”. Well - they could hardly write “Radiation and abandonment – mankind’s dark future”, could they?
In a corner, Karl Marx can be read: “An objet d’art creates a public that has artistic taste and is able to enjoy beauty”. (from the Introduction to a Critique of Political Ecomony, 1857-59)
“And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.”
While Wormwood is not, as widely reported, “Chornobyl” in Ukrainian, it is reasonably close. “Чорнобиль” is Mugwort (Artemisia Vulgaris), while Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), a close cousin, is “полин гіркий”. Still, they’re both bitter and the water of the river did, indeed, turn poisonous. Plenty of material for conspiracy theorists there.
In the centre of Chornobyl Village, right behind the statue of the Angel, a path of about 300m leads through “Memorial Park”. Along this path are the roadsigns of all the villages that had to be evacuated after the catastrophe. I didn’t have time to count them, but the number would have been staggering at any rate.
Having read up on the Zone before, I had an idea where we were going when Nadya announced that the next stop would have been classified “Top Secret” a couple of years ago…
After a few kilometres, the road ended at a gate. The big soviet star in the middle indicated a military installation. The sign reads “Passage prohibited - Area (or Object) under Surveillance”…
…which was upgraded a couple of metres later to “Passage prohibited! Dangerous Area!”…
…and as we still pressed on, we were asked to “Validate our authorisation” at the guardhouse.
If we hadn’t known we were in a military installation before, we certainly would have by now. Many buildings were painted with propaganda murals, among them the well known one: “Have you signed up as a volunteer?”
The village we were in wasn’t on any Soviet maps, and as such didn’t have a name. It was only known as “Chernobyl 2” and curious bypassers were told it was a holiday camp for children.
Now, as any good holiday camp for children, Chernobyl 2 had an over-the-horizon radar array. Details of its use are still hard to come by, but common consensus is that it was used to monitor ballistic missile launches from the west.
The scale of the antenna array is not easy to convey through photos alone. It consists of 14’000 tons of metal, is one kilometre long and around 150 metres high, had an output of around 10 Megawatts and was staffed by about 1’000 people.
All these numbers are relatively meaningless when you stand in front of this monstrum and forget to close your mouth. The dimensions are absolutely mindblowing.
This is one of the two kindergartens in Kopachi. The reason I don’t have pictures of any other buildings there is that, well, there aren’t any. Although this was a village of 1100 inhabitants in 1986, only two buildings remain, both Kindergartens. The rest were bulldozed and buried as an experiment to contain the radiation. The only remaining evidence are occasional mounds with trefoil warning signs in the ground where there were buildings.
This was the first site where we had to watch our step outside the buildings as radioactive hotspots are still common in the area. First statements of “I’m sure they’re making this up” by one of the other people on the tour were quickly shut up when I measured a random spot on the ground and my geiger counter started beeping like crazy. Normal background radiation in central Kiev measured at 0.18 μSv/h, this particular spot showed 7.38 μSv/h – we’d see much higher values later in the day.
Just for comparison using the scale we established on the tour: 7.38 μSv/h means that sitting in that spot for half an hour would give you the same amount of radiation as eating 37 bananas.
The Kindergarten looks like it was abandoned in a hurry. The notes of the teacher are still lying on the desk…
…and we know which song the children last learned 31 years ago.
On May 2nd 1986, it became clear that the molten mass in the reactor building was eventually going to melt through the floor into the bubbler pool below the building, which served as a water reservoir for the emergency cooling pumps and which was flooded due to ruptured pipes. The result would have been a steam explosion that would have devastated an area stretching beyond Kiev and Minsk. In addition, enough radioactive material would have been ejected into the atmosphere to make practically all of Europe uninhabitable.
Three engineers, Alexei Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov and Boris Baranov, volunteered to dive into the pool of highly radioactive water to open the sluice valves and drain the pool. Although they had to operate under water in total darkness (their submersible light failed shortly after they started the operation), they succeeded in draining the pools. Despite their good condition after completion of the task, all of them suffered from radiation sickness, and later died. Some sources claim incorrectly that they died at the plant.
This monument, which commemorates the three engineers along with all the other liquidators who put their life on the line to prevent the catastrophe from escalating, was paid for by their families, as the government didn’t have the funds to erect a memorial.
In light of what could have happened, “Тим, хто врятував світ” — “Those who saved the world”, does not seem like an exaggeration.
The first part of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant we got to see from afar was the unfinished cooling tower and the construction sites of reactors five and six. The night number four exploded, the next two were still under construction. This is reactor number five, at about 70% completion. Work went on with a few stops and restarts, before, in 1989, the decision was taken to stop work alogether. The cranes in this image haven’t moved in 28 years.
Almost at every step, signs reminded us that it would be wise to keep to the road, or at least to carry a dosimeter. This sign stands next to another one labelled “кабель”, so I assume the radioactive topsoil couldn’t be removed in the area due to underground cables.
Turning the corner, we were facing reactors one and two. They were commissioned in 1977 and 1978 respectively and continued generating power after the accident. Reactor number two was decommissioned in 1991 after a fire broke out in turbine no. 4 during maintenance, and reactors number one and three were shut down in 1996 and 2000 under international agreement and as a condition for EU assistance in modernizing the sarcophagus over reactor number four and improving the energy supply of the country.
…and, dominating the skyline, there was the containment unit – the sarcophagus – of number four. Almost affectionately called “The Troublemaker” by our tour guide, this is the reactor that exploded on April 26th, 1986, at 1:23 AM. To the right of the sarcophagus, reactor number three is visible, giving some indication of the scale of the containment unit.
In front of the administrative building of the power plant. which I wasn’t allowed to photograph, there’s a statue of Prometheus. Originally located outside the “Prometheus”-cinema in Pripyat, it was moved to the memorial in front of the power plant after the accident. Like Prometheus, the people who built the Chernobyl power plant brought fire – in this case, electricity – to the people and were subsequently punished for it.
Circling around the power plant, we crossed a railway bridge over the canal to the cooling pond. The amount of carps in the water was amazing – apparently, the odd catfish makes an appearance too. Fortunately for the fish, the radioactive sediment renders them unfit for human consumption.
That’s as close as we got to The Troublemaker. The new containment unit has been in place since November last year and seems to work – my dosimeter showed less radiation than in Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kiev. As there’s a lot of granite and marble – both naturally radioactive – in Maidan, that’s not entirely unexpected. Apparently, the old sarcophagus leaked around 3-4 μSv per hour, now we’re down to 0.1-0.2 μSv/h.
We left the powerplant to see what, to me, was the main destination of the trip — Pripyat.
Built in 1970, Pripyat housed the workers of the power plant and became one of the Soviet Union’s model ”Nuclear Cities”. At 50’000 inhabitants in 1986, it is almost exactly the size of Biel, my home town. The current population is – as you may have expected – zero.
Pripyat is officially off limits. While Nadya went to show our authorisation to the guards at the checkpoint, I got this shot of the original roadsign through the car window.
In Pripyat, it’s easy to forget you’re standing in a city that, if it was in Switzerland, would be in the top ten most populated. As you will see in the upcoming shots, nature has reclaimed the space. This was once a busy city road with barely a tree in sight…
… but if you look closely, there’s signs of civilisation everywhere. The old riverside café – imaginatively named “Pripyat” – is right behind these trees, its sign just about visible.
Down at the café, the old river port can be seen in the distance.
Just outside the café itself, a lone glass still stands under one of the water dispensers.
Since April 1, 2012 it is officially forbidden to enter any of the buildings in Pripyat. This is the outside of the hospital we were… eh… not allowed to enter. I have no idea how the following photos ended up on my camera, it must have walked in on its own when nobody was looking.
This is the entrance hall of the hospital. The most chilling part of this is to the back of the camera, where there’s a counter with a small brown piece of cloth on it. This piece of cloth is the facemask of one of the first liquidators, who left it on the counter where it stayed for over thirty years now. Approaching it with my dosimeter set off its alarm, alerting me to radiation in excess of 100 μSv/h.
True to the urban explorer credo and having seen the cloth in the entrance hall, I made sure not to touch anything. Still, further inside the hospital, I found medicine still in its original packaging…
…as well as innumerable patients’ files bundled up and left in a small storage room.
The childrens ward on the first floor sent shivers down my spine. In spite of my natural cynicism, I was assured that this room had not been arranged and had been unchanged pretty much since the hospital was abandoned.
In any other abandoned places I’ve been so far, I could always see the limits to the area. I’d see a block of flats or some other building in the distance and knew there was life there. Not so in Pripyat — every building I saw, no matter how far away, was abandoned. Even though I knew this, I was taken aback by this realisation several times.
It is to be expected that any abandoned building will start collapsing after being exposed to the elements for long enough. The first building to break down in Pripyat was Elementary School No. 1, others will undoubtedly follow.
On old photos, there’s a big empty square framed by the Palace of Culture “Energetik” and the Hotel “Polissya”. Not a single tree in any of the photos…
The hotel “Polissya” still towers over Pripyat, but in the remaining millenia before the area becomes inhabitable again, it too will eventually give way to the forest.
This was one of the first western style supermarket in the Soviet Union. The signs for tinned vegetables (Консервы Овощные), tinned fruit (Консервы фруктовые), “Associated goods” (Сопутствующие Товары), Meat and Beer are the only evidence left of the purpose of this building.
Next to the supermarket, this restaurant has given up waiting for diners.
Before the accident, a fairground was built in Pripyat to celebrate Labour Day, May 1st. The city was evacuated literally days before the fairground would have been opened. The area was used as a helicopter landing space in the aftermath of the accident, bringing much radioactive dust into the area. Over time, the dust was washed off by the rain. However, the moss that grows there concentrates the radioactivity — I measured 20-30 μSv/h on patches that grew in the cracks. No matter how well you know that radioactivity can’t be seen, tasted, smelled… it feels very strange that the only indication of danger is a little beeping gadget in your hand.
Ever since the first people started revisiting Pripyat, the ferris wheel had become one of the iconic landmarks of the city. Of course we had to pay hommage too.
The “Avangard” stadium was home to the “ Футбольний Клуб Строитель Припять” – the “Pripyat Builders FC”. Only the spectators ranks and the odd light mast are left, the actual stadium has long since turned into another part of the forest.
Fittig the name of the local football team, the “Builders Avenue” runs north of the stadium. One building in particular caught our interest, a nine-story block of flats at number 32 – circled in red on the map. Again, we decided to throw caution to the wind and entered the building - only briefly. We came out a couple of minutes later…
…on the roof. The panorama from up there was astounding and gave us a way of mentally replaying our day. From Duga 3…
… to reactor No. 4…
…to Pripyat itself.
After Pripyat, it was time for us to leave the zone. Dosimetric control was no problem, nobody picked up enough radiation to warrrant further inspection, and the drive back to Kiev was uneventful. The day ended with four “Chernobyl Buddies” having dinner and sitting up late over beers outside a local brewery, discussing all facets of life, the universe and everything.
I think I can say that seeing Chernobyl and Pripyat has changed the way I look at places. I found myself ever since walking through cities, looking at buildings and realising that I know what they’d look like if they were abandoned. I spend hours poring over maps of the area, marking things I want to see. The Zone is calling me — I will be back.
Finally, a huge “Thank you” to our guide for the day, Nadya, who clearly loves her job and infects her guests with her enthusiasm, as well as Kate, Matthew and Jesper – as I said, I’d be hard pushed to find a nicer bunch of people to get irradiated with.