I’ve always been fascinated with Chernobyl: what is now considered to be the worst radioactive accident in history. Earlier this year, I got the chance to visit Chernobyl and Pripyat on a private tour – just myself, my best friend, her husband and our guide.
On April 26, 1986, a major nuclear accident occurred at Unit 4 of the nuclear power plant in the Ukraine (under the former USSR). The operating crew was testing the turbines in the event of a power loss, and deliberately turned off the safety systems. The test did not go as planned, and an unexpected power surge caused a violent – and radioactive – explosion.
The reactor burned for nine days, spreading radioactive dust and pollution into the air, and causing a nuclear fallout that stretched across much of Eastern Europe.
It was an almost two hour drive from Kiev, where we had spent the night in a large Ukrainian apartment in the heart of the city, to the border of the 30 km exclusion zone at Chernobyl.
I sat in the front of our guide Igor’s four door car – an advantage, he tells us, as we can visit more places the larger tour groups can’t, as we are in an inconspicuous civilian car as opposed to a bus.
As we near the zone, he pulls out a Geiger counter, designed to measure ambient radiation in the are. “See this?” he asks, tapping the screen. “0.1 uSv per hour. That’s safe level – you’re from Toronto, yes? You have…” he pauses for effect, “…the same amount inside your apartment!”
We pull up to the border of the 30 km exclusion zone, where we’re greeted by very official looking guards – guns and everything. We’re told we can walk around, but are not allowed to cross the barrier or take photographs of the checkpoint or guards themselves.
A few minutes later, we are on our way into the zone.
This infamous sign – the original from the 70s – is found greeting visitors to the abandoned ghost town of Chernobyl Village.
We moved on within the area, driving through Chernobyl Village itself, which is now home to the workers dealing with the clean up. We’d be eating lunch in their canteen – all the food is brought in from Kiev – later on in the day.
We arrived at our first real destination within the zone – the kindergarden – and the only building you’re “officially” allowed to enter, though sometimes private tours – ours included – are taken into a variety of off-limits areas.
This stuffed lion, delicately perched on a window next to an attendance list (likely for dramatic effect) was found within the kindergarten just outside of Kopachi Village.
Kopachi is the “buried village” of the zone – literally. The government knocked down most of the buildings in Kopachi following the accident and hastily buried them into the ground, before coming to the realization that burying nuclear fallout might not be the best idea.
This kindergarten hit me the hardest while we were visiting. The artwork hung on the walls – scrawls of childish letters and scraggly stick figure drawings – the stuffed toys, dolls, and empty beds left behind tugged at my hear strings.
It was so eerie to think of these people heading out for a typical day, and then one second changes everything forever. They just had to up and leave, thinking they would be allowed back soon, only never to return home again.
This was taken a mere 270 metres away from Reactor #4. It’s considered a safe distance to view the reactor from most days (levels of radiation can vary day to day, location to location, due to a number of factors).
“Safe” levels of radiation are considered under 3 uSv/hr (0.2 is common in major cities). The day we visited, our levels outside Reactor 4 came in around 4.12 uSv per hour: higher than what’s considered safe, but still low enough to make the risks of exposure during a short visit negligible.
A fatal dose is FAR higher than that amount. The average radiation worker received 3-25 uSv/hour at the time. But immediatly after the explosion, the radiation levels inside Reactor #4 reached 300 Sv/hr (that’s a fatal dose within 1-2 minutes). Currently, levels are roughly 35 Sv/hour inside (or fatal dose of radiation in 10-20 minutes
We got very lucky during our visit.
That crane to the left? It’s dismantling the ventilation shaft to prepare for the placement of the partially constructed New Safe Confinement. The first layer was taken off on October 31, the day after our visit. It was completely gone within a few days, forever changing the landscape of the ill-fated reactor.
The original sarcophagus covering Reactor #4 was never meant to be a long term solution, and is slowly crumbling – including a roof cave-in due to snow in early 2013. This new cover is being built to the side of the reactor, and, once completed, will be slid across tracks into place over Reactor #4, forever sealing it – and the radioactive isotopes – inside.
The remnants of Reactor #4 will be radioactive for a long time – the gamma radiation present has a half-life of 30 years, which means it would take 300 years (with no further decontamination work) to return to normal.
However, the radiation has sank into the soil, vegetation, and surfaces within the zone, meaning they’ll likely be contaminated for much, much longer.
After leaving the reactor, we headed to Pripyat, the town that housed nearly 50,000 nuclear workers and their families. The town had over 20 schools, a hospital, three cultural centres – including a movie theatre – sports venters, swimming pools, parks, and more.
This is the original sign from the 1970′s.
Can you see the radioactive warning in the background? These small, ominous symbols were sporadically spread throughout the bush – a small, lingering reminder to the disaster that took place.
When in the exclusion zone, we gained access to many places not all tours visit – thanks to our decision to book a private tour for three.
Igor drove us up to a 17-floor apartment building and pulled up out front. He said if we wanted “some exercise”, we were welcome to climb the 17 floors, through a narrow passageway, and up a ladder onto the (somewhat decaying) roof to view the lost city from the sky.
Of course we said yes.
“Be sure not to stay up there for more than 5, 10 minutes at most,” he cautioned, “You’re not allowed up there and they can see you from a distance.”
He then tuned, lit a cigarette, and laughed, waving us on. “Go on, I’m not coming – I don’t want to climb 17 floors.”
And so on we went – into an apartment building, up 17 flights of peeling paint, discarded bottles, broken glass, and debris, getting dizzier with each turn; before clambering up a metal ladder – getting dust all over our hands and sleeves in the process.
Mildly out of breath, we ducked out onto the roof top and gasped.
The views were worth the climb, though, to be able to look out on the city from the sky.
The Reactor loomed in the distance.
Next, we approached the Pripyat Amusement Park, home to arguably one of the most iconic ferris wheel’s in the world.
The bumper cars, ferris wheel, and other assorted rides were being set up for the citizens of Pripyat to celebrate May Day, which was fast approaching.
No one could have foreseen the catastrophic nuclear accident coming – it happened April 26 – just days before the fair was set to open.
Perhaps one of the most unfortunate and upsetting things about the accident is that people continued living in the town for up to TWO DAYS after it happened, unaware at how dire the situation really was.
When they were told to evacuate, they were told it would only be for a few days.
Igor claims that part of the reason people are able to visit the zone now is because of the power washing that occurred in the days following the accident. Assuming things would get under control, and people would move back in, clean up in the city was begun, and continued for days before officials realized the people of Pripyat were never coming home.
We visited a number of buildings during our tour – three schools, a swimming pool, community centre, and recreation centre. We were lucky in that we were allowed inside – thought it was easy to see why the government doesn’t officially allow it anymore.
Glass covered the floor, gaping holes existed in the wooden floor boards – our guide put his foot through a rotting chunk at one point – and wet sludge dripped from the dark ceilings.
At one point, we walked by a completely tilted wall on the second floor of a school.
“See this?” he asks, gesturing to the unstable cement wall. “Totally unsafe. About to fall over. It could kill someone”.
Igor turns, stepping over a chunk of glass. “Come on,” he says, “we have to move on”
The buildings were dark, crumbling, and covered in a thick dust – filled with bits and pieces of lives left behind. Remnants of the USSR lingered – gas masks on the floor from a time when a nuclear war was a scary possibility; a school child’s page on “America and Americans”, featuring an American flag wrapped in barbed wire; soviet propaganda at every turn.
Igor read us some of the passages and descriptions from the work books and walls. The interesting thing was seeing the USSR from the inside: it wasn’t all that bad. The things we, as a Westernized world, hear about the Soviet Union, the way we talked about them during the cold war, were essentially the same things they were saying about us. We’re not so different, it seems.
Nature is everywhere in Pripyat. This photo, taken in the second floor dentist office in one of the schools, had a tree growing through the floorboard (a common sight), as well as tiny trees planted on walls, nooks, and crannies.
The “most famous moss in the world” grows everywhere – it’s highly radioactive – the patch we tested measured in between 12 to 18 uSv per hour.
There’s some items – bottles and pan – that may have been left behind. Of course, some items within Pripyat have been brought in by outsiders, dropped or forgotten, or in some cases, placed by visitors to create the “perfect” photograph.
We moved on, wandering the streets outside, now overgrown with trees and bush. At one point, we approached an apple tree – having already seen the highly contaminated soil, when Igor grabbed an apple from the nearby tree my friend assumed he was going to show us the level of radiation found inside. Just as I looked over, we saw him take a large bite out of the apple, eating it.
I guess when you spend every day inside the exclusion zone you stop worrying so much.
One of the things that fascinates me the most about the exclusion zone is the unlikely wildlife sanctuary it’s become. In a place where no human would dare to live, catfish, birds, boars, and horses have made a home. The world’s largest captive breeding program for Przewalski’s horse is in the Ukraine, and sometime after the accident, several dozen horses were released — and they thrived.
There’s 200-some-odd horses living within the exclusion zone today – it’s quite common to see them grazing on the contaminated grass, enjoying the quiet and eerie serenity of a town frozen in time.
We ended out tour by heading out to Duga 3, also known as the Russian Woodpecker, a cold-war era soviet defensive tactic. Another stroke of luck for us, as this area was only opened to tourists on October 15th. In fact, our guide had never visited before either.
When I asked why it was just opened now, he echoed my reason for visiting Chernobyl in the first place: “to say goodbye. They will begin tearing it down soon, just like the rest of it. This won’t be here forever.”
If you’d like to see more, you can visit my Chernobyl photo gallery on 500px, or for a more up-close-and personal look, you can ‘wander’ the streets of Chernobyl thanks to this interactive Russian street view site.