I had an opportunity to visit the exclusion zone here in the Ukraine. In short, the zone is around 2600km and surrounds the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The zone was set up after the explosion at the plant which caused a devastating nuclear disaster and subsequent radioactive contamination of the area. The zone was evacuated and is now somewhat of a ghost land. The zone itself is in the Ukraine, Belarus and parts of Russia.
I spent a day exploring Chernobyl and the surrounding areas on a tour which was suggested to me by a friend. It cost a little under R2000 and included transport from Kiev to the zone, a lunch (not that apetising though, be warned), a Geiger counter to use for the day (this is a device to measure radiation levels) and a well informed tour guide to show us around. I did a rather detailed vlog on the day but a few people were asking me to share my photos as well, so I’ve added them in this blog. I’ve also added some tidbits and commentary from the guide. Some of my commentary has also been sourced from responses on social media that I received. I am well aware that I may be misinformed and, if so, please do feel free to link me to resources in the comments.
If you haven’t seen the vlog yet you can watch it here:
I also did a Twitter thread if you’re looking for a shorter version of this photo essay:
Yesterday I spent the day in the exclusion zone. You may know it as Chernobyl. The zone is the area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant where a nuclear accident occurred on 25 April 1986. This thread is some of the highlights. But I’ll post a vlog with more on Wednesday. pic.twitter.com/nUMEoC0ku9
Right, now that the intro is out of the way let me get in to the details.
When humans leave, the world flourishes
We had to leave Kiev at about 7:15am and embarked on a road trip to the first entrance to the exclusion zone. It is oddly creepy on arrival. While you sip on overpriced instant coffee while a security officer with a giant gun pages through your passport. It was freezing and the ground covered in ice and snow, but luckily the sun came out. Mainly this meant decent photos, not actual warmth but still. As we drove in we were told to try not touch anything, not to eat anything. While the amount of radiation we’d be exposed to would be minimal there were still hot spots and “danger” zones.
The first thing that hit me was how nature had taken over. Miles of open land and forests. The humans had been forced out and, in doing so, the animals had been free to move in. Wolves, deer and a host of stray dogs roam the surrounding forest and abandoned homes. They cannot leave. After the accident many of the domesticated animals were put down as their fur was contaminated. The animals currently in the zone cannot leave. If they try they are killed. The tour guide was clearly trained to tell us that the animals have thrived here and that they’ve adapted to the radiation but that isn’t completely true. Much of the feedback I received highlighted that the radiation has caused extreme side effects on many of the animals and the insect population is decreasing steadily. Birth abnormalities are common. Hunters and thrill seekers more so.
I’ve always been a lover of horses and we were told about the herd of Przewalski horses that were introduced to the zone in 1998 to try increase bio diversity. This wild horse is slowly reaching extinction and the herd in the exclusion zone is the last wild herd in the world. There are said to be 40 but I presume the numbers are much less. They are regularly hunted. 10 minutes into our drive we spotted one and it took my breath away.
A few people still live in the exclusion zone. The population is set to be at about 197, mostly older residents who moved back after the accident, preferring their simple farm life over living in other cities. These residents are older, they grow their own food and tend to live a very basic life. Rumour has it the number is far higher than believed. Again, we were told they were older and the effects of radiation weren’t obvious. But again, I question this. For the most part though, villages around the station are derelict and destroyed. We came across a kindergarden/nursery school that was a solo building in a mountain of snow. It was part of a small village where the majority of the houses were built from wood. Wood soaked up the radiation and thus those buildings were taken down and buried. The nursery school remained standing as it was made from concrete.
Pripyat is the abandoned city near the plant. There were once 50 000 people in this city. A week after the accident they were evacuated. Workers had to remain to clean up the area and ended up moving in. They remained in the city for many years but it is now a ghost town. Workers still operate around the zone, living in dormatories. They work for 15 days and then are forced to leave for 15, to negate radiation exposure. The city itself is eerily creepy and overgrown. I was relieved that we went in winter as I imagine exploring this place in summer would be difficult because of the vegetation. Almost nothing remains of the abandoned buildings. Looters cleared out much of the belongings left behind by the population. Workers claimed items too, while living there. It scares me somewhat to imagine how much of the contaminated remains have left this place.
Our Geiger counters worked over time. We were allowed to explore one old theatre but told not to enter other buildings because we could get injured. Days after the accident many workers exposed to radiation were taken to the hospital in Pripyat. They removed their contaminated clothes in the basement of the hospital and these black rags remain, as they could not be burnt. A host of thrill seekers try sneak down to get close to the clothes. How absurd?
There is also the remains of a funfair that caused much excitement for our group. I later found out that this funfair actually never opened. A juxtaposition between joy and broken dreams, if you like.
The actual nuclear reactor
The tour consisted of less than 15 minutes standing in front of the destroyed reactor. It is now covered in a large silver dome – this safety enclosure added after the original sarcophagus began to collapse. There are 3 other reactors surrounding the destroyed on. Nuclear materials still need to be stored. These will need to be taken down at some point but it seems no one knows when. I got the distinct feeling that it was more a matter of “out of sight, out of mind” and “not our problem yet” which left me with a large feeling of dread and despair.
The KGB military base
On maps Duga 3 was marked as a children’s camp but it was actually a secret KGB base housing these radar structures that scanned for US missile attacks. A few things bugged me about this place. The first that it was evacuated the day after the explosion, 3000 people moved. Yet it took the Soviet Union more than a week to evacuate Pripyat and kept assuring residents there was nothing to worry about. The second is that these Radar structures run for kilometres under ground too. They’re clearly close to falling apart. What happens when they come down? The radiation seems to have settled in the ground and if these structures were to fall they’d ultimately disturb the soil and spread the contaminated particles further. The only way to get them down is to conduct a controlled explosion. Which cannot happen because again, it would upset the soil but also there are 4 nuclear reactors in close proximity and an earthquake from an explosion could offset another disaster. So what is the solution? Apparently there is another few years before anyone needs to worry so it is being left for now. That bugs me.
Exploring Chernobyl was an experience like no other and one that has left me frightfully uneasy with the concept of technology. We continue to move forward in leaps and bounds but every so often we trip and fall. Those failures result in horrific results. This failure was 30 years ago and yet we still feel the repercussions and generations are left to deal with the damage. I wonder how much bigger the fall will be as we advance?
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