Things to do in Chernobyl when you’re alive

Given the current global lockdown scenario, I thought it was high time I posted some photographs from my (pre-Covid) visit to Chernobyl and the now deserted nearby city of Pripyat. Perhaps such places present a lesson. We get to see what society looks like when humanity itself is no longer viable.

There was nothing remotely like the internet back in the spring of 1986. In fact it was essentially impossible to make contact with most people in the world. The continent of Europe was bisected by the Iron Curtain, which added a recurring sense of mystery to the daily news. Things would happen that would only gradually become clear. It was as though little had changed since the Middle Ages — people in one tribe had no idea what their neighbours over the mountain were up to.

So when Swedish power plant workers were found to have radioactive particles in their clothes, and several other European countries started reporting increased levels of radiation, it didn’t take long for the finger of suspicion to be pointed firmly eastwards. With something like this, it was bound to be the Soviets.

“Nuclear” and “accident” were two words that you didn’t want to hear in the same sentence. Another word you didn’t want in that sentence was “secret”. Yet here we were. An accident had occurred at the ageing Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine, and the Soviet authorities had responded in their customary way. They had tried to cover it up.

* * *

Unbeknown to the West, the Soviets had evacuated the nearby city of Pripyat within 36 hours of the explosion. Constructed just 3 km away as a home for power plant workers, Pripyat had gone about its business quietly and calmly since 1970. Now, within a few hours, all 50,000 of its citizens had been hurriedly bussed out of town. And that was the end of Pripyat. None were ever to return.

Today the city remains deserted. Population: zero. It lies at the centre of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, or CEZ, a designated area of military protection spanning a 30 km radius around the plant.

The CEZ is one of the most radioactively contaminated areas in the world. Unlike Hiroshima, where an atomic bomb released nuclear energy in a single burst, the accident at Chernobyl — the explosion of Reactor Number 4 during a routine safety test — scattered radioactive elements far and wide, embedding them into the soil where they continue to leak radiation into the environment. This place will not be safe for human habitation for thousands of years.

So anyway, I decided to go and visit.

* * *

On the trip from Kyiv to the exclusion zone, time for a documentary on events at Chernobyl

The transit van from Kyiv left early in the morning, carrying a crew of seven passengers: two were nuclear engineers from France, three were a family from Poland whose grandparents had came from the part of Belarus right next to Chernobyl, one was an English-teacher from Kyiv, and the other one was me. My paperwork had been approved, and subject to a radiation check — conducted with a full-body scanner similar to the metal detectors used at airport security — I would soon be admitted into the CEZ.

Radiation levels inside the CEZ mean that visitors can only stay for nine hours at a time, presuming they aren’t too radioactive to begin with. For this reason, you can’t go in if your radiation readings exceed the standardised safety level. This could be a problem for someone who tries to visit Chernobyl too many times, and maybe for radiographers. But in our group, everyone, including the nuclear engineers, got the all clear.

We had strict instructions for inside the CEZ. Don’t drink the water. Don’t eat any fruits or berries. Don’t eat any food in the open air, as this increases your chance of consuming radioactive particles. Don’t bring any objects out of the CEZ. In fact, even taking rocks or stones away is a criminal offence. Photographs, we were told, should be enough.

Visitors to Chernobyl undergo radiation tests. Too radioactive and you’re out

There we were, essentially tourists, wandering around the smallish original town of Chernobyl, the deserted city of Pripyat, and the maximum security Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant itself, where for safety reasons the reactor is still fully staffed. I was allowed to take pictures of nearly everything, barring a few restrictions. Military installations, checkpoints, and security facilities were off-limits. And at the power plant itself, we could only point our cameras at the so-called “sarcophagous”, the huge steel and concrete shell that was constructed to protect the world from the epoch-defining radioactive fallout still emanating from Reactor Number 4.

So here are some pictures depicting what it’s like to visit the CEZ. A photographic travelogue of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, like walking around the set of a Hollywood movie, but in real life.

Or, rather, not life. At least not human life.

After all, this is what the world looks like when humans make it uninhabitable.

* * *

The old town of Chernobyl is mostly, but not entirely, abandoned. Located around 15 km south of the power plant, it today serves as a base for the administrators employed to manage the CEZ. At the time of the accident in 1986, it was home to 14,000 people. Now, its population is less than a thousand.

There are some monuments and statues, and even a hotel, but this was very much an administrative stop, somewhere to have our papers checked for a final time before continuing our journey north, onward to Pripyat.

Soviet-era star motif adorning public furniture in the old town of Chernobyl
Hundreds of stray dogs live in the CEZ, many of which are assumed to be descendents of pets abandoned by evacuees in 1986. (In the background are some Ukrainian soldiers)

* * *

Located just 3 km from ground zero, Pripyat didn’t really stand a chance once a reactor at the plant exploded. Within hours, the city was enveloped by fallout, and one by one its inhabitants started to become violently ill. At first, local bureaucrats thought they could successfully play things down, and declined even to notify Moscow. But the scale of the unfolding disaster — the worst nuclear energy accident in history — was soon unmistakable. A full evacuation was ordered. Within sixty minutes of the first buses arriving, the entire population of Pripyat had been taken away.

Initially, people were told that they would be gone for three days. In reality, they were never to return. It is one of the reasons the city now feels like such a ghost town. People’s belongings are just there, some strewn by the elements, others poised on kitchen tables, as they were left some thirty years ago.

Much of Pripyat’s infrastructure remains aloft, but some of it just about. Foliage grows wild everywhere, including inside most buildings. Without normal maintenance, everything has simply decayed. Paint, plastering, and masonry have disintegrated. Decades of dust have piled up. And in the early years, especially after fall of the Soviet Union, there was even a period when thieves ran amok, stripping buildings of metals, cabling, and whatever else they could salvage. All of what was retrieved was dangerously radioactive. Who knows where it is now.

As visitors, we were issued with hand-held radioactivity meters, ostensibly to alert us when we encountered radiation. It was hardly worth it. The gadgets kept beeping constantly, even when we walked around open spaces. When we held them near solid metal objects, they beeped like crazy. Everything was radioactive, even the dust.

Some buildings were too radioactive to enter. But many apartment blocks were easily accessible and visitors, like me, were free to roam about. Many of these blocks had basement levels and some even had roof access. Health and safety measures were non-existent. You were on your own here, watching your own step.

One of Pripyat’s many Soviet-era apartment blocks, with a single telephone kiosk for residents to use
With no electricity and surrounded by trees, the interior of the apartments have been dark for a very long time

Between the rampant foliage and spartan building facades, it was sometimes hard to distinguish Pripyat’s public spaces from its residential areas. Some buildings had lettered signage erected at roof level, denoting the occasional hotel or supermarket. But as in most communist countries, commercial signage was rare. There was little evidence of advertising and few brand logos of any description. Even the rooftop building signs were geometric and functional, deliberately informative rather than enticing. The main forms of graphic design on display were the ubiquitous guild marks and symbols of the Communist Party of Ukraine and the wider Soviet regime.

The best way to identify each locale was by its function. A supermarket would have shopping trolleys strewn about, a playground would have swings and slides. It was in these tools of consumption and entertainment that a sense of daily life could be found.

A coat of arms for the Communist Party of Ukraine. Before it decayed, the surrounding garland was comprised of wheat strands, symbolising the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic
Inside one of Pripyat’s supermarkets
In the absence of humans, wildlife has thrived, oblivious to the radiation. Biological studies suggest that genetic mutations in plants and animals significantly increased after 1986. Albinism, pygmyism, and other physiological anomalies are common

The city of Pripyat was established in 1970 solely to accommodate workers for the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Its evacuation took place barely a decade and a half later. As such, when the accident occurred, Pripyat’s inhabitants were still relatively young, many of them children. Around a quarter of the city’s population were less than 18 years old.

True to style, the schools of Pripyat were given numbers rather than names. I managed to spend some time inside Secondary School Number 5.

The facade of Pripyat’s Secondary School Number 5
The gymnasium at Secondary School Number 5

There was even an amusement park, complete with dodgems, merry-go-rounds, and a Ferris wheel. Most of it is completely overgrown by the adjacent forest, the wide-eyed screeches this place once sparked forever frozen in time.

A splendid setting for dodgems

* * *

The journey between Pripyat and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant took very little time, and on a sunny day was actually quite scenic.

As you might expect, security at the plant is intense. We were instructed only to take pictures while facing the sarcophagus, and not to photograph any of the soldiers or other personnel. But the sarcophagus is so large that in one of my shots, I later found that I had inadvertently photographed a small group of three plant workers, who seemingly had nipped out for a break (see below).

This new sarcophagus was completed in 2016, and was simply built over the top of the previous one. Inside it lies 100,000 tonnes of plutonium, a single microgram of which would be enough to kill a human. In other words, there is still enough plutonium in there to wipe out 100 million people.

There are long-term plans to one day dismantle the reactor and to clear the site. But as plutonium has a half-life of 235,000 years, this is easier said than done. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant will require high-security protection for quite some time yet.

Currently, its protection is the responsibility of the Ukrainian government. Ukraine has quite a lot on its plate right now, its war with Russia (“our Russian situation” as my taxi driver in Kyiv described it) being just one national crisis. The construction of Chernobyl’s sarcophagus cost over a billion dollars. It won’t last forever.

* * *

Officially, the death toll for the Chernobyl disaster was first recorded as just 31, but this only counted people who died from acute radiation poisoning within the first three months. The real problem with a disaster like this is its long-term impact.

In 2005, the Russian Academy of Sciences claimed that premature deaths due to Chernobyl could in fact be as high as 125,000. Disability and chronic illness have also been rampant. The National Research Centre for Radiation Medicine in Kyiv estimates that around 5 million people within the former USSR were medically injured, of whom 3 million were Ukrainians. They describe it as the “the largest anthropogenic disaster in the history of humankind.”

It is sobering to also consider the catastrophe that was averted. Had containment attempts failed in 1986, the meltdown of Reactor Number 4 would have marinated Europe within a deadly layer of radiation, rendering it uninhabitable for centuries. Depending on the weather, other continents too could have been afflicted.

As it was, Chernobyl ranks as one of the greatest disasters of our lifetimes. It was nearly the biggest catastrophe of all time.

Since the 1980s, as a society, we seem to have tired of nuclear paranoia. Atomic power is an important source of sustainable energy. But humankind retains the capacity to destroy itself. The derelict no-go zone around Chernobyl — encompassing some 2,600 square kilometres — sits in permanent silence as eerie proof of our proneness for self-destruction, a reminder of humanity’s ability to obliterate its own habitat.

As the world now wrestles with a global pandemic (and in many respects makes a mess of its response), now is not the time to forget the power imbalance that exists between humankind and nature. Like it or not, some challenges just exceed the capacity of human ingenuity.

Events of even a single day can expose us to collective mortal danger. A botched response can truly upend our normality — for years, and perhaps centuries, to come.

Proceed with caution
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