Toxic Chernobyl – Into the Dead Zone

BLOGCOVER4

It was the worst nuclear disaster in history, spewing massive amounts of radioactive particles into the atmosphere and prompting the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from the most contaminated areas. But thirty years after its reactor number 4 exploded in a pillar of radioactive dust, the abandoned wasteland around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant is becoming an increasingly popular destination for dark tourism.

On April 26, 1986, a sudden surge of power during a routine systems test destroyed reactor 4 of the Chernobyl power station near the city of Pripyat, 110 km north of Kiev, in the former Soviet Union. The explosion and the fire that followed released a plume of radiation in the earth’s atmosphere equal to 400 atomic bombs on Hiroshima.

The Chernobyl nuclear accident is one of only two classified as a level 7 event (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the other being the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011).

After the accident, officials closed off the area within 30 kilometers of the power plant. This radius of contamination called the “Exclusion Zone” (or “Dead Zone”) has remained ever since.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Soviet authorities tried to cover up the disaster and waited almost three days – until the drifting radioactive fallout triggered alarms in Sweden – before publicly acknowledging that an accident had occurred. The reactor-core eventually had to be sealed with a cement mixture, dropped from the air, and a giant concrete sarcophagus was hastily constructed by liquidators to contain the radiation.

chernobyl reactor four

After several years, experts became concerned that the high radiation levels could affect the stability of the sarcophagus. In order to contain the radioactive remains of reactor 4 the existing sarcophagus needed to be replaced with a new safe shelter.

The New Safe Confinement (NSC) was designed to prevent the reactor complex from leaking radioactive material into the environment and to allow a future partial demolition of the old structure. The NSC is an arch-shaped steel structure, which will slide across the existing sarcophagus via rails, and should last at least 100 years. By the end of this year, the arches will be moved over the temporary containment structure.

chernobyl sarcophagus

Now that radiation levels have decreased in the years since the tragedy – despite still being up to 10 times higher than normal levels – in 2011 the Ukrainian government opened up the sealed zone, with approximately 30.000 visitors each year.

However, day trips or overnight stays to the Exclusion Zone are highly regulated and permitted only as part of an organized private tour. Visitors have to sign a waiver, exempting the tour operator from all responsibility in the event that they later may suffer radiation-related health problems.

Once there, visitors are banned from touching anything, eating or drinking any food or beverage that does not come from outside the zone. And you get a Geiger counter to measure the dose of radiation received. Exiting is likewise highly regulated, with several body scanners checking for high levels of radiation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Exclusion Zone is packed with interesting dark tourism sites. Located a few kilometers north-west of the power plant, the Duga radar system towers over the dense Chernobyl forest. This top-secret military installation was developed to alarm the Soviet Union in case of an intercontinental ballistic missile attack. The Cold War was in full swing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The titanic size radar system was extremely powerful, sounding like a sharp, repetitive tapping noise which led to it being nicknamed by shortwave listeners “the Russian Woodpecker”. The random frequency hops disrupted legitimate broadcast, amateur radio and commercial aviation communications, and resulted in thousands of complaints by many countries worldwide. Nowadays, the site is open for pre-arranged visits.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

P7181853_b

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The most macabre attraction is not the ruined plant, but the ghost town of Pripyat. The Soviet model town was built in 1970 as part of the Kremlin’s nuclear-powered master plan. Located a couple of kilometers from the power station, the relatively affluent town housed almost 50,000 plant workers and their families.

Pripyat was not immediately evacuated after the explosion. The townspeople went about their usual business, completely oblivious to what had happened. But within a few hours after the initial blast, dozens of people fell ill. Later, they reported severe headaches and metallic tastes in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting.

In the early hours of 27 April, over 24 hours after the explosion, Soviet officials ordered the evacuation of Pripyat. Residents were told to bring only what was necessary and that the evacuation would take about three days; later this was made permanent.

Over three decades later, this ghost town is a freeze-frame of the Soviet Union in 1986. Communist propaganda still hangs on walls, personal belongings litter the streets and abandoned buildings are crumbling down. The hammer and sickle decorate lampposts, awaiting May Day celebrations that never took place. All clocks are frozen at 11:55, the moment the electricity was cut.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Visitors get to walk through the debris-strewn corridors of its Palace of Culture, admire its crumbling Olympic-sized swimming pool, and wander through eerily empty classrooms. Hundreds of discarded gas masks litter the floor of the school canteen and children’s dolls are scattered about, dropped by children 30 years ago.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pripyat was also home to a newly-built amusement park, with the iconic derelict Ferris wheel and bumper cars.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The ghost town of Pripyat offers a breathtaking snapshot of a Soviet city slowly taken over by nature. And in recent years, lynxes, great eagle owls and wild boar have reappeared, as well as increased number of deer, foxes and wolves.

Back in 1986, wildlife was not doing well in Chernobyl, outcompeted for resources by pine and dairy farms. After people left wildlife returned almost immediately, and despite having radiation levels thousands of times higher than normal, they were not showing obvious signs of mutations (though plants got pretty weird including some actual glowing) and the animal populations grew enormously. Today the animal populations more closely resemble that of a national park than a radioactive containment zone.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After three decades of abandonment, Chernobyl and its surrounding villages are being swallowed up by the dense forest. Someday, they will be completely overgrown. So go now, before the buildings will be in ruins and roads overgrown by vegetation.

The Exclusion Zone is open for pre-arranged visits where a permit must be granted in advance. Chernobyl tour companies provide the necesary documents. I visited the Chernobyl Dead Zone with tour agency Chernobylwel.com. Their guides are very knowledgeable about the Dead Zone and the program is flexible enough according to the group’s interests.  We were never rushed to get to the next place. Because of the dilapidated buildings, safety is a major concern, but the guides know their way around inside the crumbling buildings.

Excellent value for your bucks (110 euro for a one-day tour including permissions, lunch and transportation in a minibus from Kiev to the Dead Zone and back).

chernobyl tour agency

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *