Visiting Chornobyl

The Chornobyl exclusion zone is a place of interest for nuclear physicists, urbex photographers and end of the world-fans alike. I happily found myself in the position to check it out.

30 years ago a catastrophic accident occurred in Reactor number four of the Chornobyl [1] nuclear power plant. During a test, flaws and shortcuts in the design of the reactor led to a massive explosion. In the operations trying to limit the damage, 31 people died due to direct exposure, and an estimated 4000 died as a result of the radiation cloud. That cloud, in the nine days the reactor kept burning, covered most of Europe, including The Netherlands. Right now, all is mostly quiet in the Chornobyl area, mostly due to a 30 kilometre exclusion zone. Only power plant workers and small groups of visitors are allowed to enter.

I was lucky to visit the exclusion zone during a trip to Kyiv in August of this year. Trips are remarkably easy to book through accredited travel agencies such as ChornobylTour. It does involve some reading up on the risks, and some thorough preparation. I was glad I booked a few months before we went to Ukraine. This year is really busy. The 30th anniversary of the disaster makes Chornobyl really popular with journalists. A lot of tours would be booked by camera crews, eager to show how brave they are. Thankfully, none of those were on our tour.

The minivans leave from Kyiv central station early in the morning. I expected much bigger groups, but in the end all people easily fit in the 5 minivans. Each minivan had its own tour guide, and followed its own route. In total there were probably no more than 60 tourists in the exclusion zone for the whole day.

But what about the radiation?

Mostly, the exclusion zone is safe. Background radiation is much higher than elsewhere on the globe, but you don’t get a higher dose than you would get on an intercontinental flight. There are however numerous scattered hot spots (especially inside forests and buildings) of very highly concentrated radiation. We were issued a Geiger counter so we could check for those. The idea is to stay clear of them. Also we had to wear long sleeves and no shorts during our time in the zone, to limit the possibility of irradiated dust coming into contact with our skin.

Soviet radiation detector.
Radiation marker
Radiation at bumper cars.

In the exclusion zone

After waiting for our papers to clear we entered the exclusion zone, an area covering roughly 30km around the power plant. No one is allowed to enter without special permission. That means only tours, security officials and people working on the powerplant.

Warning sign at Chornobyl
Me signing some papers.

Driving on the decaying roads with not a soul in sight is a little creepy, and gives you a very real idea of what a post apocalyptic landscape looks like. For 30 years, no person has lived here.

Our first stop was at the former Zalissya village. It was completely overgrown. Nature has won this battle. It is good to note that nature deals very well with the disappearance of people. Even though the place was teeming with wildlife, it was very very quiet.

The next stop was the village of Chornobyl itself. Interestingly, this is not where the power plant is located. That was, during planning, named after the then closest town. Then Prýp’jat was built closer to the plant, to contain the support workforce. Now Chornobyl is inhabited by plant workers, who work in shifts for three weeks, then have to get out.

A very interesting stop was the old Duga-1 radar station. The soviet union needed an early warning system for ballistic missile launches. Lacking satellites, they opted for this experimental Over The Horizon radar array. One of these transmitted a very powerful signal, which then bounced around the globe and was received by a second array. The 10mw signal became known as the “Russian Woodpecker”. It disrupted civilian frequencies. The system was taken offline when Ukraine became independent; the system’s maintenance wasn’t part of the negotiations.

Duga-1

We walked around the Cold War relic, and had a look inside; seeing the old server spaces and instruction rooms.

A favourite of all the tourists and Urbex photographers is the dilapidated children daycare center. Littered with weathered belongings, dolls and other children’s toys, it gives a very haunting image. Things are always creepier when small children are involved.

Creepy Chornobyl doll

And then we arrived at the Chornobyl power plant itself. The nuclear power plant site is to be cleaned by 2065. The plant is being decommissioned. The place was very active, as workers were finalising the new Safe Confinement construction. Three months later it would be moved over Reactor number 4, finally creating a safe environment for cleaning up the reactor. It is decidedly weird to stand 100m from this reactor, A place I only knew from tv and books.

Chronobyl Reactor 4 and the Safe Confinement.
Chornobyl monument.

After this we had some time for reflection at the canteen. After going through a monstrous radiation detector we enjoyed a hearty Ukrainian lunch. Then we moved on to our final stop: The city of Prýp’jat.

Prýp’jat

Prýp’jat was designed as a closed city, to serve the power plant. On the day of the disaster it had grown to almost 50.000 inhabitants. It was a model city for the Soviets, the leadership often used it as a model of the glorious soviet state.

After the reactor exploded, it took authorities 40 hours to decide on full evacuation.

Walking around Prýp’jat is not exactly safe. The years have taken their toll on the buildings. It’s hard to see where you are walking; nature has mostly taken over. There are holes in the road, buildings are collapsing, and radiation hot spots are everywhere. Yet it was totally worth it. Very rarely the opportunity presents itself to visit an abandoned city. It was already quite hard to visualise what the city looked like in the eighties. You’re walking through a huge forest, over cracked concrete sidewalks and roads. Between the trees loom apartment buildings. We went into a supermarket, the swimming pool, the famous school with all the gas masks for civil defence drills. And finally we climbed 14 flights of stairs in one of the apartment blocks to take in the view of the surrounding area.

Prýp'jat
Chornobyl powerstation from the rooftop of a Prýp'jat apartment block.

Conclusion

This was a once in a life time trip in many ways. 2016 was the last time the old sarcophagus over the reactor was visible. After the Safe Confinement is in place, all is covered until it’s removed. The state of the buildings will make it impossible to enter them in the coming decade. And with the Safe Confinement in place, cleanup will speed up. It will be many years before the whole area is fully habitable, yet we will see a decrease in interest as more and more of the area gets cleaned up.

Notes:

  1. I chose to go with the Ukrainian spelling. The Russian Chernobyl is frowned upon nowadays. For all other place names I followed this convention as well.