Inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone - Ukraine
UPDATE: A more extensive version of this story is now available
on The Road Untold: Exploring Pripyat - Chernobyl's Apocalyptic Playground
Chernobyl is probably the only place in Ukraine that everybody has heard of. In 1986 a routine safety test went catastrophically wrong, leading to an explosion in Reactor 4 which released large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere and deposited it onto surrounding areas. Many historians believe that the events that followed the disaster and the botched cover-up by authorities contributed significantly to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed ask a Ukrainian when they finally lost all trust in the USSR and many will tell you it was after Chernobyl. Much has been written about the disaster, which has affected the lives of millions of people across eastern Europe and is well worth a Google if your are interested.
Nearly thirty years on there is still a 30km exclusion zone around the reactor, with only research and containment work ongoing in the area. That and tourism of course, because well, why wouldn’t you want to visit the scene of the world’s worst nuclear disaster?
I spent 2 days in the zone, visiting the major points of interest. It was an incredible, humbling experience, and a real test of my own views on nuclear energy, which up to this point have been firmly in the “pro” camp.
Our first stop was the city after which the power plant was named. It is actually some distance away from the plant and is now considered a safe distance to reside for up to two weeks at a time. All of the 1,000 people still working at the reactor live here, there is a local shop and the hotel in which we were to stay. It has a strange atmosphere, many of the buildings are still abandoned, with various monuments dotted about the place, and you rarely see anyone walking around the wide open streets.
Our second stop was the power plant itself and the damaged reactor number 4, now sitting in the shadow of a huge new concrete sarcophagus being built by a French company. The largest man-made movable object on the planet, once completed the sarcophagus will be rolled over the top of reactor 4 and sealed to prevent any further radiation from being emitted until it becomes safe in around 70,000 years (!).
Surrounding the reactor is a cooling lake, home to the the biggest catfish I’ve ever seen. Our guide assured us it had nothing to do with the radiation, but rather the fact they get fed so much bread by the tourist groups. Hmm...
Duga Ballistic Missile Radar
Our next stop was the Duga radar station. Appearing from the land like some sort of giant scaffold structure without a building to lean on, it was built by the Soviets as an “over the horizon” radar to detect nuclear missiles launches by the west during the cold war. Many locals and even the west believed it was to be used for mind control or weather management, something the Soviets did nothing to contradict. In reality, it gave authorities 20 minutes warning to prepare for an impending strike. That is, it would have done if it ever actually worked, which, as with much of the ‘advanced’ technology from that era, it didn't. The tragic irony of course, is that the biggest nuclear threat to the region lay not in missiles launched from the other side of the world, but inside Chernobyl reactor 4, just a few kilometers away.
Pripyat town is the place that most visitors of the exclusion zone come to see. Built in 1970 as a model Communist city of 50,000 residents, mostly reactor workers and their families, it lies just 3km from the power plant. The town was evacuated 3 days after the disaster, with residents told they would be returning shortly and so to only bring essential items. They would in fact never return. Unfortunately the whole place was heavily looted after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, where all it took was a small bribe to access the area, so there is very little that remains of the lives people lived there. There are no cars on the streets, little furniture inside the buildings and not a single corner of the town left unturned.
Walking around Pripyat and exploring its buildings is a fascinating experience. Nature has truly begun to reclaim the town, which is now a thick forest with imposing brutalist buildings appearing to emerge from small clearings. Undergrowth wraps around rotting playgrounds and roads are now merely cracked concrete paths through the woodland. However, due to the looting, this is not a town frozen in time. What is left in the buildings looks suspiciously staged and it can at times feel like being in some sort of apocalyptic disneyland. But, despite this, I doubt there is anywhere else in the world you can get such a sense of what a modern city left deserted would feel like. If one day the global economy were to collapse and the world descended into anarchy, 30 years later, this is probably what towns and cities would feel like. Looted, vandalised and toyed with, Pripyat is like stepping into the collapsed, lonely future of modern civilisation.
The Self Settlers
Despite the ban on residents returning to the zone, around 200 have defied warnings and are now living back in their homes. One such couple are Ivan and Maria. Ivan is aged 83 and together they are almost entirely self sufficient, growing all of their own food, keeping chickens and cutting wood from the forest for fuel. We visited them at their home, a small collection of wooden huts and farm land. It was like stepping back 100 years and incredible to see just how basic living-standards in the Ukraine can be. Ivan was full of energy and told us how he was not afraid of the radiation and would not live anywhere else in the world. This was his home, he loved it and would be living here to the end of his life.
Meeting Ivan really made me think about how little we need to be happy. He seemed genuinely content and enjoying his life, despite the fact he had none of the modern luxuries we take for granted such as central heating, running water and consumer goods.
Our final stop was the vehicle graveyard. This was where the vehicles that had been used in the clean-up operation were dumped as they were not allowed to leave the zone after being contaminated.
Has it changed my view on nuclear energy?
Ultimately my view hasn’t changed; nuclear is still an essential energy source for our civilisation and is quite possibly the only thing that will prevent a very painful collapse in the next 100 years. What it has done though, is make me realise just how important it is to ensure it is done with endless caution. If we screw it up badly enough the potential for suffering and environmental damage is huge. Imagine a disaster at Dungeness power plant causing the abandonment of London for example. But despite this, to me the potential of our fragile civilisation collapsing under the weight of being unable to produce enough clean, reliable energy to support itself is a far bigger threat, and one more likely to lead to countless towns and cities ending up like Pripyat.
Nature is far more resilient than we give it credit for. The environment we need to save is that of the human and doing so will involve some difficult choices for our civilisation.
For anyone interested in taking a tour of Chernobyl, check out Chernobylwel.com, they were absolutely great!