Chernobyl, the site of the worst nuclear disaster in human history, has been on everyone’s lips in 2019, owing largely to the gritty and pensive retelling of the event by the HBO series of the same name. Exclusively for Observer+, I visited and stayed in Chernobyl for a full day to report my first-hand impressions and experiences in the most radioactive place in the world.
What happened in Chernobyl?
On April 26, 1986, an explosion at the nuclear power station in the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl resulted in the release of immense amounts of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. Hundreds of thousands of people in the vicinity to the explosion were evacuated and an exclusion zone with a radius of about 30km was drawn around the nuclear plant.
The explosion happened due to a flawed Soviet-era reactor design, as well as error on behalf of the scientists working at the plant. 31 people died immediately in the days after the explosion, while thousands of others were affected by the radiation exposure and passed away from various forms of cancer.
Entering the Exclusion Zone
The nuclear accident left an area of approximately 4000 square kilometers around the nuclear facility completely uninhabitable for people. Due to the slow rate of decay of radioactive materials, the area will continue to be unsuitable for human habitation for at least another 30,000 years.
The Exclusion Zone today is sealed-off with barbed wires and is protected by the Ukrainian armed forces. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian government allows visitors to the Zone, provided that they register for a special permit at least 10 days in advance and have a special Government-sanctioned tour guide with them at all times.
The full-day tour itself was pretty extensive and covered a total of 5 locations, including abandoned villages and a secret military installation, in and around the vicinity of the Chernobyl power plant. At the start of the tour, I was instructed not to touch anything in the Zone and was also given a radiation dosimeter to measure the level of radiation around me.
First location: the abandoned village of Zalissya. This is the first village you visit after crossing the checkpoint into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Once home to over 3000 people, today there is not a single soul in any of the houses and only decaying toys, broken furniture and shattered glass are left behind by the people that used to live there.
Fun fact: You are not allowed to touch anything in the Exclusion Zone, and trying to take anything out of the Zone as a souvenir – even a small piece of paper off the ground – may result in criminal charges and imprisonment. This rule is due to fear of contamination, as most items and objects are still radioactive and can affect people’s health.
Second Location: the Duga-1 Radar military installation. Entrance to the site of the top secret missile defense system Duga-1 Radar, also known as the Russian Woodpecker for the repetitive tapping noise it made over the radio waves. Initially thought to be a Soviet Mind Control experiment, the Radar’s purpose was later revealed to be the detection of early missile launches from the West.
An entire settlement was built around the Duga-1 Radar to accommodate for all the staff working on the site. The true purpose of the Radar was highly classified, to the extent that staff who had family members living with them were told that the Radar was simply a high-frequency antenna.
Fun fact: There were two checkpoints leading up to the site. At the first one, the soldiers would turn people away and tell them that there is nothing interesting up ahead the road. If someone somehow managed to make it through the first checkpoint, they’d be greeted by less accommodating soldiers and be shot on sight.
The Radar is insanely large, 150 meters tall and 550 meters long. Due cover up its existence, the Soviet engineers built it in a location where the structure is not visible unless approached from up close. Interestingly enough, twice as much money was spent on constructing this Radar than on the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Location 3: Abandoned kindergarten in Kopachi. A village once home to 1000 residents and situated 4 kilometers from the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, Kopachi today is completely abandoned. The local kindergarten in the center of the town is a time capsule into the times of the Soviet Union.
Location 4: the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant: If you stood here 33 years ago, you’d potentially be exposed to a fatal dose of alpha, beta and gamma radiation. Today, it is largely harmless unless you wander around radioactive hot spots for a long period of time. My dosimeter picked up a reading of 0.75 sV/h at this spot, which is only thrice the amount of gamma radiation you would be exposed to in an industrialized city.
Close-up shot of the infamous Reactor 4. The large steel and concrete structure around the Reactor 4 is referred to as the Sarcophagus and it is used to contain the release of radioactive materials from the plant. Its construction was a massive undertaking and numerous countries donated funds for its construction. It is expected to last 100 years, after which a new structure will be required to contain the radiation.
Fun fact: The area around Chernobyl is not a nuclear wasteland. Today, over 5000 workers still work there to decommission the plant. Because nuclear waste takes tens of thousands of years to decay, there will always be workers required to be physically present in Chernobyl to maintain the facilities and monitor the radiological situation on the ground.
Final location: Entrance to the town of Pripyat, the 50000 residents of which were hastily evacuated over the course of merely two hours the day after the Chernobyl disaster.
Fun fact: Residents of Pripyat earned four times the salaries of an average Soviet citizen. The city also had a very young population, with an average age of 26. Compared to the rest of the Soviet Union, people of Pripyat lived luxurious lives with nearly unhindered access to ownership of automobiles, property and even yachts.
The abandoned city of Pripyat is full of colorful and complex wall murals designed by Soviet artist Lytovchenko Ivan, who also worked on a number of wall murals in the capital of Ukraine. While most of the city has fallen to ruins, the murals stand strong and are comparatively untouched by time.
It is said that the city of Pripyat was so rich that they had trolleys in their supermarket. Elsewhere, there was no purpose for them as there wasn’t much to choose from nor could anyone afford to buy many products at once. The photo above is the first floor of the main supermarket in the center of Pripyat, where people could buy food and even furniture with cash instead of queues, which were customary in the Soviet Union and could last for weeks and even months.
This is an amusement park in the center of Pripyat that never saw an official opening as its completion coincided with the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. It was extremely rare for small settlements to have their own amusement parks, so the mere fact of this park’s existence is a testimony to the lavish lifestyle of Pripyat residents.
Famous ferris wheel of Pripyat. It has been been a recurring location in many movies and computer games.
This is an apartment complex in one of the residential districts of Pripyat. Following the evacuation of all the residents, the Soviet police and military were unable to keep off looters from entering the houses and stealing valuables. In a desperate measure, the Soviet military decided to enter every apartment and toss out every single thing straight out of the window onto the ground, including furniture, bathroom and kitchen appliances and personal belongings. This is why most of the windows are broken and all the apartments are completely stripped of everything but the walls.
There are many so-called ‘radiation hot spots’ around the Exclusion Zone. Because radiation does not spread equally, there are a number of locations that are highly radioactive while others are relatively safe. The picture above was taken in front of the Pripyat welcome sign; the dosimeter is showing a reading of 3.52 Sv/h, which is 10x the average reading for radiation.
At the end of the tour, we drove by the Heroes monument that was built to commemorate the brave men and women who were first responders to the nuclear incident. The monument depicts firefighters, doctors and engineers who sacrificed their health and lives to save hundreds of thousands of other people.
This brings us to an end of the report. If you are adventurous and want to experience the atmosphere of Chernobyl, there are now more opportunities than ever to do so. Due to the popularity of the HBO series, bookings to the Exclusion zone have increased by about 40% compared to the last year and there are many tour agencies that will offer their services to you. You can find the most trusted tours through websites like Tripadvisor, which I’ve used to book my full-day tour.