The Biologist and I were waiting in a dirty bar, slowly sipping our cheap and bitter beer. The Stalker arrived early in the morning, the fog hasn’t even settled yet. We jumped inside our car (without roof, of course, as the Stalker requested), then slowly started our trip into the Zone. After sneaking past a few soldiers… wait, no. Scratch that. Here is the real story of our trip into the Chernobyl exclusion zone and to the ghost city Pripyat.
The preparations. The two of us (namely, the Biologist and the Mathematician, of whom I am the latter one) wanted to travel to the Chernobyl exclusion zone – from now on, the Zone – since our childhood. When the Biologist mentioned to me that he plans this trip, I immediately wanted to join. After a few days, we already had our plane ticket to Kiev and planned out the whole tour. When we told our plan to others, they thought that we are crazy. My girlfriend was afraid that I am going to die from radiation. My mother was afraid that I am going to die from radiation and my unborn children will die from radiation and everything I touch will turn to nuclear waste. (If our plane doesn’t crash on our way there, she said.)
The truth is, there is no need to worry. Nowadays it is safe to travel in the Zone, and hundreds of people do so every day. So, after a quick planning and researching phase, we were off to Ukraine to see the Zone for ourselves.
The arrival. We arrived to the first checkpoint at 10:30 in the morning, where we met our guide, the Stalker. (Actually, he was not a Stalker in the precise sense. A stalker sneaks into the Zone illegally, while we went inside completely legal.)
The Zone is divided into two main parts: a highly contaminated and a less contaminated one. The former is inside a circle of 10 km radius, while the latter one has a radius of roughly 30 km. The whole exclusion zone covers approximately 2500 , and it is approachable from several military checkpoints. In order to go into the Zone, you need a guide, an official permit and a detailed itinerary. The first surprise came at the first checkpoint, because there were several buses full of tourists waiting to go in before us. There are whole enterprises in Ukraine dedicated to organizing tours to the Zone.
After we gained entrance, we were off to the village Chernobyl, which, as it turned out, is completely populated.
Chernobyl village. Chernobyl, the small village from which the nearby nuclear power plant was named after, was completely evacuated. A few villagers returned over the years, but the village is mostly populated by the workers building the new sarcophagus, administrative personel, etc. For them everything is provided for free by the government, for example the food and the housing.
Near the entrance of the village there are two paticularly interesting memorials. One of them is an iron statue of an angel with a trumpet.
“The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter”.
After the explosion at the nuclear plant, some people thought that this is the event what was predicted. It is also worth to note that the word chernobyl is the ukranian word for artemisia vulgaris, or in english, common wormwood.
Right next to the angel, there is a graveyard for the evacuated villages.
More than 100 0000 people were evacuated from more than 100 villages. Along this path, each village has its own cross. After this brief stop, we were on our way to the center of the zone.
The Russian Woodpecker. Besides the nuclear power plant, there are (or to be more precise, were) more Soviet military-operated objects in the zone. The biggest and most interesting one is a huge over-the-horizon radar called DUGA-3, which had the nickname Russian Woodpecker. It broadcasted extremely powerful shortwave signals, which bounced off from the ionosphere, therefore extending its range over the horizon. It required immense power to do this, in fact it was so powerful such that every shortwave frequency in Europe was disrupted by a sharp clicking sound, hence the name Russian Woodpecker. This went on for more than 10 years, and since it was a Soviet military project, no one know what it really was. There were speculations about Soviet mind control and weather control experiments, but of course the truth was much simpler.
Our first glimpse was this. The structure (which is basically a really-really large piece of scrap now) is located deep within the forest, and its area is guarded.
This thing is so ungodly huge that you cannot even fit it in a picture from this location. It is 90 meters high and 750 meters long.
If you look at it from the right angle, you can see interesting patterns. The americans had satelite images of this thing, and they thought that this is a children’s camp. An interesting fact is that the construction of this radar cost more than the entire nuclear power plant. After spending a few minutes around, wondering about how big this thing is, we were off to see the reactor.
On the road to Reactor No. 4. Before we arrived to the reactor where the explosion happened, we saw a few interesting things on the road. One of them was a village, which was completely demolished and buried, except the kindergarten building. It was the only building which was made from concrete, the others were made from wood. You can wash the radioactive dust off from concrete, but you cannot do that with wood.
After the short visit in the kindergarten, we saw the reactors for the first time, although from a distance.
On the background you can see the reactors (with the new sarcophagus under construction) and on the right side you can see the cooling channel for the reactors.
The Soviets planned to expand the power plant with two more reactors, but the constructions were abandoned after the accident. This one was abandoned at 95% competion.
What was the cooling channel is now the home of a huge catfish population. Since they are not hunted (because their flesh is tainted with radioactive isotopes and you should not eat from it), sometimes they grow to a very large size, often larger then a meter.
The reactors and the Red Forest area. As I mentioned, the Chernobyl Power Plant had 4 reactors and the accident happened in the 4th one. It is still unclear what caused the explosion, presumably human error. After the explosion, nuclear particles were sprayed into the atmosphere, eventually scattering throughout Europe, contaminating what they had touched. The radioactive dust covered the top layer of the soil in a large proximity of the nuclear reactor, which had to be removed, bagged and buried. Now the contamination is mostly removed and the radiation inside the zone is aproximately 10 times the cosmic radiation. (Which we receive all the time.) Although there are some radiation hotspots, they are very small. (At least, the ones we saw.) There are still a large amount of radioactive material inside the reactor, it has been sealed with a concrete sarcophagus. Now it is completely safe to approach the reactor, and many people do this every day, for example the workers building the new sarcophagus.
Reactor No. 4, where the accident happened. It is clearly visible that the old concrete sarcophagus is crumbling. Which is a problem, since this is the only thing between the huge amount of radioactive material and the outside world. But, as the cranes can tell, the new one is on its way. They started the construction in 2007 and it will be ready in 2017.
This large dome is the new sarcophagus. It has been built upon railroad tracks and has a nuclear power plant-shaped hole in the front. After the construction is finished, it will be slid over the reactor.
The Mathematician (that is, me) and the Reactor.
The Biologist and the Reactor. His t-shirt is an advertisment for a hungarian home brewery MONYO Brewing Co. They produce a beer named Fukushima Heavy Water to raise awareness for earth pollution. (The beer is also green-colored and tastes very good.) My friend contacted the brewery a few weeks before the trip with the idea, and they sent us a few bottles of beer and a t-shirt to wear in front of the reactor. Thanks for the beer again!
The Pripyat town sign is located behind the reactor, in front of the Red Forest. When the explosion happened, the wind was blowing in the direction of Pripyat and the nearby forest. The forest received a huge dose of pollution and the dying trees turned to red, hence the name Red Forest.
The Red Forest is still forbidden. Although most of the radiation was cleared up and washed away, the radiation is still much higher than the usual.
The ghost city Pripyat. Pripyat is located northwest of the reactor. The city was a Soviet propaganda city, among its population of 50,000 people were the operators of the power plant, the engineers, and in general Soviet intellectuals. Now (aside from the tourists) it is empty and a forest has grown in its place. It is like a glimpse of the earth after the human civilization. From now on, I will (mostly) let the pictures do the talking.
First we visited a coffee shop near the Pripyat river.
An abandoned coffee shop is not that interesting, but this one had some very beautiful mosaic glass inside, which was partly destroyed, making it more beautiful. The second building we visited was a movie theatre called Prometheus.
This is the abandoned screening room. The picture is slightly deceiving, since the room was pitch black, we couldn’t even see each other, only the two exits. The picture was taken with long exposure, making the torn screen and a few seats remaining there visible.
A lonely piano. It can be found in a building right next to the movie theater.
The ghosts of Pripyat. There are quite a few graffitis in the city, some of them are very haunting.
An abandoned supermarked at the main street. Which, of course was called Lenin avenue. A cultural center was also here on this street. We went in from the back, through a propaganda room.
“Learn, learn, learn!” V. I. Lenin.
The largest theatre of the city was located in this building.
I found this old and torn mathematics book on the floor.
This is an another auditorum, but this one is located in the cultural center.
The next room we visited was the iconic gymnasium. If you saw some pictures taken in Pripyat, chances are you have seen this view.
The next picture is one of my favourite. Look how life found its way through the wooden floor!
The amusement park with the iconic ferris wheel is located near. This place was never used, nobody ever rode the ferris wheel. The opening was scheduled after a few days of the accident.
After the amusement park we visited an another kindergarten, one of the 16 kindergartens in the city. The average age was 26 years around the time, because of the many young families living here.
One of the creepier rooms can be found here. Someone created a scene with dolls sitting around in a circle, which emits a strange atmosphere, like the city had started to live its own life after the evacuation. Which is, in a sense, true: life has found its way inside, but in the shape of a forest.
Walking around the streets is quite spectacular.
We also had the chance to visit a schoolbuilding.
In one of the classrooms we found hundreds of gas masks lying on the floor. Not exactly sure why were these things there, but they made sure that this room is also one of the creepier ones.
Another math book, another gas mask.
The Soviet Patriot newspaper. It is dated 23 April 1986, 3 days before the accident.
The swimming pool is an another iconic room. The liquidators (the personnel responsible for dealing with the radioactive debris after the accident) kept it operational up until 1996, but now it is in ruins.
Look at this view! It must have been nice to have a swim here.
After visiting all these buildings, we climbed to the top of a 16 story building, one of the highest in the city.
At the top of Pripyat. “Look! A city has grown inside a forest.”
In the next picture you can see the DUGA-3 radar in the background. It is that huge.
This rooftop was the last stop of our trip. Before we left, we made a picture of us with the reactor in the background.
Unfortunately, we did not find the room which grants wishes.
National Chernobyl Museum. The next day we visited the National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, which showed the human side of the accident. Up until that point, the whole accident was more or less an abstract thing for me. I know it happened, it did not affect me nor anyone else I know directly, I have not seen the suffering. This museum was mostly dedicated to the victims. For the liquidators, who were sent in right after the explosion to clear the debris without a decent protective gear, sentencing them to death. (And in the photos, which they took right before they were sent to the reactors roof, you can see most of them smiling.) For the children, who got sick and eventually died from the radioactive dust sprayed into the atmosphere.
The museum is a shrine for the victims. In the largest room, which is dedicated for the children, there is an altar with the pictures of thousands of children, who died as a result of the disaster. The younger people were especially in danger, because the explosion released various radioactive isotopes, which embeds itself in various tissues in the body and then they radiate directly from there. For example, iodine-131 can embed itself into the thyroid gland, eventually causing thyroid cancer.
As closing thought, my opinion on nuclear energy. Most people think that the Zone, the Reactor and the ghost city (along with Fukushima prefecture in Japan) symbolizes the dangers of nuclear energy. I do not think so. For me, it symbolizes human negligence and stupidity in two ways. For one, the explosion in Reactor No. 4 was (as far as we know) caused by not just human error but flat out carelessness, which could have been prevented easily. Second, that when a tragedy like this happens (it happened two times in the history of the mankind), blaming the nuclear energy is insane. Decommissioning nuclear plants all over the world after an accident is like putting a halt to air traffic after the captain drives his plane into a mountain. Nuclear power is currently one of the cheapest and cleanest nonrenewable source of energy on the planet, which is unfortunately tainted with stupidity.