Pripyat and Chernobyl, Ukraine

The closest point we stopped at was around 100m from Reactor 4. There’s a monument here paying tribute to those who lost their lives due to the meltdown. There’s a stray dog sniffing around, a bit of chatter amongst the group. And some people are standing, all smiles, posing for selfies in front of a nuclear reactor.

A day trip from Kiev to the Chernobyl exclusion zone seemed like a ‘must do’ during my trip to Ukraine. It’s the morbid fascination with abandoned places more than anything.

I was a young kid on a family beach holiday in the Med when the Chernobyl meltdown started to make the news in April 1986 and had very little appreciation of what it meant. There were stories of people back in the UK being told to keep their windows shut but I don’t recall much else. And since then, I haven’t ever really read about what happened in great detail.

Within a few hours of Reactor 4 at Chernobyl going into meltdown, the nearby town of Pripyat was abandoned en mass and has remained so ever since. Over 30 years where nature has slowly reclaimed the land, and it makes for a region which draws some people to it for the uniqueness of the area.

Organising the day trip was straightforward. There was a passport check, briefings on radiation and safety (seemingly the level of radiation we would be exposed to was much the same as on a long-haul flight), the option to borrow a Geiger counter (I did), and some basic rules for the visit. One rule that sticks in my mind was the warning to avoid sitting down anywhere. If any dust or mud on your trousers showed signs of high levels of contamination upon exiting the exclusion zone, your return to Kiev would be without trousers.

Our small group boarded the little bus and we left Kiev, heading north towards the Belarus border.

The journey towards Chernobyl was taken up with a video. It set out the history of the nuclear plant and the town of Pripyat (including some footage of pre-disaster Pripyat), background to the meltdown, attempts by the Soviet authorities to contain the news, the attempts to deal with the fallout, and the aftermath, right up to the present day and the most recent work on Reactor 4. In particular, the video spent time on the efforts of the first responders, without whom half of Europe may have been rendered uninhabitable for generations due to the fallout, and many of these people inevitably lost their lives due to the extreme radiation exposure.

In total it is estimated that 600,000 people from across the USSR worked on the containment of the Chernobyl meltdown. Some could only work for seconds at a time in particular areas due to the radiation, many suffered horrendously due to their work. But they managed to prevent a disaster becoming something even worse.

After a couple of checkpoints, we had arrived.The first stop was at the Duga Radar (AKA “the Russian Woodpecker”). This was part of the USSR’s missile defence network situated near Chernobyl and is a massive installation, 150m high and half a kilometre long. It was difficult to capture the scale of this in a photo. There were some buildings nearby that we were allowed to wander into for a bit.

After the radar: Pripyat. The main square is just as eerie as expected. Trees have grown through the concrete and turned the centre of town into a forest. The supermarket has been trashed and looted. It’s close to the fairground that never opened, the stadium which is more forest than football. And we continued on to some residential areas.

Rules of the exclusion zone are such that people are still not allowed to go inside buildings. Although, like many rules, that is only applicable if you’re caught. Tour groups will pick and choose buildings to take visitors to, and inside you’re free to roam, but it is a risk. There’s the obvious safety risk for visitors, and the tour group risk having their license taken away if they are caught allowing visitors inside any of Pripyat’s buildings.

Much of the fascination with the area is due to the way nature has reclaimed the land over the decades past. It would be interesting to see an abandoned town, that is one that has been simply left, rather than one which has been subject to years of looting.  If you visit the area, it’s worth bearing in mind that all you’re seeing inside is the remains of somewhere that has been subject to three decades of theft and vandalism. Anything of value was taken from Pripyat years ago and walking around a building isn’t quite like walking around Sanctuary Hills in Fallout 4.

The safety aspects of Pripyat stand out a mile. Rusty spikes, broken concrete, stairwells that look like they’re about to collapse, open lift shafts, broken glass, the barely knee-high safety barrier on the rooftop. Being on guard is essential around here.

From the roof of the residential blocks, the culprit is easily visible. Reactor 4, now encased in a concrete and steel sarcophagus, can be seen not too far away. And all around is the rest of Pripyat. It would take days to explore this area – it was a town of nearly 50,000 people – and a couple of hours barely scratches the surface.

We finished up in the town with a visit to one of the schools. It’s a huge building where we were given freedom to wander. Parts of it were falling to pieces, water damaged, trashed, whereas others had a classroom feel with desks and basic teaching equipment still there. One room had an old world map, faded and barely visible, showing the borders as they were in 1986.

After Pripyat, it was on to Chernobyl. The Geiger counters had been beeping away fairly consistently but started to get more active through certain spots nearer to the reactor. The forest downwind of the reactor had the Geiger counters going nuts for a few seconds. It’s interesting to have the Geiger counter to see how it reacts in certain areas. Even parts of soil or trees in Pripyat had “hot spots”, where the beeping intensified if the counter was next to it. There’s a scary aspect to this: the invisible killer. Even the infamous “Elephant’s Foot” inside the reactor probably looked like nothing much, but was utterly deadly.

Tours stop off fairly close to Reactor 4. The spot has the entombed reactor well in sight, and makes for one of the strangest experiences. Many tourists naturally do what tourists are expected to do – it’s like autopilot – and some even did it here. They turned their back on the reactor, smiled, and posed for selfies. I didn’t really catch on until someone asked if I wanted my photo taken with the reactor in the background. Photographing a site like this is one thing, selfies feel out of order. But then when tourism is introduced into an area, even a disaster zone, this behavior will inevitably come with it.

After a stop off for lunch, it was time to head back to Kiev. The checkpoint included a radiation test through some contraption, and thankfully everyone was allowed to leave with their trousers still on.

The exclusion zone sounds extreme. For anyone who is old enough to remember the meltdown, it probably sounds crazy to consider a trip there. But, decades on, it seems like an increasingly popular place to visit. The safety aspects of it have to be taken at face value, unless you’re a nuclear physicist. The Ukrainian authorities deem Chernobyl to be safe enough for people to now live in, plus there’s a hotel, a place to eat. And plenty of people have their day job there, dealing with the remaining fallout. For them, I guess it’s all kind of normal.

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