Early in the morning on New Year’s Day of 2017 we dragged our tired asses out of bed and went on what would turn out to be one of the best days out of our travelling lives. It sounds like a strange thing to say but the tour wasn’t at all macabre, it was actually fascinating and there were so many interesting things to see.
It should never have happened but it was a rare chance to be inside history and I love photographing abandoned places.
As it was New Year’s Day we had a very hungover tour guide. But it was great because we were the only ones booked on it so we got our own private tour! It’s worth mentioning that you have to book in advance as they have to send your details to the different checkpoints that you pass through on the way to the Exclusion Zone.
It was during the Cold War that the Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union and, unsurprisingly, they did not tell the West about the radiation leak. It was Sweden who raised the alarm after detecting high radiation levels from sensors at their nuclear plant and they figured out that it was coming from Northern Ukraine.
From the beginning, the very design of the RBMK-1000 nuclear reactors was flawed. It was the brainchild of the Soviets to use graphite instead of water to regulate the reactivity which means the reaction is constant. However, as the nuclear core heated the graphite it created more bubbles of the steam which drives the reactor’s electricity-generating turbines making it more reactive and not less.
This flaw became a disaster when Reactor 4 was shutdown for maintenance and workers disabled its automatic shutdown mode despite being in violation of safety policy. The hot nuclear rods produced so much steam when they came into contact with the coolant water that the energy surge caused an explosion. This compromised the cover of the nuclear core and released radiation into the world. It was followed by a second explosion of much greater energy which blew the building housing the reactor apart, causing fires and spraying nuclear core and graphite around the power plant.
In an unconscionable move by the authorities, it took them 36 hours after the explosion near Pripyat to tell the 50,000 people that lived there to evacuate. At this stage, they were already experiencing symptoms of radiation sickness. They were instructed to leave all their belongings as they would shortly return, this is why it is such a haunting picture today. Then the authorities ordered an 18-mile exclusion zone around the power plant.
The human cost is hard to measure in the years after the disaster as it difficult to directly correlate deaths to radiation, especially as time goes on. In the 3-4 months afterwards, 28 NPP workers died and 31 people died from radiation poisoning. There was great heroism from the emergency services who exposed themselves to unknown dangers in their role as ‘liquidators’ who cleaned up the mess and built the sarcophagus over the ruined reactor.
The most triumphant act of heroism, one that saved half of Europe, was carried out by three men who put their lives at risk to prevent a second steam explosion. There was pool of water underneath Reactor 4, whose nuclear core was still melting down toward it. These nuclear workers went in after firefighters had finished cleaning up. They needed to find the correct valve whilst wading through radioactive water, where there were pipes as far as the eye could see, but luckily they found it and drained the water away. We now live and travel in Eastern Europe because of their act.
The sarcophagus that was built over the reactor originally started to crumble so work on a giant shield to cover it that will last 100 years has been now almost been completed. When we were there it was being constructed but had not yet been moved into place.
This shield is apparently built to last and will withstand cold winters, tornadoes and earthquakes. The space between the layers will have a circulation of cold air to prevent rust as well as being depressurised to stop any radioactive dust from escaping. It was made from steel tubes and 600,000 specially made bolts by an international team of engineers. It is really an incredible project if you take away the reason it is being made. It has cost 2.1 billion euros but essentially it is money very well spent. It has been made to slide over the existing building on Teflon tracks and will be the largest man-made object to move on land.
It is thought that it will be 20,000 years before the Chernobyl exclusion zone is fully habitable again.
So that’s the brief history of the Chernobyl disaster and let’s get back on that minibus. It takes two hours to get there and our guide told us lots of history along the way which I struggled to take in so early in the morning.
I had brought some dog food with me as I’d heard that there were a lot of stray dogs that had been left behind so I thought it would be a big help. There were dogs living at the checkpoints and in some of the towns but they were very well looked after. I still fed them though as there were all really friendly and it was a good investment on that front. Food or no food they accompany you on your walks around deserted towns, which was one of the things that made it such a great trip.
Zalissya is the first stop on the Chernobyl tour and the first building is the hospital, complete with old medicine bottles, medical notes and old bed frames. We then looked at the old general store and a children’s playground complete with twisted metal frames. There was nobody else around apart from the dogs so it was a good introduction to the exclusion zone, plus everything was covered in snow.
Kopachi was the next and creepiest stop on the tour from my point of view. The village was pretty buried as it was so contaminated but an old kindergarten remains and it is very creepy. This is especially true as tourists and photographers have put all the old toys into creepy positions so when you walk into a room a blackened doll is sitting up on the middle of a bed staring back at you. Or a dusty bear is in a windowsill conversing with a plastic duck or single shoes scattered on the floor. There were also little sinks and toothbrushes as well as child height hooks for tiny coats.
The Red Forest
We drove through the ominously titled red forest, as all the pine trees turned red after the disaster and then died, and then grew again. The forest is highly radioactive but wildlife stills thrives here as the radiation is within the trees and the soil so they’ll never be able to dig in this poisoned forest. It’s another example of wildlife thriving without us. The next stop was something incredible that I never knew existed in Europe.
Despite being in the exclusion zone, Radar Duga is actually nothing to do with Chernobyl. We didn’t know where we were going when we pulled up at a building with a couple of soldiers stood by the entrance, beside them was an old Soviet gate covered with big metal stars.
There were bits of detritus everywhere and an old frame had been covered in creepy children’s toys either by soldiers or photographers. We saw a nuthatch drinking out of an old bucket as the forest surrounded us. As we passed through the gate, a young and rather beautiful dog joined us as he’d bonded with our guide on previous trips.
We walked along the roadway, not particularly expecting anything and then we looked up and there was a big humming metal matrix disappearing into the mist. What the fuck was it? I’d been too busy enjoying the lovely dog to even notice.
Just to double back on myself, this was of course, something the Soviets were hiding during its use in the 70s and 80s so they needed an elaborate ruse. They built a bus stop for a ‘kindergarten’ which actually went to Radar Duga.
Radar Duga was employed by the Soviets as part of an anti-ballistic missile early warning network. It was an ‘Over The Horizon‘ radar system whose tapping noise and interference with legitimate broadcasts earned it the nickname ‘the Russian woodpecker’.
I read online that there were plans to tear it down to repurpose the scrap metal but I really hope that doesn’t happen as it truly is a thing of beauty. There is another one in Khabarovsk Krai in Russia and an experimental one was made and demolished. So although there were three, there was never one designated with that number so there is only 1 and 2. Before the power station, we still had Pripyat to see, arguably the best part of the tour and on a par with Radar Duga.
I’ve told you the story of Pripyat, so now I’ll tell you what it is actually like now. When it was first built and inhabited, Pripyat was the perfect Soviet town, immortalised in propaganda films with neat streets and tower blocks surrounding the main square as well as leisure facilities. There was a cinema, fairground, football pitch, pool, theatre, hotel and supermarket. Everything you could possibly need if you or a member of your family worked at the power plant.
We visited the main square with the Hotel Polissya and leisure complex before seeing an old football pitch, the famous fairground, complete with a ferris wheel and dodgems, which were never used. An artist painted a life-sized family of deer on to the side of a building next to it and they look very beautiful.
The fairground was covered in snow but my favourite part was the tame fox. The tour guide has told me about the fox but I didn’t dare to dream, in case it was just a feral dog. It wasn’t too impressed with the dog food but it came right up to us both and posed for a picture in the snow in front of the wheel. It would have been perfect were it not for the tyre marks in the snow from the people who’d been since it fell.
You are not allowed to enter the buildings, but we did and went to see another creepy kindergarten in a tower block as well as an abandoned swimming pool. One of the dogs came with us as we stared into the smashed tiles of a Soviet swimming pool.
When they’d tried to remove the radiation they put plastic sheets on the stairs which were covered in ice. I was worried that the dog would hurt its feet but I should have worried about the guide as she slipped down the stairs and scared the bejeezus out of me. She was fine though. It was a thrill to sneak around but I was also relieved that we didn’t get caught. It was time to see the actual power plant which was much less impressive.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
It was very misty at the CNPP, but you could just about make out the sarcophagus. It is still the place where Ukraine’s electricity goes through so you are looking at a working power station. I wasn’t allowed to touch the dogs at the power plant because they were too covered in radiation, I still fed them though. There was a tree outside that had been decorated for Christmas. The Chernobyl christmas tree, it doesn’t get much more surreal than that.
We had our late lunch in Chernobyl in their worker’s canteen, don’t worry though, all food is brought in from outside the exclusion zone including the water. The town of Chernobyl houses several monuments to the disaster but as people live here, it isn’t ghostly like the other places we visited.
We didn’t see many people as it was winter but it is clearly inhabited and you can’t poke around the buildings like you do everywhere else. Our Chernobyl lunch was made up of soup and vegetables so it wasn’t that exciting and my boyfriend regretted putting himself down as a vegetarian. It was time to return back so we scanned ourselves in the radiation scanner and we were free to leave.
It was a long old day, but I learnt so much and it was genuinely fascinating. Chernobyl is a place that I think will become more and more popular with tourists as Ukraine becomes more popular.
If you love reading about Europe then check out my book, the European installment of my Backpacker Confessions series. Girl vs Europe: A Tale of 43 Countries is out now.