Security checks, derelict buildings, wild dogs and remnants of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl is certainly a very unique place. But when I look back to the time I spent there, my first memory isn’t of the eerie abandoned fair ground or the gargantuan metal casing covering reactor 4. Instead it’s of the freezing east wind that raged relentlessly and then I think, why would anyone want to continue living here? People do though, at their own risk. Tough, elderly Ukrainians who lived in Pripyat and the surrounding towns before the disaster. I got to explore these towns and more with my six person group and guide from Chernobyl Tours.
I’ll be the first to admit, my knowledge on Chernobyl and the nuclear disaster that made it famous, was pretty limited. I didn’t know what to expect or what the day would involve. In fact, I wasn’t even sure how safe the area was (spoiler, most areas are pretty safe) but I went and this is what I saw.
THE SURROUNDING TOWNS
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station is at the centre of a 10 kilometre and 30 kilometre exclusion zone which have military style checkpoints at each crossing. I began my day in the outer zone, exploring abandoned buildings, playing with my guides Geiger counter and stroking radioactive dogs… ok, they’re not really radioactive but are very cute. Wild dogs are prominent in Chernobyl which 30 years after the disaster has become an unexpected and accidental wildlife sanctuary. Where humans have left they have taken advantage as have many other animals including wild horses, lynx, European bison, eagles and wolves.
My guide, Ihor, showing us a radioactive hot spot
Soviet propaganda knock off of Lord Kitchener WWI recruitment poster
CHERNOBYL DUGA RADAR
The next stop on our tour was Duga Radar. The secret Soviet radar was used for early warning missile defence and is invisible from all roads within Chernobyl. Ihor jokingly speculated at the other uses this area had for the Soviets, conspiracies including mind control and weather control experiments. It was easy to believe at the time… the thick fog encouraging my overactive imagination. Thousands of rusted computers littered the floor, all dissembled by looters looking for copper and other precious material. We wandered through the abandoned control rooms too, looking at the Soviet posters and propaganda which had started to disintegrate. But the radar itself was most impressive, it was mammoth and intimidating and completely falling apart.
Inside one of the radar control rooms
TYPICAL SOVIET LUNCH
As part of the day trip with Chernobyl Tours you can have lunch in the canteen used by the workers who maintain the structure covering the exploded nuclear reactor. I measured my personal radiation level in these ancient Soviet, human sized Geiger counters to gain entry. It was pretty entertaining and apparently also quite pointless because you pick up more radiation on a long haul flight than you get from spending half a day in Chernobyl. But for the people who work there, this is important. When their radiation levels reach a certain point they have to leave Chernobyl.
The canteen was cold and vaguely depressing but the food was great. I needed warming up, Ukraine in December isn’t tropical. The sour soup was especially good and there was lots of choice for vegetarians.
THE NUCLEAR REACTOR
Reactor 4 exploded in 1986 leaving large areas of Europe affected by radiation. The Soviets admitted to the disaster a day later, after Sweden recorded high levels of radiation near one of their own plants. After many mistakes and the deaths of workers drafted in from all over the USSR, the reactor was encased in a lead and concrete sarcophagus. The New Safe Confinement replaced that cover 2017. I thought the radar was big until I saw this giant! It is actually the largest movable structure in the world.
Reactor 1, 2, and 3 remained in use after the disaster. 2 was decommissioned in 1999 after a fire and 3 was decommissioned in 2000. It amazed me to learn that reactor 4 wasn’t warning enough. But nuclear power plants are hard to close, something has to be done with the nuclear material. Ihor left me safe in the knowledge that it is all in barrels under the sea… great.
Remnants of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
THE ABANDONED TOWN OF PRIPYAT
Lastly we visited Pripyat, the town closest to reactor 4. The inhabitants were left completely in the dark and only evacuated the day after the 1989 disaster. No one realised they would never return to their homes. It was creepy to say the least. I walked through schools, hospitals, cinemas and the famous fair ground. Yet I left feeling surprisingly uplifted. The pavements were covered in plants and trees had grown through buildings. No man-made structure seemed to have survived nature and in the face of the biggest nuclear disaster ever life continues! How amazing. Maybe Ihor saved Pripyat until last on purpose.