On 26 April 1986, whilst performing a late-night safety test which simulated a station blackout power-failure, reactor four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered a catastrophic power increase, leading to explosions in its core. These explosions completely destroyed the reactor and caused the release of massive amounts of radioactive materials over a ten-day period. Located about 2km west of the reactor was the city of Pripyat, founded in 1970 to house the workers of the power plant. The city had a population of approximately 49,000, all of which were forced to evacuate after the accident, freezing Pripyat in time. In recent years, the Ukrainian government has allowed tours of Pripyat, Chernobyl and other surrounding villages to the public, and I was lucky enough to visit the site before it is completely swallowed up by the surrounding forest.
When I first told my family and friends that I was planning a trip to the site of what has been described as the worst nuclear disaster the world has ever seen, they all thought I was crazy. Why would I waste my money going to this nuclear wasteland, and why would I put myself in unnecessary danger by entering a zone which is still heavy contaminated, they said. One of my friends, who was less than impressed with my choice of holiday destination, joked that for my next vacation I should consider visiting the Sellafield Power plant. I understand why Chernobyl might not be on everyones top ten lists of holiday destinations, but to me the Power Plant and the surrounding areas are a place of recent historical significance, and something which I have wanted to see since I was a child.
The city Pripyat had a population of 49,400 before the disaster, with the average age being about 26-years-old. The city had everything you would expect – shopping centres, restaurants, swimming pools, cinemas, and was considered to be the model soviet city. However, on April 27th, a day after the accident, its residents heard the following evacuation announcement:
“For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 p.m. each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water off and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.”
They were given two hours to gather their belongings and board one of the many buses that had been sent to the city. The evacuation took 3.5 hours using 1,200 buses from Kiev. The soviet government attempted to both cover up and downplay the seriousness of the accident. It was not until two days after, when Sweden detected the radiation cloud that had drifted over Europe, that the extent of the Chernobyl disaster was revealed, not only to the people living in the USSR, but also the Soviet government.
32 years later, I arrived with camera in hand to visit the site with my good friend Buck from The League of Nerds. One of the first things you notice when entering the exclusion zone is that it is not a barren nuclear wasteland as most people expect, but a thriving ecosystem. Even in the freezing temperatures of winter (-17C when the sun was up), life was everywhere. Mother Nature has been slowly, but surely, reclaiming the land within the exclusion zone and destroying what little remained of Pripyat and the surrounding villages.
One of the strangest things about the abandoned exclusion zone is that it never was truly abandoned. Only one of the four working reactors was destroyed in the accident, leaving the other three to continue produse electricity for years to come. The Chernobyl exclusion zone is still home to employees of what now remains for the reactor and to those who cater for these people.
The exclusion zone also engulfed numerous villages which, like Pripyat, had to be evacuated after the accident. In the years that followed, the majority of buildings they contained were demolished and their rubble buried underground. The area is now peppered with small mounds with radiation waring signs on top that used to be peoples’ homes. There is a memorial to all the abandoned villages in the exclusion zone that consists of a list of them all with a red line going through.
The first thing that really stuck out to me when entering Pripyat might sound a little strange, but it was the sheer number of trees. Even in the middle of winter, there were times when I could see nothing but trees, and found it hard to believe that I was in the middle of a once booming city. One of these times, my guide turned to me and asked if I knew what I was standing on. He then informed me that the wooded area I was walking through was once a football pitch. A few seconds later, there was an opening in the trees that revealed an abandoned terrace. It was called the Avanhard Stadium and it was home to the FC Stroitel Pripyat team before the accident.
A five minute walk from the stadium is the Pripyat amusement park, which was due to be open on May 1st, five days after the accident, for the May Day celebrations. Several sources report the park was open for a short amount of time before the evacuation, despite the fact that some of the rides were not fully assembled. Some theories believe that the park was open a day after the accident to distract the Pripyat residents from the unfolding disaster nearby.
There were many schools and kindergartens in and outside of Pripyat which, as you can imagine, contain the stuff of nightmares. Inside you find things you would expect like textbooks and toys, but you also find scattered about the remains of ex-soviet posters and children gasmasks that were kept incase of a Cold War U.S. nuclear attack.
In total, Pripyat had 15 primary schools, 5 secondary schools, and a music school. The music school has several rehearsal rooms and one large auditorium, which is home to a grand piano. Before entering the school, we were warned not to go up the stairs in pairs, as our guide was worried that it may collapse at any time. This made my travel companion Buck nervous, and for the first 10 minutes he refused to go up them.
One of the secondary schools I visited was “Middle School No3”, which for some reason had hundreds of childrens’ gas masks strewn across the floor.
Next to the middle school is the famous Azure Swimming Pool. Although it looks just as dilapidated as the rest of the city, it was actually in use until 1998 (12 years after the Chernobyl disacter). In those 12 years, the pool was used by the liquidators, who were the civil and military personnel who were called upon to deal with the consequences of the accident.
As I have said I’ve wanted to visit the site of this disaster since I was a child. I know it’s not exactly everyone’s ideal holiday destination, but I found it to be an incredible experience, and I’m very much glad I went.
It won’t be too long now until the site itself is reclaimed by nature, meaning that the chance to visit and see this for yourself is limited. I would highly recommend seeing it all for yourself if you get the chance – it’s well worth it to witness this important part of modern history.