Greetings! and welcome to my Chernobyl Exclusion Zone essay. I hope you enjoy the article as much as I did researching, photographing and writing about such a fascinating place. All of my Chernobyl images are available for licensing, You can currently see them on Tru-TV’s 10 things with Jamie Lee, EP106. If you wish to license any of these images please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photography brings me much enjoyment in life. With regular landscape photography it usually means getting away from the rat race of daily life in Los Angeles and into quiet, peaceful areas where I can relax and take my time doing something I enjoy immensely. Another interest of mine is going off the beaten track and visiting places that people don’t normally go. While it is true that the Chernobyl exclusion zone has become an “extreme” attraction to a certain crowd of people over recent years, it is still not a place you would want to take the kids on holiday.
I can still remember sitting in front of the TV after dinner back in 1986 in Norwich, England, listening to the news reports of a massive explosion at a power plant in some far away land called the Ukraine. They told us that there was a radioactive cloud floating over England and settling on the Welsh farmland, possibly affecting the crops and livestock. In the days following the accident, with my naivety as an eleven-year old boy, I would go looking to the sky in the school playground thinking, “Well, I don’t see anything up there…”
Over the years since, nuclear power has always aroused my interest, from atomic weapons and eerie-looking gas masks to the invisible dangers of airborne nuclear particles. For me it is the most frightening human creation and something that requires the utmost respect from all of mankind, both as an efficient energy source and as a weapon of mass destruction. Heading into the 21st century, it had become apparent to me that Chernobyl might actually be a place to visit. With information on Chernobyl growing at such a speed online and various video games being released making it possible to see the area virtually, it rekindled my interest and got me researching the possibility of visiting what most people still think of as some radioactive dead zone.
Since, I have not only visited Chernobyl and the surrounding areas once, but now twice. It is at this point I would like to present to you some of the images I took of the area in 2008 and during my return visit in 2009, offer some facts and dispel some myths I learned during my time in such a fascinating place.
In the early hours of April 26, 1986, the night shift in reactor number 4 of the V.I. Lenin Memorial Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station was performing tests that were postponed from the previous day shift. They were testing whether the plant could operate if all electrical power was lost on its systems and backup generators were brought online in its place. A poorly designed RBMK-1000 (Reactor Bolshoi Moschnosti Kanalynyi) reactor, in combination with inadequate operator training and knowledge, led to the reactor’s overheating. A sudden and excessive increase in steam caused the 1,000 ton lid to blow clean off the reactor into the air, destroying the roof of the building and spewing tons of nuclear waste including fuel and radioactive graphite into the atmosphere and surrounding areas. Atomic agencies set this disaster at Level 7 — a total nuclear meltdown — one hundred times stronger than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many radioactive elements were released into the environment and atmosphere during the explosion including Cesium, Plutonium, Strontium and Iodine. It has been calculated that given plutonium’s half life of 24,100 years that it will be a very long time before the area is fit for general population again. It is also worth noting that due to wind patterns at the time of the accident and other environmental factors, not all areas of the 30km zone are polluted. Some areas have been proven safe and even have people living there today, as I will talk about later.
From the photo above you can clearly see the concrete sarcophagus that was hastily erected in the weeks and months following the accident. Experts on hand knew they had to cover the remaining nuclear waste left in the reactor to lower the radiation levels in the immediate vicinity. Radiation today is measured in sieverts. On any normal day the background level that exists anywhere on Earth is roughly two to six micro-sieverts (µSv) per hour. In the areas immediately surrounding the sarcophagus, levels are approximately six milli-sieverts (mSv) per hour — some 6,000 times above normal background levels everywhere else on earth. Once standing behind or inside the Chernobyl visitors center (the pale building on the right of the image), levels drop down considerably lower. The yellow and grey structure you can see attached to the right of the sarcophagus was installed in 2006/7 to strengthen the outer wall which was showing signs of collapsing.
Above are the unfinished cooling towers for reactors 5 and 6. They were still under construction at the time of the accident and have been left unfinished to this very day. There is a lot of debris scattered around this area — from what exactly, it is hard to tell. Radiation levels vary greatly here, and at one point the dosimeter gave a loud warning of high radiation levels, enough to make us jump. Interestingly, the famous 1986 explosion is not the only incident to occur at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (CNPP). In 1982, reactor number 1 experienced a partial core meltdown, but due to Soviet secrecy the accident was kept quiet for many years and the compromised reactor was only out of service for a few months before it was repaired and put back into operation. No resulting fatalities are known. In 1991, five years after the 1986 explosion, a fire broke out in the turbine hall of reactor 2. It was at this point they decided to close down reactor 2 for good. Reactor 1 was shutdown in 1996 and the remaining reactor 3 was switched off by then-Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma on December 15, 2000. A new containment structure for the dilapidated reactor 4 and its sarcophagus was commissioned in 2007 and is now in the design phase. Construction is expected to cost roughly $1.6 billion dollars. Once the 190-meter wide and 200-meter long steel arched-shaped structure is completed and wheeled into place, engineers can finally start breaking down what is left of reactor 4 safely.
Pripyat (as the sign says above left) was a relatively new city founded in 1970 to house the workers of the Chernobyl plant. At the time of its evacuation following the 1986 explosion it was a young city, where the average age of its populous was only twenty-six years old. Surprisingly, in the morning after the accident, most people went about their business unaware of the magnitude of the disaster that was unfolding less then 3km away from their homes. Radiation levels throughout Pripyat were extremely dangerous and most people were going about their daily lives completely oblivious to this fact. Some people who had noticed something was afoot had gone to the bridge (pictured above-right) just outside the city on the road to the power plant to watch what was happening from there. They all received fatal doses of radiation and thus the bridge has been nicknamed “The Bridge of Death.” Today, it has been completely cleaned of any radiation contamination and is safe to cross or walk on, and serves as the main road into Pripyat.
It was only after Forsmark Nuclear power plant in Sweden measured elevated levels at their facility and concluded it must be coming from somewhere in Russia, did the Soviet authorities admit they had a problem. The following warning message was reported on local radio: “An accident has occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the atomic reactors has been damaged. Aid will be given to those affected and a committee of government inquiry has been set up.” By the evening of April 26, 1986, a committee had been formed (including the then head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Hans Blix, who would later go on to lead the search for Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons in Iraq) and had arrived at the sight of the accident. By this time at least two people directly linked to the explosion were dead and approximately fifty people had been hospitalized, some of them in Pripyat hospital. More than twenty-four hours after the explosion, the committee ordered the evacuation of Pripyat.
At 14:00 hours on April 27, 1986, the order for the evacuation of the city of Pripyat begun. It took just three hours to evacuate a little under fifty-thousand people. Residents were told the evacuation was temporary, lasting for only a few days, and were instructed to take only necessary belongings such as personal documents and enough clothing for less than a week. To this day, over twenty years later, no one has ever returned to live in the city. It is this which makes Pripyat an attraction for certain people like me to visit. However, over time and mainly at the turn of this century, most of the city has been looted and vandalized. Little is left in the buildings and apartments now, but occasionally you will run into artifacts — broken vinyl records, sheet of newspapers, a school book or child’s toy — all left in haste during of the final hours of the city’s habitation.
Above is a typical Pripyat apartment building. Most are in bad shape now. With water running through much of them in the spring, its not uncommon to find trees now growing through floors and up on the roofs. The interiors now have been mostly looted of anything valuable, including the heating system on the walls, which have all been stolen for scrap metal. Also a point to note is that most of the trees in Pripyat now were not there in the 1980s; they have all grown in the last twenty-three years. Nature is slowly reclaiming the land.
Above is Pripyat town square. The picture on the left is taken from the top of Hotel Polissia, one of two hotels in Pripyat. On the right of the picture you can see the Palace of Culture, Pripyat’s cultural center. In the distance is a shopping complex, and towering above are 16-story apartment blocks. Shown on the right is the hardware store Raduga, once located at the base of an apartment block in the town center on Lenin Avenue. After the accident and evacuation, the town of Slavutych was constructed 50km northeast of Pripyat to house all displaced residents and workers, some who still to this day work at the plant. These workers travel in to the Chernobyl area on a special train which does not stop at Bellarussian border control and arrives directly at the CNPP.
On the southwest side of the city is Pripyat Police Station. Behind that structure are many abandoned vehicles which, like all other remnants here, have been robbed of anything valuable. These vehicles were used by a collection of military and volunteers known as liquidators. These liquidators were charged with clearing the zone of radiation contamination by washing and scrubbing all surfaces. Certain villages with high radiation levels such as Kopachi, less than 4km south of the reactor, were completely buried. All that remains is a monument and mounds of land with radioactive signs on poles warning passersby, it is also worth noting that the name ‘Kopachi’ means ‘gravedigger’ in Ukrainian.
Pripyat was completely washed down also using tanks and other machinery, effectively clearing the whole city of radioactive elements, which are now being absorbed into the soil at a rate of about 1cm per year. It is estimated that between 600,000 and 1,000,000 liquidators were involved in the Exclusion Zone clean process. Varying reports estimate that about 25,000 of them are now dead and another 70,000 are ill or suffering the effects of the radiation doses they received while on the job.
This was the main center for sports and recreation in Pripyat at the time. These facilities were still used up until 1998 (some 12 years after the accident) by plant workers, scientists and other people who were still working in the zone. Now, like everything else, it has been completely looted and trashed.
There were many schools and kindergartens in Pripyat, and I have visited three of them over my two trips. The library (pictured above) as it stands today is three or four feet deep in books on the floor, which is quite a sight. All windows are broken and the room looks like something from a war zone. This made me feel a little emotional as it seems such a tragic waste that this place will never teach or hear the quiet whispers of young children ever again. All the corridors of the schools were equally unsettling with remnants of an ex-soviet regime scattered everywhere — from posters of what to do in the event of a possible cold war U.S. attack to children’s gas masks littering the floors. This area had a big effect on me. In the right photograph you can see four floors from school #1 which collapsed in July 2005.
Various produce was grown at the Pripyat greenhouses (pictured above) in the north of the city prior to April 1986. After the accident these greenhouses were used for many years by scientists to study vegetation growth under radiation contamination. Once the scientists left, however, the facilities fell into disrepair and thieves claimed anything valuable left behind.
Pripyat Hospital, as one might imagine, was by far the creepiest part of the tour. We walked passed dark room after dark room through a maze of hallways while drug vials and broken bottles cracked underneath our feet. Bottomless lift shafts and stairwells that descended into pitch black also added to the eerie atmosphere. It was not a pleasant place to be. According to some accounts, a group of the first contaminated firefighters from the night of the accident were brought here before being transported to hospitals in Moscow. Sadly, at least one of them never left here alive. Other people who have visited here have said that they felt like they were being watched while passing through the hallways and rooms in this building, while I didn’t feel the same thing as them, there was definitely an uneasy feeling while exploring here.
This is Pripyat Stadium, once home to a running track, football pitch and many other sports amenities. In the days after the accident, the stadium was used as a base to land helicopters employed to contain reactor fires and limit further radiation leaks at the CNPP. The open grounds also served as a landing hub for transporting the sick and wounded from the plant to the hospital. Needless to say that due to the presence of contaminated helicopters in the center of the stadium, radiation levels are high, but we could safely walk around the perimeter.
Without a doubt the most interesting part of visiting Pripyat is the amusement park, located behind the Palace of Culture in the center of town. The park had four attractions: bumper cars, swing boats, a swing-carousel, and a ferris wheel — the latter of which yields some of the most popular images of the area on the internet. Interestingly, the amusement park was rumored to open on May 1, 1986, five days after the nuclear explosion took place. It has long been believed that these rides were never actually used, but it was brought to light recently that they had in fact been used at some point, as the images below will show. Some theories suggest the amusement park rides were opened early during the 36 hours before emergency evacuations to keep Pripyat residents distracted from the accident. No one seems remember for sure. Photographs are courtesy of Pripyat.com.
Whilst visiting this section of town, the atmosphere takes on quite an eerie tone. On one hand you can hear almost nothing except the occasional breeze and maybe a few birds singing. On the other hand, you have this massive ferris wheel towering over you, and just by its dominating presence you expect it to be making some type of noise as if it were in use — maybe the motors underneath should be whirring away or the excited cheers of children as they enjoy this and the other park rides. The lack of sound whilst in the presence of such a monolithic structure makes you much more aware of the near silence in the area, and at the same time, you’re always conscious of this giant standing over you. This is probably one of the most profound places to visit in the zone, and one that will stay with me forever.
Radiation levels around the park vary greatly. For the most part, liquidators did an effective job of washing most of the radiation into the soil, so the concreted areas are relatively safe. Through all of my initial research, I thought the bumper car ring was one of the most contaminated areas. However, our guide pointed out that in fact the bumper cars are relatively clean. The areas around the edges — where leaves and moss have built up — is where most of the radiation is still residing near the surface. Our guide also pointed out a patch of moss about ten feet away from the ride that has extremely high levels for the area. Dosimeter readings over the spot (roughly one square meter in size) show 25 µSv/h, one of the most radioactive in the city. Most of this can be attributed to helicopter landings in the park during rescue and cleanup after the accident.
On the way out of Pripyat, roughly half a kilometer west of the ‘Bridge of Death’ is Yanov railway station. Access to this area has to be granted by special permission of the ChernobylInterinform, reasons for which are still unclear, also, the main station building is now a storage area, but for what they wouldn’t tell us. Fortunately, we were lucky enough to be given permission to explore the yard. Yanov station was the vital passenger pickup point for those arriving by train into Pripyat in the hours after the CNPP explosion. Our guide explained to us that people who arrived here during this time were moved directly from the trains onto buses and sent right back out of the area for safety.
Yanov is an interesting area to explore on foot, the railway lines and what’s left of the platform are still accessible. There are many train cars still sitting around on and off the tracks, and most in a very bad way. Some are extremely rusty and even too dangerous to enter because of contamination. Also, along the sides of the tracks are lots of large (and strange) metal debris similar to that found near the unfinished cooling towers of CNPP. Besides all the obvious hazards were several grass snakes slithering around our feet. Yanov was an exciting addition to my second trip into the zone, and it gave some great photos.
Villages in the zone.
Besides the larger-known towns, there are many rural villages in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It is estimated that combining Pripyat’s 49,000 residents with that of Chernobyl city and surrounding villages brought the total evacuee estimate to approximately 116,000 people. Some villages were razed and buried, while others were left to decay. In the days and months after the accident, there were many residents of the outlying villages who slipped passed border patrols and illegally moved back into their homes. These people are known locally as samosely, which means self-settlers or squatters.
We visited the village of Illintsi, once host to roughly 4,000 people and today home to only approximately forty people. This part of the trip had us truly looking back in time as the original settlers had known the area many years before Pripyat and the CNPP ever existed. In fact, the CNPP was originally proposed to be only 25km from the Ukraine capital of Kiev. Experts however, remarked that this was too close to the heavily-populated capital and suggested the Chernobyl region. Of course, this later proved to be a wise decision.
While in Illintsi, we visited an elderly samosely named Maria Shaparenko. Maria is now 82 years old, but crept back into the zone shortly after the ordered evacuations — avoiding guards and patrols — to live in the only place she ever knew as home.
Shortly before our visit, Maria had just finished repainting her house inside and out; no small task for someone who is 82 and lives alone. Upon suggestion of our guide, we offered bags of food and drink as gifts to Maria for inviting us in to her home. In return she tried to give us large bottles of vodka, which our guide politely turned down on our behalf. Maria’s husband died some years ago and she now grows all her own food and farms chickens and other animals. It doesn’t appear that she is bothered by the radiation in the area, and judging by her apparent good health, she must be one of the lucky few with no immediate threats of exposure.
Maria joked with us that the previous weekend an unfamiliar, important-looking man paid her a visit. Over a long meal they chatted, but it wasn’t until he was about to leave did he tell her he was one of the heads of the CNPP checking up to see how she was. She found this most amusing.
As a photographer, a voice in the back of my head kept nagging me to take some photographs of Maria and her home, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. She is such a kind, friendly lady that I wanted to respect her privacy and leave with only my memories of our time there. She handed us some chocolate as a parting gift, and we went on to explore some of the other areas of the village.
The city of Chornobyl.
The city of Chornobyl (Chernobyl being the old Soviet way of spelling the Ukrainian name) is situated about 14km south of the CNPP. The plant is actually named after the city, which has been settled since the 1100’s, and prior to the accident occupied around 14,000 people. Today the city is home to around 400 who work within the zone: scientists, military, guards and zone staff and administration personnel (chernobylinterinform). The latter are those who take visitors on guided tours and keep a watchful eye on everything that goes on in the zone.
Like Pripyat, the whole city was washed down after the accident, on top of this, top layers of soil were removed and all water piping systems were moved above ground. Despite these efforts, there are still areas of contamination in Chornobyl, but they are well documented and known. Workers here respect these risks and are only allowed to work two weeks on and two weeks off to minimize extended exposure. There are also some who have moved back full-time since the accident — they live in their houses with signs outside reading, “Owner of This House Lives Here.” to deter potential looters.
Above is the monument that stands in Chornobyl city in memory of all the firefighters and liquidators who lost their lives in the aftermath of the explosion. Many are still alive but suffering with illnesses and disabilities related to their heavy radiation exposure both on the night of the accident and in the weeks and months during clean up. This fitting tribute was actually built by current firefighters of Chornobyl city and it stands in front of their station, which you can just make out on the left of this picture.
In the evening’s during our stay in the zone we would walk from the Interinform hotel and across part of the town to the local store where we could buy snacks, drinks, cigarettes and other items. Our guide stayed with us the whole time while out in the city as the military presence in Chornobyl is quite extensive. Anyone unrecognised or found wandering on their own is immediately approached, questioned and better have the relevant documents on their person and a good reason for being there.
As I have been asked many times about visiting the mass vehicle graveyard in Rossokha, I will explain the situation there. There are some great photos online of this area 20km southwest of Chernobyl city where most of the vehicles and helicopters from the accident, evacuation and cleanup were hastily laid to rest, unfortunately we were a few weeks too late to visit this site. Our guide explained that as these vehicles where all used in cleanup operations that radiation levels there were extremely high even some 23 years on , and because of the dangerous mass looting of the vehicles for parts the zone administration stopped visits to this area in April 2008, in fact since then most of the cars, tanks, fire trucks and helicopter remains that were there have since been moved to other sites or buried. To visit there now there is pretty much nothing left to see and radiation levels on what is left there and in the soil can reach 300 milli-sieverts per hour, roughly one third of a lethal dose after prolonged exposure. Given these high levels it still amazes me that a lot of the vehicle engines and helicopter parts were robbed over time, smuggled out of the zone and sold for scrap in Kiev and surrounding areas.
It is difficult to put into words how I felt being in the Exclusion Zone. It obviously had a profound effect on me to lure me back for a second visit, and the thought of a third will always sit in the back of my mind. Maybe a few more years down the road when the new reactor containment shelter is completed it would be worth considering, but for now I think I’ve absorbed enough gamma rays. I have tried to elaborate on some of my experiences in this article, which readers will hopefully understand.
Previously, when I would tell others about my plans to visit the Chernobyl zone, many would stand back in horror and think I’m suicidal for wanting to visit such an obviously dangerous place. What people do not realize is, yes, while there is radiation in the area the actual health risks are low. Firstly, your guide knows his way around and keeps you away from the heavily contaminated areas. Secondly, when dealing with radiation exposure, it’s all about how much you absorb over time and not “if you come in contact with it your dead” as most people seem to believe. Most of Chernobyl city and Pripyat has been cleaned extremely well by the liquidators and all the radiation now lies in the soil. Therefore, keeping to paved roads and pathways limits exposure greatly. It has been said that spending a day or two in the zone is no worse than being in the thin upper atmosphere of a 35,000-foot altitude long-haul flight or spending an entire week sunning on a beach. Of course, there is no real way for me to prove this, but having been to the zone now twice I feel safe in not having done myself any harm. For added precaution, contamination and our total exposure was measured after leaving the Chernobyl zone by two different radiation detection machines. We always came up all clear.
During the two trips, I took over 700 photos and three hours of video totaling some 30 gigabytes of data. Since, I have been trying to edit the material down to a more manageable level. There are countless other photographs I could have included on this site, easily making it over 30 pages longer, but there are other Chernobyl enthusiasts on the internet and I will leave some coverage to them.
I also managed to enlist a different friend to visit the zone with me on each occasion. I never thought I would find someone crazy enough to join me in No Man’s Land, but I did… twice. Many thanks to Paul Colley and Philip Morris for their support and assistance throughout this project, The zone is a fascinating place and I think I speak for all three of us when I say it changed us forever.
All excitement and adventure aside, there is an extremely serious side to this tragedy and my article. There are many conflicting reports on the after effects of the Chernobyl accident. My heart goes out to the children affected by the disaster, especially when I reflect on all the young children that should still be living in the area, enjoying the amusement park and attending the schools. Charities have been established to help children who are suffering from illness related to radiation poisoning. Being English I have decided to support the UK division of Friends of Chernobyl’s Children. You can read more about their efforts here.
It is also important to me to dispel some of the untruths and misconceptions surrounding the Chernobyl aftermath. Firstly, Elena Filatova and her Kiddofspeed.com phenomenon was partly a hoax. While it is true she visited the zone like other people, she never rode through on a motorcycle. My personal guide confirmed that motorcycles are strictly forbidden by zone administration, and another guide I spoke with remembers her visit and thought it odd she was carrying a motorcycle helmet around and used it for photos. While Elena’s story is a romantic — and at times, mystical — portrayal of life in the zone today, she was no more than a guided tourist like myself and others.
Secondly, sightings of three legged chickens and other deformed animals around the zone are all myth and have never been confirmed. There have been some scientific reports of minor abnormalities in some species of small birds, but nothing as grotesque as some of the suggestions being made. Also, the area is no nuclear dead zone or wasteland. Flowers, trees, plants and many species of animals such as horses, boars and deer are all thriving here and make it a truly beautiful place to visit.
It appears that mother nature is reclaiming the land back after the catastrophic human errors that will contaminate it for centuries to come. Ironically, the only species on Earth unable to inhabit the zone and live freely is humans. Being we’re the ones responsible for the disaster, I think it is fitting for us to be prohibited here, punished in a sense, to learn valuable lessons about nuclear energy and what happens when it is not shown the respect it deserves.
Graham Gilmore – June 2009
“This article is dedicated to my dear father Ian Gilmore, who passed away on September 9th 2008 from a Cancer related illness. Naturally, he thought I was nuts doing what I did but supported me wholly nonetheless. RIP old bean – see you again someday!”