Chernobyl Ghost Town: a Trip to Pripyat

Friday, July 08, 2016 Sightseeing and Landmarks by Kate Rutkovskaya

The quiet town of Pripyat – a Ukrainian town that will never be the same again.

On April 24th, 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant took lives of hundreds of people and became one of the most dramatic events of the 20th century.

The accident that happened that day at the plant in Ukraine (which was part of the USSR at that time) left an enormous trace on the Earth’s ecological state and people’s health.

The tragedy resulted in the biggest radioactivity release in the human history.

 

Photo by Kirill Voloshin
Photo by Kirill Voloshin

Disaster chronicle

So what happened? I’ll try to keep it simple. Generally speaking, it was an extremely unfortunate sequence of events, starting with an imperfect reactor designed by the incompetent Soviet engineers followed by a human error topped by the absence of clear policies and disaster recovery procedures.

Chernobyl nuclear power plant had four nuclear reactors. I won’t go into details of how nuclear reactors are designed. However, it is important to understand that any reactor has limits within which it should operate. Otherwise, the number of chemical reactions grow exponentially until they get to the point when they can’t be stopped. Thus, if the limit is reached, all power plants use a core cooling system that reduces the production of power or shuts it down completely.

On the night of the tragedy, the workers had to test a new cooling system on Reactor 4.

But during the experiment something went wrong.

Two massive explosions happened one after the other. They started a fire that wouldn’t stop for the following ten days.

The controversial reaction of the Soviet government is still much disputed by international authorities and media.

People from the nearest city of Pripyat were evacuated only thirty-six hours after the explosions. By that time, 203 people were hospitalised – most of them were reactor staff and rescue workers. Thirty-one of them died.

The rest of the inhabitants were living in a happy oblivion, continued breathing contaminated air and drinking poisonous water and milk from cows who ate polluted grass. Some would feel sick and have a metallic taste in their mouths but they didn’t ask for any medical help.

Eventually, Some 150,000 people were evacuated from the area in thirty kilometres (nineteen miles) radius from the plant. This area is now called the Zone of Alienation.

 

check point

Surprisingly enough, the three reactors left over continued working as usual. One of them was stopped in 1991, that is five years after the disaster and only because of a turbine hall fire in it. But two more continued working until 1996 when the third reactor was stopped and the last one was shut down in 2000.

Reactor 4 was initially enclosed in a sarcophagus to limit radioactive contamination of the area. But the sarcophagus was growing weaker over time and in 2007 the construction of the New Safe Confinement, an out-and-outer construction, began. It is expected to last more than hundred years.

Why is Chernobyl disaster such big a deal?

  1. It’s all about radiation. The problem with radioactive explosions is that it leaves a long-term impact. The radioactive elements released into the open air had different half-lives – from seventy-eight hours to thirty years. They also have the major ability to immediately appear in the food chain. Which means that even hundreds of years from now a certain amount of contamination will remain in the soil of the Exclusion Zone.
  1. Unlike all other types of explosions, when people in the casualty radius die or get injured immediately, the impact of a nuclear accident is much more long-term and latent. In some cases the impact lasts for as long as thousands of years.
  1. The casualty radius is not at all applicable in the case of a radioactive blowout. The poisonous waste spreads inconsistently. It goes where the wind blows. At the day of the tragedy the southern wind scattered sixty percent of contamination on the territory of Belarus (sixty percent), the rest fell down on Ukrainian and Russian soil.
  1. It was spring – the time of bloom and nature awakening. But it was all poisoned. Fields and forests became a deadly trap for all its inhabitants and livestock. Birds were falling down silent, cows gave poisonous milk. Smaller creatures couldn’t handle the intoxication but people didn’t notice anything special about the milk they drank. At first. Years later most of them suffered from thyroid cancer which was caused by that milk.
  1. It was massive. The Chernobyl disaster released 400 times more radioactive material into the Earth’s atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

 

Pripyat nature

Aftermaths

Years after, in 2009, the disaster inspired a video game called S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat. The game can be classified as a post-apocalyptic horror shooter.

It features a whole hidden world existing on the territory of Chernobyl power plant and its surroundings. Although it has almost nothing to do with what was really going on in the area at that time.

STALKER_CoP

In 1986 evacuation was compulsory and no one was supposed to return to the area which was controlled by the military guards. Nevertheless, there were about 1200 people who returned within a few weeks despite all the hazard and restrictions. They just couldn’t leave their native land. Most of them were elderly people who couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Those people were called self-settlers. As of today, there are only 180 of them left.

 

Pripyat
Photo by Kirill Voloshin

Anyways, life goes on. And over the time Chernobyl turned from a tragic disaster scene to a tourist attraction.

Today you can book a tour to Pripyat, walk in the abandoned town and come to as little as hundred meters distance to the blasted plant. I can sense your burning desire to ask me the question –

Is it safe to visit Chernobyl and Pripyat today?

As long as you abide by the rules and follow the safety instructions, the answer is YES.

The rules include the following:

  • only follow established routes,
  • follow the group leader and never walk alone,
  • don’t walk on the grass or sit on the ground,
  • don’t touch any buildings or trees,
  • measure radiation levels on the entry and exit,
  • don’t wear shorts, skirts, open footwear, short sleeves,
  • don’t eat, drink or smoke in the open air,
  • don’t pick any berries, mushrooms, and other plants,
  • don’t take anything from the Zone to the outside world.

If you follow all of the rules, a one-day tour to Chernobyl will fill you up with a radiation dose equal to the dose you receive over a one-hour jet flight or 1/160 of the dose received during one chest x-ray.

The most curious ones can dig into more numbers and facts here. Some guides will provide you with Geiger counters so that you can measure the radiation levels everywhere you go and compare them to the ones you’ve made before.

 

Photo by Kirill Voloshin
Photo by Kirill Voloshin

All tours to the Zone are thoroughly organised and guided. You will have to provide your passport details in advance, you will be put on a “white list”, and then your document will be checked at the entrance to the Zone. All tours depart from Kiev where a group of five to twenty people gets into a bus and arrives in Pripyat in four to five hours.

After passing all the checkpoints you find yourself in a ghost town. 160 houses, twenty-six dormitories, twenty schools. All abandoned and destroyed with time. No birds, no animals, but plenty of overgrown trees and bushes. Dead silence.

Creepy. Scary. Uneasy.

 

Photo by Kirill Voloshin
Photo by Kirill Voloshin

Then you will walk along the predefined paths, as radioactive material settled in particular areas which are closed to visitors. If you expect to see some mutant deer with two heads or daisies of enormous size – forget it.

The thing about mutations of that kind is that affected species are not able to reproduce and they don’t live long lives. Thus, the mutated offspring of animals and plants born thirty years ago are probably all dead by now.

But what you will be able to see is domestic animals gone wild. Or in other words, without humans living in the area, only some types of animals survived. For example, the Przewalski’s horse nearly went extinct, but it was artificially introduced into the area around Chernobyl in 1998 and the horse population has been increasing ever since.

 

Horses

On a tour like this you’ll visit a couple of nearby villages, like Kopachi that was almost fully buried after the tragedy, or Zalissya with its only inhabitant – self-settler Rozaliya Ivanivna.

In Chernobyl town besides the plant itself you’ll also see an open-air exhibition of transport vehicles and robots used in 1986-clean up activities. A 3D model of the plant and reconstruction of the accident’s chronicles will provide you with the most vivid explanation of what actually happened.

 

Model

If you’d take a 2-day tour, you’ll most likely stay at Pripyat hotel. Not that it’s the best hotel in the area… Though it is. Because it’s the only one. Having a look at the picture of the hotel room, I’d recommend that you refrain from staying overnight, but if you do, don’t let the bed bugs bite. Literally.

 

1402926204_1360915094_gost3

Why visit Chernobyl?

I still can’t find an answer to this question, but the truth is that thousands of people each year hustle to get into the most enclosed and haunted town in Eastern Europe. Maybe it’s the mystery behind the place or maybe it’s the post-apocalyptic feel of the place. No matter the reason, I am not convinced.

Maybe you guys can convince me otherwise?