Reactor number four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant begins overheating steam. A surge of power during a reactor system test is caused by a series of mistakes made by inadequately trained personnel. Flames engulf the reactor, radiation leaks triggering a massive explosion of radioactive debris into the atmosphere. The explosion rains poisonous ash; silently covering every inch of land with harmful radiation which will eventually be carried by the wind through borders across Europe. The worst nuclear disaster in history had just taken place while thousands of men, women and children were fast asleep in the eye of a nuclear storm.
At the time of the accident Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union. The original dream was to build the biggest nuclear power plant in the world. There where thousands of families living and working in the surrounding area. The accident was caused by a severely flawed reactor design and coincidental human error.
More than 30 years later, I found myself at the security checkpoint of the exclusion zone in Chernobyl, Ukraine. The officers filed paperwork, studied my passport and rummaged through my backpack. The time had come to place my own eyes on the aftermath of the historic catastrophe. I asked a myself more than once what I was doing in such a strange, “risky” place. After passing the compulsory radiation test I can say for certain what I experienced here was worth the risk and the lasting impressions are so much more than I had anticipated.
What is it and what does it do?
Radioactive materials are comparable to dust, after the explosion a deadly dust cloud coated everything surrounding the area. Imagine how difficult it would be to ‘safely’ clean dust off of literally everything outside. This is why there are only sanitized roads and walkways through the exclusion zone, if you were to step away from the path you would be contaminated. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on improving the conditions at Chernobyl. Radiation does not simply go away, the area will not be completely safe for minimally thousands of years.
The reported health impacts of the disaster vary greatly from source to source. Many people believe, including my Ukrainian guide, that the fatalities were relatively limited apart from the first responders and plant operators. Some sources say more than 100 people were diagnosed with acute radiation syndrome and many of those people died within weeks of the accident. Acute radiation syndrome (radiation sickness) is caused by a high dose of radiation exposed to an unprotected body. The symptoms are fatigue, fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, comas most likely resulting in death. An increase of childhood thyroid cancers have also correlated with the accident.
Something my guide Igor said lingered in my thoughts, “The first firefighters who came to Chernobyl disaster didn’t know about the radiation and had no special equipment. They died in agonizing pain within days. They are all regarded as national heroes of Ukraine” Igor then said, “It’s easy to become a national hero if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
Two people died immediately from the impact of the explosion, their bodies never recovered. Dozens more firefighters died within a few days or weeks after exposure. The total number of fatalities is unknown. It is impossible to quantify whether the people who were exposed to the radiation eventually died years later due to natural causes or if it was directly related to the exposure. This is one of the only accidents in the history of commercial nuclear power to cause fatalities. Almost all of Europe was affected with varying levels of contamination; large areas of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia being the most severely affected. Disaster knows no borders.
Vast areas of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are still very dangerous and will be for the rest of the foreseeable future. However, many people are still working in and around the Chernobyl power plant today because the radiation levels have stabilized.
Chernobyl Today and Tour Information
My personal experience in the exclusion zone
Chernobyl is an active working site, even within the exclusion zone. Chernobyl reactor number four is now enclosed in a large concrete shelter or sarcophagus. Thousands of people work with the remaining reactors, decommissioning and providing security. The authorities aren’t enthusiastic about the tourism industry taking interest in Chernobyl but they have allowed day passes/overnight visits since the late 2000’s. To visit Pripyat you must enter the 30 km exclusion zone. This must be arranged ahead of time through a tour operator based in Kiev which is only a few hours away.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I decided to go to Chernobyl but its significance and photographic intrigue proposed an offer I couldn’t refuse. I am so glad that I decided to go somewhere so out of the ordinary, I will never forget the things I saw in Pripyat. Every moment a tourist is in the exclusion zone is preplanned and kept to a strict schedule so there is no wandering around without supervision from a licensed guide. The environment felt very regimented but I didn’t feel intimidated, it was more of a sense of genuine isolation. The landscape was lush and green with forests of tall trees and rolling hills. Nature has begun to consume the buildings and hundreds of homes are vanishing beneath the brush. I did not see one other tourist the entire time I was there. This was the most bizarre place I have ever experienced alone.
The ghost city of Pripyat was once home to thousands of families of the men and women who worked at the power plant. Every person in the town was evacuated within days. It was difficult for the government to admit to the people the extent of the total meltdown. During this time people had also been taught to not ask questions and to do what they are told. They were told to leave everything behind after being reassured they would soon be back to recollect their belongings from their homes. They had no idea it would be months until they were allowed to return and salvage what was left of their lives. This resulted in what you see here today, a post apocalyptic scene where everything was left behind in a hurry. Being in Pripyat felt like stepping into the memories of the people that used to live here.
There are people (resettlers) who returned to Chernobyl to live and die because it is where they were born. The authorities didn’t allow them here but they relentlessly kept returning to their homes. Only retired people older than 55 were allowed to return. They ended up living long lives without pollution from cars, they grew their own food and enjoyed life in solitude. Children under 18 years old are not allowed past the checkpoint.
They say the design of reactor number four was unique and thus somewhat irrelevant to the rest of the nuclear industry in regards to an incident happening again. There are many conspiracy theories regarding the cause of the disaster. It is thought that the accident was a consequence of Cold War isolation and a lack of safety culture. Some question the United States’ involvement, maybe the disaster was intended to provoke the fall of the Soviet Union. I myself doubt the truth of these theories considering how the catastrophe affected other nations irrelevant to the political situation at the time. I personally believe this accident was caused by human error but it would not be surprising if it was an act of war. People can be so unimaginably cruel when they are consumed by warped understandings of morality.
Regardless of the cause of this accident, it is a testimony to the destructive nature of human beings. We will never know exactly how many people died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. We are merely children playing with matches and a gas can, expecting it not to blow up in our faces yet it is so easy to make mistakes. The scene at Pripyat left grim thoughts in my mind and provoked existential questions, how long until the entire planet will look like this? Pripyat is what modern life looks like after only 30 years of abandonment. One day, most likely sooner than later, only nature will remain. Eventually every place and everything we have ever known will disappear just like this. A chaotic, crumbling world left behind in a hurry, slipping seamlessly into oblivion only to remain buried deep in the recesses of our memories.
For an accurate, chillingly detailed timeline of the exact events surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, click here.