Nuclear winter

We looked at each other in silence, feet careful not to step on the broken glass or crunch the snow that drifted in through the broken windows. Huddled in a small hospital room we could hear the police at the end of the corridor. I didn’t want to be arrested, or attempt to bribe a Ukrainian policeman. Breathing carefully, suddenly aware that inhaling one particle of radioactive material could spell the end. Moments passed in absolute silence, and then of course — someone’s phone rang. 

Winter seemed like an interesting time to visit Chernobyl, especially Pripyat. The snow and barren trees adding to the desolate beauty of the place. Snowdrifts piled inside broken buildings, crisp leaves and frozen twigs added to the underfoot crunch of broken tiles and glass. I wanted to see as much as possible so took a two day trip spending the night in a hotel in Chernobyl. Apparently this is perfectly safe — at least that’s what they told me.

Fortunately the police were actually tourists that entered the hospital from the other side. I was surprised to learn you’re not allowed inside the buildings in Pripyat anymore, apparently a tourist fell through the floor in 2012. Bloody tourists. I was quietly reassured that I shouldn’t worry though, it’s Ukraine — we’ll do it anyway.

Speaking of rules, they were simple. Don’t eat outside. Don’t touch the ground. Don’t put anything on the ground. Don’t touch the animals. Just don’t do anything and you’ll be fine. Oh, and be very quiet so the police don’t find you.

I assume  Fiddler on the Roof  played here every night.

I assume Fiddler on the Roof played here every night.

Equipped with my own personal dosimeter to take selfies with dangerously high levels of radiation. I felt a little apprehensive. Or perhaps excited. At first my heart would race every time the alarm sounded, but after a while it seemed somehow less dangerous. Like an overly sensitive smoke detector. Driving around in our little bus everyone’s dosimeter would start screaming in unison when we passed through a hot spot. It’s easy to see why some people didn’t leave after the disaster, especially those that lived through the war, it’s hard to take an invisible danger as seriously as a man with a gun.

Pripyat is full of the obvious radioactive decay but it also provides a brief glimpse of the communist utopian dream. The dream remains more preserved here than anywhere else — frozen in 1986. Pripyat was one of a handful of model cities in the Soviet Union, proof that communism worked. Beautifully landscaped with 50,000 rose bushes — one for each inhabitant. There were schools, hotels, restaurants, hospitals, office blocks, supermarkets, gyms, a cinema, watersports — they even had a rock band. It was a workers paradise.

I could see myself living there, heading to the restaurant for dinner after a long week working at the power plant, pressing big illuminated buttons, writing complicated things in Cyrillic and grooming my big 80s moustache, my idealistic communist lifestyle providing everything I need in one place — enough choice to keep me happy — but not too much to cause discontent.

There are others who see a different appeal, stalkers is the term they use. They enter the zone illegally and set up home in an abandoned room. Some do so for fun, others to scavenge what little remains in the city.

Okay, not the photo you were expecting from Chernobyl but it’s the restaurant in my hotel and I like it.

Okay, not the photo you were expecting from Chernobyl but it’s the restaurant in my hotel and I like it.

At 1.24am on Saturday April 26 1986 — while I was asleep in my bunk bed after a hard day listening to The Wild Boys on my Walkman and terrorising the neighbourhood on my Raleigh Grifter — a massive fireball blew the roof off reactor 4 at the power plant. There were two explosions, the first from the build-up of steam trying to cool the rods. Three seconds later as the core was exposed to the air, a second more powerful explosion sent a blue blaze high into the sky spreading radioactive material far and wide.

At first things in Pripyat seemed to be unaffected by the accident, no one was warned of the danger but the radiation levels were over 200,000 times normal. At 14.00 on 27 April the order to evacuate was given. Within 3 hours all 50,000 inhabitants were gone, with just enough packed to last them the 3 days they were told they’d be away for. They never returned.

Whilst most of their possessions have long since been looted, a few remain. Sat among the stale air of the schools are toys and gas masks. In classrooms books litter the floor. The orphanage retains its rows of bunk beds. In the gym a solitary rope remains suspended from the ceiling. Stepping carefully through the strewn fabric of the hospital corridors reveals chairs, a solitary slipper and the occasional newspaper.

Meanwhile the liquidators — over 200,000 of them in total — were cleaning up. Soldiers wearing 30kg of lead took on 45 second shifts clearing rubble from the roof. Pilots flew their helicopters directly over the reactor. Nearby in Kiev the May Day Parade was in full swing with families taking to the streets under a blanket of radiation. The government was slow to acknowledge the accident and even slower to acknowledge the severity — honesty was not the Soviet way in the time of the Cold War.

I didn’t take my swimming trunks so couldn’t go for a swim.

I didn’t take my swimming trunks so couldn’t go for a swim.

The accident was ironically the result of a safety test — bad luck combined with bad design. The official findings of the investigation concluded that it was the personnel that failed to follow the necessary safety protocols. These are the personnel that stayed put and did their jobs to minimise the damage — they didn’t survive long. Time and international bodies have proved kinder moving the blame away from the operators and onto fundamental design faults.

It’s hard to put a number on the human toll given the long term effects and the wide spread but officially the disaster affected the lives of over 600,000 people. Other than the power plant staff and first responders it was other countries who suffered the most, silver iodide was dumped into the atmosphere forcing the radioactive particles to rain down over Belarus. The result was disease and birth defects for decades to come.

Our hotel for the night was in Chernobyl and as usual came with rules. Or rather one rule — don’t leave the hotel. A tourist from another group thought better of it and attempted a bit of night time exploration. He spent the night in jail for his efforts missing the morning’s exploration.

After the decay of Pripyat, lunch with the power plant workers in their canteen was a welcome change of pace. The cavernous room with its tiled floor, tiled ceiling and pastel walls was reassuringly sterile but the net curtains and occasional potted plants did little to soften the atmosphere. It made the abandoned buildings feel homely. The food — borscht, cutlet, pickles and fruit juices — was all strangely brown. I didn’t ask where the food was from — it’s not somewhere you want local provenance.

One of the many cosy reception rooms.

One of the many cosy reception rooms.

A short trip on the bus took us to the secret Duga radar installation, it’s an impressive structure and hard to imagine something of that size being kept secret but there’s only so much enthusiasm I can muster for an old radar.

I left the zone a little paranoid that there was radioactive material all over my shoes but we were herded through two dosimeters at the 10km and 30km checkpoints, each complete with soldiers. There were no alarms or flashing lights so I guess that means I won’t be developing any superpowers — or dying of radiation sickness. Swings and roundabouts really.

Back in Kiev I headed to the Chernobyl National Museum to learn a little more, it’s worth a visit but you do need a few hours to listen to the audio guide. Otherwise you’ll get very little out of the experience beyond a few dioramas and uniforms in glass cases.

Chernobyl is not a dangerous place to visit if you follow the rules. My most dangerous moment came when I was safely wandering the streets of Kiev, a deafening whack and I was covered in shards of ice, a large block had fallen from a roof and exploded a few metres from me. Radiation is far less dangerous — if you can’t see it, it can’t hurt you. 

I visited Chernobyl in March 2018 with CHERNOBYLwel.come. All photos were taken with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 and 12-40mm f2.8 Pro lens. If you got this far then you may as well follow me on Facebook or Instagram.