Nuclear winter

We looked at each other in silence, feet careful not to step on the broken glass or crunch the snow that had 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 for me. Moments passed in absolute silence, and then of course — someone’s phone rang. 

Fortunately the police were actually tourists that had entered the hospital from the other side. I was surprised to learn you’re not actually 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. We just need to avoid the police whose job it is to catch us.

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.

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 buildings from the broken windows and crisp leaves and frozen twigs added to the underfoot crunch of broken tiles and glass. I wanted to see as much as possible so did 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.

 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 radiations. I felt safe but 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.

I loved exploring Pripyat, both for the rundown radioactive decay it exhibits and to get a brief glimpse of what was a paragon of the communist utopian dream. The dream remains more preserved here than anywhere else, frozen in 1986, the decay and looting has had an impact but nothing has been developed or replaced so what you see is what was there. It just takes a little imagination. 

Pripyat was one of a handful of model cities in the Soviet Union, proof that the communist dream 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 Duran Duran (The Wild Boys obviously) on my Walkman (well my fake Alba one from Argos) and terrorising the neighbourhood on my Raleigh Grifter — a massive fireball blew the roof off of reactor 4 at the power plant and dispersed radioactive debris into the air. The accident was ironically the result of a safety test, bad luck combined with bad design resulted in a spike in power output 10 times normal operating levels. The first explosion was from the steam pressure caused by the coolant on the graphite rods, it took the roof off of the reactor and ruptured fuel cells within. Three seconds later as the core was exposed to the air, a second even more powerful explosion sent a blue blaze high into the sky spreading parts of the reactor far and wide. Small particles of radioactive material were carried by the wind and the surrounding area was covered in a thick layer of highly radioactive debris.

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 finally given. Within 3 hours all 50,000 inhabitants were gone, with just enough packed to last them for the 3 days they were told they’d be away for. They never returned.

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 in such high levels of radiation that many would later die as a result. Pilots flew their helicopters directly over the reactor, hovering while dumping over 5,000 tonnes of boron, clay, sand and lead to put out the fire and stop the spread of more radioactive material. The first firefighters on the scene were woefully unprepared and paid with their lives.

As the cleanup was underway the rest of the country remained unaware of the disaster. Nearby in Kiev the May Day Parade was in full swing with families taking to the streets under a blanket of dangerously high levels 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 official findings of the investigation concluded that it was the personnel that failed to follow the necessary safety protocols. These are the personnel that staid 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 suggesting fundamental design faults.

It’s hard to put numbers 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 such as Belarus 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. Although the cloud seeding was denied this was apparently a sacrifice to save the inhabitants of Moscow.

Staying the night in Chernobyl was a novelty and as usual came with rules. Or rather one rule — don’t leave the hotel. A tourist from one of the other groups thought better of it and attempted a bit of night time exploration. I found out in the morning as their guide was rushing to the police station to collect the miscreant.

On the second day we had lunch with the power plant workers in their canteen, it was a nice touch to see the inside and the people that work there. The food is best described as beige. Borscht, cutlet, pickles and fruit juices — all in a symphony of browns. 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.

We finished the tour with a visit 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. There were no alarms or flashing lights so I guess that means I won’t be developing any super powers — or dying of radiation sickness. Swings and roundabouts really.

Back in Kiev I headed to the Chernobyl National Museum to learn a little, it’s worth a visit if you have the time but you do need a few hours to listen to the audio guide. Otherwise you’ll get very little out of the experience.

Chernobyl is not a dangerous place to visit if you follow the rules and they’re quite simple — don’t touch anything. My most dangerous moment on the trip came when I was safely wandering the streets of Kiev, a deafening whack and I was covered in shards of ice, a large block of ice fell from a roof and exploded a few metres from me. Radiation is far less dangerous — remember, 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.