Okay, first a disclaimer. This may be considered the boring page filled with words, punctuation, and other such annoyances. If you would like to go straight to the picture gallery, click here and enjoy. Also go check out Dan Cronin's photos, he's the pro with good shots.

In May of 2011, I set off with my good friend (and professional photographer), Dan Cronin, to go see and photograph the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Our four day stay in the zone allowed for a behind-the-scenes view of the region that everyone has heard of but few have ever visited. It was a terrific experience that shed insight on life in Chernobyl before, during, and after the disaster.

A bit of history

Not looking to bore you to tears with a lengthy history lesson, but if you are like me then you may be a bit rusty on your Soviet history. Here's a few highlights to help set the scene.

In the mid 1980's the region around Chernobyl was considered a shining example of the Soviet model. Nestled near the northen border of Ukrainian SSR, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant complex stood as a testimate to the USSR's ability to harness nuclear energy for good. The neighboring town of Pripyat, primarily used to house workers from the power plant, was constructed as a model Soviet city. Grand avenues, large plazas, modern schools, and a public celebration of the arts graced the city of fifty thousand residents. Visiting dignitaries were often brought specifically to see the Pripyat and the successful Soviet spirit that it embodied.

In the wee hours of April 26th, 1986, the nuclear engineers prepared for a test at the plant, just a few kilometers outside of Pripyat. They were directed to simulate a power outage situations at the plant, ensuring that the reactors could remain safe at a low power state. Something went wrong. Very wrong. A combination of operator error and a flawed reactor design doomed Reactor #4 and led to a complete meltdown. A massive explosion sent tons of extremely radioactive material, usually buried below many feet of steel and reinforced concrete, into the night sky.

As the emergency unfolded, the world slept. A small cadre of firefighters and power plant workers battled the fire and received lethal doses of radiation. Some died instantly. Others would suffer from radiation poisoning over the coming days, weeks, and even years. Shockingly, Pripyat carried on with nary a single siren to warn of the silent killer radiating them in their sleep.

Later in the day, Cliff Robinson, a Swedish nuclear engineer, showed up to work 630 miles away. His radiation detector went off as he entered the Forsmark nuclear power plant in Sweden. Something was wrong. Radiation levels were higher than ever seen before in the plant. He alerted his superiors and soon Swedish scientists determined there had been some sort of nuclear event to the south east of Sweden. Something major must have happened, but the world was left in the dark. It would be another 3 days before the Russian government admitted to the world that a reactor had exploded in the Ukraine. In a world now innundated with 24 hour news, it's hard to imagine such a high-profile event kept under wraps for so long.

As the USSR slowly revealed the extent of the distaster, the evacuation and cleanup effort began. The citizens of Pripyat were taken away by bus, given only a few moments to collect a few critical belongings. Authorities told residents that they would likely be able to return home in three days. Little did they know the severity of the disaster that went on just down the road. The evacuations reached out to nearby towns and villages, counting over 90 in total, and the government eventually defined an exclusion zone around the reactor. Initially defined as a ring around the reactor with a radius of thirty kilometers, the region was eventually adjusted to encompass more areas with high radiation. To help you get a sense of the size of this region, you can see the image on the right with a 30km radius circle drawn over the Bay Area. Fortunately, the region around Chernobyl was not nearly as populated. Still, over 350,000 people have been evacuated from the since 1986 in Ukraine and Belarus because of radiation. Belarus was particularly devasted by the fallout, as the prevailing winds blew most of the radioactive material out of Ukraine and into poor, rural portions of southern Belarus.

The event affected more than just the workers and residents in the surrounding area. 600,000 young men were drafted from across the Soviet Union to serve as "liquidators," charged with cleaning up the situation (that is equivalent to the entire population of Vermont.) They took on perilous duties and were typically lied to about the true extent of the danger. Some areas that they worked in were so contaminated that they could only shovel 1 or 2 loads of radioactive material before receiving a dangerous dose (and that was by the rather unconservative Soviet standards). Their most identifiable contribution was the construction of the giant steel and concrete sarcophagus required to cover the damaged reactor and contain the remaining nuclear material. 25 years later, the liquidators are plagued with health issues as a result of the massive radiation exposure they endured. Many have already died.

Statistics are all but impossible to collect regarding the human impact of the catastrophe. It is widely agreed that 50-60 individuals were killed as a direct results of radiation from the explosion, mostly firefighters and workers inside the plant. Estimates of the broader effects vary by a huge margin. The total number of deaths caused by the disaster varies from 4,000 to nearly one million and everything in between (all from generally reputable sources.)

The exclusion zone today

Today, the nuclear power plant and its surroundings lies a rusty, tattered, toxic shell of its former self. Guarded by Ukrainian soldiers, the zone may never again support civilian life and activity.

The once grand town of Pripyat is completely abandoned. With each year the surrounding forest encroaches to slowly retake the land. Some of the buildings have already begun to crumble. More are sure to fall in the coming years as the structures succumb to the elements. Wide boulevards have grown narrow as the trees and bushes grow uncontrolled. Concrete buckles and crumbles as a result of the constant sun and harsh winters. Wood floors sag and grow soggy as they are exposed to the elements. Tree trunks sprout from cracks in the roofs. It's an eerie modern ghost town.

In other parts of the zone, there are surpringing signs of life. The reactor complex itself has a significant amount of people around. In fact, about 3,000 people work inside the zone. Nuclear workers are required to maintain the radioactive material still present in reactors #1 through #3. Construction workers are stabilizing the corroded sarcophagus and beginning construction of a new containment structure. These workers (mostly men) typically work two weeks in the zone and then take two weeks at home to avoid receiving too much radiation.

The town of Chernobyl, about 10 miles from the reactors and still in the zone, houses a few thousand soldiers and workers. In addition to the construction and nuclear personnel, it houses security guards, shopkeepers, cooks, lawnmowers, official guides, dismantlers, and other workers that help support the microcosm.

Outside of the populated areas, the zone effectively serves as a wildlife preserve. The region is home to large number of wolves, deer, and wild boar. Brown bears have even supposedly been spotted, a species not seen in the area for hundreds of years. There is still some debate over the health impact on these animals, but the only mutation recorded to date is increased albinism in swallows.

Threats still remain. The aging sarcophagus is corroding and leaks like a sieve. A collapse would send plumes of radioactive dust into the air and could create a repeat of the original disaster, albeit on a smaller scale. Ukraine's economic troubles and penchant for corruption has slowed progress of a new structure that would increase safety. The surrounding forest is a also a problem waiting to happen. The soil still holds significant amounts of radioactive dust, and a major fire would release this material back into the atmosphere.

Trip highlights

Our trip consisted of a four day visit with three other tourists. The trip was organized and led by a pseudo-guide who has grown enamored with the zone and now leads trips to support his own travels to document and explore Chernobyl's secrets. We had our own driver and were constantly escorted by a military guide (who didn't speak a word of English, but seemed like a good guy.) For the most part we had open access to the zone, with the exception of the reactors that still hold radioactive material and the forest zones that are heavily contaminated. That said, few things are "officially" accessible to tourists. Once you are in the zone, the itinerary is facilitated by personal relationships, money, and vodka.

There are a number of must-see locations in the zone, and we were fortunate to see pretty much all of them. A few of the highlights include:

Closing Thoughts

This trip was fascinating in many ways. It was a history lesson, a source of adventure, and at the same time sparked reflection on the destructive capability of man. The recent events at Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant made it all the more relevant, and served as a poignant reminder of our responsibility as stewards of the planet.

That said, it is not a tourist destination for everyone. I would advise would-be visitors to ensure that they are seeking adventure, don't mind a little radiation, enjoy Soviet style lodging, and are willing to endure some less-than-thrilling Ukrainian meals. Also, it's better to go sooner rather than later. The sight are degrading day by day, and many of the buildings may not be standing a decade from now.

If you stuck with it and read this whole thing, then wow, I am impressed. Thanks. If you skipped to the bottom, then you still get some credit for being clever. Either way, please go ahead and check out the photo gallery. The zone is a place that can be hard to describe in words.

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