At 1:23am on April 26, 1986, during some safety tests, reactor #4 of the nuclear power plant near Chernobyl went into meltdown. The surrounding area was covered in a cloud of nuclear dust, and high concentrations of dust downwind from the reactor caused all of the nearby forest vegetation to turn bright red (http://luz.it/features/red-forest
Residents living in the surrounding area were not immediately told about the accident. Around 36 hours later, everyone living within the 10km exclusion zone (later expanded to 30km) were evacuated. They were told the evacuation would be for 3 days, but it ended up being permanent. Within days, Pripyat, the nearby bustling town of nearly 50,000 residents, became a ghost town.
25 years later, the radiation had settled and the exclusion zone was opened to the public as a tourist attraction. Despite residual radiation hotspots that still remain today, hundreds of elderly have returned to (and refuse to leave) their homes inside the exclusion zone. Thousands of workers continue to work in the area, decommissioning reactors 1 to 3 to a conserved state - a project that is estimated to take until 2028.
We were invited to meet up with our friends Yannis and Fabian who were planning a graffiti project in the area (a story for another post). We spent 2 days and 1 night in and around Pripyat, the nearest modern city that supported most of the personnel and families operating the Chernobyl power plant.
Once our guide brought us to the various sites, we were free to wander and explore the abandoned facilities. The silence of the empty streets and stepping into the tattered remains of the buildings leave you feeling bewildered and eerie as your imagination runs wild. The modern concrete world has been incredibly swallowed up by the ravaging forces of time and nature.
In the hospital, Alex pointed out the headband of one of the disaster firefighters. When you put the geiger counter near it, the alarm starts beeping like crazy!
Schools and Sports Facilities
The views of the city really show how much nature has overtaken the city!
We had sorta guessed/assumed that the Chernobyl disaster would have resulted in a total wasteland where nothing could survive. We were very surprised to see so much vegetation thriving and overtaking the area. We were even more surprised to hear that our friends saw a fox hanging around the Pripyat Amusement Park. Our guide told us that there are actually quite a variety of wild animals that continue to live inside the exclusion zone.
During our visit, we saw several wild dogs and also found this adorable tiny kitten meowing non-stop. Alex ran back to the van to grab some sausage to feed to the kitten and it finally stopped crying.. poor thing must have been absolutely starving!!
A few other things that our guide Alex told us:
- Around 106,000 people were evacuated from approx. 20 villages.
- Chernobyl was supposed to become the biggest power plant in Europe with something like12(?) reactors.
- A huge new containment dome/sarcophagus has been built to encase reactor #4. It takes several days to move the dome over the reactor and it was scheduled to begin just a couple weeks after our visit, so we were lucky to be able to see reactor 4 before it becomes covered forever:
This still-operational market inside the exclusion zone is where we bought all of our food for the day (bread, sausage, cheese, cookies, and drinks). The best part is that the cashier still uses an abacus to calculate your total!
Everyone who exits the exclusion zone must pass through the radiation detectors to ensure you’re not contaminated. No one actually monitored the area to verify that we were clean, so we guess that the machines are mainly there for our own peace of mind. Fortunately, Yannis told us that the first time he went through, the machine actually beeped and the light turned red until he cleaned the rocks/moss from the bottom of his shoe.. it was a relief to know that the machines actually work!
What a cool trip! Many many huge thanks to Fabian and Yannis for inviting to be part of this incredible and unique opportunity! It was a such a fascinating experience!!