The Future is Yesterday
‘You’re going where? Is it safe?’
When I announced my intention to visit a nuclear exclusion zone, the most common reaction was one of disbelief – doubtless followed soon after by the realisation that such a place would be exactly the kind of thing I would want to see. My first visit to Ukraine in April 2013 was mesmerising, and with so much to take in I was planning my return almost as soon as I set foot back on the tarmac at Luton Airport…
Eighteen months later, that’s exactly what I did. Of course this time everyone thought I would be risking my life in the unfolding instability and civil war that Ukraine has been slipping into as much as from radioactive poisoning: Not going to Kiev because there is fighting in Donetsk is as irrational as not going to Glasgow because London’s ablaze. And besides, you can’t live your life in fear when there are places like this to see.
Founded in 1970, Pripyat was proclaimed a city in 1979, with a rising population expected in time to reach 80,000. Very much the poster boy of Soviet living for a new era, each aspect was carefully planned to maximise the quality of life enjoyed by the inhabitants that would occupy accommodation blocks radiating outwards from a city centre generously adorned by public amenities. Many an official visitor would come with a view to emulating its concept elsewhere, with even the soviet leader himself Leonid Brezhnev taking a keen interest. But one day all of the people left, and this Soviet utopia would forever be left to the ravages of time and nature.
The date was 27 April 1986, and the reason – 36 hours earlier – was the most notorious and widespread nuclear catastrophe the world had ever known.
The Vladimir Illych Lenin Nuclear Power Plant sits just outside Pripyat, and around 11 miles away from the historic town it would become synonymous with: Chernobyl. A flagship of the soviet nuclear programme there were four reactors in operation and a further two under construction in 1986, with a figure of 12 in the masterplan. But that wasn’t to be.
Friday 25 April was a beautiful spring day as the 49,000 young inhabitants of Pripyat got on with their daily lives, unaware of the situation that would unfold that night just two miles away. A routine safety test at the station’s fourth reactor had been scheduled to take place that day, but would be delayed for the night shift to carry out. For an hour after midnight having overridden the main computer the workers struggled to maintain the balance in the system, ultimately causing the reactor core to heat up to dangerous levels. At 01:23 on 26 April the balance was irrevocably lost, causing the 2000 tonne steel roof to be blown off sideways and 8 tonnes of radioactive debris to shoot a mile into the air.
By dawn, the initial fire at the plant was out, though the reactor core would burn for another fortnight. The first fire fighters – unaware of what they were dealing with – would tragically lose their lives as they battled the seemingly inextinguishable blaze. Rumours abound in Pripyat of an accident in the night but nothing is confirmed, and the heightened military presence arouses little interest – Soviet compartmentalisation meant that people were only told what they needed to know, or what the authorities wanted them to hear. This wasn’t the first accident at the plant, nor would it be the last, but at the time those in charge were unaware of the previous incidents and didn’t believe a serious accident could happen – because that’s what they had been told.
Reports suggest that dozens began to suffer from severe headaches, coughing and vomiting fits, and the taste of metal in their mouths, yet it wasn’t until 27 April that the evacuation of Pripyat was ordered by the military, citing the deteriorating radioactive conditions. Inhabitants were given two hours to pack their essentials, collect their documents, lock up their homes and muster at 2pm. A thousand buses evacuated the entire city in just three hours yet still no official statement about the accident had been made, the people simply understanding it to be a temporary measure that would last just a few days. Pripyat’s people would never return.
On 28 April the decision to stay silent was taken out of Soviet hands when the radioactive cloud reached Sweden and was detected by workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Station almost 800 miles away. All eyes looked to the USSR for an explanation and confirmation was finally received – though the incident was still played down at home by authorities that wanted the annual May Day celebrations to take place. Pripyat’s iconic Ferris wheel and fairground were due to open for the 1986 festivities but by this time the city was occupied only by the military and a scientific delegation. The rides were never ridden. May Day was celebrated by an oblivious Soviet Union, though all footage of the event has since disappeared from the national archive.
Six days after the accident an arbitrary 18 mile (30KM) exclusion zone was drawn around the ruined reactor, and Chernobyl town itself joined a list of 187 communities that would be evacuated and resettled. Although redrawn later with the benefit of advanced scientific testing, the 1000 square mile Zone of Alienation in essence remains to this day, with access by advance government approval only.
Politics and questionable decisions aside, the containment of the problem demonstrated a master class in Soviet organisation. Initially robots were employed to clear the radioactive graphite from the roof of the adjacent reactor 3 but it turned out that they were susceptible to a radiation sickness of their own, the waste affecting their circuitry and rendering them immobile. Human ‘bio robots’ had to do the job instead, working just 45 second shifts to limit their exposure to fatal levels of radiation. More had to tunnel underneath reactor four to seal it from below and prevent the burning mass reaching the watercourse, and triggering a second steam explosion that could have rendered the whole of Europe uninhabitable. Ultimately the remains of the core were filled with sand, lead and boric acid, capped with a wonder of modern engineering in the sarcophagus, in place and sealed six months later. Half a million men had a hand in the clean-up, which also involved washing all the buildings in Pripyat to plaster the radioactive dust down, burying many wooden buildings and culling every animal in sight. There are various memorials and commemorative plaques marking their bravery.
I was eight years old when Chernobyl, a largely unheard of Ukrainian town shrouded in Cold War secrecy, found itself at the centre of global attention with an era defining crisis on its hands. Yet I can’t recall John Craven explaining it to me on ‘Newsround’, and neither can I recall the subject being brought up at school, either then or in the years that followed. In fact, it seems strange now to think that this all happened just 28 years ago and well within my lifetime.
The intervening years have seen Chernobyl cleaned up to the point that background radiation is actually lower than average. 320,000 people were resettled outside of the zone which today accommodates just 700 people. Officially only 31 people died as a result of the accident and the final death toll sits at 59, a figure that remains the subject of conjecture and a bitter scientific debate that could put the figure closer to a million. It’s impossible to tell, though a figure of 4000 deaths that ultimately stem from the incident has been officially documented.
It may be argued that the accident was the catalyst that resulted in the end of the Cold War, with President Gorbachev’s Glasnost receiving all the credibility it needed from the unimaginable crisis that had engulfed his country. The President found himself in the position of being told what was happening by other countries, a victim of his own administration that played down the incident and told him it was safe. Generally respected by the West, it was Gorbachev’s refusal to provide military support in the Berlin crisis in 1989 that led to the fall of the wall and a reunified Germany. Less popular at home however his reformist policies looked to communist critics like he was a man intent on taking the Soviet Union apart from the top, and when political instability led to the demise of the Union itself in 1991, he was sidelined from the government.
In the Zone
The Chernobyl exclusion zone today is one of the most breathtaking places to visit, resplendent in autumn colours, blue skies and warm sunshine. Always a beautiful part of the world, its untouched nature dictated by cruel circumstance now affords it the chance to thrive without interference. Trees grow, shed leaves and die just like anywhere else in the world. Wild animals, wolves, cats, ponies and birds have colonised the land and giant catfish swim in the redundant cooling channels around the power plant. Of course, there are still higher than normal levels of radiation here – some areas significantly higher – and you can’t disturb the radioactive ground, but seeing how life has adapted to these conditions just makes one question how harmful it actually is now.
Technically you can live in the zone for up to two weeks in any given month, but there are resettlers that are dying of old age, happier to take the risk than be relegated to other communities outside. Apparently it will take 20,000 years for the zone to be habitable again. 28 years in and looking around you could wonder whether the lasting effects may have been overstated.
But mesmerising though it is, this is clearly a place heavily tinged with poignancy, reminders of the human sacrifice evident at every turn. In Chernobyl town there’s a garden with road signs for each of the 187 lost communities lining the main path, an angel overlooking them. The firefighters monument bears the inscription ‘For those that saved the world’, and there are numerous other installations round the plant itself.
The village of Kopachi has nothing to show for itself save for the WWII monument that stands outside a kindergarten filled with bunk beds and time-ravaged toys; the only stone structures in a village of wooden buildings that had been demolished and buried. It’s not alone, with many others notable merely by mounds in the ground and the little tin radiation triangles marking the danger.
Pripyat itself is eerily silent. For all its ambition this exemplary city was dead after just 16 years, abandoned in the space of an afternoon. Tower blocks glower at each other beside tree lined overgrown roads, the contentious hammer and sickle emblem of the Soviet Union prominent on the rooftops. Schools are littered with coursework and books; the hospital has chillingly handwritten patient records while cots line up rusting in the maternity ward: Those fortunate enough to have been born here would never be able to grow up or grow old here. Empty swimming pools, abandoned apartments, desolate sports halls and the fairground that never opened… Don’t think for a minute this is untouched though – it’s been ransacked and looted to hell and back, but it does provide a rare glimpse into the long gone Soviet era.
As to the future, Pripyat is slowly succumbing to nature and will ultimately collapse in on itself, its buildings visibly deteriorating. The new safe confinement currently under construction will change the look of the infamous reactor 4 forever and seal it for 100 years while the ticking time bomb it contains is dealt with. A global billion pound project, it’s already ten years overdue and the original object shelter is failing, leaking radiation. Smart though it looks, you can’t help but marvel at the original sarcophagus being designed and hastily erected in just six months.
But at the heart of it all is one of the most unique habitats in the world, a living monument to man’s struggle to tame the elements – and a chilling reminder of how it can all go wrong.
I had set out to finish what I started this time. But here I am once more planning a return trip…
Chernobyl and the Power Plant Gallery