The morning of June 22, my uncle and I left Kiev to partake in an excursion through the Chernobyl exclusion zone. We’d later find out that it would be the last, at least for now. But first, some background.
It was 25 years ago, on April 26, 1986, that reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded, spewing radiation nine times that of Hiroshima into the air. A radiation cloud spread over much of Europe and western Russia, exposing millions of people to radiation. More than 350,000 people were evacuated from what is now the 30 kilometer exclusion zone, including some 45,000 residents of Pripyat, the city built for workers of the plant and their families.
Entering Chernobyl a quarter century later requires passing through three secured checkpoints marked with signs that read, “Stop! Forbidden zone.” Before making our way to Pripyat, we stopped in the town of Chernobyl, where a few thousand people have returned to live. There, we met our guide, a young man by the name of Misha. Misha told me he’d been working as a guide in the zone for about a year. It was later that he informed me that our tour would be the last. “I’ll be returning to Kiev with you,” he said.
Pripyat was eerie. With people out of the picture, nature has taken over. It looks post-apocalyptic. If the world ended tomorrow, a couple decades from now I’m sure most of the world would look the same, trees growing inside buildings and up from roads, vines hanging over rooftops, a deafening silence. Free to roam about for 45 minutes, I headed first to the school building. Inside I found discarded furniture, course books and attendance books, gas masks and children’s dolls. The paint on the walls was mostly peeled off, and many of the windows were broken out. I got lost for a few minutes and couldn’t find my way out. I remember standing in a hallway and hearing only the sound of a drip and nothing more.
Next I went to the swimming pool, which was housed in an adjacent building. I checked that out and strolled around snapping photos for a few minutes, then I explored some of the darkened rooms of the building. Books, posters and other items were littered across the floors, tables were turned over and chairs broken into pieces.
We then made our way to the amusement park. Set to open on May 1, 1986, as part of the town’s May Day celebration, the park never opened. A ferris wheel called the big dipper, bumper cars and a rotating swing ride now sit rusted and overgrown.
A short walk from there, located in the town’s main square, is the former palace of culture (community center), a restaurant and a hotel. The windows of the palace of culture are all broken out and trees now grow in the sills.
Less than two kilometers from the Pripyat town center sits the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. On that fateful night 25 years ago, residents came to the small overpass on the northwest side of the plant to view the fire. Most of those who did died not long thereafter from acute radiation sickness. When we arrived at the plant things were in a much calmer state. A concrete barricade with barbed wire now surrounds the plant. When we finally got the chance to view reactor No. 4 I was shocked by the condition of the sarcophagus built to contain the radioactive material. Moisture stains were prevalent, and cracks and holes were even visible. Work began last year on the New Safe Confinement meant to contain the reactor for the next 100 years. The cost is in the billions of dollars, and it’s expected to be completed by 2013.
After a brief lunch we set off for a ride through the town of Chernobyl, eventually making our way past the security checkpoints and out of the exclusion zone. The trip to Chernobyl was certainly the most intriguing day of my month-long holiday. If you would have told me 18 months ago that I’d be standing 100 meters from the place where the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred I wouldn’t have believed you. My uncle and I spoke about our trip there for days to come, in awe, I think, of what we saw. Only in hindsight could I really grasp the magnitude of the event. I had to let my experience sink in. Now that it has, I feel lucky that during my life I’ve not been directly affected by such a catastrophe, and great sympathy for those who have.
Note: You can view more photos from my Chernobyl excursion here.