Pripyat. If there is a by-word for what the world would look like if people disappeared suddenly, this town is it. Thirty-six hours after Reactor 4 exploded, the people of Pripyat were finally evacuated. This was a coordinated effort that had the entire population of 47,000 people evacuated on buses within hours. At the time, everyone was instructed to only bring the necessities: documents, money, some clothes, and some food. Everything else was to be left behind as this was meant to be a temporary evacuation lasting only three days. Doors and windows were shut to avoid contamination. But very quickly it became clear that the evacuation was going to be bigger and longer than expected. First, the evacuation zone was expanded to 10km, then 30km (which remains to this day). The time went from three days, to two weeks, to indefinitely. Although some people live within the expanded 30km zone (self-settlers, workers), no one will ever live within the 10km zone. It’s just too contaminated.
Plutonium has a half-life of 24,000 years so that’s a long wait. The other radioactive elements that were released in the explosion are, for the most part, neutralized. Iodine (8 days), Strontium (28 years), and Caesium-137 (30 years) are often the biggest worries after a nuclear accident, as the people living near the exclusion zone in Fukushima are well aware. Iodine is an issue because naturally, it’s a very hard element to come by. Which is why our thyroid glands exist – to help collect what little we get. The problem is when there is iodine overload – the thyroid gland continues to suck it up like a sponge, which leads to cancer. And if it’s on or in the grass, which cows eat, then it gets into milk, something that kids drink a lot of. So even though you only need to wait a week or two for environmental iodine to dissipate, there are still other effects you need to watch out for. The problem with radioactive elements is that they mimic similar elements. If you remember your periodic table from high school, you’ll know that strontium and radium are in the same column as calcium. What happens if you are exposed to those elements is that they can mimic (and are attracted to) calcium, therefore they get into your bones which, over time (since bone cells reproduce very slowly) can eventually lead to cancer. Caesium-137 is a different column, similar to Potassium (perhaps why bananas are slightly radioactive), dissolves in water, and gets into soft tissues. It’s really because of this element that topsoil was removed all over theChernobyl exclusion zone, and is currently the main cleanup activity in Fukushima.
Anyway, I’m not writing this to scare anyone. Information is power, and is the best way to educate yourself against half-truths and other misconceptions floating around. That’s what I did. I read books about the accident, about radiation, about the current situation in Chernobyl, and realized that although there are some radioactive areas in the exclusion zone, I would not spend much, if any time near them. After all, I take several long-haul flights a year, and any ONE of those would expose me to more radiation that a few days in Chernobyl. A full-body CT scan – my recommended limit for the year. So, despite the fears people communicated to me about going to Chernobyl, I wasn’t concerned.
My first day in the zone was not really about visiting Pripyat, although we did do the obligatory stuff everyone seems to do on the first day – take a photo of the sarcophagus built over Reactor 4, another one in front of the classic Pripyat sign, and visit the amusement park that never opened (it had been scheduled for May 1st) and photograph the Ferris Wheel and bumper cars. As it was overcast and near the end of the day, the light was low, but we had the place to ourselves and I was able to get good photos. But I was up bright and early the next day as we were dedicating the entire day just to exploring Pripyat town.
We started with another iconic location – the Azure Swimming Pool. This pool was in fact used for years after the accident by workers (liquidators) who lived and worked in the Exclusion Zone, until 1998. Now it is slowly falling apart. The windows are broken, the pool is covered with graffiti, and the floors and walls are deteriorating quite a bit. Officially (and this is true for every location), you are not supposed to enter any building because of the safety risks, but many people do. I think those on big guided tours don’t (or only do so very quickly), but since it was just the two of us and we were there first thing (long before any day trippers would arrive), it was pretty deserted. This building also had a basketball court, and with the floors being wood, they weren’t faring too well. A good part of the floor was missing or collapsed, and even the boards that looked intact were pretty loose and spongy. You had to really watch where you were walking.
Afterwards we went Middle School 3 (there were 5 in Pripyat). You know that image of hundreds of gas masks? That’s here. Now, in normal times (pre-accident, but during the Cold War), every school had gas masks in the event of a nuclear attack. They were kept in storage and only taken out for drills. What you see in these pictures are just there for photographic reasons – sometime after the accident, someone found the masks and dumped them on the cafeteria floor. Despite knowing this, I couldn’t help but be awed by the site.
After exploring both floors of the school, we headed over to the piano building. After the authorities realized that the evacuation was going to be more than a few days or weeks, at some point they decided to take all of the expensive items out of people’s apartments and store them in a safe place, to protect them from vandals. This consisted primarily of pianos and TVs. Every item was labelled. Pianos were stored in one building, TVs in an adjacent one. Of course, after 33 years, the pianos are that in name mostly, and the TVs are just shells, having been gutted for whatever electronics lay inside years ago. I have to say that this was one my favourite places to visit.
Then we made our way to a local elementary school. As mentioned in my previous post, Pripyat was a young city – the average age was 26 and a thousand babies were being born every year. That meant there were a lot of kids, which meant there were a lot of kindergartens and elementary schools. That’s why so many of them feature bunks or cots for the kids to sleep on during nap time, that’s why there are so many dolls everywhere. If you want to see the enduring nature of plastic, just visit Pripyat. There are plastic dolls and toys everywhere, and if you washed them and re-clothed them, they would be good to go (minus the radiation of course). Wood, steel, concrete – they break down, weather and rust, but not plastic. This one had a different feel than the one we visited yesterday, but like so many places that were once the preserve of children, it had a somewhat forlorn feel to it.
Next we went to the post office. The main entrance had phone booths for those wanting to make calls, but what M really wanted to show me was the painting on the main wall of the post office. In fact, we would go to numerous places that had beautiful stained glass windows, mosaics, paintings, or models. Despite the uniformity of the buildings, there had been a concerted effort to make it beautiful as well. This particular painting featured a young barefoot woman and a fully-clothed astronaut, with various symbols in the background. The floors here were littered with broken glass and papers.
Then it was on to a vehicle graveyard (see, you knew I would find a cemetery somewhere). A number of large trucks, many of them turned over, lay rusting in this former maintenance area. Here the area was overgrown and not easy to walk around, but I appreciated the fact that I was here at the end of winter and didn’t have a lot of foliage blocking the view. I imagine in the summer you wouldn’t be able to see as much. In the end, we didn’t stay too long as it was time to head to the canteen for lunch.
After filling up on barley, chicken, coleslaw and crepes (no fine dining here), we headed to another iconic location – Pripyat Hospital No. 126. This is where the first responders (108 firefighters and plant workers) were taken in the aftermath of trying to get the fires under control after Reactor 4 exploded. Of course, they hadn’t worn any protective clothing because a) no one had told them to because b) no one at the time believed it was a nuclear explosion (people were under the impression that a cooling tank blew). So of course they were massively exposed to lethal amounts of radiation. After they were brought to the hospital all of their gear, which was highly radioactive, was dumped in the basement. And in the days that followed, with the patients being transferred to Moscow where there was a hospital that specialized in radiation sickness and the town being evacuated, the gear was completely forgotten about. But it all lies there still, in the basement, one of the most radioactive places on earth. Naturally, we did not go down there, but at one time, somebody did and brought up a helmet and put it on the counter in the lobby. It emitted a lot of radiation (168 uSv/h – normal background radiation is about 0.15 uSv/h) and people who got near it or touched it were contaminated by it. The helmet was removed of course, but the place where it lay on the counter is now a hotspot. The hospital itself had several hotspots and higher levels of background radiation, but nothing to worry about.
So we spent the next hour or two going through the operating theatres, nurseries, and other patient areas on every floor of the hospital. The upper floors had great views over the town, but even in late winter it was hard to see much because of how overgrown everything has become. It definitely was one of the more photogenic places I visited, and that’s saying a lot in this place!
Up to this point, the day had been grey and overcast, which was actually quite nice for photos inside the buildings, as it provided a nice soft light and I didn’t have to worry about the extreme contrasts in light between the light outside and the darkness inside (a tripod helped a lot too). But by mid-afternoon the sun was out and the sky was a beautiful deep blue. We down by Pripyat river where the Pripyat Cafe, a popular hangout still stands. The inside of the building features beautiful stained glass windows that are still mostly intact – in part thanks to the way the glass was assembled. The back of the cafe has a large patio that provides a great view of the lake, and in any other time period, would be a great place to have a barbeque and then go for a swim. This was the first place all day where we ran into another group of tourists, two men from the UAE being guided by M’s brother!
From here we went to Palace of Culture (the Ferris Wheel lies not far behind it). This was a place of recreation, featuring a disco, movie theatre, and sporting facilities. It was a great place to photograph the Ferris Wheel from afar. I was particularly fascinated by the small swimming pool located inside. There was quite a bit of water in it, and it was still mostly frozen, not getting much sunlight at anytime of day. I had to be careful not to fall in as I was so interested in photographing the air bubbles in the ice! Not far from here was a small service building, with a watch repair centre, barbershop, and other small businesses.
After wandering around this area for a little bit longer, we finally called it a day. I have to admit I was exhausted! It’s really been a long time since I was in photographic high gear for most of the day. Even though my hotel didn’t have much in the way of amenities, I was looking forward to going back and just being able to process all that I had seen and learned about over the day.
More in Part 3…