It’s the epitome of a disaster. One fatal day in April 31 years ago changed the world forever. Reactor number 4 exploded, nuclear fuel sticks melted and a radioactive cloud frightened Europe. Chernobyl is a testament for the fragility of humankind. I paid a visit to the post-apocalypse.
Ever since I heard that Chernobyl is open for visitors again I was longing to see the most famous abandonded city, which tells so much the soviet Union and human behavior. And when I had a job in the Ukraine I arranged my schedule, that I will definitely go their on a tour. So this is a tale about the past and present of Chernobyl. The genesis of a modern catastrophe.
I think there are about three tour agencies in Kiev to make tours to the Chernobyl Exclusion zone. These organizations have good ties to the authorities and organize other trips to former military sites. The fees are quite high, but the demand is even higher. People come from all over the world to see the traces of the nuclear past and sometimes solely fly in to go to Chernobyl. Well, they don’t even have to make advertisement, because the history books make it for them. Especially the catastrophe of Fukushima and the 30year anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster rejuvenated the memory of the mother of catastrophes.
The tours always start early in Kiev and after a three hour ride you reach the border of the giant exclusion zone. Most disaster tourists opt for a one day trip, but I instantly went for a two day trip, with a sleep over in Chernobyl. As a photographer I wanted to have enough time and to live the experience. It was a rough 350 Dollars for the trip and I can state up front, that it was more than worth it.
In my group were nine co-adventurers, who came from as far away as new Zealand, Canada and Mexico. There was a flavour of cautiousness, anticipation and fear in the midst of our mini-bus going to the zone. We had to sign a contract, that we are responsible ourselves for any harm happening to us. We were not to touch anything or even put a tripod on the ground. There are rumors in the internet, if the clothes one wears on the tour get contaminated you have to leave them there. Our guide Igor calmed us down in that regard and we got a lecture in radiation of ordinary cities and even flights compared to the radiation of most parts in Chernobyl. Radiation in my view is not the biggest threat in the zone, but I will come to this later.
But everything is child play until you reach the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. You have to show your passports and only the registered tour guides can take you to the exact places, that are on list, which is confirmed at the border-control. I am sure there is a little bit of bakshish involved in the greater scheme, but hey, why not. The Zone stretches 30 km in every direction around the havoc reactor number four. It’s massive and stretches over the border to Belarus. A gigantic number of 116.000 people were evacuated, starting two days after the nuclear blast, completed roughly ten days after.
The anticipation rose after we passed the checkpoint, knowing it will still take kilometers to reach the epicenter of what is Chernobyl. We had two Geiger counters with us at all the time and the count is very unstable. There are certain areas, that suffered heavy from fallout. There are also items and tools left from the cleaning squads, that have erratic radiation. The first landmark surely is the city sign of Chernobyl. As a twisted joke of history is the sign of an atom manifested in stone there. They have always been proud of the ingenuity of nuclear power in Chernobyl, but it was a false promise ...
Faith plays a big role for an invisible threat. So we first stopped at an old church, which is now more in use than ever by the people that reamined in Chernobyl. For us it was an atmospheric start into this unknown endeavor.
Paying into the question of belief and prevision. The slavic word chernobyl is translated into the english word wormwood, which has many meanings. On one side it is a plant, which tastes very bitter, it is used for liquors in Eastern and Western Europe. It is also used to distill absinthe, which is one of the most intoxicating drinks available. So wormwood stands as well for the ecstasy and bitterness of humankind if it comes to nuclear power. Wormwood is also mentioned a few times in the Old Testament in the Bible, being synonymous with bitterness, punishment and the end of the world. It was translated from the original hebrew word לענה, which means curse in Arabic and Hebrew.
In the Book of Revelation is this interesting remark: "The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter." (Rev 8:10–11) This Star Wormwood is materialized in Chernobyl in the very artistic statue of the Wormwood Star with the trumpet by the Ukrainian Artist Anattoly Haidamaka. I believe it is made of metal wire left from the broken reactor.
Our second stop was a kindergarten and little school on the way to Chernobyl. What was once a straight and clean road was now a forest. Eventually it’s always the connection with toys and the idea, that kids suffered, that make the narrative of a disaster turn evil. In the kindergarten were abandoned potties and eerie puppets. Scary, but powerful images.
I instantly also had to face my biggest enemy on this journey: the lack of light. As there is no electricity and trees have grown out of control there was always little light. With all my photography I was always going to places, where at least a glimpse of light was giving contrast.
There is a very important meta element for the storytelling of today’s Chernobyl. For many it’s unbelievable, that puppets and books are on perfect display in the abandoned sites in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Some even think, it’s a scam by the tour organizers. That could be, but I have my own thoughts about this.
The procedure on the whole trip was followed. We were dropped at a certain time and then we could go explore mostly on our own (if the place wasn’t too dangerous) for up to 45 minutes. A powerful feeling, as one is thinking to be the first ever person to step in a room or chamber for the first time since forever.
I don’t think there is so little left to see, that there is need to prop it from the organizers site. But I think, that some of the photographers, who visit are propping certain scenarios to sell a stronger story. I will talk about that more in an upcoming article. But for starters, when I was entering this first kindergarten in the beginning of this tex -- I passed the entrance and there was a rocking horse and a puppet doll lying next to it. When I was leaving the premise, the doll was sitting on top of the horse. So there you go. The element of people visiting abandoned places and their influence on it is massive. You should always take that in account. I can live with it, because it’s another layer of storytelling.
The power plant of Chernobyl was a massive project, trying to fuel energy not only to the Ukraine but larger parts of the former Soviet Union. But this all changed on April 26th 1986 at 01:23 UTC during a system test of reactor No.4, which went wrong. There was a sudden power surge, which prompted the engineers start an emergency shutdown, which was a bad idea. It followed a larger spike in power output which led to a reactor vessel rupture and a series of steam explosions within the reactor. This exposed the graphite moderator to air causing it to ignite. Bam.
The resulting fire sent week long plumes of highly radioactive fallout into the atmosphere, extremely in the surrounding area and 60% of the fallout landed in bellarus, which is still up to 1/3 contaminated. From the 190 tons of radioactive material, which was in the reactors, roughly 7 t were exposed to the environment in the first days after the explosion. Chernobyl as the city was comparatively safe due to fortunate winds. The first 10 km in radius to the reactor were created as exclusion zone with rapid evacuation within 36 hours. The next 20 km were the evacuation zone. The fire didn’t stop and the plumes and subsequent fallouts continued.
Chernobyl was the working town and Pripyat the trabant city, where all the workers and families lived. There were a few villages as well. When disaster struck every single person was evacuated but the workers, who sealed the reactor.
We were among the last to still see the old sarcophagus, which still displays the shape of the original reactor, but was said to be leaking 30 years after it’s hasted construction. You are granted just a few minutes close to the site. Orientation point is a monument of two hands holding the power plant, displaying men’s vulnerability and responsibility.
Radiation is quite high there. It was a special situation for me. There was a brief moment, when a lot of news pictures rushed through my head, trying to process, what had happened here in all its multitude. But then I acted quick, tried to shoot from as many vantage points as possible and not having any tourist in the picture, which is a hard task, because most people are busy getting selfies from this point. I admit, I did an analogue one, too.
To be continued ...