CHORNOBYL EXCLUSION ZONE, Ukraine — Overnight on April 26, 1986, the world’s worst nuclear disaster happened some 90 kilometers north of Kyiv. Reactor No. 4 of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded during a failed reactor experimental test, causing a cloud of radioactive fallout to pollute vast swathes of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Within days, fallout particles were also appearing in Europe, America, and Asia.
It took the Soviet authorities three days to start evacuating 115,000 civilians from 188 cities and towns within a 30-kilometer area around ground zero.
The new exclusion zone was closed off by Soviet troops – and up to 600,000 people, mostly soldiers and scientists, were engaged in the deadly post-accident cleanup and building a concrete sarcophagus over the extremely radioactive destroyed reactor.
More than thirty years after, the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant and its exclusion area still attract attention from all around the world – and legends have grown around it.
The forest land
Video games, movies, and sci-fi books often present the zone as a gloomy, withered land with killing zones of radiation, anomalies, abandoned towns and rusty factories inhabited by monsters, human mutants, and looters.
However, visitors to the zone do not encounter radioactive desert, but rather a thriving land of rich forests and meadows in the Ukrainian region of Polesia. Notwithstanding that the nuclear fallout still affects the local environment, the Chornobyl zone is now a much more hospitable and beautiful place than many people imagine it to be.
Its air is fresh and clear, and its rivers are clean and well stocked with fish – it took only a few years for nature to return after the humans fled. Lots of rare animals, such as Mongolian wild horses or European elk, and also boars, foxes, and wolves, have found a home and their natural habitat there.
After three decades of abandonment, nature has regained much of its dominion in the zone – and absorbed the empty human settlements. The streets of Zalissya, a village situated just a couple of kilometers away from the Chornobyl Plant, have turned into dense forest, with old ruined houses barely visible among the trees and high grass.
As the years go by, the exclusion zone has become a national nature park. It is also a good business – at least 10,000 tourists from all around the globe visit the area each year, according to Ukraine’s state agency on the zone’s management.
Fighting the fallout
Not many buildings in villages like Zalissya have remained intact, says Serhiy Myrniy, a disaster liquidator turned tourist guide. A qualified chemist and ecologist, he served as radiation reconnaissance squad commander in the Chornobyl Zone in the summer of 1986.
“All the things around were polluted with radioactive fallout,” Myrniy remembers. “Young soldiers, mostly Soviet army draftees, were taken here with simple spades in their hands to load the contaminated top layers of soil on trucks for further disposal. Usually, it worked out, and the radiation intensity decreased tenfold. However, in many cases it didn’t, so many houses were demolished, with the excavators buried deep in the ground right there.”
At some places along roads and forest paths, one still can find radiation signs marking the old dumping pits.
Since the disaster, the radiation levels in the area have decreased a thousandfold, primarily thanks to the people who sacrificed their health and lives during the decontamination efforts, Myrniy says. Besides, most of the isotopes that were ejected from the burning reactor on the night of the disaster, such as strontium-90, cesium-137, iodine-131, have already decayed away over the past thirty years.
However, there are some certain spots where the background radiation is still high.
One of them is a lone old tree near an abandoned kindergarten building in the ghost town of Kopachi. Just approaching the tree makes a dosimeter start beeping indignantly – the radiation level here is 5 microsieverts per hour – very high.
“My theory is that one of my fellow liquidators shook the fallout dust from his clothes on this tree after doing his job back in 1986,” Myrniy says. “If you take just a couple of steps back, the radiation level goes back to normal limits again.”
Same thing happens at some corners near the kindergarten building walls – thirty years ago, fire trucks watered the roofs in order to wash down the fallout ash, and the radiation still traces the paths by which the contaminated water streamed down from above.
The protection dome
The radiation background levels in most of the zone are generally acceptable, Myrniy says. Even the famous Red Forest, situated just west of the power plant, the trees of which died within 30 minutes of the disaster, is now healthy and planted with young strong pines.
The heart of the exclusion zone, the sadly remembered nuclear reactor No. 4, rises high over the regrown woods. Today, it is covered with a gigantic silver-colored arch that can be seen from far off – the so-called New Safe Confinement, built over the old Soviet concrete sarcophagus. With a height reaching 108 meters, the structure is the world’s biggest building of this kind, designed to protect humankind from new radioactive leaks from the reactor’s ruins for the next 100 years.
It is almost done – the French consortium Novarka funded by the International Chornobyl Shelter Fund says it will complete the work by the end of 2017. Up to 1.5 billion euros have been spent on the project, and right now the giant confinement seems to be working: right next to ground zero, a dosimeter records a radiation level of 1.09 microsieverts per hour. The employees of the Chornobyl Power Plant even walk around the area without any special protective clothing.
The whole complex of four nuclear reactors completely suspended operations in late 2000, but there will be enough work for there for coming generations of nuclear power engineers – the decommissioning of the plant will take until 2060.
The plant itself is also far from being a dead zone. Just a couple of hundreds of meters away from the Confinement, there is an artificial cooling pond with an impressively large population of catfish. Tourists love feeding them with bread slices taken from the plant’s canteen, and the fish rush to an old rail bridge across the pond when they sense humans coming. The dogs living at the plant are the same: used to the constant presence of crowds of people, they also demand treats. Many of them stay close to places still inhabited by humans to escape the packs of wolves roaming the wild forests.
Although the danger is minor, the Chornobyl workers recommend sticking to the simple rules in the exclusion zone: do not eat in the open air, avoid touching animals, and undergo radiation decontamination before getting back indoors.
Back in the USSR
Even Prypyat, a ghost city of huge apartment blocks, asphalted avenues, and concrete squares some two kilometers northwest of the plant, has failed to resist the resurgence of nature.
Before April 1986, the city had a population of 50,000 – mostly Chornobyl workers and their families. It was totally evacuated in a day, soon after the blast. No one was ever allowed to return home.
The once-lively city has turned into a pine wood over the years, and only small patches of cracked asphalt and concrete still recall the human presence here. The city stadium’s football field is now lush woodland pocked with small mounds of earth – left by wild boars digging for morsels. The well-known observation wheel, seen in lots of video games, can only be reached via forest paths. In summer, one can walk through the central avenues of Prypyat without even noticing the huge nine-story apartment blocks just tens of meters away, behind dense green walls of trees.
The city’s former downtown square is one of the few parts that are still recognizable.
Although damaged by time and weather, the central buildings – the famous Polissya Hotel, the sports complex, the Prometheus cinema and the city restaurant, still bear many reminders and details of the Soviet-era – time there stopped in 1986.
In the square, there was even a Western-style supermarket, the only one in the city – an enormous luxury by Soviet standards. Old cash tills, price labels, and small metal shopping carts still can be found in the dust there, among broken glass and junk.
“Prypyat used to be a rich city, the home of nuclear physicists,” Serhiy Myrniy says. “People used to come here from Kyiv and Belarus – to buy goods they couldn’t get anywhere else.”
Experienced guides of the zone advise against walking inside the buildings in Prypyat – apart from being dangerous due to decay, they are often still seriously contaminated by radioactive fallout.
Time goes on, and the ghost city continues to turn back into forest, but one of its buildings still bears an unseen mark of the heroism of the Chornobyl disaster responders.
The radiation levels in the city’s hospital basement are still unusually high. It was this hospital that received the very first victims among the liquidators of the Chornobyl blast, on that night in late April in 1986 – the first fire-fighting team. They had become mortally ill with radiation poisoning a few hours after working near the burning reactor.
Not knowing what to do with the fire-fighters’ uniforms, which were giving off intense radiation, the medics simply buried them in the building’s basement.
Thirty-one years later, the spot remains the most radioactive place in the city.