Surviving the Nuclear Apocalypse – The Future of Chernobyl

Pripyat City SquareCharles Owen-Jackson

Pripyat City Square as seen from the balcony atop Hotel Polissya on my first visit in 2010.

I just returned from my second trip to the Chernobyl Zone of Alienation, the site of the world’s most devastating nuclear disaster. Now open to tourists, albeit under strict rules and restrictions, I visited on a guided tour back on March 17, 2010, and again on February 5, 2017, almost 31 years after the catastrophe. There’s a lot of misinformation about the Zone, largely perpetuated by popular culture and by people who haven’t actually been anywhere near the place. However, the reality is every bit as disturbing, and the sad future of Chernobyl is both very real and incredibly pervasive. In this article, I will share with you my personal account of my trips to the Zone as well as explore the future of this devastated region.

At 01:23 on April 26, 1986, the worst nuclear disaster in history occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what was then the Soviet Union. Reactor No. 4 exploded during a late-night stress test, hurling lethal radioactive material into the atmosphere, the effects of which were felt as far away as Sweden. 31 people died, either during the blast or from acute radiation syndrome in the months that followed. However, an unquantifiable number of people, easily numbering in the hundreds of thousands, continue to suffer adverse health effects, such as significantly increased rates of cancer and genetic ailments related to the catastrophe, over thirty years later.

During the days following the disaster, 135,000 people were evacuated from their homes never to return. No less than 700,000 people, known as liquidators, were drafted in to contain the fallout. A permanent exclusion zone spanning a radius of 18.6 miles (30 km) from the stricken reactor was set up. This area, which covers almost 1,930 square miles (5,000 square km), is home to almost 200 abandoned settlements across northern Ukraine and southern Belarus.

Contrary to popular belief, the Zone is relatively safe for tourists to visit for a one-day or even a two-day tour. You can even stay at one of two hotels in Chernobyl town itself, where some 700 people live and work on shifts lasting several months. They are involved in the never-ending operation to secure the place, monitor radiation levels and ensure that another disaster like that of 1986 never happens again.

On my latest visit, I received a 2-millsiervert dose of radiation, which is approximately equivalent to being on an aeroplane for half an hour. This might not sound like very much, but then the thick coat of snow lessens the effect, and you don’t stray off the beaten and relatively decontaminated path. Of course, radiation levels are also much lower than they were at the time of the disaster too. One of the most prominent radioactive isotopes, Cesium-137 has a half life of just over 30 years, meaning that its gamma-ray output is half what it was at the time of the disaster.

Unfortunately, Cesium-137 was just one of many radioactive isotopes that contaminated the land around the nuclear power plant. Plutonium-239, which was also included in the lethal cocktail of radioactive isotopes that spewed forth from the doomed reactor, has a half life of 24,000 years. Plutonium from Chernobyl was discovered as far afield as Sweden. The core of reactor No. 4 itself will not be even remotely safe to approach for at least this amount of time.

Crossing the Border into the Post-Apocalypse

The Road to ChernobylCharles Owen-Jackson

The bleak road to Chernobyl town, shortly after crossing the border of the Zone of Alienation on my 2017 visit.

The tour bus left Kiev at 8 AM, reaching the famous Ditiatky control point, on the border of the 30-km zone, some two hours later. After displaying our passports and signing a document acknowledging that we understood the rules of the Zone, the journey into the post-apocalyptic world begins. The bus goes down a long, straight road lined on both sides by dense fir and birch forest, partially masking the ruins of countless buildings and doomed villages.

Eventually, we stop in Cherevach, one of many overgrown, abandoned villages. I imagine it was once quite beautiful; a settlement of quaint timber houses in the forests. Now, it is being slowly reclaimed by nature which, for the most part, seems to be thriving throughout much of the Zone. Still, it’s depressing to think that people will, for all intents and purposes, never be able to live here again.

Grocery Store in CherevachCharles Owen-Jackson

The local grocery store in the village of Cherevach, several kilometres into the exclusion zone.

Although the roads are relatively free of radioactive contamination, the soil beyond is another matter. Some villages, closer to the reactor, such as Kopachi, have been largely demolished, their dangerously contaminated wooden buildings bulldozed and buried under clean topsoil to contain their deadly radioactive accompaniments. All that remains of that particular village are a handful of stone and brick buildings and a memorial to the unknown soldiers from there who died fighting in World War II. Radiation signs are everywhere, and levels are still up to 300 times higher away from the road than normal. As such, farming the land will remain out of the question for centuries.

The Sad Legacy of Chernobyl Town

Entrance to Chernobyl townCharles Owen-Jackson

The Soviet-era welcome sign to Chernobyl town.

Chernobyl itself is a town was founded over 800 years ago. Once home to about 14,000 people, it is now home to 700, most of whom are involved in the perpetual clean-up and security operation. They live there on a shift basis to avoid absorbing radiation doses deemed unacceptable by international authorities.

A small part of Chernobyl town looks rather like any other Ukrainian town. There are a couple of bars, hotels and several rather grim-looking concrete blocks where the workers live. There’s even historic church that was recently restored. However, you don’t need to look too far to see evidence of life after people.

Monument to Those Who Saved the WorldCharles Owen-Jackson

The sign reads ‘The Monument to Those Who Saved the World’, It commemorates the liquidators who died trying to contain the disaster.

The water and gas pipes hang above the pavements, relocated from the radiation-laced earth beneath. Beyond the main street, hundreds of ruined wooden cottages lie among the forest. A small handful of them are still home to people who illegally returned after the evacuation. Known as samosely (self-settlers), they are almost all elderly people who simply want to enjoy their sunset years in the homes they grew up in, and they’re dropping in number every year. There’s only around 140 samosely left in Chernobyl, living among no shortage of stray dogs, cats and other animals, some of which are rabid.

Containing the Disaster for Another Hundred Years

The New Safe Confinemnt BuildingCharles Owen-Jackson

The New Safe Confinemnt Building now entombs the ailing concrete sarcophagus built over the doomed Reactor No. 4.

After Chernobyl town, the tour makes a brief stop at a viewing area near the stricken reactor. Completed in the end of 2016, the New Safe Confinement building was the largest moving structure ever built when it was rolled over the ailing and hastily built concrete sarcophagus. Built by French contractors, this vast steel arch entombs one of the deadliest places on the planet. It was built to contain the area for at least a hundred years.

Inside the destroyed reactor building, the radiation levels remain deadly, and will do so for centuries or even thousands of years to come. The New Safe Confinement is designed to contain another collapse of the remains of the original structure and the concrete sarcophagus built in the 80s. Without it, the world’s worst nuclear disaster would be repeated, potentially wrecking devastation over up to a quarter of Europe. It is time to move on from this depressing testament to the terrors of nuclear fission gone wrong.

The Deafening Silence of Pripyat

Pripyat City Welcome SignCharles Owen-Jackson

The welcome sign at the entrance of Pripyat City.

Our next stop is Pripyat. Founded in 1970 and named after a nearby river of the same name, Pripyat was the designed to be a worker’s utopia. Built for the workers of the nuclear power plant, it was home to around 50,000 at the time of the disaster, although it boasted enough facilities to comfortably accommodate up to 80,000. It is now home to zero.

At the edge of the city stands the original sign stating the city name and the year of its founding, accompanied by several wreaths commemorating those who died. A little further on is the entrance to the city proper, manned by an understandably miserable-looking soldier who waits outside a rusting trailer pumping out steam from the heating. It’s pretty much the last sign of life before entering the city. The bus heads down Lenin Street, parking in the city square.

Pripyat before the disasterReaper2112

A typical scene from the city of Pripyat before the disaster, taken in 1983.

31 years ago, this place was full of life. There’s an enormous Palace of Culture containing some of the city’s main entertainment venues, such as a theatre, discotheque, restaurant and various other facilities. Hotel Polissya stands to the right, and one of the few modern (in the mid-80s) supermarkets to the left. Back in 2010, I could walk to the top of the hotel and get a view of the whole of Pripyat. This time, however, the structure is no longer safe enough, as are many buildings in the doomed city.

Pripyat City SquareCharles Owen-Jackson

The Palace of Culture ‘Energetik’ across Pripyat City Square, from my 2017 visit.

Somewhere along one of the overgrown streets, my friend and I lagged behind the rest of the group, stopped and just listened. I found the silence truly bone-chilling. Not a voice nor an animal to be heard; only the gentle, icy wind. The snow is about a foot (30 cm) deep. Looming up behind the trees are countless apartment buildings, shops, restaurants, post offices, schools, kindergartens and other facilities, all of which have long since been looted of any valuables.

Empty StreetsCharles Owen-Jackson

Eerily silent and empty: A typical street scene in downtown Pripyat.

No one will ever live here again. Residual radiation levels in the ground remain unsafe and will do so for an unimaginably long time. The famous fair ground, built for the May Day celebrations of May 1, 1986, which were never used, remains. The rusting cars hang ominously from the Ferris wheel. The football field and stadium nearby are overgrown by stunted birch trees, the cheers of FC Stroitel Pripyat fans long lost to the silence of the apocalypse.

Pripyat Football StadiumCharles Owen-Jackson

Avanhard Football Stadium, home ground of FC Stroitel Pripyat, now relocated to the replacement city of Slavutych.

We explore a nearby apartment building. Ice and snow covers the treacherous steps up the some ten-story block, for almost all the windows are broken. Personal effects lie among broken glass and furniture; all that remains of the lives of the young families that once lived here. Darkness was falling. The silence of a civilisation void of people had become deeply disturbing, accentuated all the more by the bitter cold. It was time to leave.

Sunset in PripyatCharles Owen-Jackson

Time to leave. Winter darkness joins the deathly silence of Pripyat City.

A Nightmare that Will Never End

Amazingly, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was only fully decommissioned in 2000 when Reactor No. 3 was closed down under intense international pressure and funding. There’s little doubt that Soviet and subsequent mishandling of the disaster have made matters worse than they could have been. Nonetheless, the world owes boundless gratitude to the incredibly bravery of the liquidators who did everything they personally could to contain the disaster.

The New Safe Confinement, which has been built to withstand earthquakes, tornadoes and extreme hot and cold temperatures, will entomb the disaster site for at least a century, but the story is far from over. In fact, it won’t be over for thousands of years. Nonetheless, the future of the Zone remains uncertain. From absurd proposals, such as rebuilding the power plant (which will never happen) to turning the entire Zone into a radiological wildlife sanctuary (much more likely), there continues to be a great deal of talk about what to do with the area. One thing is for certain, however, is that it will never be substantially repopulated again.

Przewalski's horseCharles Owen-Jackson

Przewalski’s horse to the left is a rare species of wild horse that now makes its home in the relatively undisturbed exclusion zone.

Despite the truly depressing atmosphere of the Zone, I will end this article on a more positive note. While the Zone is testament to how the incredible technological advances of the last century can also fail us spectacularly, it is also a perfect example of just how resilient nature can be. Wildlife continues to thrive in the zone which, despite being largely uninhabitable to humans, appears to be safer for animals, owing to its isolation from one of the most destructive species that ever existed – us. That being said, I can’t help but feel that there are some things that would have been better left not being invented, nuclear fission being one of them.

If you’re interested in touring the Zone, there are several organized tour companies, which can also sort out the necessary paperwork for you.

2 Responses

    • Charles

      It certainly is! I will add some more images to the article once I get the chance. 🙂


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