Throughout human history there have been some terrible events that have affected hundreds of thousands of lives.
On the 26th April 1986 an accident occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that would change the course of history and have longstanding effects on millions of people across Europe, without them even knowing.
The 30km radius around the plant – known as the exclusion zone – was set up in order to limit access to the public and prevent individuals from being exposed to high levels of radiation. Being located within Ukraine and Belarus, this area is monitored and controlled by the army.
During our trip to Ukraine, Jon and I decided to take a day trip, through Chernobyl Tours, to the exclusion zone as we were both interested in learning more about the historical incident.
Many of my friends were skeptical of me visiting Chernobyl, let alone Ukraine. People thought I would get radiation sickness, or that I would bring it back to the UK with me. However, to be clear, spending a day or two in the zone is now safe. You are exposed to a limited amount of radiation throughout your time there – in fact you receive more exposure to radiation flying in a plane for an hour.
The morning was an early start as the journey from Kiev takes roughly two and a half hours by bus, including checkpoints. Jon and I were given Geiger counters that would measure the amount of radiation we were exposed. If it breached a certain level, the Geiger counter would beep loudly.
The entrance to the 30km zone is patrolled, and the army are very strict on who they let in. Fair warning, you cannot enter the area without going on an official tour.
Our first stop was a small town called Zalyssa. It had a population of around 2,800 people before the disaster – all are now gone.
Translating into English Zalyssa means ‘beyond the forest’, however, now, it has become one with the forest.
You can see how quickly mother nature has reclaimed the land with pathway, homes, playgrounds and anything man-made having been taken over by vegetation.
Everything was left behind and valuables were often taken by the ‘liquidators’ who bravely decontaminated the entire 30km zone after the disaster.
Windows and floors were often purposefully destroyed to ensure people didn’t try and move back.
We then passed through our second checkpoint in Leliv – on the edge of the 10km zone – where our Geiger counters registered constantly higher radiation, but not to dangerous levels.
Our next stop was to Radar Duga-1 aka Chernobly2 or “The Russian Woodpecker” (due to the noise its radio frequency made), which was a top-secret missile defence system to detect USA Ballistic missiles.
However, this breathtaking 150m structure had many faults and never worked properly – even though is cost an enormous amount to construct.
The Soviet Union denied its existence, even long after their collapse. They marked it as an abandoned Summer camp on all maps Now it looms in silence over abandoned fields and forests, slowly deteriorating.
Our next stop was through Kopachi, where you got to see an abandoned kindergarten.
In this area, there were quite a few radiation ‘hot spots’, where radiation gathers in much higher concentrations than the surrounding areas – scientists are still not entirely sure why. Because of these we were advised to stick to concrete paths and not venture into undergrowth.
There were still toys everywhere. Horrifyingly, after the disaster. toddlers played outside for another two whole days, less than 10km burning power plant that was still spewing radiation over the region.
Some of the toys did seem a little staged, but it didn’t lessen the impact. I felt empty, sad, angry, scared at what I saw.
It really does put everything into perspective – the sheer destruction the radiation has brought on all life here.
Next, we went to the Nuclear Power Plant itself. There were four active power plants in Chernobyl in 1986. On that fateful night, reactor four exploded when engineers were conducting a test, sending radioactive debris into the sky.
From our tour guide we learnt a lot about the first responders, the local firefighters who fought throughout the night to put out the flames, never knowing the danger they were in. None of them survived long and died agonising deaths.
We got a good view of all the reactors, and learnt that the other three reactors were still operational until 2000, supplying energy across Ukraine. They were only shut down after a UN request, due to ongoing safety concerns.
To this date, there are still people that work at the plant. They maintain the ‘sarcophagus’ that covers the exploded reactor and protects the outside word from the radiation within. It will be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years.
Outside the dome, we spent some time by a monument to remember those thousands of responders and liquidators who put their lives in danger to save the rest of Europe from further harm.
It was time for lunch. Yes, we ate at the power plant canteen. Now this tour was spectacular – but definitely bring some of your own food as their lunch is terrible!
Next, we drove past the Prypiat welcome sign and the Red Forest.
You cannot stop in the Red Forest, as it got the worst of the radiation due to the direction of the winds.
It is known as the Red Forest due to the colour of the pine trees after they died.
The main section of the tour, Prypiat. This city was home to just under 50,000 people during the accident. It was considered the pinnacle of Soviet society.
The people within this city were largely unaware of what occurred on the night of the accident and continued to live their daily lives for the next 36 hours, being exposed to large quantities of radiation. Eventually around 1,000 buses were used to evacuate the citizens, but even then they were not told the full truth as to why.
They grabbed what valuables they could and were told they would return home soon. Little did they know they would never return, and Prypiat is now a globally known ‘ghost city’.
We walked through what seemed to be a forest, but were informed it was actually a football (soccer) field.
The stands lie decaying at the edge of the forest, with the odd light tower seen hidden amongst the trees.
One of the most well-known scenes in Prypiat is the Ferris Wheel. The first time I heard about this place and saw images of it was playing Call of Duty 4 on my Xbox 360. Little did I know I would ever get the chance to visit the real thing.
The Ferris Wheel is part of a fairground, which also had bumper cars and other rides. They were due to open literally the day after the evacuation occurred.
We walked through the streets of the city. What used to be double lane roads have been taken over by vegetation and the buildings behind the trees partially destroyed.
Entering a building is illegal, as they are structurally unsafe. But from the outside we got to see an abandoned supermarket, apartment blocks and a hotel.
The hotel was used after the evacuation to house the nation’s scientists and army commanders as they tried to figure out ways to fix and limit the radiation exposure. Almost all these individuals would suffer lasting radiation effects.
There is so much more to tell about those that lived through the accident, those that lost their homes and how this whole situation came about. A great thing to do – if you haven’t already – is watch the new TV show Chernobyl, which depicts and dramatizes the accident in a very moving and profound way.
I do encourage every one of you readers to go and visit the area. It is safe and well managed, and as long as you are sensible and follow your guides you will have a potentially life-changing day. Experience the emotions and learn about the disaster as it is an important point in history that will never be forgotten.