On May 2, 2017 I had the opportunity to take a tour of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Chernobyl is located about 130 km (81 miles) north of Kiev in Ukraine and about 20 km (12 miles) south of the border with Belarus. At the time Chernobyl and nearby towns like Pripyat were home to more than 5 million people, where tens of thousands were forced to evacuate and leave everything behind which is now nothing but a contaminated time capsule. Throughout the tour I not only came across abandoned and deteriorating houses but also remnants of clothes, personal photographs, documents, and even gas masks. In many of the buildings I could see the chaos that occurred days following after the disaster with documents and personal items like children’s toys scattered everywhere. Over the year’s nature has begun to reclaim the land, and animals have also made new homes around and within the premises.
During the 1970s nuclear power stations were presented as being an achievement of Soviet engineering and where nuclear power was harnessed for peaceful projects. Pripyat, one of the major cities within close proximity to Chernobyl was one of 9 nuclear cities in the Soviet Union. The popular slogan during the time was "peaceful atom" in Russian мирный атом.
The Chernobyl disaster/ accident occurred on April 26, 1986 when reactor number 4 was hit by a sudden power surge during a late-night safety test. Operators attempted an emergency shutdown which led to a spike in power leading to steam explosions in its core. This led to large quantities of radioactive isotopes expelled into the atmosphere and an open-air fire where the smoke helped carry the particles as far as 1,100 km (680 mi) which was first detected by workers at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden on April 28. It is one of only two nuclear accidents classified as a level 7 event which is the maximum on the International Nuclear Event Scale. An exclusion zone was created which covers an area of around 2,600 km2 (1,000 sq. mi) in northern Ukraine.
Around 36 hours after a 10 km exclusion zone was created the rapid evacuation of 49,000 people mostly from Pripyat, the largest population center most near to the location of the accident occurred. The evacuation was then increased to 30 km about one week after the nuclear fallout continued to be generated and exasperated by the changing wind directions creating hotspots throughout the disaster zone. Around 135,000 individuals were evacuated for long term and never to return which led to a total increased to around 350,000. Today there are still people living on the contaminated areas and even eating food grown in the contaminated soil. While many experts would say this is a major health risk, other studies even insist that most people would have been better off living in the contaminated areas than relocating to the city of Kiev which has high air pollution and deemed as even a greater health risk.
The total number of deaths (including future deaths) linked to the disaster is a highly controversial subject, however the official number stands at 37 people directly linked to the disaster. Two died at the scene, four in a helicopter accident, 29 died from Acute Radiation Syndrome a few months later, and three died from other medical complications. Estimates of other deaths and future ones range from 4,000 all the way to 200,000, varying by teams of scientists, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Greenpeace. In 2007 a Russian publication concluded that there were 985,000 premature deaths as a result of the radioactivity released during the event. The disaster involved over 600,000 workers (also known as liquidators), costing over 18 billion rubles or around $279 million to aide in cleaning efforts. Decontamination efforts are still going on as we speak, and I witnessed some of the workers walking to their jobs while taking photos of reactor 4.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster not only affected human lives but also the surrounding environment and ecosystem which is still being studied today regarding the actual scale of the impact. In November 2016 Chernobyl’s New Safe Confinement (NSC) was deployed to confine the remains of rector number 4 and prevent the further release of radioactive contaminants. The total cost was approximately 1.5 billion Euro or around $1.7 and will last for a minimum of 100 years.
Over the years I have read about the Chernobyl nuclear disaster however only reading and seeing others photos was not enough for me and I felt the urge to see with my own eyes. The day trip I took to the exclusion zone did just that and more, it gave me a new perspective on how errors and miscalculations by humans can completely alter the ecosystem around us. One small error can lead to a catastrophe which can impact others’ lives for decades after. When walking throughout Pripyat and Zalissa and listening to the breeze move across the tress and through vacant alleyways and buildings it was eerily peaceful but sad more often than not.
Below are some other photos I took during my day exploration of Zalissa, Pripyat, Chernobyl, and the Duga 1 Radar. I have plans to make a second journey here in the near future.
GreenFacts Assessment: https://www.greenfacts.org/en/chernobyl/index.htm
Vice News: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tlJXJ3BM7j0