This is it. This is my dream.
For at least the last decade, I have had a reoccurring dream visit my nightly. I’m with a small group of friends / family, and we’re the last people left on Earth. We wander the streets with complete freedom. Voyeuristically peering into people’s homes, seeing the remnants of the lives they have left behind.
Flash forward six years, I start to get into Urban Exploration and I find that such a place exists. Prypiat.
Here’s an aerial photograph. Bear in mind each of these buildings is 6 storeys high.
Aerial Photograph courtesy of www.Prypiat.com
Prypiat was founded in 1970 to house the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant workers, officially proclaimed a city in 1979, and was abandoned in 1986 following the Chernobyl disaster.
It’s massive. Its population had been around 50,000 before the accident. Annual growth of population was estimated at around 1,500. Which includes 800 people who were actually born there.
It was relatively well served for the time, with a decent road network, as well as a railroad link to Kiev.
It was planned that the Pripyat's population should rise up to 78,000.
The city of Prypiat and the Zone of Alienation are now bordered with guards and police. For once I went through all the proper channels, and obtained official permissions to enter the zone. Here’s my official permission, including approved itinerary.
I fully surrendered my passport the Ukrainian authorities; months in advance, in order for them to investigate me.
Up until March this year (2010) groups of 46 people were allowed into the zone. However a beautiful painting that was backstage in the theatre was damaged by an idiotic selfish individual. Following this incident the maximum number of people allowed in has been reduced to 16 people (plus an official).
There are 3 Borders surrounding the mangled Reactor 4 and Prypiat. One at 30km, one at 10km, and one surrounds Prypiat itself. All of these are borders are military patrolled by armed soldiers. Each checkpoint requires a certain set of papers and permissions, as well as passports. No photography is allowed around the checkpoints.
I am asked to sign “The Rules” before I’m allowed any further. I half read them and sign my life away, just desperate to cross the border.
Every trip to Prypiat should start with a visit to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant itself.
We stop on the verge by the side of the road, and we can see all six reactors:
Reactors 5&6 – Unfinished.
For three years following the disaster they fearlessly carried working on building reactors 5&6, before they finally said “Hang on, maybe this isn’t the best idea we’ve had” and construction was halted.
Our first sight of Reactor 4.
The radiation here is 13 times greater than what it was at the 30km checkpoint.
The Visitor Centre (yes, it has a visitor centre) has a Geiger counter pointing at the sarcophagus, here the reading is 7.42 μSv
This hobby has led me to some extreme places before, but never before I did I imagine I would be standing here within 100m of Reactor 4. The reading here is 4.46 μSv - 32 times greater than where we entered the zone.
The concrete sarcophagus was built in a bit of a hurry, and was also only designed to last 20 years - 24 years on and it’s really showing its age, even in this photograph you can see holes in the concrete.
If the structure collapses it will send a cloud of radioactive dust into the atmosphere equivalent to the original disaster.
A replacement sarcophagus will be constructed a couple of miles away where it is slightly safer, then slid on rails to completely cover the original.
This was due for completion 10 years ago, however has yet to start construction.
The Bridge of Death:
The accident occurred at 01:23am and would have been an amazing spectacle. Humans are naturally curious. Residents from the lower apartments made their way to this bridge to get a clear view of the fire. I’ve seen people on a documentary talk about how they watched blue, green, and purple flames leap into the night sky. They were completely unaware that the wind blowing their way was carrying enough radiation to fry them from the inside out.
I look out to the reactor trying to imagine what it would have been like to have witnessed the disaster first hand, as I do so a breeze blows on my face.
The road to Prypiat:
When the city was (eventually) evacuated, 1,100 buses ran the residents of the city down this very road. They were told it was temporary, and “just a precaution” and they’d be home in a couple of days.
The zone is militarized, which means it isn’t policed. My driver takes advantage of this, as well as trying to give me a sense of the panic by driving the road to Prypiat the fun side of 100mph.
We arrive in Lenin Square, the main square. It has a supermarket, a sports centre and a hotel on it. A large metal ‘A’ has fallen from the sign on the hotel roof.
Many of the building interiors in Prypiat have been vandalized and ransacked over the years. Due to the fact that the buildings have not been maintained for over two decades, the roofs leak, and in the springtime the rooms are flooded with water. Trees can be seen growing on roofs and even inside the buildings.
Because of this, the government passed a prohibition to enter any of the buildings in Prypiat.
You will notice that that I have entered the buildings, 5 years after this prohibition, as have most of the people that visited Prypiat. The only real factors which stop you are:
A: The temper of your guide
B: The size of bribe you are willing to part with.
We make our way into the hotel, and up to the roof to get a view of the city.
I find the hotel log book in reception; it shows entries from February 1983.
Hotel Gas Masks:
One thing I will never forget about Prypiat is the silence. Not only is there nobody there is no electricity which produces the hum that we have become accustom to in our own towns. In Prypiat people standing a hundred yards apart can have a civilisation. We had a system that if my guide or driver needs me back in the vehicle they will honk twice.
Whilst in the fairground I heard a single honk so wandered back, only to find the driver urinating in the bushes with the van locked. He tells me it must have been a car on the ‘main road’ – some 30k away.
A whole menagerie of animals live inside the zone. In fact, they have particularly thrived since the humans left. Boars, wild horses, deer, packs of dogs, and even wild zebras have been know to wander the streets. All I see is a cat, but I’m warned away from it, not because of radiation, but because of rabies.
We made our way to the theatre, and entered through the stage door. The fly tower was huge and vacuous – the lighting rig has crashed onto the stage. My guide warns me about the state of the stage by prodding the wooden floor, until a large chunk of it drops 45ft into the basement below. The props storage area is full of these paintings.
I walked from the back stage area towards the fairground completely alone.
There’s something really disconcerting about entering such a large open space alone, and in silence. Especially when the space in question should be filled with life and laughter.
Bumper cars sat redundant
The iconic Ferris wheel has almost become a symbol for Prypiat:
The fairground was set up for the May Day celebrations. However the city was evacuated on 27th April, so was never used.
Merry go round:
There’s an area in the centre of the fairground where my guide puts down his Geiger counter. I’m amazed at what I see. It shoots up to 49.95 μSv. That’s 13 times stronger radiation than outside the front of Reactor 4! He explains that this is the area where the helicopters landed between flights to drop water and sand on the reactor fire. Each time they went over the reactor they became more and more radioactively charged.
Eventually the level reached 80 MicroSieverts (μSv ) That’s 1,600 times the safe dosage. I quickly move away and ask my guide what would happen if I curled up and had a sleep there. He looked sick and replied in a sombre Russian accent “Please don’t do that”.
I made my way over to the swimming pool. Weirdly this was still in use until 1998 by the local workers. It was only after I returned home I noticed the time on the clock is exactly that of the disaster.
The space of the swimming hall is amazing. It’s so large I cant even fit in my viewfinder with a wide angled lens. This is still 3 wide angle shots stitched together.
I ask if we can go off the beaten track from all of the ‘regular’ Prypiat landmarks, just to a regular apartment block. He agrees and just picks one at random. Despite how voyeuristic this whole experience is, I have decided not to post the photographs from inside the homes as a mark of respect.
We pass back through the Prypiat checkpoint, and our vehicle is checked for radiation. This is repeated at the 10Km checkpoint. Although they insist on me getting out of the vehicle to have a full body scan for radiation before they let me leave. A 5 second wait for either a red or green light in this machine lasts a lifetime, until they deem me fit to leave the zone.
I sneak off a shot through the blacked out windows of our vehicle as we pass through the checkpoint.
We pass the old ship yard, where massive ships lay redundant on their side. Rusting away slowly in the acidic radioactive water. I ask if I can get out to photograph t hem, but he said no way due to contamination. He pulls up just long enough for me to take a photograph:
All of a sudden he accelerates away at full throttle; I look back and notice a large group of people in protective white gear coming towards us from the woods.
We head back with the Ukrainian Stig trying to set a new lap time between checkpoints. The guide suggests supper because he “knows somewhere nice”. That somewhere nice turned out to be the workers canteen, inside the zone!
We sit down what turns out to be an amazing meal, cooked by fearless babushkas who work on regulated tariffs to avoid radiation poisoning.
A natural concern is whether it is safe to visit Prypiat and the surroundings. I thought very long and very hard about this before booking the trip. For at least three years I had the forms filled in, payment ready, and I thought about it every day, but was always uncertain about the risks associated with the radiation.
I immersed myself in researching the effects of the accident. There are two main ‘fingers’ of contamination, caused by the changing of wind direction in the hours after the accident. One ‘finger’ extends east directly over Prypiat, and the secondary finger points North up into Belarus. These areas have an extremely concentrated amounts of Caesium 137, which has a half life of around 30 years. It’s now 24 Years after the accident, and scientists are seeing a significant drop in Caesium 137. However these areas are also contaminated with the more deadly Plutonium 239 which has a half life of 24,100 years -meaning these areas will never be inhabited by humans ever again.
The doors of most of the buildings are held open to reduce the risk of radiation building up into pockets. For the same reason, many of the windows have been deliberately smashed, which has rapidly accelerated the deterioration process to the buildings. Eating is prohibited in Prypiat, which is fair enough - if you swallow a ‘hot particle’ you’ll be leaving the zone in lead lined box.
I was advised by my guide to wear long sleeves and trousers to prevent alpha and beta particles bombarding my skin. I was advised to avoid vegetation as far as reasonably practicable, as radiation clings to organic soft surfaces. For this reason also it is essential not to put anything onto the ground. If you put your camera bag on the grass, even for a few seconds, it won’t be allowed out of the zone.