Chernobyl. The word alone evoke fear among the people born in the 80’s and earlier, that can remember this horrible April night in 1986. The iron curtain over the Soviet Union prevented the information about the accident to reach the rest of the world for several days. Even the inhabitants of the nearby town Pripyat knew nothing about the danger.
The model town Pripyat was built in 1970, at the same time as the nuclear power plant Chernobyl. The town was constructed to house the workers at the power plant, and their families. The building went fast, and as the city mainly consisted of high-rise apartment buildings, the area in itself was not very large. With a large supermarket, the school, swimming pools, sports arena and the culture center with cinema and sports hall, the inhabitants had what they needed. In addition, they had places for leisure along the river. The day before the accident, the amusement park with the large Ferris wheel – that later became the symbol of the ghost town for many- was finished. The plan was to open it for the celebration of May 1st.
Then the unforeseen happened. The frightening accident that characterized the worldview ever since. On the night of April 26, 1986, the nuclear engineers prepared a system test to find out how the reactor responded to maximum power and how long the turbines would work after the power had been cut off. The security system was disconnected, so before they reacted and did something about the situation, the disaster was already a fact.
Overheating caused reactor 4 to explode and a cloud of radioactivity was shot high into the air. A combination of panic and paralysis followed. The Soviet Union tried to hide the accident, but the cloud was spread by the wind, and researchers in other countries, including Sweden, recorded radioactive deposition. At first, they wondered if it could be due to accidents at their own power plants, but as there were no accidents reported, it had to come from elsewhere. Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, they discussed what they should do.
In lack of a decision on evacuation, the amusement park was opened to entertain the still unaware residents. Not until the day after the evacuation buses had arrived, residents were transported away from the city, announcing that it would be a short-term evacuation. For most of them, this was the very last time they set foot in Pripyat.
Fast forward, 30 years
A little more than 30 years later, I get off the mini bus from SoloEast Travel and set my foot at the broken asphalt close to the supermarket. In my hand I have a Geiger counter. It releases regular beeps and shows stable levels, not higher than for example in Kiev. Grass and small bushes grow fast in the asphalt cracks, and tall trees have long ago started the covering operation around the rest of the city. There is a powerful silence, only interrupted by the wind in the trees, and the beeps from the Geiger counter. We are all aware of the seriousness of the incidence bringing us here. The comments and laughter after the absurd music video and movie trailer we were shown on the bus on our way from Kiev (cannot be described, must be experienced. Or, preferably not ….) has stopped.
Around us, behind lush green trees, we see the typical grey Soviet brick buildings. Most of the facades are still intact, but the decay from the time, ravages and looting is clearly visible when we get closer. Glass and wooden pieces lay around everywhere. The only thing that is more or less intact in the supermarket, are signs hanging from the roof to indicate the shelf placements. The checkouts and carts are scattered around.
Despite the bad condition of the buildings, we can wander around quite freely. Shards of glass crunch under my shoes as I walk around in the cultural center. Water from the rain the day before is dripping at my head when I peak into the room that used to be the cinema. Little resembles that now, other than the three lonely cinema chairs at row three. The football and basketball goals in the next-door room are quite intact, and the broken glass from the large windows still crunch under my feet. The windows that once gave view overlooking the amusement park with the majestic Ferris wheel.
Down the stairs, and out the backdoor. Fading colored bumper cars are randomly scattered around. The ticket booth does not exactly invite you to buy a ticket for a ride. I can almost hear the false music from the horror movies from other abandoned amusement parks.
The swimming pool was one of three in Pripyat, and it was actually in use until 1996 by workers that are still in the area. It was open two hours a day, and since there was no radiation inside the building, they had to wash the shoes every time they entered. Now the lush green trees grow through the broken windows, and leaves and trash fill the bottom. It is strange to see the contrast to how lively swimming pools usually are.
Arriving at the school building, we received strict orders not to go out in the backyard. The vegetation has taken over completely, and the soil has high radiation. Otherwise, we could move freely inside the building, through the hallways and into the classrooms where the desks stood lined up, with papers fluttering around the floor. In one room, posters with historical photos were hanging side by side the woodwork instructions. In another room, many gas masks were piled up. On a chair in the middle of the room sat a doll with a gas mask on, obviously placed there as a powerful motive for photography. I continue the expedition. Up the stairs, all the way to the roof, where I looked out over the overgrown area. The silence was broken by birds singing. After the people left the area and nature took over, it has become a bustling wildlife with species from all over northern Ukraine.
To end the visit in Pripyat, we took a walk around the recreation area by the water. Overlooking the water from a patio, it seemed very peaceful.
Walking further, that was when the Geiger counter went crazy.
On our way back from the past, we got a closer look at the future. Reactor 4 that exploded in 1986 was later covered by a sarcophagus in concrete as a temporary solution. Over time, this has become more and more disintegrate, and a new steel sarcophagus has been built to be rolled straight over the reactor. This also makes it the world’s largest mobile steel construction.
Visiting a ghost town like this make a big impression. The first thought is, of course, the tragedy that occurred and everyone affected. Both then and afterwards. I admit I had mixed feelings going there; I felt I stepped on the history of those who were hit hardest, while it is important to learn more about the history and consequences. Many thoughts were spinning in the minds of the group, as we sat in silence in the bus going back to Kiev.