At around 8.00 PM on a spring evening almost exactly 30 years ago, a group of people gathered on a railway bridge in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. They were watching a light show: flames in all the colours of the rainbow, pillars of fire that reached even higher than the clouds of smoke gathering above the power station on the horizon.
A wind blew down the water towards them as they watched; sweeping with it a radiation dose equivalent to 500 Roentgens per hour, a dosage roughly 50 million times higher than the residual radiation in a modern city. Those spectators, transfixed by the colours of the burning graphite core like moths to a flame, would all soon die from radiation poisoning. That place itself is referred to now as the ‘Bridge of Death.’
The accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was attracting tourists even before its fires had died. And today it continues: more than ten thousand visitors a year braving the unnaturally high radiation levels of the Exclusion Zone, all of them lining up for a glimpse of something extraordinary.
Tours of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone were only sanctioned in 2011, when Ukraine’s Emergencies Ministry began issuing visitor papers. In June that year the tours were briefly suspended however, after the prosecutor general’s office became worried that the Emergencies Ministry was making an unhealthy profit. “We urge the ministry to inform the government of every dollar earned by these trips,” said a spokesman.
It wasn’t until January 2013 that the ‘Zone was reopened to tourists. Tour prices were raised by around 50%, as other government departments began to syphon off their own share in the lucrative business; and since then, rival tour companies have played a game of one-upmanship as they secure group access to increasingly sensitive areas of the disaster zone. These days, the latest hot destinations within Chernobyl’s ‘Zone of Alienation’ are Duga-3 – a colossal Soviet radar installation to the south of the reactors – and even guided tours to ground zero: the control rooms of the ill-fated Reactor 4 itself.
At the time of my own visit to Chernobyl, back in 2013, the latest exclusive that tour companies were offering was the chance to see inside the shells of Reactors 5 and 6; two units of the power plant complex that were left unfinished, abandoned in the wake of the catastrophe unfolding just a few kilometres away. What follows is an account of that trip – as we visited the remains of the Chernobyl radiological laboratory, stepped inside the giant cooling tower of Reactor 5, and from there went deep into the radiation-soaked corridors of two Soviet nuclear reactors that never came to be.
First, though: a bit of context.
The Life and Death of an Atomgrad
Construction of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant began in 1970 – with the plan to build a vast, power generating complex featuring as many as 12 blocks, and an entire new city to house its workers. It was one of nine specialised ‘Atomgrads’ being built by the Soviet Union, and this one, near the border between Ukraine and Belarus, was to be their largest.
Chernobyl’s Reactor 1 was completed in 1977; Reactor 2 in 1978. The nearby town of Pripyat, less than 3km from the power plants, received its city-status in 1979 and quickly grew to a population of 50,000 citizens. That same year the power station reached its first 10 billion kilowatt-hours of electrical output. The Atomgrad continued to grow into the next decade: in 1981, Reactor 3 was brought online… and the following year the power plant suffered its first major accident.
In 1982 there was a partial core meltdown at Reactor 1; the unit was put back to use within a matter of months though, and the event was largely covered up. It wasn’t until 1985 that the public were made aware of the potentially-catastrophic incident, a revelation that was side-lined in favour of continuing the USSR’s pro-nuclear campaign. It was during that period of silence, on 20th December 1983, that the new Reactor 4 was finished and began its delicate work.
Just 28 months later – at 1.23 AM on Saturday 26th April 1986 – that same reactor was torn apart by a steam explosion as the plant reached 120 times its maximum power threshold. Its radioactive fuel disintegrated, the lid above the fuel elements was blown into the air and as oxygen flooded the reactor core it ignited a graphite fire: the lightshow that had captivated those hapless spectators on the Bridge of Death. As metal fuel tubes superheated and reacted with the cooling water, hydrogen was released leading to a secondary explosion.
I’ve already written in depth about that event – both the accident and the subsequent clean-up operation – in my previous post about Chernobyl: What’s It’s Like to Spend 32 Hours in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
What I didn’t mention there however, was that even amidst the chaos – in spite of the smoke and flames and deadly radiation – for staff at the other Chernobyl reactors, April 26th was just a regular working day.
Well… perhaps not quite a ‘regular’ working day.
Immediately after the explosion at Reactor 4, the other functioning reactors – numbers 1-3 – were shut down. They still needed to be monitored though, they still required staff, and so while 37 fire brigades battled the blaze at Reactor 4, the technicians stationed at the surrounding power plants clocked on for work at 8.00 AM, as they had done every day. Meanwhile (just hours after the worst nuclear accident in history – and only a couple of kilometres away), 286 construction workers showed up for their shift at Reactors 5 and 6.
Once they were finished, these two new units would have been capable of generating 1,000 MW – twice the power of London’s Battersea Power Station – each. Reactor 5, scheduled to come online November 7th 1986, was roughly 70% complete at the time of the accident. Reactor 6 meanwhile was due for completion in 1994.
After the accident however, the project was stalled. Construction at Reactors 5 and 6 was halted immediately after the disaster; then later resumed, in October 1986, while other teams worked on a protective sarcophagus for Reactor 4.
Six months later construction halted again. On 24th April 1987, workers on the two new reactor sites downed their tools as they left on another hiatus. It wasn’t until May 1989 that the decision was finally announced to abandoned the project altogether.
The Soviet leadership had been desperate to salvage something of the Chernobyl site. According to a senior Moscow official the disaster cost the USSR the equivalent of £200 billion – and it must have hurt, to leave all that investment behind without any kind of return. But by that point the Soviet Union was falling apart, Ukraine was already talking about independence, and all plans for building the world’s greatest Atomgrad were dropped; leaving the Chernobyl Reactors 5 and 6 to stand unfinished, steel and concrete skeletons in an inhospitable wasteland.
The Chernobyl Radiological Laboratory
As we approached the nucleus of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the area around the reactors themselves, our tour bus pulled over first beside a farm. Two low buildings sat on the bank of the cooling lake, the green undergrowth advancing from all sides to cocoon the place in plant matter. It was more tranquil than you might imagine; and I had to keep reminding myself that these plants, the water, even the soil beneath my feet was poisoned.
The place had been a fishery once. The first building was a household and domestic laboratory, while the second contained a hatchery for breeding fish. After the accident however, the fish farm was abandoned and these buildings were converted to serve as a radiological laboratory; scientists stationed here would take living samples from the Zone, usually birds or fish, and examine them for traces of contamination.
The radiological lab operated until 1996 – later taken over by the Chernobyl Radio-Ecological Centre, who ran operations here until 2008. During that time the research work was gradually phased out, and by the time the last scientists evacuated there was very little in the way of tools and equipment left for the looters who inevitably followed.
A few clues remained though, of the site’s former function; we passed rusted fish pens pinned to the lakeshore, as we approached the buildings.
At the door to the old farmhouse our guides let us off the proverbial leash – given a time to meet back at the bus – and as my 30-odd fellow tourists traipsed into the building I went the other way: over a fence, around the back, and into the long wooden structures that hid behind.
Stacks of wood and wire cages lined the walkway through the barn. Poultry feeders stood empty in rows, in between banks of dried-up fish tanks. The silence here was overpowering – and altogether different from the sense of human absence that permeated the towns, the streets of Pripyat. Those places had conjured images of emergency evacuations and people being moved out by the busload; here though, as I noticed the deep scratch marks across the wooden cages, I wondered if the animals – these research samples – had been released, removed, or rather simply destroyed.
Crossing from the barns to the laboratory, I passed my tour group on the way. I was doing this all weekend: anytime we had five free minutes to explore, I’d complete the recommended route in reverse. That way, for at least a few moments here and there, I was able to entertain the illusion of abandonment; to fool myself into believing, however briefly, that I was alone in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
The house itself was stripped clean; or close enough, at least. Plastic sheeting lined the floors, while clear sacks of soil samples formed small mountains on shelves and windowsills. In a back room, a collection of pickle jars stood lined up with their contents on display – preserved fish heads floating in the clear solution.
There was something disturbingly domestic about the scene, the thrifty use of recycled food containers by scientists investigating the world’s worst nuclear accident. It made me wonder what the hospitals had looked like – those first treatment centres cobbled together to deal with cases of acute radiation poisoning – and I reflected, not for the first time, on quite how unprepared the Soviet Union had been for a nuclear catastrophe on this scale.
In another room I found a row of seats that looked as though they’d been torn out of a hospital waiting room. Through the window behind, meanwhile, I had my first glimpse of our next destination: the concrete pillar of the Reactor 5 cooling tower. Then from outside I heard the bus horn, and I quickly rejoined the rest of the group ready for the short drive over to the unfinished reactors.
Inside Cooling Tower 5
The cooling tower attached to Chernobyl’s Reactor 5 was absolutely massive. It already looked big on the horizon – but it wasn’t until we travelled closer that I got any real sense of perspective. Soon enough though, once the thin black band around its upper lip revealed itself as four levels of rusted scaffold gantries, I began to appreciate the ridiculous scale of the structure I was looking at.
We left the road to cross a patch of rough ground in the shadow of the tower; past stacks of metal beams that lay about the pitted concrete courtyard, and through the clutching grasses which thrived here beside the waters of the cooling lake. That unnatural shape rising up above the treetops, it had the feel of some ancient Aztec pyramid emerging from the jungle; a hyperboloid temple to gods long-since forgotten. From the base of the tower the view above was dizzying – a surreal perspective that made my head spin – and so I mostly kept my eyes to the ground as I navigated its mess of cables, weeds and rusting metal.
In single file, we followed our guide into the tower – through a long, covered gangway, a metal cage corridor that might easily have been the recycled arm of a crane.
Stepping from the end of the walkway onto the dirt floor inside the tower, I looked up at the space above. This incredible structure seemed almost too big to believe; felt almost extraterrestrial, in its superhuman scale. On the floor around us broken bars and concrete structures reached up hopelessly towards the opening above: a distant circle of light framed within the ring of decades-old scaffold that clung to the concrete lip.
From a distance the cooling tower had looked smooth, a solid object of elegant geometric proportions. Seen up close however, I became aware of the flaws in its crooked walls. The blocks that formed it looked uneven, stacked almost precariously, so that the feeling of standing at its centre, encircled and entombed by who-knew-how-many tons of concrete and scaffold, was decidedly unsettling.
I walked about inside, clicking my fingers to hear the echo come back clear in warm, slapping waves. The acoustics in the tower were extraordinary.
Nearby I found a bone, the pelvis of some large beast. I was just examining it, turning it with my foot, when suddenly the tower erupted into song; and the space inside rang with the familiar melody of The Phantom of the Opera.
The rest of the group had been experimenting with sound – banging around, clanging metal on metal or shouting up into the reverberating space – but they all fell silent as the wind carried that soprano voice up into the tower, fuller and heavier with each new wave that echoed back off the walls.
She finished to a round of applause, a crackle of appreciation that rose and mingled with the last strains of music still trapped within the concrete cylinder of the cooling tower, and after that we were being rounded up, led on again, this time to go and explore inside the abandoned reactor itself.
A Tour of Chernobyl Reactors 5 & 6
Before we entered the sprawling construction site that might once have come online as the fifth and sixth reactors of the Chernobyl Power Plant, our guide issued a warning. “Don’t touch anything,” he said. “Stick with me, and watch every step you take.”
He wasn’t being overcautious – as I’d soon find out, the potential for fatal accidents inside this towering shell was virtually limitless. Sudden drops down 10-floor shafts, trailing cables and broken, rusted spears of metal slicing in from every angle. And that’s before you take into account the radiation levels: high enough here, this close to the accident site, that you really wouldn’t want to linger long.
The reactor building appeared to us through a clearing in the undergrowth: an ugly-looking block of rough concrete, the rust bleeding stains across its flanks while dead cranes rose up around like useless sentries. Through the open door we went, and into the darkness.
The ground floor corridor of Reactor 5 seemed like it had been built for giants. It cut straight through the building, from front to back, where the corridor opened quite abruptly onto a concrete-lined reservoir of cooling water. Unfinished pillars emerged from the surface to form a cage of broken beams.
On either side of the corridor meanwhile, doors led off into smaller chambers – some at ground level, but others feeding down rusted ladders and gantries to chambers on subterranean floors.
I shone my torch into a few of the openings, and was about to try the rungs of a nearby ladder; when the guide called us to a staircase further along the corridor, and began to lead the way up. I didn’t count the floors in the reactor, but there were plenty of them. Each new level we arrived at branched off into a fresh network of corridors, concrete tunnels and unfinished metal walkways. Plastic sheeting hung like curtains across the doorways to would-be control rooms.
I was sorely tempted to go off alone – to ditch the group, and explore the power station solo. Common sense prevailed however, and I stuck to the pack… well, mostly. I followed largely in their trail, allowing for just the occasional detour, the odd glimpse of some vast unfinished chamber not included on the approved route.
Enticing as this concrete labyrinth was though, it seemed as though sudden death waited around every corner; here and there lift shafts opened abruptly in the floor, gaping pits that would have been incredibly easy to stumble into. Meanwhile the tangle of wires and cables that littered the place, the absolute darkness of the corridors, conspired to make such accidents ever more likely. More than once, I double-checked my bag to see that I still had the pouch of spare batteries for my torch.
By the time I finally caught up with the rest of the group, they had arrived in a huge warehouse-like space on the highest floor of the reactor building. Daylight shone in through the cracks around a steel panel hatch that filled the end wall. At the back of this space stood a cage stocked with oversized gas canisters, and my fellow tourists floated this way and that along metal gantries.
Later, after we left the reactor site behind, I sat on the tour bus worrying about the ethics of ‘disaster tourism.’
I had enjoyed exploring the reactor site; much like I might enjoy any other colossal abandoned building. The imposing architecture had demanded attention – while real, practical dangers too, serve to keep visitors thinking in the present, focussed on the purely temporary phenomenon of experiencing the site in this moment. There was barely time allowed in the trip to consider what any of it meant… or what had happened here. I had to make that time later, for myself, skulking alone with my thoughts while the rest of the group sat in a hotel room drinking vodka.
The increase in tourism to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is undoubtedly a good thing. It brings a small fortune into the country, millions of Euros every year, and money that is desperately needed as the Ukrainian government continues to maintain the site: monitoring contamination levels, employing military guards, and finishing work on the new sarcophagus with which to encase Reactor 4.
Perhaps though, one day they might think to invest some small portion of that money back into a new memorial centre. Hiroshima has one. The Ground Zero site in New York has one – and I think Chernobyl needs one too. A place of education amidst the abandonment. Because right now it feels far too easy to get lost in the adventure and forget that an estimated 7 million people were effected by the disaster that took place here… and really it’s the people of Chernobyl, not just the buildings, that deserve to be remembered.
The Exclusion Zone.
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