December 7, 2016
LAST WEEK, authorities in Ukraine completed the installation of a mammoth protective dome over the remains of the infamous reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.
In April, 1986, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl’s reactor four exploded, sending plumes of radiation across Europe in what is still history’s worst nuclear accident. Soviet helicopters dumped sand and clay over the exposed core, and later the building was encased in thousands of tons of concrete — a structure that become known as “the sarcophagus.” Over time, however, cracks and settling allowed increasing amounts of radiation to leech out, and a more permanent containment shelter was needed. That shelter, now in place, is a 25,000-ton, 300-foot high containment vessel made of steel.
To this day, a 30-kilometer “Exclusion Zone” surrounds the Chernobyl plant, accessible only to researchers, temporary workers, and a small number of villagers — most of them senior citizens — that the Ukrainian government allows to live there. And, believe it or not, tourists. Day trips to Chernobyl can be arranged in the capital, Kiev (Kyiv), and include transportation to and from the site, plus all the admission formalities — including a radiation scan on your way out.
In 2007 I took one of those trips. The photographs below are from that day. Most of them were taken in Pripyat, the abandoned city inside the Exclusion Zone that was once home to 50,000 people. You are free to wander as you please. We had the site almost entirely to ourselves. We walked through apartment blocks, kindergarten classrooms, a high school, a hotel. Pripyat today exists as a sort of Soviet time capsule, a bustling city left in a kind of suspended animation, complete with hammers, sickles, and no shortage of radioactive detritus that was once the stuff of regular, everyday lives. Kids’ toys, a ferris wheel, a classroom chalkboard. It’s these everyday items that leave the most lasting impression — a perversion of normalcy that drives home the sense of tragedy.
I have not captioned the pictures. They more or less speak for themselves. In the photo above (an uncrossed version appears with the others below), our tour guide aims his dosimeter at original sarcophagus and the remains of reactor four. The reading you see on the machine is about sixty times normal background radiation, and we were only allowed to stay here for about ten minutes. The rawness of the blown-out reactor, right there in front of us, was pretty unforgettable. Reactor four is completely hidden now, the sarcophagus concealed under a sterile white shell that looks like a futuristic cross between a football stadium and an airship hangar. Judging from the news photos, it’s a much more sterile, less jarring aesthetic — though I suppose that’s much of the point.
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS BY PATRICK SMITH
That last one is a shot of downtown Kiev, the pretty Ukrainian capital. A metropolis of almost three million people, Kiev sits only about 80 miles south of Chernobyl. Prevailing winds saved the city from disaster, carrying the fallout in the opposite direction, north into Belarus, and from there it diffused across northern Europe.
The items below were souvenirs, I guess you’d have to call them, scavenged from Pripyat. Among them are a 1984 copy of Pravda, the Soviet state newspaper; some vintage postage stamps, and what appears to be a school report card, found inside the Pripyat high school. Perhaps some Ukrainian speakers out there can help translate some of this. I’d love to know more about the report card — names, dates, anything. The bottom shot is from a roll of exposed film, found on the floor in one of the other buildings.
Hopefully these items haven’t turned my apartment radioactive.
I had been in the Soviet Union only a couple of weeks before the accident, visiting Moscow and Leningrad (as St. Petersburg still was called). Among the highlights of that trip were my flights aboard Aeroflot. We flew Finnair from New York to Helsinki (DC-10) and onward to Moscow (DC-9), but a few days later I got to ride on an Aeroflot Tu-154 from Moscow to Leningrad, and then a Tu-134 from Leningrad back to Helsinki. Apple juice. I remember the Aeroflot flight attendants serving plastic cups of apple juice.
It dawns on me, too, that my travel habits are at times decidedly macabre. In addition to my trip to Chernobyl, I’ve been to the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Poland, as well as to the various “killing fields” sites around Phnom Penh, in Cambodia.