The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Photography brings me much enjoyment in life. With the subject matter I choose, it means getting away from the rat race of daily life in Los Angeles and into quiet, peaceful areas where I can relax and take my time doing something I enjoy immensely. Another interest of mine is going off the beaten track and visiting places that people don't normally go. While it is true that the Chernobyl exclusion zone has become more of an attraction to a certain crowd of people over the last few years, it is not a place you would want to take the kids on holiday.
I can still remember sitting in front of the TV after dinner back in 1986 in Norwich, England, listening to the news reports of a massive explosion at a power plant in some far away land called the Ukraine. They were saying that there was a radioactive cloud floating over England and settling on the Welsh farmland, possibly affecting the crops and livestock. In the days following the accident, with my naivety as an eleven-year old boy, I would go looking to the sky in the school playground thinking, "Well, I don't see anything up there."
Over the years since, nuclear power has always aroused my interest, from atomic weapons and eerie-looking gas masks to the invisible dangers of nuclear airborne particles. For me it is the most frightening human creation and something that requires the utmost respect from all of mankind, both as an efficient energy source and as a weapon of mass destruction. In the last few years, it had become apparent to me that Chernobyl might actually be a place to possibly visit. With information on Chernobyl growing at such a speed online and various video games being released making it possible to see the area virtually, it rekindled my interest and got me researching the possibility of visiting what most people still consider crazy.
Since, I have not only visited Chernobyl and the surrounding areas once, but now twice. It is at this point I would like to present to you some of the images I took of the area in 2008 and during my return visit in 2009, and offer some facts learned during my experiences in such a fascinating place.
In the early hours of April 26, 1986, the night shift in reactor number 4 of the V.I. Lenin Memorial Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station was performing tests that were postponed from the previous day shift. They were testing whether the plant could operate if all electrical power was lost on its systems and backup generators were used. A poorly designed RBMK-1000 (Reactor Bolshoi Moschnosti Kanalynyi) reactor, in combination with inadequate operator training and knowledge, led to the reactor's overheating. A sudden and excessive increase in steam caused the 1,000 ton lid to blow clean off the reactor into the air, destroying the roof of the building and spewing tons of nuclear waste including fuel and radioactive graphite into the atmosphere and surrounding areas. Atomic agencies set this disaster at Level 7 -- a total nuclear meltdown -- one hundred times stronger than Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many radioactive elements were released into the environment and atmosphere during the explosion including Cesium, Plutonium, Strontium and Iodine. It has been calculated that given plutonium's half life of 24,100 years that it will be a very long time before the area is fit for general population again. It is also worth noting that due to wind patterns at the time of the accident and other environmental factors, not all areas of the 30km zone are polluted. Some areas have been proven safe and even have people living there today, as I will talk about later.
From the photo you can clearly see the concrete sarcophagus that was hastily erected in the weeks and months following the accident. Experts on hand knew they had to cover the remaining nuclear waste left in the reactor to lower the radiation levels in the immediate vicinity. Radiation today is measured in sieverts. On any normal day the background level that exists anywhere on Earth is roughly two to six micro-sieverts (µSv) per hour. In the areas immediately surrounding the sarcophagus, levels are approximately six milli-sieverts (mSv) per hour -- some 6,000 times normal than background levels elsewhere. Once standing behind or inside the Chernobyl visitors center (the pale building on the right of the image), levels drop down considerably lower. The yellow and grey structure you can see attached to the right of the sarcophagus was installed in 2006/7 to strengthen the outer wall from collapsing.