THE CALL OF CHERNOBYL
I have wanted to visit Chernobyl since I was a young man. Over the years, I've read more books about Chernobyl, nuclear science, the history of the nuclear bomb, radiation, and Soviet history, than any other subject. While I don't consider myself an expert by any means, these subjects have fascinated me as long as I can remember. I've also been spoiled for choices on other ways to immerse myself in the exclusion zone - the cultural impact of Chernobyl cannot be overstated, as it has been reflected upon both literally and figuratively in books, media, video games, movies, and TV shows. Primarily, my interest was stoked by the acclaimed survival horror video game franchise S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a series in an expanded version of the Chernobyl Exclusion zone that I have spent many hundreds of hours exploring. Beyond that, the classic novel Roadside Picnic, and the Tarkovsky film Stalker, have opened other avenues to explore the mysteries of the zone.
Chernobyl represents the horrific consequences of great ability trapped in indelicate hands. Where our other failures take human lives and can locally devastate an environment, nuclear contamination does both of those and is functionally permanent. To put things in perspective, the earliest point in human history is generally believed to have been recorded 5,000 years ago. Pripyat, the city built to house the workers of Chernobyl and it's associated facilities, will not be conventionally inhabitable for twenty times the total length of recorded human history.
When we think of the most significant events in the new century, 9/11 certainly marks the beginning of a global change towards larger scale imperialism and the slow annihilation of civil liberties in the western world. Every facet of our current political climate is reflected in the world that came after the towers fell. In the preceding century, Chernobyl precipitated the downfall of one of the largest industrial empires in history. The disaster at Chernobyl revealed to the globe the grave faults in the Soviet system - and how, when in conflict, the ideological imperative must bend to scientific truth. The disaster was not just a local issue, but a radioactive catastrophe that spread a plague of contamination from Kiev to London. More startling still is that it could have been dramatically worse - If the Chernobyl divers, Bespalov, Baranov, and Anenenko, had not released the water valves beneath the blasted reactor, the molten core could have reached the water and triggered another explosion. A second disaster would have created an uninhabitable white zone from Portugal to Moscow, and would have triggered a mass extinction event across the globe. The consequences of this event are hard to exaggerate. Chernobyl is where humanity came to the very brink of extermination.
To me, our quest for nuclear power has been like that of Icarus, who abused his power and strove too far, and fell to earth to suffer for his hubris. Perhaps even more appropriate, the fission of the atom is like Pandora's box; a perilous, mercurial force belonging only to the gods, and having loosed it, we must suffer the consequences eternally. The godlike destruction of nuclear weapons, and the seething permanence of radioactive contamination, are to me the closest mankind has come to truly cosmic power, power wholly outside of our control.
Please note that some of the details on this might be wrong. I took contemporaneous notes on the journey, but the file was deleted. I might have some dates, numbers, and locations mixed up. If you have any questions or corrections, let me know.
I had invited many people on this trip, and of them, only my aunt Jan was able to join. She is a wise and insightful woman, so she made a great travel companion. In the early morning, we met with the group near the metro station and checked ourselves in with the guide. The drive to the first check point was about an hour. At some point on the flight into Kiev, I realized that, my god, I'm actually going to do it. I'm actually going to Chernobyl. That feeling was a rush. I felt it again as I watched the trees speed past the bus.
We filled out documentation at the first check point. I knew they would be selling souvenirs, but I hadn’t thought about what it would look like juxtaposed with the military checkpoint in the background. The sight was odd - I love souvenirs, and I’m into the grotesque, but I wonder how the people behind the stands feel about selling merchandise depicting the worst ecological disaster in their nations history as a fleeting figment of pop culture. It isn’t all bad, though: Some of the money goes to help the local economy, and other money goes to help the settlers - the old matriarchs who returned to their devastated villages after the evacuation.
On the way into the exclusion zone, the guide indicated that he is not, in fact, a guide, and that we are not tourists, because there was no legal tourism in the zone. Instead, he is a scientist, and we are his assistants. This is a legal distinction that becomes important later - it means we are placed under stricter surveillance and must obey extra rules and regulations, including a curfew. Having said that, he then outlined the laws that we would be breaking throughout the trip, clarifying that he would did not want to be in any photographs while breaking laws. Technically, we are not allowed in any buildings within the exclusion zone, but he doesn’t believe that would make for a good trip. In short, “It doesn’t make sense to go to Pripyat without going into the buildings. You don’t get to see how big the city is just by standing on the ground.”
A couple things surprised me on the way to the first location. I was aware of people called Stalkers, who intrude into the zone to steal materials to sell on the black market, but I didn’t know that it was a direct reference to the book Roadside Picnic, which describes a very similar activity with the same term. I had thought that Roadside Picnic was just popular among aficionados of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video games, I hadn’t realized that its had such a cultural impact. This was clarified when we stopped at a canteen called ”Roadside Picnic.” Amusingly, the fare was almost exactly like that of the STALKER games - tea, vodka, bread, sausage, and canned meat.
I was also surprised at the sheer volume of industry that remains in the exclusion zone. I knew that there are a lot of tourists, but I had no idea that the town of Chernobyl has two thousand people who live and work in the zone. Those who remain are guards, police, and laborers and engineers, who build and maintain the new containment facilities, dismantle the old object shelter, run a wood processing plant, transport spent fuel rods to containment, maintain a general automotive transportation service, maintain the power lines, maintain the hotels, prepare food, and tend to the forests. The investment in creating Chernobyl was simply too great to write off - the power lines and support systems are still active, and engineers are developing experimental solar panels near the power plant with the hopes of changing the future of Ukrainian power to more sustainable ends.
According to the scientist, the Ukrainian government allows the administration of the exclusion zone to govern itself. This allows them to operate as a country within a country, governed by loyalists to the defunct USSR. How someone could see the utter ecological devastation caused by the soviet leadership, in a country that lost more people to the Soviet mass-starvation of Holodomor than Jewish people lost to the Holocaust, and still be loyal to the hammer and sickle, I do not know. The scientist was similarly unable to explain it. “Brainwashing, I suppose. We are so far away out here. It’s another country. Everywhere, there is monument to Holocaust. But the Holodomor? We have a single museum. Millions died, tortured to death. No one knows.”
The first stop on the tour was a small, desolate village. Nature had reclaimed much of the buildings, but still a few pieces of pre-disaster culture remain, including newspapers, bottles of vodka, and rusted farm equipment. Still, out of the decay, new life flourished. Dense moss and lichen covered the ground, and trees and bushes punctured buildings.
After the first village, we entered Chernobyl. Not the power plant, but the town for which the power plant was named. This is still an occupied, officially registered town. Past the entry way, there is an installation that acts as a monument to the dozens of villages that were depopulated and evacuated - some of them permanently. Rows of signs, each one with the name of a village. If they were crossed over in red, they were evacuated. If the sign was black, the inhabitants were never allowed to return. The somber mood of the monument was undercut by the fact that it was a demonstration of the incredible corruption of the Ukrainian government - the monument consisted of a hundred meters of metal sign posts, yet cost a million dollars to install. There is a museum that is part of this same phenomenon across the road - it was created to memorialize the destruction of the villages, but it was open only done day a year, long enough for the inspector to visit and give it the OK.
Ironically enough, at the end of the row of villages stands one of the two remaining statues of Lenin in Ukraine. After the Decommunization of Ukraine, nearly all of the statues dedicated to former soviet leaders had been destroyed, and the cities, buildings, and streets were renamed to new nationalistic designations. Everywhere except Chernobyl - so Lenin, and the Leninists, remain.
Outside of the statue lay the first of the many stray dogs of Chernobyl. Perfectly docile, basking in the sun, having accepted the fact that people are not willing to pet them or offer them treats. Almost each dog we saw had an ear tag, showing that they had been neutered.
On from there, we saw an Orthodox Church, and a statue dedicated to the heroes of Chernobyl. This statue is unique for the fact that it depicts both the firefighters and the power plant workers as heroes, whereas the rest of official Soviet depictions of the disaster depicted the plant workers as being foolish and arrogant, who failed the plant and caused their own doom. In Soviet society, the fault was the user, not the equipment. One could scour Soviet databases for equipment failures and come up empty handed. Faulty equipment meant a flaw in the Soviet system, while a fault in a human being is their own responsibility.
We crossed the Pripyat river, pausing for photos and to make sure there were no guards around. In the far distance, we saw the power plant and the shining containment facility cast over it. The containment facility is both the largest movable structure in the world, as well as the largest arched structure. It is meant to last 100 of the projected 100,000 years of half life that remain in the power plant. This would be the North Star of the trip, with each new location drawing us a step closer to ground zero.
On our way towards the first main attraction of the day, we stopped by a machine shop with gas masks rotting in rusted metal troughs. This was one of the yards where enormous machines of the Soviet were maintained, and after the disaster, machines were retrofitted with cleaning equipment and dispatched to spray the streets and buildings with powerful detergents. Vast quantities of gas masks were prepared for Chernobyl and its surrounding entities, but not for the event of a nuclear disaster - they were provided in the event of a nuclear strike from the United States. There was no official plan for a nuclear accident at the power plant, because Soviet machinery could not fail, and to prepare for a failure would imply a potential fault in the faultless Soviet machinery.
We stopped at a bus stop decorated with the image of a bear made from ceramic tiles, with the signage stating that this was a bus stop for the Children's Summer Camp for the Soviet Pioneer Organization, essentially Soviet Girl and Boy Scouts. Up the road, towards the “Children’s Summer Camp”, signs warned us to stay away, as this was a top secret "Children’s Summer Camp". Further up the way, more signs warning us to go no further towards the play area. We traveled up a curving road beyond these warnings. Through the trees, we saw the top secret radar installation called Duga.
The Duga was a vast radar installation designed to listen to missile launches across the globe, specifically by listening to the changes in the ionosphere. The whole station was top secret, so everyone who worked there lived on the base, which acted as a self contained town. Workers stationed at this location would work for a period of 5 years before being transferred to a different station on the far end of the country, where, after 5 more years, they would be transferred again. On secret bases, contact with family is minimal. Wives and husbands would not know what their spouses do for a living - and often times, the workers themselves did not know exactly what they did for a living. In Soviet society, curiosity is deadly. People learned to treat ignorance as strength.
The size of the Duga cannot really be fully expressed - it is so massive I had trouble fitting it all into the camera frame, and the equipment tunnels that run along the length of the town are so long that I could hardly see the ends from inside. Essentially, the installation appears like an array of radio towers, with miles of cabling crisscrossing them like clotheslines. Before the disaster, the cabling was a loop that could be slowly rotated through the bottom of the array for maintenance. Each vertical section of tower has a number of receiver cages, each one the size of two minivans laid end to end, with those on the western end having been cut off by scrappers. Many of the cages were removed but still lay smashed and buried the dunes below. The cables have been cut in many places, and now the strands coil against themselves in the wind, and when the gusts pick up, the old array twists and sings.
In the secret town built around Duga, there were schools, dormitories, a hospital, an auditorium, a dance hall, a canteen, and a gymnasium. From the roof of the dormitory, we could see the full spread of the Duga. I never thought I’d see the Duga in real life - or anything else that I would see through the rest of this trip. Standing before the ruins of soviet secrecy left me awestruck. The huge undertaking and the ultimate failure of their efforts is something poetic - the Duga was built to listen to the changes in the ionosphere, which is something that worked on the small scale prototype. However, the ionosphere around Iceland is too chaotic for larger scale radar installations, so the Duga was never truly functional. It was built to be totally secret, but radio transmissions on this scale are fairly easily triangulated and its location was narrowed down to a small region in Ukraine.
Having left the Duga, we made our way to the fire station. This building was empty but for a model of the Duga town, including a bit of the area around it. It included some other devices that worked in sync with the Duga, but had been destroyed for scrap metal.
From there, we visited the actual children’s scouting camp that had been used as cover for the radar installation. The camp was a swath of cabins set in a beautiful, sun-dappled part of the forest. Even without the history of the area, this would be a place of halcyon beauty. I can imagine scores of children playing in the cabins, running around, singing songs, unaware they were residents of a town that did not officially exist. Now, stillness presided. Trees, flowers, and vines consumed the cabins, painting them in the gold and red of Ukrainian autumn. The crows cawed in the far distance, and the wind rushed through the trees.
As we made our way towards the center of the cabin area, my Geiger counter began to ring. I reset the threshold, sort of like a snooze button, and went further. It rang again, and we pressed the button again. We had entered the first noticeably contaminated area. We had to reset our Geiger counters over and over, eventually setting them to a different mode so that the alarms wouldn’t bother us. As our group dispersed through the woods, our Geiger counters chirped with each step and contamination bells rang in the distance.
Of the cabins that remain intact, many of them were painted with faded cartoon characters. The scientist who lead our expedition remarked that, thanks to the iron curtain, Russian cartoons were frequently just rip-offs of American classics, including Mickey Mouse and Pinocchio. He went on to add that the Russification of these anthropomorphosed animals were generally more anatomically accurate than their American counterparts. Where Mickey Mouse and Goofy were just humanoids with mouse and dog heads, the Soviet versions had the correct bowing legs and paws. I saw this again in the toys in the abandoned kindergarten in Pripyat - rabbits looked like rabbits, not humanoid rabbits.
The first day of the tour had come to an end, we went through a radiological checkpoint, and pulled in to Hotel Chernobyl. It was about as plush as you can imagine a hotel in a military cordon could be. My aunt Jan and I were able to walk around a bit and get something to eat from the canteen before being locked in the building. More dogs came to greet us, eagerly smiling and wagging their tails. Dinner was a corn soup and a pork chop with vegetables, and it was rather nice. I stayed up late, reviewing photos and writing down observations. I listened to the strays barking and the drone of distant machines. I watched the sun set through the bars on my window and prepared myself for the next days events - we would journey into Pripyat and finally approach the sarcophagus.
We woke up before the sun and packed up for the second and final day of the tour. Outside, more dogs had gathered. The dogs were healthy and clean - no ticks, no signs of malnourishment, and they seemed friendly and even happy. I’m sure the winters are hard, but so long as they get the food and medical care they need, I can only assume that the stray dogs of Chernobyl live an exciting life of play and exploration.
Breakfast was a salad and some kind of mashed potato with dill - every meal included dill - and a potato pancake. Once we were ready, we journeyed to the outskirts of Pripyat. At the entrance, a huge concrete sign stood with the name of the city and the date of its foundation - При́пять, 1970. Almost everything in Ukraine is made out of concrete, cement, and steel, and almost every structure is impossibly huge and imposing. This is especially true in Pripyat, where brutal authoritarian architecture symbolized unchanging power and rigidity. I stood at the sign before Pripyat and was overcome with emotion. I was at the foot of a dead city, a place that will remain uninhabitable for 100,000 years. I paused for a moment to let that reality sink in. It wasn’t the first time my eyes would well up during this excursion, and it wouldn’t be the last.
To the left of the entry lay the far perimeter of the Red Forest. When the reactor exploded, it shot a payload of radioactive dust directly up into the atmosphere, and the wind carried generally to the northwest, depositing a lethal blanket on a thickly forested area. This forest was so heavily contaminated that it was marked for destruction - meaning every stricken tree was bulldozed and buried. The forest that grew in the three decades after the destruction had been turned red by radiation - Now, the name for the forest in Ukrainian is literally “The Reddish Forest”
We pointed our Geiger counters towards the western face of the young forest and, without fail, a wash of chirps and alarms began to ring. Even the experienced scientist would not go within a few hundred meters of the toxic woods, and so it remains largely unexplored. It has, however, become a bastion of wildlife, as many of the most harmful effects of radiation take longer to appear than the average reproductive lifespan of many forest animals. It is one of many places of forbidden temptation - a place untrodden by humankind, where animals reign unhindered. I thought about how beautiful it must be, and how deadly, like a dark new Eden. A vision not meant for human eyes.
We entered Pripyat and approached the first of 16 identical apartment buildings. Shortly after the evacuation, teams of liquidators stormed each building, scouring each room with Geiger counters before defenestrating the contaminated belongings to the streets below. The more valuable goods were stolen, and the rest were buried by bulldozers in huge furrows. Now, only hollow shells of bedrooms remain, decorated with the things too heavy or cumbersome to toss out the window; a piano, an oven, a bed frame, and so on. The piano still worked, but we could not play it as it would draw attention to our illegal activities.
At the top of the building, we watched the sun rise over the dead city. In the far distance, we could see the Duga and the containment over the power plant. From the roof, the yellow, orange, green, and gold of the forest extended in every direction, all rich with the early morning light. The pale apartment buildings stood out, the only interruption from the sea of leaves.
This was the first time I could really see the full size of the containment facility, and the sheer magnitude is hard to properly express. The building itself was an enormous complex, made larger with the first sarcophagus, and then even more incredibly large with the second containment facility slid over it. The horizon was flat in every direction save for the Duga and the containment facility. It was abundantly clear that this entire region had been built to service these two objects - and now that they were defunct, the forest had come to reclaim the territory.
On the way out, I encountered one of many wild fruit trees. Berry bushes, apple trees, and other wild fruiting plants were scattered throughout the trip, flowering and laden with seeded fruit. Everywhere else, there was moss, lichens, and fungi - carpets of clumping moss sprung up in every possible place. Near a defunct basketball court, a boot print was pressed into the cement. In the heel, a vibrant green heap of moss. In the top floor of a department store, where leaky pipes had soaked the sagging floorboards, bright green moss flourished.
We passed through the first of the shopping centers - a grocery store or canteen of some kind. Grocery stores in the era of the Soviet were often almost entirely devoid of goods, and that which did occupy the shelves was in poor quality or variety. An exception could be made for the grocery stores in secret cities like Pripyat. There, the products were of higher quality and in greater supply. Now, only rust remains.
Throughout the rest of the Soviet Union, citizens had to apply to a waiting list to get an apartment or to buy a car. In some places, the wait time was 5 to 10 years. The workers of the secret bases received special treatment, and only had to wait 1 or 2 years to receive an apartment. Even then, when a person reached the top of the list, the cost of the car or apartment could have doubled, and they would be unable to pay and would find themselves at the bottom of the list once again. This bred corruption - those with access to rarer and more valuable commodities like chocolate, could bribe the administration for better placement on the list.
The next building was an athletic center with a massive diving pool with a two-level diving board, and a completely destroyed basketball court. There were documents on the ground, maps and calendars, as well as textbooks and bits of homework, all dated to 1986. As one can see elsewhere in the exclusion zone, plant life reclaimed buildings from the inside. This is a common phenomenon for abandoned buildings around the world, but the Chernobyl exclusion zone is unique in that the radiological contamination allows plants to receive the energy to grow directly from the decaying isotopes in the soil, rather than just from chlorophyll. In the exclusion zone, vines crept through smashed windows, fungal colonies, moss, and flowering plants bloomed in the decaying wood structures, and trees punched through the floorboards, and sometimes through concrete and tile, spreading their leaves and flowers in the middle of a basketball court.
At some point in the past couple decades, Stalkers ventured into the basement of the athletic center and uncovered a trove of child sized gas masks and brought them to the surface. This is the famed “gas mask room”. Personally, I don’t mind stalkers digging up historical artifacts and displaying them, or even taking souvenirs of the disaster. I fully understand the desire to have an artifact from one of the most incredible events in the 20th century. However, I find rearranging the artifacts to create a more disturbing tableau to be vulgar - the horror of the disaster is writ large in the history of the event, and it doesn’t need to be hammered home with a child’s doll with a gas mask strapped to its face, or gas masks hanging on strings from the room like ghoulish rubber ghosts. It’s not too different from the tourists of Auschwitz who have scratched the walls of the gas chambers, leaving little claw marks for morbid photo ops - as if the history of the atrocity was not horrific enough.
This is to say nothing of the obnoxious pop-culture graffiti that had been left in several places of the zone. The zone of exclusion around Chernobyl is a place locked in time, the clocks frozen, the calendars forever turned to April 1986. It doesn’t need stencils of Pikachu, or, worse still, the cartoonish graffiti making light the events that transpired. I saw spray paintings of cartoon scientists, dancing drunk with bottles of Russian vodka, standing on top of reactor control desks, or other cartoon scientists dumping green nuclear waste from a barrel. I can’t imagine the self importance of a person going to the site of one of the most significant events in recent history and defacing it with their editorialization. Imagine going to the burial chambers in the pyramids at Cairo and spray painting a cartoon about how “you know, ancient Egyptians worshiped cats back then, and now we all look at pictures of cats on our phones, so it’s like we still worship cats, you know?” There is nothing you can add to written history. Any addition is a subtraction.
Don’t sign your name on the blackboard of an abandoned Chernobyl kindergarten. Don’t write your instagram handle on the ruins of the Palace of Culture Electric. Just be a witness, not a participant, in a history that does not involve you.
The next stop was a decrepit array of concrete stadium bleachers. Many of the structures in Pripyat were had only been opened for a few days, if at all, when the disaster happened, and these seats were not likely used at all before being abandoned. Now, they are wrapped in golden trees and vines, heavy with moss, the wooden seats now deeply contaminated.
We turned the corner and saw the Pripyat Ferris wheel. The iconic image of the dead city, the Ferris wheel was originally too radioactively hot to touch, so the administration of the zone cut the cables and let the wind rotate the wheel so that the most contaminated cars are at the top. To the left, a rusted carousel still spun slowly with the wind. Further to the left, the field of bumper cars lay surrounded by grass and dead leaves, on beds of dark green moss. This amusement park would be a great luxury for the Soviet workers, but it was never opened. The disaster came before the Ferris wheel made a single revolution.
After the amusement park, we passed by and through the Palace of Culture Electric and a few ritzy hotels and restaurants. There were a few radiological hot spots along the way, and we took very high readings of alpha and beta radiation on those we could approach. Everywhere around us, the imposing Soviet architecture loomed in. Even if the promise of the Soviet Revolution proved to be true, I can’t imagine living under such austere structures.
Each stop on the tour was a step up from the last, with every new location offering greater insight to the history of the area. Our scientist was incredibly knowledgeable, and knew the ins and outs of every location we visited. The next location was just as iconic as the Ferris wheel - the abandoned Pripyat kindergarten. This place was much larger than I had imagined, and had multiple floors and a large courtyard stretched between the complex. The contents are about as grotesque as can be imagined - heaps of rotting beds, sun-whitened plastic toys, all carpeted with moldering books and crumbling plaster. With every step, the stones and shattered ceiling tiles crunched. The bed frames lay in disarray, with scattered gas masks and bed pans collecting dust in the corners. The ceilings dripped with strange white stalactites, with their requisite stalagmites spread across the ground.
We entered another school, this one laden with more contaminated treasure. I’ve spent a lot of my youth getting into abandoned buildings to explore, take photographs, and retrieve what I could. Anything recovered from a forbidden place is a cherished keepsake - even finding old photographs in an abandoned oil factory is a thrill. The wealth of historical items and objects of morbid interest forever trapped in the zone of exclusion are maddening to a scrapper like myself. I would go to great lengths to acquire single item from the zone. To stand in a destroyed library, on a heap of fully illustrated books, surrounded by framed portraits of Soviets, and to know I can’t take a single thing with me, reminded me of Dante’s Inferno, where the greedy damned attempt to drink from a river of molten gold, only to be burnt every time.
Anyone who suggests that I took any items out of the zone is spreading lies.
After scouring the school, I climbed the dirty ladder to the top of the building. I banged my head very hard on the metal bar at the top of the door frame and spent a few moments recovering. When was able to stand up, I saw the forest and the sky reflected in the pools of rainwater that collected in the sunken roof. My Geiger counter was singing of contamination. I rubbed my head and took care as a descended the ladder into the blasted hallway.
Next on the list was the police station and jail - I only have a few photographs of the jail as it was very dark and we passed through it relatively fast. The cells were built to house four inmates at a time, in horrid conditions. The scientist told us “This is a pretty nice Soviet jail. Others were much, much worse. Torture was everywhere during the Soviet era. This isn’t even a KGB jail, which is much worse.”
The next stop was brief, but extraordinary. It is one of the most radioactive objects in the zone that has not yet been buried - The Claw, the simple name for the claw used to clean up the remains of the exploded reactor 4. As we approached it, our Geiger counters began to chirp wildly before a cacophony of alarm bells rang out. Throughout this trip, the highest my Geiger counter had read was 6 microsieverts. The scientist taped his Geiger counter to a long piece of rebar and stuck it inside the claw. Towards the bottom of the pincers, where years of rain had slowly pushed the contamination downward, the Geiger counter screamed at 620 microsieverts. In terms that even I fail to comprehend, the average contamination of the zone is 20 beta decays a second. Inside the claw is around 50,000.
We left the claw and drove a short while to something I never thought I would see - The Jupiter Factory. The name was fitting for such an enormous factory. The complex used to make circuit boards, radios, and later, robots to clean out the disaster site. The sheer scale of everything in the factory was stunning - there were rows of giant vats used to acid wash computer components, vast factory floors where columns of machines once stood. In one of the later rooms, a black chunk of a graphite, used to house the reactor control rods, stood upright on the desk. Had this been used in reactor 4, it would be radioactive enough to make the entire room a dead-zone. The one in Jupiter hadn’t been put into use, so we were able to get close enough for a picture.
Outside the building, stacks of concrete stairs coiled around the side. Bright red leaves crept in, and the sun shone through them. Birds sang in the distance as the wind sighed through the trees.
We visited a scrapyard where the rusted remains of the cleanup machines lay in ruin. There were numerous machines used to clean Pripyat, but the most contaminated areas required the use of T-34 tanks fitted with bulldozer shovels. Others were fully amphibious, designed for dredging mud and swamp water that had been affected by the blast. Germany, Belgium, and Japan contributed their machines to the clean up process - there were numerous Komatsu machines in the ruins. Outside the scrap heap, mushrooms grew in abundance.
We drove closer to the containment facility and stopped at the canteen for local workers. Walking into the relatively clean, modern building, I couldn’t help but picture what it would look like abandoned. The same principles that guided Soviet architecture were present in this post-soviet structure - huge walkways, high ceilings, and industrialization in every corner. I don’t know enough about Ukrainian culinary traditions, but it would seem that they enjoy a multi-course meal more than my home country. A full lunch spread consisted of a glass of cold plums, a small salad with a slice of salami and a wedge of cheese, a bowl of tomato and meat soup, some steamed potatoes, a bit of meat, some peas, and two glasses of unknown juices. It was a lovely meal.
As we left the canteen, we saw another pair of Chernobyl dogs, eager for scraps from the cafeteria. We walked a short way, the dogs running and playing around us, escorting our group on our path. I have never wanted to pet a dog more in my entire life.