DSC03251On April 26, 1986 the worst nuclear disaster in the history of the world was taking place, and no one knew. Not until high radiation levels were detected in countries outside the USSR days after the event would the world learn that reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine had exploded and had been leaking radioactive particles into the atmosphere.  It would be 27 years before there was another disaster of this magnitude.

I was 12 when the incident happened, and I can remember hearing about it on the news, in school, and in the newspaper.  I didn’t really understand what it meant at the time, I just knew something bad had happened.  Being the connoisseur of terrible events that I am, when I learned that Chernobyl was just an easy day trip from where I was staying in Kiev, I decided to go visit.http://vagabondette.com/chernobyl-ukraine/

Visiting the site on your own is difficult, if not impossible, so I broke down and took a tour.  Tours aren’t generally my thing, but sometimes they’re just the easiest/only option.  There are several operators in Kiev running single and multi-day trips but, because of timing, I ended up going with Solo East Travel and they did a great job.  The cost was $175 (ouch!) which covered transport, insurance, and lunch.  The driver and guide both spoke good English and were very knowledgeable about the area.  We visited many places during the tour including a secret military radar station which never went online, abandoned towns, and the reactor itself.

DSC03305Most striking of all the places we visited was the village of Pripyat which was home to most of the employees at the Plant.  Located just a short distance from the plant, the town of 50,000 was well prepared for a disaster.  Unfortunately, when one actually happened, they weren’t informed.  The authorities didn’t want to cause alarm, so no one in town was alerted to take precautions or to evacuate.  Life went on as normal, including the population being outside and receiving extensive exposure to the leaking radiation.  Finally, after two days the government finally decided to evacuate the town.  Residents were told they would be gone for 3 days and to only take money, some food, and a few clothes.  Eventually many residents would return to gather their belongings, but no one would ever live in Pripyat again.

Wandering through the town was erie.  Parts of it were clearly staged for tourists photographing pleasure, but if you looked past that you could get a hint at what life in town was like for these people before everything changed.  We visited a supermarket, a school, an amusement park, a military radar installation, and a swimming/fitness center.

DSC03297One thing that surprised me was that it really wasn’t dangerous.  People still live and work in the area, and most areas, aside from those directly near the reactor, have less radiation than what we registered in downtown Kiev.  There were a couple of hotspot spikes, but there were generally on the ground and very localized.  It was only when we were right next to the reactor (where we could only stay for a few minutes) that the levels were continually dangerous.

All-in-all, the tour was good and I’m glad I did it.  It wasn’t really what I was expecting though.  I had in mind a desolate, abandoned, wasteland so it was a bit disconcerting to learn that it’s pretty much back to normal and people are living/working there.  For anyone that’s interested though, I’d go for it.  For photographers who are really interested in having time to shoot and to get into some lesser visited spaces, I’d suggest a multi-day tour.  The single day tour is fairly rushed and you go to the highest trafficked places which are a bit staged.  The longer tours you have more time to roam so you can explore some lesser visited spaces.

See more high res versions of the photos here:  https://goo.gl/photos/Kn4oB1Ck4mRjLkwp6