Chernobyl & The Atomic City of Yesterday
July 28, 2011
A supermarket in Pripyat.
Despite having read accounts of the resurgence of the pusha (deep forest) within the Exclusion Zone prior to our visit, I was still taken aback by the extent to which the forest had overtaken the territory in the 25 years since the explosion of Chernobyl Reactor 4. It was like something out of a Miyazaki film: a beautiful and insidious natural world exacting its revenge upon humans for years of abuse by ripping our structures apart at the seams while surrounding us with an imperceptible toxic miasma.
I’m being melodramatic, of course, but as we explored the ruins of supermarkets, cafes, schools and apartment blocks in the abandoned atomic city of Pripyat, I certainly felt like I was witnessing a reclamation of sorts taking place, or perhaps a new equilibrium being reached. We were intruders in a post-human landscape; where we had once made our homes, wolves and boars now made their dens (not that we saw any of these allegedly mythically sized wild beasts, to my great disappointment – there have been enough visitors now that they know to hide).
Meals took place in an old Soviet canteen with the Exclusion Zone workers, who were more than a little amused by our precautionary jumpsuits and masks. In the evening we hunkered down in our home base, the Guest House Chernobyl, collecting our thoughts and taking in presentations by Unknown Fields Collaborators Nelly Ben-Hayoun, Regina Peldszus of Space Flight Design, representatives from the Philips Design Probes and Jonathan Gales of Factory Fifteen.
Though we spent most of our time in the Zone exploring Pripyat, other highlights included a visit to the home of some re-settlers who had been evacuated post-meltdown and in recent years had chosen to (illegally) return to their farm, as well as an obligatory (and very brief) pit-stop at the Sarcophagus covering the remains of Reactor 4.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone In Numbers:
Observed high for radioactivity in Pripyat: 1.5 micro-sieverts/hr (moss cluster by bumper cars in amusement park)
Background radiation level at the Guest House Chernobyl: .1319 micro-sieverts/hr (vs .07 micro-sieverts/hr in Kiev, the same level as London)
Estimated exposure of 10 minute visit to Reactor 4 Sarcophagus (at a distance of approximately 200m): (~3.5 miro-sieverts/hour) .58 micro-sieverts (roughly the equivalent of eating 6 bananas!)
Highest radiation level measured on our shoe-soles after an afternoon in Pripyat (measured by UC Berkeley post-industrial researcher Bryan Allen: .3421 miro-sieverts/hr
Articles of clothing disposed of post-visit: 6 (chucks, socks, jeans, sweater, jumpsuit, mask). Necessary? Probably not, but better safe than sorry, I figured. The main danger in the areas we explored was not radiation itself, but potentially inhaling radioactive particles or having them stick to your clothes & gear.
The parking lot of the supermarket in Pripyat.
Inside a mall.
Trees grow though the floorboards.
A school gymnasium.
A cafe terrace that overlooked what was once a cooling pond.
In a building that once housed a pool, lane markers are scattered around the rooms.
Inside a school, students’ gas masks blanket the floor.
Reactor 4, visible in the background, from the roof of an apartment building.
The Reactor 4 sarcophagus.
A settler within the Zone leads the group through his garden.
Inside the Canteen.
A radiation scanner.
All images (c) Joan Alicia Tom. Read her first and second installments here.