My Journey to the Reactors of Chernobyl

Early one Saturday morning in March, I left my hotel in Kiev and headed down to the McDonalds (cause it is always McDonalds) to meet up with representatives of Chernobylwel.com, the company that would be taking me on an adventure unlike any other, a trip into the radioactive lands of Ukraine. After several hours (the site, fortunately for the people of Ukraine, is a hundred kilometers from Kiev), we arrived at the border of the city of Chernobyl.

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It was a city that was very proud of its selection as host to what was to be the largest nuclear power plant in the world, with twelve reactors providing enough electricity to light up all of eastern Europe. They only finished four. Here’s number five.

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It is as they left it, 27 years ago, in the middle of construction. The entire facility, including the cranes used for construction, is irradiated. Dismantling it and selling it for scrap was not an option, and the cranes themselves are forever useless. Thus, they simply left it all in place, until one day time and the elements tears the whole thing down. Here are the half-constructed cooling towers.

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Within sight, reactor 4.

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Reactor 4 is on the left. Within the concrete and steel shell that now covers it–called the sarcophagus–lie the remains of the nuclear reactor that melted down during a test of redundant safety mechanisms. Firefighters and other personnel rushed into the burning nightmare that must have been the inside of Chernobyl, on a suicide mission to contain the fire, open the cooling valves, and prevent the disaster from being one that would render Ukraine, and indeed much of central Europe, uninhabitable. They succeeded, though they lost their lives in the process.

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The inscription reads, “To Those Who Saved The World.”

But the work of cleanup continues on, for what’s left of the reactor remains.

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5,000 people work rotating shifts to maintain the sarcophagus and prevent a new disaster. They eat at a diner less than a quarter of a mile away from reactor 4, the object of their employment always within site. We ate lunch with them. Before doing so, one must pass a radiation test, one of five that we underwent while in the area.

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If you fail, they kill you. Or something. It was never quite clear what would happen if the green light failed to come on.

It is critical that the sarcophagus remain intact. “Fuel containing masses”–nuclear lava to the uninitiated, what you get when a reactor literally melts down–fill the building, having flowed red-hot through pipes and down hallways. Being in their presence–even for a few moments–is deadly. They will remain radioactive for 100,000 years, give or take a century. The sarcophagus, meanwhile, is falling apart. Enter Novarka.

This is the new sarcophagus, 25% finished.

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When completed, it will be slid by railroad tracks over the current tomb. At that point, the ends will be sealed, and the next phase of cleaning up the worst nuclear disaster in history begins–dismantling the plant and removing the nuclear waste.

But it is too late for Prypiat and the 50,000 residents who called it home. They were forced to leave with almost no notice, told to take supplies for the three days that they would be gone. Of course, they were never allowed to return. Their city is the quintessential ghost town, a modern-day Pompei. Here are some of the hundreds of images we took, a pale shadow of the awe-inspiring emptiness of the city.

It was quite a trip, one made possible by the nation of Ukraine.

And so we left Chernobyl behind, a place that we will never forget and that will never be completely the same.

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24 Comments

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24 responses to “My Journey to the Reactors of Chernobyl

  1. Amazing adventure! Prypiat has always been a place that has fascinated me. Thanks for letting us live vicariously through you.

  2. This is some cool stuff Brett.

  3. Greg

    Those images are cool and creepy at the same time. You get a haunting feeling from looking at them. Imaging people used to live there.

  4. Ash

    What a tragically beautiful place. Thank you for sharing your adventure with us!

  5. Really great…haunting post. I can’t imagine going through something like that. The pics are amazing!

  6. Whitney

    I have always DREAMED of going to Chernobyl and exploring. I haven’t had the chance in my lifetime, but one day. This is some amazing footage and I thank you for it.

  7. Hey Brett! Awesome photos. I’m waiting for your Exclusion Zone Horror Film. 😉
    (From your Aussie pals.)

  8. Andreea

    Hi! I just wanted to say thank you for sharing these great photos with us! I’m from Romania (near Ukraine) and I didn’t get the chance to visit that place even is so close to me.. so thank you again!

  9. Robert

    Thanks, really cool photos. Greetings from 4chan.

  10. Hal

    Let’s go and take smiling tourist pictures at a place that has caused thousands of deaths and the suffering of thousands of children! Hooray. Sick asshole.

    • Yes, better to lock it away, to ignore it, to act like it never happened, and pray it never happens again. Thank goodness the Ukrainian government is more open-minded than you. I’ve seen men’s folly around the world. I’ve walked the streets of Pompeii. I’ve visited a town where a buried mine fire cost people their livelihoods. I’ve stood with one of the seven survivors of the horrors of the Killing Fields in Phnom Phen. If you want to learn from the mistakes of the past and ensure that “never again” is more than an empty slogan, then you had better come down off the pedestal you’ve put yourself on and open your eyes.

      • Hal

        You know how I learned about Chernobyl? By hosting sick children from the region in my home. Going to that place and posting your big scary pictures while smiling into the camera isn’t helping anyone. Why don’t you take some time from “Extreme Tourism” and do something that could actually help your fellow human beings. Sick, sick, sick.

  11. Well good for you Hal. That your efforts are commendable has no bearings on my actions. A visit to Chernobyl, which includes, by the way, a very informative presentation by the organization responsible for maintaining the site, helps fund the construction of the new Sarcophagus, which will ensure that the next generation of children in the area and beyond don’t suffer because of what happened there. But even if that weren’t the case, closing your mind and closing your eyes is the worst way to respond to something like this. Chernobyl is open for the same reason as Auschwitz and the Killing Fields–so we never forget. But look, if it makes you sleep better at night to pass judgment on me, then feel free. I do not care.

    • Jen

      Hal is such a martyr. We should all aspire to be as selfless as he is. Actually no thanks. He’s obviously content living life with his head buried in the sand. I’m not. Thanks for sharing your trip and photos, Brett. Those of us who choose to journey through life without blinders on truly appreciate it.

  12. J

    Thanks for those pics found this through your imdb post after watching the movie, very cool stuff man. Thanks for sharing I would love to be able to go on a tour of chernobyl like that one of these days.

  13. nice photo. thanks for sharing.

  14. Amie

    I didn’t know anything about the movie when I watched it. Was hoping it would be a documentary…. Finding this site made watching the movie worth it. I have also always been fascinated about Prypiat and Chernobyl. I live near a nuclear power plant and every time I drive past it I think of Chernobyl. Thank you for posting the pics.

  15. Nice set of pics, I was in the same group that visited with Brett, and it is a memory that will forever linger.

  16. Rob Grundy

    I was on the trip with you my friend. It changed my view of the world. You describe it well. Thank you for doing so. Say Hi to Boston for me. Never been, but as a life long Geils fan, it is on the bucket list!

  17. Ash

    I commented on this article before but do you plan on returning one day? I think it is great that you would share this history with us and perhaps educate readers who are searching for additional information about Prypiat and Chernobyl.

    (awright3 ENG 2080)

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