Following the Chernobyl disaster on the 26th of April, 1986, the Soviet authorities introduced an arbitrary 30 kilometre exclusion zone around the reactor, placing the area under strict military control and evacuating all those that lived there. Pripyat was the largest town within the Exclusion Zone, with a population of around 49,000 at the time of the disaster, but there were tens of smaller villages and towns that were also evacuated, including the town of Chernobyl itself.
The marshy bog land of the region had seen intense fighting during the Second World War, and many of the elder residents – with memories of resisting the Nazis – saw no reason to leave. Indeed, many of them did not believe in the negative effects of radiation at all, and saw the evacuation as a Soviet conspiracy. Around 1,200 people refused to leave, and remained in the area illegally. The numbers have dwindled over the years, and today there are just 197 people living illegally within the Exclusion Zone.
In 1991, the borders of the Exclusion Zone were revised. Instead of the being based on an arbitrary radius from the reactor, the new zone borders were determined by levels of strontium-90, caesium-137 and plutonium in the soil, and on the recorded dose rate of radiation in the air. The Exclusion Zone now covers an area of 2,600 square kilometres, an area larger than Luxembourg.
Today, the Exclusion Zone’s purpose is to prevent the spread of contamination, hence the need for all those that enter it to have a Geiger counter inspection once leaving. Permanent residence within the Exclusion Zone is permitted, provided it is in one of the ‘Red Zones’, areas where radiation is less than 200 µSv·h. Currently, there are around 5,000 people living within the Red Zones of the exclusion zone, unperturbed by the high radiation levels.
On the 26th of April, 1986, during a safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the middle of the night, a massive explosion occurred at reactor number 4, sending highly radioactive material up into the atmosphere. Immediately, the wind carried the radiation north-west, over Belarus towards Sweden, where high-levels of radiation detected at a nuclear plant, alerting the west to the catastrophe that was occurring within the Soviet Union.
The next day, 116,000 people were evacuated from a 30 kilometre radius zone around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and work began on containing the disaster. Between May of 1986 and November, the first sarcophagus was built over reactor 4. Radiation levels at Chernobyl were extremely high during this period, therefore making the construction of the sarcophagus incredibly difficult.
Pripyat was a new city, created on the 4th of February, 1970, with the specific purpose of providing accommodation for those working at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It was the ninth Nuclear City within the Soviet Union, and although access to Pripyat was never restricted like at other Soviet closed cities, living at Pripyat was the reserve of those that worked for the Soviet nuclear industry.
The city is located on, and named after, the river Pripyat, and lies 100 kilometres north of Kiev, and about twelve kilometres from the Ukrainian border with Belarus. On the 27th of April, 1986 – the day after the nuclear disaster – Pripyat had a population of 49,360, with most of those who lived in the city working at the nearby nuclear power plant. The average age of those that lived at Pripyat was just 26.
The Duga Radar in the Chernobyl Exclusion zone was one of two Soviet ‘over-the-horizon’ radar systems, built in the 1970s to allow the Soviet authorities to detect missile launches in the west as soon as they occurred. The second Duga Radar was located in eastern Siberia, and together the two radars granted the Soviets the capacity to detect missiles launches from anywhere in the world.
The Duga transmitted a 10 Hz signal at 10 MW, producing a tapping noise on shortwave radio bands all across the world and earning itself the nickname ‘the Russian Woodpecker’ as a result. To NATO, who knew early on about the existence of the radar system, it was known as the ‘steel yard’ or ‘steel work’, a named derived from the receiver’s appearance.
In the 1960s, it was decided that a new nuclear power station would be built about nine miles north of Chernobyl. Originally, the plan had been to build the power station around 25 kilometres outside of Kiev. But, because of safety concerns, a location further away from the large metropolitan area of Kiev was chosen, and Chernobyl 90 kilometres north of Kiev, secluded in the marshy, sparsely populated region close to the Belarussian border was the beneficiary.
At the time of the nuclear disaster in 1986, the city’s population was 14,000. Within 30 hours of the disaster, they had all been bussed away, and their city with over 800 years of history became a ghost town. The former residents of Chernobyl were resettled in the city of Slavutych.
Leliyov Village is a typical village found within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a village that was evacuated in 1986 and has remained abandoned ever since. Cars remain parked on drives; daily life paraphernalia litters the houses, from pairs of shoes to scattered sheets of scores of music. The villagers were uprooted from their culture and their roots and evacuated, leaving everything behind as they became the first nuclear refugees of peace time history.
Visits to within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are allowed, however a pass from the Ukrainian authorities is required before permission is granted. To obtain a pass, a copy of your passport must be sent to the authorities at least a week before entry into the Exclusion Zone, and the date of the day(s) of desired entry must also be specified. The 30 kilometre and ten kilometre exclusion zones are both guarded by soldiers of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, and a passport proving your identity must be shown to enter these zones. Upon leaving, all people and all vehicles are inspected by a Geiger counter, a device used to measure radiation levels.