‘We have a chance to show the truth’: Inside Chernobyl's 'death zone' 30 years later

Three decades after the nuclear disaster, the concrete protecting the reactor is starting to crack. Yet people still live there – and a new virtual reality project will take many more inside the ‘death zone’

At first they thought it was just a fire, then the chickens started to turn black. When it comes to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster , everyone has a vivid detail that is snagged in the memory; the absurdities or the obscenities. It might be the local village that, once evacuated, was claimed by a mob of pigs. Or the way milk would turn to white powder whenever the residents of Pripyat (the town built a few hundred metres from the doomed power plant) would attempt to churn butter. Or the cat that refused to be stuffed into a suitcase by its owner, who couldn’t bear to abandon his pet during the mass exile, 36 hours after the explosion. Who can forget that 70 Belarusian villages had to be buried under the ground? Or that Soviet soldiers shot every dog, in case it wandered, toxically, into a neighbouring city? Or that many of those same men risked their lives hoisting flags on the roofs of buildings every few weeks, whenever the old ones were chewed to lace by the radioactive breeze?

For many, it is the story of a 23-year-old pregnant woman, married to one of the brave and reckless firemen who put out the blaze at reactor number four in the early morning of 26 April 1986. Doctors at the Moscow hospital to which he was transferred warned her not to hug her husband. She refused, tending to him even when the nurses would no longer enter the room where he lay, naked, under a sheet of thick plastic. Two months after he died, she visited the cemetery where he was buried in a matryoshka nest of coffins: one zinc and, within that, one wooden. She knelt at his grave and promptly went into labour. At her late husband’s suggestion, she named the baby Natashenka. Due to the radiation, Natashenka was born with cirrhosis of the liver and congenital heart disease. She died less than four hours later in a tragedy of appalling symmetry: a child both conceived and destroyed in her parents’ lingering embrace.

Many of Pripyat’s residents watched the fires – caused when a steam explosion sent the nuclear reactor’s casing through the roof of the building – from the balconies of their flats. They saw the factory transform into a volcano, spitting super-heated lumps of graphite that set fires wherever they landed. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, nobody registered the heat in which they cooked – radiation’s imperceptible blaze. While the Soviet authorities neglected to tell the people the extent of the danger they were in, for fear of causing mass panic, tell-tale symptoms soon followed. Dark marks appeared on the skin. The wattles of the local chickens turned from crimson to black.

For Sergey Franchuk, who accompanies visitors inside the 30km radius that surrounds the infamous power plant – known, variously, as the “zone of exclusion”, the “closed zone” and, most potently, the “death zone” – the enduring memory of those days is not the chickens but the vodka. “Vodka became our money,” he tells me with a smile that reveals a spattering of gold teeth. “We paid for petrol with vodka. We paid for food with vodka. Everyone was drunk all of the time.” Franchuk, dressed in military getup, claims to be one of only three people to have worked inside the zone for more than a decade. On the night of the explosion, he woke to the sound of urgent knocking on his front door. It was his neighbour, a fireman, en route to the reactor. “He told me to take my wife and daughter and drive far away,” Franchuk recalls. He returned to Chernobyl alone the next day. “I wanted to help,” he says, “but only military people were allowed. My brother was in the army. He was dead within four years. So was my neighbour.”

‘Don’t drink the water,’ people say, when I tell them where I’m going. ‘Take some iodine. Wear thick underpants’

Today, Franchuk lives in the same village, just outside the death zone. It is illegal to live inside its radius, although the Ukrainian government ignores the few hundred samosely : mostly elderly settlers who have returned to their homes and villages on the otherwise forsaken land (most returned without registering; there are no official figures).

I am visiting a few weeks ahead of the 30th anniversary of the catastrophe. Today, Chernobyl, three decades on from the most notorious and harmful day in the history of nuclear power , remains mysterious and stigmatic. People don’t know how to respond when I tell them where I’m going. Don’t drink the water, they say. Take some iodine. Wear thick underpants.

Despite this wariness, an increasing number of tourists visit Chernobyl each year. There is no souvenir shop and no guarantee that you won’t injure yourself in the debris. The only working toilets are at the corrugated train station or the power plant. Franchuk, who is a kind of health and safety officer, has finished his first bottle of cognac by 11am. The second is done by 3pm. Still, the curious come at a rate of a few thousand each year. Most arrive via Kiev, an hour’s drive away. Around $200 (£140) will buy you a tour in a group of 40 or so other visitors, with a brief survey of the zone’s best known sights: Pripyat’s crumbling high school, its swimming pool and town square, with its redundant ferris wheel and dodgems; $600 (£415) will get you a better class of expedition, one run by 31-year-old Pawel Mielczarek, the organiser of my trip.

When Mielczarek was a young boy growing up in Warsaw, Poland, he owned only one book – an encyclopaedia. Even before he was able to read, his eye was drawn to the haunting photographs that illustrated Chernobyl’s entry. “I’d ask my mother: what is this? I don’t understand this picture,” he tells me. “‘It’s a big, big tragedy,’ she explained. After many years, I decided: OK, I must see this.” Since his first visit seven years ago, Mielczarek has come here more than 70 times, bringing people from across the world, and helping to make survivors such as Franchuk a little money working as guides. Mielczarek will take you to see practically anything you want: Pripyat’s exquisite cafe, with its broken, stained-glass frontage; the nodding cranes by the river’s edge; the hospital where doctors tended to the sick and who, in doing so, almost certainly gave their lives. Almost nowhere is off-limits, so long as you let Mielczarek know in advance. The Soviets may be gone, but red tape remains. Every location requires a different permit.

There are many more who would like to peer inside the zone, but who are too afraid or too remote to come. While technology has yet to find a way to dispose of the 20 tons of nuclear fuel that sits inside the reactor, it has recently presented a way for everyone to visit Chernobyl: virtual reality. In Pripyat’s once-luxurious swimming pool, Michał Grzesiczek, creative director at Polish software developer The Farm 51 , places a tripod crowned with an array of GoPro cameras. We hide behind crumbling pillars as he presses a button on a device strapped to his wrist. All 14 cameras flash in unison. Using the images they take, Grzesiczek and his team will be able to create a 3D model of the swimming pool. Like adding wallpaper to a blank wall, the model is then plastered with photographs, thereby creating an exact replica of the scene. Finally, through a virtual-reality helmet, we are able to roam the scene as if present, examining the peeling paint on the ladder to the diving board, or looking down at the shantytown of wreckage in the deep end.

Chernobyl VR , as the project is plainly titled, is due to launch this month. It’s just one of a number of projects around the world using this emerging technology to allow people to visit places that are otherwise difficult or impossible to access. French researchers have recreated the site of the Normandy landings ; another team has turned scenes depicted in Van Gogh’s paintings into virtual rooms that can be entered and explored. The Chernobyl app will, initially, present three locations: the school, the swimming pool and an abandoned house in a more remote village. More will be added in the coming months.

It’s a major undertaking. Scanning a small room of about 20 sq ft takes four hours. An expansive site such as the swimming pool takes two days and requires 10,000 images. The team believes it’s worth the effort. “Chernobyl is such a mysterious, mystical place,” Grzesiczek says, as he moves the tripod a few feet forward to prepare the next shot. “We have a chance here to show people the truth. We can also capture it as it is now. Everything here changes so quickly.”

It is a work of voyeurism, then, but also documentary. After all, this is a reality twice disappeared: the world of 1986 and the world of Soviet dominion. In the school, period books litter the floor, along with appallingly small gas masks, props of the cold war. Black-and-white photographs of Russia’s great leaders hang, staring down at rows of empty desks. A wall in one classroom displays Lenin’s slogan: “Study, study, study.” A veteran of Chernobyl, Sergey Akulinin, will offer commentary as we tour these scenes. Akulinin had been living in Pripyat for six years as a turbine operator when the explosion occurred. That night, he was on shift at a neighbouring reactor. Today, he is the only guide working in Chernobyl who survived the blast from such close proximity. Why did he decide to take part in this project. “Project?” he says, with a flash of irritation. “This isn’t a project for me. This is my life.”

Akulinin, now 60, offers to show me his old apartment. We crunch through the snow to the first floor of a block of flats pocked with broken windows. “I have come here every week for the past 25 years,” he says, gesturing towards the room where his sons, aged two and six at the time, once slept. “I left in 1986, but this is still home to me. My boys came for the first time only recently. My older son remembered the corner where he’d stand when he was naughty. My younger son could remember only the wallpaper by his bed. They never imagined that coming here would be so emotional.”

Chernobyl is spooky, in the manner of all disowned places. Not just because of the ghosts of lives departed – the naked doll lying face-down in the rubble; the pair of dusty high heels toppled in a stairwell; the melting pianos – but also for the speed at which nature can be seen to unpick human handiwork. Every building has been stripped and shamed by erosion. Every room offers a new apocalyptic vignette, a reminder of human and civic fragility. The odd sapling can be seen questing its way up through gaps in water-damaged floorboards. The sound of rain comes from inside the buildings, not out.

Before anyone who visits Chernobyl is allowed to leave, they must step into one of the Soviet radiation detectors

Just how dangerous is all of this anyway, I ask Mielczarek as we wait in the cold for the VR team to finish their photoshoot. We are, after all, not required to wear any protective clothing. He takes out a pocket dosimeter and holds it to the ground. It reads 0.25 microsieverts (about one quarter of one millionth of a sievert), roughly comparable to the radiation levels in London. To put this in context, radiation levels in Chernobyl’s control room immediately after the explosion reached about 300 sieverts, a dose that proves lethal after just one minute. “You could happily spend a safe year in the closed zone today, even sleeping here,” Mielczarek says.

There are, however, rules. Just below the topsoil, radiation levels rise precipitously. As Mielczarek explains, the reason people haven’t been allowed back is because children might dig up the ground. Only humans could pervert a world so that concrete becomes safer than soil.

Before anyone who visits Chernobyl is allowed to leave, they must step into one of the Soviet radiation detectors housed at its myriad checkpoints. It’s a contraption rather like a public phone box, with two of the walls removed. You face a black screen and press your hands on sensor pads on the outer side of the machine. If it’s bad news, after a few moments, a light turns red and an alarm sounds. You are then held on site until either a doctor can examine you, or the security removes whatever toxic memento you’ve hidden in your bag (a few years ago, two visitors managed to smuggle some irradiated rags through the detector; they were caught at an airport, held for a few days and issued with a hefty fine). If you’re free of radiation when you step into the detector, a yellow light flashes: “chisto” – clean.

Later that day, we visit the hospital where many of the first responders were taken. It is, I’m told, one of three genuinely dangerous places in Chernobyl (the others being the factory where fuel rods were manufactured, and the reactor building itself). There is a pile of charred rags on the counter. Mielczarek approaches with the dosimeter and it shoots up to 83 microsieverts – 400 times the radiation level of the street outside – blaring an obnoxious warning. Some rooms in the hospital, he says, are filled with similar scraps of radioactive clothing. They can administer an entire year’s safe dosage of sieverts in a single hit. I spend an unsafe hour peering into derelict sick bays with their rusty cots, cracked toilets and toppled medicine bottles. Outside these contaminated wards, however, Chernobyl is, for now, a safe place.

Two and a half thousand people currently work inside the zone. While a handful are employed as security guards and guides, most work at the power plant itself, either as medical researchers or involved in the constant task of ensuring the safety of the reactor (eg plugging gaps that appear in its concrete casing), or preparing meals for these workers in the antiseptic canteen. Every day, they take the only train to the site from Slavutych (a town 40 miles from the power plant that was built to home Pripyat’s evacuees). There is a crush of bodies at about 8am each morning. On the second day, as we enter Chernobyl by train, I notice an outbuilding scrawled with graffiti in English: “Welcome to hell.”

We are so familiar with Chernobyl’s post-apocalyptic style through film, television and video games that, like so much here, it seems too cliched to take seriously. But, for a moment, Chernobyl was a hell on Earth, a portal of life-perverting torment. Then they dropped bags of sand on the reactor from helicopters. And they pumped liquid nitrogen up through a tunnel beneath the reactor. And hell froze over.

Today, however, the analogy is due a renaissance. Thirty years is no arbitrary anniversary. Like any frantic fix, the concrete offered only a temporary solution. The sarcophagus, as the engineers refer to the reactor’s hastily erected shell, was designed to last for only three decades. “The original sarcophagus was just placed on top,” says Julia Konstantinovna, Chernobyl’s official spokeswoman. “This was intended to be a localising solution, merely to contain the vast amount of nuclear fuel generated as a result of the explosion.” She points at the reactor behind her, visible through a widescreen window, on which there are multiple stickers forbidding photography. Around the viewing gallery are the flags of nations who have donated the €1.54bn (£1.29bn) needed to replace the cracking concrete. The disintegrating walls have created an estimated four tons of black, radioactive dust.

The new solution is a vast steel sheath, large enough to encase Notre Dame cathedral. This curved dome has been built to one side of the melted reactor, ready to be rolled on giant rails to cover the entire plant. The dome is 9m deep and hollowed on the inside to allow warm air to be pumped through. This will reduce the moisture inside the reactor by up to 40%, slowing the process of degradation. The technology is focused on buying more time. While the plan is eventually to dismantle the power plant brick by brick, Konstantinovna admits that we do not yet have the technology to safely dispose of what’s inside. “The new dome is intended to last for 100 years,” she says. “This should create the time frame to develop the necessary technologies.”

After her polished presentation is complete (the week before I arrive, she gave the same performance to a delegation from the US government), I ask Konstantinovna why she came to Chernobyl with her husband, a nuclear engineer, and two young children in 1990 from their home in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. “I remember the day when I heard about what had happened. It felt like somewhere very far from me. Then, four years later, I came. I don’t know why.”

Who just comes to Chernobyl? “Sometimes my friends ask me the same question,” she says. “Many of the people who came here worked 10, 20 years in the field of power engineering. They are experts and wanted to be useful. So, yes, it was important work. But, really, I think a lot of people came here to escape personal problems. Chernobyl is a place for people who want to run away.”

Related: Chernobyl 30 years on: former residents remember life in the ghost city of Pripyat

Akulinin, who lived through the disaster, has stayed here despite retiring 14 years ago (one day spent working in the zone counts as five towards your pension). But he has tried to run away from the catastrophe in his own way. Often during our time together, I ask him to tell me what happened that night. “I will tell you tomorrow,” he says at first. Then, “I will tell you after lunch.” Finally, on the last day: “I will tell you tonight, over a bottle of vodka. We will need hours.” He knew by then that I would be gone before the evening.

Svetlana Alexievich, whose book Voices From Chernobyl won the Nobel prize in literature , describes how it took hours and hours of interview time before Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the woman whose husband, the fireman, was buried like a matryoshka doll, surrendered her true story. It was too costly, too private. Even during the final recounting, Ignatenko said: “It’s impossible to describe. It’s impossible to write down. And even to get over.”

The world is not over Chernobyl, either. Chernobyl remains emblematic of what can go wrong when the miracle that is nuclear power ( statistically the safest power source ) is mishandled. Extreme radiation’s effects, which vary wildly from person to person, can have the grotesque absurdity of a Grimm fairytale. According to eyewitness accounts, one man grew fat “like a barrel”, while another shrunk until he could wear only children’s clothes. Conservative estimates put the final death toll at 4,000. While a surge in cases of thyroid cancer among children (caused by drinking irradiated breast milk) was indisputably caused by the catastrophe, most experts agree that the broader health impacts cannot be meaningfully quantified.

Part of our interest is to do with past losses, then. And yet the futuristic threat remains. It is a myth worthy of the ancients: a great terror, encased in crumbling concrete, brought into the world by man, against which man has no adequate defence. We cannot send it back. The mistake cannot be undone. Thirty years later, whatever the damage, Chernobyl, and all that it represents, remains unfixed.

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