Nuclear Winter in Chernobyl – Stuck in Customs

Nuclear Winter in Chernobyl

(Part 2 of those story is located here.)


What follows is my account and photos of an amazing trip to Chernobyl. I recently updated the whole story, as I had it in various pieces, spread across dozens of posts. Now, it’s all here together for you in one place. Enjoy! – Trey Ratcliff

Part 1:  Arriving in the Exclusion Zone and Beyond

I could tell something was awry with Yuri’s left eye.

As we talked, the eye seemed to wander further off to the left, like a Cesium electron leaving its nuclei buddy. Yuri didn’t seem to notice or make any kind of head tilting compensation.

Shaking the Geiger counter, he shook his head. “Things not look good here.”

We moved on to the next stop.

But let’s start from the beginning.

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Here I am, standing in front of the man reactor at Chernobyl, holding a geiger counter. I'm only mildly worried.

The Abandoned Zone

It all started just outside the Exclusion Zone, also known as the Fourth Zone or the Четверта zone. This 30km radius was abandoned in 1986 just after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and subsequent evacuation. People are still allowed inside certain areas of the Exclusion Zone, but only for a few hours or a number of days, based on the location and the type of activity.

As far as this idea of “adventuring in Chernobyl” was concerned, every woman in my life told me this was a bad idea. Every man said it sounded awesome. It was awesome, although I really usually fare better when I listen to the women. For the guys, here is a picture of me holding a Geiger counter at the main reactor.

Anyway, the day could not have been colder, but it fit with the milieu of the trip to Chernobyl. In case you don’t know or can’t remember, this is the infamous nuclear power plant that melted down in 1986; I remember it in a special way because it was in the middle of the cold war, and any news out of the region was covered in a certain mystique.

I can't imagine anyone would "accidentally" drive into Chernobyl, but this sign is there, just in case.

As an American that thought it was wrong the way Ivan Drago used steroids versus pure barn-trained Rocky, it was bit strange going into a Soviet structure, a once top-secret nuclear military encampment. I felt the full weight of the cold war on me at the checkpoint-Charlie-like security gates where a bulky enforcer came out to check over my passport. He squinted and grunted a lot, looking me over, and going through it page by page. I’ve only got two blank pages at the end of my passport, so I am sure he thought I fit the travel profile of a spy. Although, if he brought it up, I would argue that spies would not use passports and they would just sneak in. He would then argue that spies that did not want to appear like spies would use regular passports. After that, I would have no argument, so I am glad we did not go down that path. I don’t think he spoke English anyway.

The Bunker

I went with my friend Will Kelly. But, he forgot his passport, so he was detained inside an old Russian bunker. It wasn’t pretty. He had to sit underground there all day long watching old episodes of Columbo dubbed into Ukrainian. But, this is the sort of thing that happens to Will all the time. I often take him with me on adventures, because he seems to absorb all the bad luck that might otherwise infect me.

You don't want to mess with this guy. I've never had anyone look at my passport so intensely.

He handed the passport back to me and sent me on to the town of Slavutych, where I was to meet with Yuri. There was not much English spoken at all during this time. There was a lot of grunting and gesturing, all of which seemed to get me down the one road that led deeper into the hot zone.

This road was especially lonely. Skeletal trees lined its sides with occasional abandoned buildings, crumbling into the ice and snow. The day was crystal clear and even though I could see to infinity down this slide rule of a road, I could see nothing at the end.

I passed by several strange structures, including one I suspected to be the infamous Steel Yard “Over-The-Horizon” radar that was used to monitor ICBM launches to the east using ionospheric reflection.

This was a long and lonely road. It led straight from the 30km exclusion zone into the heart of it all.

Zombies, slow Zombies

When I got to the Slavutych, a few kilometers away from the security gates, I saw something I did not expect to: several people walking around a concrete city. They strode with somewhat of an abandoned gait, and looked in different directions with glassy eyes, almost as if they had resigned themselves to living within this area. I didn’t see any children or women, just severe-looking men in heavy clothes, slogging from one place to another. I don’t know where they came from or where they were going. They simply moved from one blocky concrete structure to the next.

The town of Slavutych was built just after the nuclear disaster in 1986. The town supposedly had several thousand inhabitants, mostly formed by the children that evacuated Pripyat during the meltdown. Before the town was built, they covered the land with two meters of uncontaminated soil. “Move to the panacea of Slavutych, now with two meters of soil over the radiated Earth.” I can see the promotional pamphlets now.

I understand that there are many children in the town and even things like restaurants and swimming pools, but I did not see any of that. I went straight to a military building.

It was concrete, like most everything else. The floor was had a water-warped laminate that looked like a wood texture. The walls looked thin and cold inside and there was not decoration besides old maps on the walls and the only furnishings were tired chairs and conference tables.

Then I met Yuri. He looked like he might have been young and robust at one point, but now he was a bit upset to see me, because it meant another trip to the heart of the meltdown. We shook hands and he was perfectly nice. It had been a while since I had spoken English, so I was happy to see he spoke it clearly and well.

I also paid one of the military guys to borrow his Geiger counter so I could keep track of the RADs as we moved around.  I only knew a little bit about this system.  Big numbers:  bad.  Lots of scary clicking sounds: bad.

An old Soviet-style 80's hotel, now abandoned and desolate.

Heading to Pripyat

Yuri put on his military jacket and fur hat and we headed into another cold room with a large map of the area. He motioned loosely at it, then squinted into the middle of the map a large red circle, then shrugged it off and motioned for us to leave.

We got into the van and started driving to the ghost town of Pripyat. Yuri told me he was from Moscow and his curious job choice was a shade of indentured servitude that brought him into the hot zone for many weeks on end. He said it in a matter-of-fact way, as if that is just the way things are expected to be.

Once we entered the hot zone, the people disappeared entirely. Time-burned buildings stood alone with swinging metal doors revealing a gaping maw of blackness within...


The Red Forest and the Abandoned Amusement Park

Very soon outside of Slavutych, we stopped at Rudyi Lis, the Red Forest, so-called because of the heavy fallout cloud that dumped radioactive dust all over the pine forest. It caused cases of albinism in swallows and undocumented damage to other wildlife. I don’t know if it affected squirrels or not, but since they are already insane, there is no reliable control group.

Here is Yuri, my careful companion. He kept a second eye on things, so to speak.

Yuri got out of the van near an old “Welcome to Chernobyl” sign at the edge of the Red Forest. He pulled out the Geiger counter, which was clicking away faster than Jack Bauer during a typical hour, and it read 0.293. Ouch. He squinted at it and clicked the glass, a universal move of technology readout desperation, and began hustling back to the van. I flipped off the Nikon and followed without question.

The dark shadows of a girl blowing bubbles. It's one of many ghosted silhouettes that seem even more lonely out here.

Along the way, I didn’t see any animals even though I was going through what has come to be known as the “Radiological Reserve.” Yuri told me that many Polesian native animals have flourished since the area was abandoned by humans. I didn’t see any, but then again, since I was putting my life in Yuri’s hands, I accepted his claims without question. If he says there are lots of animals, there are lots of animals. If he says this area has a lot of radiation and we need to leave, then we need to leave.

We eventually four-wheeled our way through the snow to deserted Pripyat.

I started in perhaps the creepiest part of Pripyat: the playground and amusement park. This was recently completed just before the disaster. Bumper cars, swings, a ferris wheel, and other bits of abandoned toys now lay quiet and creaking in the snow.  I am a pretty visual person, so it is a strange image I conjure up — Soviet children running around a perfect master-planned world before it gets wiped away while they are out for a play.

The amusement park crumbles with lonely decay. It's hard to imagine the children playing out here on the day-of or the day-after.


Part 2 of the story

(Part 2 of those story is located here.)