Thursday, February 26, 2009

into chernobyl's dead zone

In writing that piece about Mark Lynas and nuclear power, there was a something he said about the Chernobyl incident that resonated with me.

Without wishing to downplay the tragedy for the victims - especially the 300,000 people who were evacuated permanently - the explosion has even been good for wildlife, which has thrived in the 30km exclusion zone.

If ever there was a bit to cut from an article - on grounds of flimsiness as a defence of nuclear power, or for unnecessarily feeding into the stereotype of environmentalist misanthropy - it's that one. But it dredged something up for me, I remembered a website I saw a few years ago where a Ukrainian had taken a motorbike trip through the Chernobyl dead zone.

The site is still up, considerably expanded, and it's every bit as enthralling as I remembered. I'm not plugging this as any comment on the wisdom on future nuclear power, just as a bit of mesmerising travelogue and social history.

In the last few years Elena Filatova's made numerous trips into the dead zone. There are now hundreds of photos, needing only a little captioning, yet even in that she provides a great historic and poetic insight.

Usually, when they talk about the dead zone, they talk about area that is 30 kms around reactor.

What about this towns and villages? They are 60 kms from reactor.

The Wolves Land is bigger than many think and it keeps on growing. Now days, it spread on 300 kms from South to North and on 100 kms from East on West.

There are more than 2,000 dead towns and villages within a radius of 250 kms (155 miles) around Chernobyl reactor. Each year I travel, I see more and more ruined places.

This barbed wire marks the limit of the '30km' zone, but according to the site it's over 50km from the reactor.

Fence around the Chernobyl exclusion zone

She visits a sizeable ghost town, Pripyat. One of the spookiest aspects is the Sovietness of it.

Paintings of Soviet leaders and slogans

Not only are there relics from the Soviet Union, but the accident happened in late April. The towns were evacuated on April 27th, four days before the Mayday celebrations.

At first glance, Ghost Town seems like a normal town. There is a taxi stop, a grocery store, someone's wash hangs from the balcony and the windows are open. But then I see a slogan on a building that says - "The Party of Lenin Will Lead Us To The Triumph Of Communism"......and I realize that those windows were opened to the spring air of April of 1986.

Overgrown street into Pripyat

It is safe to be in the open air in Ghost Town. It is inside the houses where the real danger lies.

Taking such a walk with no special radiation detecting device is like walking through a minefield wearing snowshoes.

Fading personal photographs left behind

People had homes, garages, cars, country houses, they had money, friends, relatives cats and dogs. People had their lives. Each in own niche. And then in a matter of hours, their entire world fell to pieces.

After a few hours trip in an army vehicle, they stood under a shower, washing away radiation. Then they stepped in a new life, naked with no home, no friends, no dogs, no money, no past and with a very doubtful future.

Inside a school building there is the added eerieness of discarded toys and other childrens items

child's gas mask on a window sill

There are hundreds of little gas masks, a teachers diary and a last note saying that their walk on Saturday has been canceled due to some unforeseen contingency.

This is the highest building in town. On the day of disaster, many people gathered on this roof to see the beautiful shining cloud above the Atomic Power Plant.

Tall tower block in Pripyat

She goes to the top herself and the power plant is clearly visible.

View over the town towards the power plant

Away from the town, she passes through villages, towns and vast areas of reclaimed wilderness. The modern maps don't show the roads or deserted villages. Consequently, she doesn't know the names of many of the places she finds. Some of the larger towns have big concrete signs as you enter, but smaller places have metal signs with the placename rusted away.

Along the Ukraine/Belarus border area, the towns are not only often de-named, but you don't even know which country a town is in.

We are on the border and the sign welcomes us in all fifteen languages of former republics of Soviet Union

The Ukraine / Belarus border sign

In one village she see a monument, a grave of the unknown soldier from the Great Patriotic War (known to us Westies as World War 2). How odd for a monument to spend its life unseen and unvenerated, stranger still that it's an unknown individual who's become part of a wider monument, an unknown town.

Peeling red-star topped grave, monument to the Great Patriotic War

On previous visits she left a few logs across roads to see if anyone moved them. returning several years later they're in place, meaning nobody else has travelled the roads in the meantime.

Year after year it becomes more difficult to reach those distant towns and villages of Chernobyl; roads overgrown, trees falling and bridges collapse.

Nature is relentless at reclaiming the land. In some hundred years all signs of humanity will be gone from here. Radiation will stay long after that.

She's compiled pictures from several visitors into a book called Pluto's Realm. Proceeds go towards buying supplies for the few people who still live in abandoned villages in the dead zone.

It is really Plutonium that will reign here for thousands of years. It is extremely toxic and highly chemically reactive, half-life of Plutonium-239 is over 24,000 years. Plutonium is appropriately named after Pluto, god of the dead and ruler of the underworld.

The pictures here are a tiny fraction of what's on the site and by no means the most remarkable. You can spend hours being spooked, thinking about time, nature, industrialisation, politics, resilience and more.


Anonymous said...

Well I'm sorry if my comments on Chernobyl sounded misanthropic. But the conclusion is undeniable: even the worst-case scenario nuclear accident (which Chernobyl surely was - the design was inherently unsafe, and there was no containment building, unlike for all Western reactors) the consequences for wildlife are far less than the consequences of normal everyday human activities. It's not an argument for lots of nuclear accidents to protect biodiversity, but it is an argument for environmentalists to stop pretending that getting rid of nuclear is somehow good 'for the health of the planet' and whatnot.

There is a voluminous literature of environmental studies done on post-Chernobyl impacts, and a whole discipline of radioecology to get into if you're interested. (There's even a journal called the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity.) A shorter and quicker read (though not so quick) is the report of the Chernobyl Forum Expert Group called 'Environmental Consequences of the Chernobyl Accident and their Remediations: Twenty Years of Experience'. You can download it from the World Health Organisation website:

Be very wary of anecdotal or campaign-inspired information about the effects of Chernobyl. If we're going to stick to the science on climate change, then we need to do likewise when examining the effects of ionising radiation. Luckily there's an IPCC-style body bringing together the expert consensus, called UNSCEAR (the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation). See

Paul said...

Elena doesn't appear to have been entirely honest with the world. The romantic idea of this girl, who's somehow obtained a pass through family connections, whizzing along the empty, grass grown roads on her bike is challenged by a tour guide, who claims that she actually booked a tour, wore a bikers jacket, and took photos like anyone else on the tour.

I've spent a lot of time looking at her work, and it's fantastic. I love the photography. Her words touch my heart. But why the subterfuge?

Anonymous said...

i think it may have been me that sent you the link to this a while back. I'd be very disappointed if it turned out to be suspect. RA

Anonymous said...

it is an argument for environmentalists to stop pretending that getting rid of nuclear is somehow good 'for the health of the planet' and whatnot.

True. If we can have enough nuclear accidents and render sufficient areas of the world unfit for human habitation, then other species will likely benefit. Or you could cut out the middle man and just start getting rid of people...

Yes, that does sound a little misanthropic, doesn't it?

So, is it that environmentalists are motivated by irrational misanthropy, valuing all other species more highly than people, or is it that they're a bunch of hopeless sentimentalists who are unwilling to inflict the necessary human suffering to "save the world" for other species? I can never get that straight...

merrick said...

Mark, I didn't quite say you were misanthropic, but were making a pretty flimsy defence of nuclear power and adding weight to the charge that environmentalists are misanthropic.

As I made clear, I didn't post this Chernobyl stuff to make any point about new nuclear power plants at all, just as a really interesting travelogue.

I note that you haven't responded to points made in the comments on the earlier post:

As I said in the subsequent post, nuclear power must be a technology of absolute last resort as it saddles many generations hence with most of the costs and none of the benefits.

It commits us to a militarised society for that time, and presents many dangers and injustices. How would you make Eon liable for an accident in 400 years time?

I have said what my problem is several times; there are seemingly rigorously researched solutions like Pöyry Energy's CHP report or Zero Carbon Britain's vision that avoid the need for nukes. So if we are agreed that nuclear is a technology of last resort and there are credible voices saying we're not at last resort yet, why would we advocate it? Where have the above mentioned reports got it wrong?

i presume you're a busy chap and can't deal with every blogger that mentions you. But your response here has taken as much time as it would've done to properly answer my previous points, if you had a credible answer to give.

Your lack of a response to this, coupled with a failure to address the flaws in your pro-nuclear reasoning, leave me convinced that nuclear is not essential.

merrick said...


If we can have enough nuclear accidents and render sufficient areas of the world unfit for human habitation, then other species will likely benefit.

You know that sentence you quote? Did you read the first half where Mark Lynas said 'It's not an argument for lots of nuclear accidents to protect biodiversity'? What do you think he's trying to say there?

is it that environmentalists are motivated by irrational misanthropy, valuing all other species more highly than people, or is it that they're a bunch of hopeless sentimentalists who are unwilling to inflict the necessary human suffering to "save the world" for other species?

Or is it that - as Mark Lynas and I have both made clear is our belief, that the looming climate crisis is a huge threat to human wellbeing?

There can be little doubt that many pecies will do well with a drastically altered climate. Humans are unlikely to be one of them. The guff about 'saving the planet' is absurd, it will survive us all perfectly well.

One of the main motivations for me, and most environmentalists I know, is that we have no right to inflict wanton damage on other people or other species.

There are people who do believe we have that right. Given that it's a belief that a minority of the people alive today have the right to fuck over everyone else now and in future, it's surely they who win the Misanthrope of The Year Award.

MarkR said...

While Elena's story about riding her motorcycle in the Chernobyl Zone is false, no one can deny the importance of her work. It is mostly due to her stories that the world has been reminded about the tragedy of the Chernobyl disaster. If you are concerned about how she wrote her stories, call it poetic license.

I personally visited the Chernobyl area for two days in June 2006 with a friend and former resident of Pripyat. We toured the Chernobyl Plant (including the Reactor 4 control room), several of the abandoned villages, and Pripyat. I have posted a photo journal of my trip at:

My Journey to Chernobyl: 20 Years After the Disaster

merrick said...

MarkR, thankyou so much for the link to your travelogue.

I'm a little saddened to learn that Elena Filatova's account is economical with the truth, but on reflection it doesn't really take away what I love about it. It wasn't the image of her as lone biker, it was that someone travelled into this place, documented it and then wrote in such concise yet profound terms.

Your travelogue is much more straightforward, but no less riveting. And the hard fact element is really helpful. The city of Pripyat has even greater emotional impact when I learned it was evacuated with three hours noticed and told to take things for three days away. Perhaps more poignant is the fact it was a planned city founded in 1970. It's been gone for longer than it was lived in.