It has been more than 30 years since the meltdown of Reactor No. 4 in Ukraine’s Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, an unprecedented manmade disaster that affected much of Europe. Radiation levels are still high, but with a Geiger counter and the right permits, visitors can safely enter the 18-mile Exclusion Zone on guided day tours. What you’ll encounter is straight out of a horror movie.
When Reactor No. 4 ignited on April 26, 1986, firefighters rushed to the scene oblivious and unprepared for the meltdown. Within days, many died from acute radioactive sickness. Today, the reactor is enclosed in a massive steel and cement sarcophagus, designed to keep uranium isotopes from entering the atmosphere. The cement has already leaked radioactive lava, with the reactor still capable of fires and explosions.
A model Soviet city, Pripyat was home to 50,000 people and serviced the adjacent power plant. It was hastily abandoned after the meltdown, and has remained untouched ever since. Everything inside the city and surrounding area is contaminated. Empty and desolate, nature is reclaiming this once-thriving city.
Visiting an old school is particularly haunting.
Dolls with dead-stare eyes can be found as you approach the nursery. While visitors are strongly advised not to touch anything, some items have been arranged for maximum creep effect.
According to some reports, an estimated 6000 individuals—most of them children—have been diagnosed with thyroid cancer as a direct result of the Chernobyl meltdown.
Blackened, rusty cribs in the old nursery. You can almost hear the soft melodies of music boxes, violently disrupted with panic during evacuation. This is not the place for vivid imaginations.
It will take centuries before anything in Pripyat can safely be destroyed. During that time, the evidence of humanity will continue to break down naturally, some of it less gracefully.
Soviet-era propaganda and iconography are prominent. Pripyat was built as a model city to demonstrate the power and efficiency of the State, with the Chernobyl facility a symbol of national pride. Today it provides a fascinating glimpse into the past, and the hubris of the State’s political ambitions.
The old gymnasium with its empty pool is a visitor highlight. Broken glass and cracked ceramic tiles are everywhere. You can listen to your scream echo throughout the gym and adjacent buildings.
Moss, dust and bushes might look benign, but this growth has absorbed much of the radiation. Visitors are advised to watch where they step, and to avoid moss in particular. All visitors are screened on exit for exposure to radiation, with particular attention paid to hands and footwear.
A fairground was scheduled to open just two days after the disaster. This creaking, rusted, radioactive Ferris wheel never took a single paying customer.
Portraits of Communist party leaders have been stored backstage in the community theater, along with old props and equipment. Seats are torn, and decades-old dust sits heavy on the stage.
If your visit needs a soundtrack, listen to the de-tuned strings in this abandoned piano shop. Neglect, creaking wood, and wind result in disjointed twangs and ghostly whistles.
Nature has been remarkably resilient. Moose, deer, boar, wolves, and bears have been reported in the area, breeding in large numbers. Scientists have been unable to detect any large-scale mutations. Safe from fishing rods, these giant catfish swim in the radioactive water river near the reactor.
The Chernobyl Disaster could have been much worse. Favorable winds saved thousands of lives, splitting the plume and sparing the city from the brunt of the initial radiation. The Soviet government originally planned to build the reactors just 15 miles from Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, which would have devastated a concentrated population.
This story has been updated for 2019.