An eyewitness since 1970: The sign announcing Pripyat
Our aim for this Chernobyl retrospective was to capture the mood of the city just before the disaster and to contrast it with impressions of the city now. A perfect match was Timm Suess’s work, a Swiss photographer and urban explorer whose images capture this contrast beautifully. Suess spent two days exploring Chernobyl and Pripyat in March 2009 and agreed to answer our questions about his adventure.
The Chernoshop with a lot of bottles
Pripyat today is an abandoned city in the Zone of Alienation in northern Ukraine near the border with Belarus, about 100 km from Kiev. The Zone of Alienation is the 30km-radius around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Pripyat and Chernobyl are 15 km apart. Since 2002, the Chernobyl Zone of Exclusion is officially open for, well, not tourism, but for people who feel strangely attracted to disaster sites and decay and want to see for themselves.
An old shop in Pripyat with cash register
Contrary to popular belief, the area is not deserted. Though it is not possible to live in Pripyat now and will not be for the next few thousand years because of the high radiation, people do live in Chernobyl, usually for a stretch of four weeks at a time before returning. That’s why Chernobyl today even has a hotel, two shops and a bar.
The radioactivity around Reactor No. 4 as measured with a Geiger counter in 2003
What about radiation though? How dangerous are the levels now and what does one do for protection? Timm Suess, who planned his trip for almost two years, and researched the topic of radiation in particular, had the following answers. He found out that most of the radiation came down in the first year after the accident and that there are different areas of radiation intensity that one can check with the Geiger counter – a must-have device for any trip to Pripyat.
Happier times: Two girls walking the flower-lined paths of Pripyat then
Visitors to the zone have to undergo frequent radiation tests while they are there. That’s how Suess found out that during his two days, he wasn’t exposed to more radiation than one would encounter during, let’s say, a dental x-ray.
A picture of Pripyat in 1984, a well-planned city all set for expansion
Today, around 500 people live in Chernobyl, mainly scientists and nuclear workers employed to decommission the plant, which will likely take until 2020 or longer. Otherwise, some of the older residents moved back to the villages around Chernobyl quite early. There are also the guides who show people around and a surprising number of looters, looking for anything valuable among the rubble or generally for trouble.
Lenin Square today
As Timm Suess pointed out, looters have raided Pripyat not from day one but certainly from early on, so that the decay we witness in the city today is pretty much manmade; nothing or at least very few places have been left untouched since 1986.
Young parents in front of the Pripyat public pool in 1984
After 1977, when the nuclear reactor started working, Pripyat attracted many young couples because modern housing, good amenities and ample work opportunities were provided for both men and women.
The Olympic-size pool today
Men usually worked at the power plant and women in the service sector – in one of city’s many restaurants, hospitals, schools and libraries.
Baby cots in the maternity ward of Pripyat’s hospital today
Galina Sychyovskaya, a mother-of-two, said of her family’s move to Pripyat: “The town council has given us a good apartment; my husband has a well-paid and interesting job. We don’t even notice that we live close to a nuclear power plant.”
A lone Hospital bed skeleton
In fact, officials spoke of a baby boom and were trying to keep up with the number of day care centres and nurseries that were needed.
One of Pripyat’s schools today, a forlorn doll still sitting on a shelf
These images of abandonment speak volumes about the way in which life as normal suddenly ceased in Pripyat, the shattered traces of everyday existence all too evident.
The institutions, so integral to the day-to-day lives of the city’s inhabitants, now lie in a state of decay that perhaps strangely mirrors the far slower radioactive decay.
The Ferris wheel, looking more cheerful than it is
Even an amusement park was planned and built, ready to open its gates to the residents of Pripyat on May 1st, 1986. Five days too late: in the end, not even one person ever got to ride on the Ferris wheel or the bumper cars.
Bumper cars, used by no one
Speaking about about his experience, Timm Suess says:
“The amusement park was an unsettling place. The ferris wheel loomed underneath a cloud-scattered sky and every few minutes gave off guttural creaking noises. The radiation levels were about 40 times as high as normal (4 uSv/h) – not extreme, but elevated, especially if you stood on the patches of moss or got close to the bumper cars.”
The lobby of Pripyat’s movie theatre, not any more cheerful
“Some of the trees looked strangely deformed, spreading sideways instead of skywards,” Suess continues. “The constantly beeping sound of the Geiger counter slowly got under my skin as I started to realize how constant and inevitable the radiation and all its associated risks around me were.”
The Red Forest just after the catastrophe
The forest outside of Chernobyl was dubbed the “Red Forest” because of the ginger-brown colour the pine trees took on after dying from high levels of radiation – the major plume of radiation having been carried directly above them.
The site of the Red Forest remains one of the most contaminated sites in the world today, here with a sign warning of radioactivity
Here is a picture of the forest before it was bulldozed and the waste buried in special “graveyards.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the vegetation in the Zone of Alienation has flourished. Like a strange nature reserve, flora and fauna have made the best of the situation without human interference and claimed their space. Scientists have found that since 1990, growth flourished and the ecological effect has been positive. Eighty percent of the zone is now forested; before the disaster, it was just 20 percent. A total of 240 species of animals have been counted within the exclusion zone, most of which were present only in low numbers before the disaster.
Over the years, nature has reinvaded the suddenly abandoned area and made the best of it. That one should never eat the mushrooms or berries found there and that some of the clover might have six leaves is a different story…
The February 1986 issue of Soviet Life
One of the reasons why the Chernobyl incident would take on such disastrous proportions in people’s minds was due to the way in which nuclear energy was hyped in the media and in Russian propaganda – in fact, worldwide. Let’s take a look at the cover of Soviet Life magazine of February 1986, for example. It featured then US-president Ronald Reagan and then Russian president Michail Gorbachev at the “Soviet-American Summit Meeting in Geneva.”
A model of the nuclear power plant from the Chernobyl museum
One of the Soviet Life issue’s featured articles is “Nuclear Power Development and Management,” a hot topic in the ‘80s, when nuclear power was considered clean and safe and the slogan “peaceful atom” was popular.
A lone worker in Reactor 3, then like the chef in a high-tech kitchen
Vitali Sklyarov, the Minister of Power and Electrification of the Ukraine, said in an interview about the safety of nuclear plants:
“The odds of a meltdown are one in 10,000 years. The plants have safe and reliable controls that are protected from any breakdown with three safety lines. The lines operate independently without duplicating one another. New equipment with higher reliability is being developed. Pilot models are tested under conditions similar to working conditions.”
A poster advertising clean nuclear power in Chernobyl
Similar propaganda can be found on a Chernobyl poster at the time. The text to the side reads:
“The reactor’s core cooling systems are closed technological circuits. Water is so thoroughly decontaminated that the most sensitive instruments cannot pick up even a trace of radiation.”
The caption for the inset picture reads: “The control block of the plant can shut down the reactor in a matter of seconds.”
Nikolai Fomin, the chief engineer of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, even believed: “Both man and nature are completely safe. The huge reactor is housed in a concrete silo, and it has environmental protection systems. Even if the incredible should happen, the automatic control and safety systems would shut down the reactor in a matter of seconds. The plant has emergency core cooling systems and many other technological safety designs and systems.”
Another propaganda poster with smiling, happy nuclear reactor workers
The text on this next poster reads:
“Pyotr Bondarenko, a shift superintendent in the department of labor protection and safety review at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, maintains that working at the plant is safer than driving a car. Above: The Chernobyl plant, the Ukraine’s first nuclear power station, was started up in 1977. To date, it has reached the capacity of four million kilowatts. Below: The machine room at the Chernobyl plant.”
Reactor No. 4 with the cooling tower and cement sarcophagus
Here is a picture of Reactor No. 4 today that strangely looks more like a huge barn than the site of the worst nuclear disaster in human history.
In his book, The Legacy of Chernobyl, Zhores Medvedyev has uncoverd that the turbine rundown test should have been completed by 1982, before the reactor was brought into a commercial regime. The plant was producing four million kilowatts of power per year and the Ukraine alone one fifth of all the power in the Soviet Union.
When the disaster happened, the emergency power system was stopped dead in its tracks because of the immense heat and steam. The reactor’s pressure release valves were simply destroyed by the immense pressure. Half of the reactor’s nuclear fuel and graphite were blown out and some evaporated into a nuclear cloud that floated over Europe, seeding radioactive material in its wake.
Various engineers were sent from the control room to check on Reactor No. 4 after the catastrophe had just occurred. All of them came back with the same report – that Reactor No. 4 was destroyed – and all were met with disbelief, so that new engineers were sent. This unwillingness to accept the gravity of the situation delayed important rescue missions and cost many lives.
The Chernobyl monument with the cooling tower of Reactor No. 4 in the background
The fire brigades were the first ones to spring into action and, realising the enormity of the catastrophe, called for help from the Chernobyl and Kiev regions. They did everything they could to prevent a melting down of the remaining three reactors and saved thousands of lives. Needless to say, they died of the fatal doses of radiation they were exposed to just weeks after the accident.
Shockingly, the town of Pripyat was not evacuated for three days after the incident and people went about their business – working, shopping, children going to school or playing in the radioactive dust – all getting exposed to immensely high doses of radiation. The general population had no knowledge about radiation and what it would do to them. Those in charge were so lulled by nuclear propaganda that they were unable to fathom that a nuclear disaster could ever happen, let alone had happened right under their noses.
Reactor No. 4 was eventually covered with a cement sarcophagus that will have to remain around it for thousands of years. Already it has cracks and gaps in it and will need to be replaced sooner rather than later. Unbelievably, the last of the remaining three reactors was shut down in Chernobyl in December 2000. The remaining 14 or 15 active Russian reactors of the same type have supposedly been corrected so that a repeat should not happen. One can only hope so.
Portraits of political party members backstage at the Palace of Culture
For hundreds of photographs, videos and the Chernobyl Journal, visit Timm Suess’s blog, Many Faces of Decay. Asked about the challenge of photographing decay and abandonment, he quickly points out that, unlike other photographers, he doesn’t get much time to prepare. He has to accept the lighting and weather conditions at the sites he visits and act quickly as there is usually a time limit. “You only have one chance to take a picture – if you miss it and go back, it will be gone.”
He compares his work – the exploration of decayed buildings or cities – to divers exploring ship wrecks. Both are fascinated by decay and the preservation of what once was. Explains Suess: “People cannot really grasp long periods of time which is why decay is so exciting for us. We get to see decades preserved in one place.”
How did Suess get interested in decay in the first place? “It was purely coincidence,” he says. “I’ve always taken pictures, even when I was a child and later on explored many cities through the lens. I got interested in old doors and doorways and during a trip to Hawaii, got fascinated by rundown buildings. From there, it was really only a small step to capturing decay.”
Overall, how would he describe his Chernobyl experience? “Strange and nightmarish because you always know that you can’t do anything against the radiation. It’s a sad place – people were once happy there, and now they’re all gone.”
With special thanks to Timm Suess for taking the time to talk to us and granting us permission to use his photographs for this post.
For more about the Chernobyl survivors, follow the link.