My Chernobyl Adventure Part 2: The dirty bomb details

(part 1 of the story is here)

Part 2: Exploring Deeper into Chernobyl

Because nothing is maintained, every roof of every building in Pripyat has leaks, causing swampy conditions inside all the rooms. This has resulted in all sorts of fauna, trees, roots, weeds, and other strange things to flourish in these Planet-of-the-Apes conditions. I am sure a botanist would have a field day there, seeing as there is still ample Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 that is slowly decaying there and probably causing all sorts of random mutations. I pictured Venus fly traps that eat humans and the like.

Another place I visited was the big hotel here was the shining star of the city in its Russian splendor, now an empty, cold, and radiated husk.  Part of me wanted to go inside and explore all the floors… explore everywhere!  But, the snow was waist-deep in most places and I was having enough trouble just getting from place to place.

After that, I visited a giant apartment building that is slowly collapsing from the harsh winters and rainy springs. A lot of windows have been broken and desperate daredevils sneak in to loot on occasion. It wasn’t exactly the homiest place in the world, and I am not sure everyone got the damage deposits back. Then again, I don’t know if mid-eighties Soviet policy had a robust apartment deposit system in place.

The enormity of the abandonment felt heavy here. If I stayed around longer, i feel like I could have heard it breaking apart, like a great glacier.

Schoolhouse and Beyond

And then it was time for the schoolhouse. Creepy dot com.

As children evacuated, schoolbooks, papers, drawings and coloring books were left scattered behind. It is as if everyone just suddenly disappeared and time froze in a Soviet educational stasis of 1986. However, that educational system was clearly amazing. I know a ton of brilliant Ukrainian and Russian programmers.  It’s interesting that these ex-Soviets come from the same system that enabled their brains to launch rockets with slide rules. They are absolutely some of the smartest and sharpest math/comp-sci minds in the world. The US public education system is as socialist and government-operated as the Soviet system, but the general populace of the US does not have close to the scientific prowess of the typical cold-war child. I don’t know why this is, but I do know that I have digressed.

My geiger counter started clicking away, so I took quick photos while speed-walking.  Below is a photo of a phone booth outside the entrance. You can clearly see the amount of disintegration in the past 20 years. The paint colors have stayed bright. Nothing galvanizes paint like a sealant of unstable elements.

This takes urban decay to a whole new level

Caesium-137 and Halflife

We checked the Geiger counter because this area was supposed to still have a significant amount of caesium-137, which takes a good 300 years to dissipate to safe levels. It was around 0.054, so we decided to keep moving. Now we started heading for the main power plant complex. Slogging it through the snow was slow and tough. We stopped to commune with nature a little bit and add to the exotic cocktail around the trees. While doing this, the Geiger counter started clicking in a very scary way. *0.290* on the screen. He looked at me, “We should leave quickly.”

Getting back in the truck, we took another way. Yuri looked at the readout a little too much, and then he stepped on the accelerator. When Yuri was worried, I was worried. I grabbed a look at the monster under the bed (the highest number I had seen yet) and grabbed this photo.

This number was the highest I saw. It was clicking rapidly, and it made me a bit unsteady while I took the photo.

Heading over to the reactors themselves was another matter. The snow was thick and the roads were difficult to see. We swerved around and Yuri looked nervous. I don’t like my Russian military die-hards to look nervous. It is a bad sign. He mentioned we should not get off the road because we end up in areas that have not yet been “scrubbed.”  Okay, sounds like a good plan to me too, Yuri.

Approaching the main reactor, we stopped and found one that had not yet been completed. It was a hollow husk of a structure, left to fall apart in the radioactive fallout. You can see that another one was just in the beginning stages to the right.

Some partially completed cooling units, crumbling apart.

Stuck in Time

We came across another area of interest – a new Chernobyl reactor that was abandoned in the chaos of the fallout. The cranes remain there, frozen in motion for 30 years. There was no activity at all. It is the closest I’ve come to that superhero power we’ve always wanted, where we can freeze time and run around while everything else stays still.

I asked Yuri about this place. I was curious about the day-of and the day-after. Even though Yuri spoke great English, the conversations started to become more stilted. It’s the opposite of almost every interaction I’ve had. Usually I warm up to people, even strangers, as we spend the day together. But Yuri, who clearly knew this place inside out, would often just shake his head at my questions. He didn’t want to talk about it.

And then, I decided it was time to go. We headed for the exit of the Exclusion Zone faster than Trotsky heading the Politburo.

It was time to head for the radiation checks, cleaning, and scrubbing.

The entire construction scene on the new reactor sits still, frozen in time.

Decontamination

I was immediately put at ease by his avuncular smile, that is, until he pointed the radiation gun at me.

This was the first of three different radiation checks.  This cheerful gentleman took me through the various stages.  At the end of each one, he gave me one of those characteristic Russian frowns and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Eh, good enough.”

He didn’t speak any English. But, you know, there is sort of this international language. I’ve learned to get by in any country in almost every situation. Have you read this book, *”The Alchemist”*? There are many wonderful themes in there, but one of them is this idea that there is only one language. I’ve found this to be very true.

Not to go down a tangent, but why not. I read this book very late in life — I read it after I had already independently suffused the same themes into my own life. But, it was very nice to see all of these personal things described in a pleasant, allegorical manner. I do recommend it, obviously. The audiobook version is wonderful too – read by Jeremy Irons.

Okay, back on topic. There was one final stage of decontamination.

Upon final departure from the exclusion zone, I had to do a final rad check. You can see me below, jammed into a 10,000 kilo metallic device used to check the amount of rads all over my body. Often times, people end up with a “light dusting,” as they so brochurely described, of radiation.

This device was curious. It looked like stripped down telephone booth mated with a late seventies nautilus machine. I placed my hands and feet on special sensors. It flashed something in red cyrillic letters that may or may not have said I was clean. Either way, I found this whole Soviet-era scrubbing experience to be far cry from that decontamination scene with Trip and T’Pol. I can assure you of that.

The strange rad chamber where flashing red cyrillic letters are either good or bad.

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  • http://mysite.verizon.net/vze2241e/ Mokona

    Great pictures. The HDR adds so much depth to the images if only video looked like that :)

    read both parts, really cool

  • azxplorer

    You say the Geiger counter read 0.293. What is the scale? Could be 0.293 of anything?

    Roentgens per hour? Per day? Per year?

  • AC

    “[…] and these ex-Soviets come from the same system that enabled their brains to launch rockets with slide rules. They are absolutely some of the smartest and sharpest math/comp-sci minds in the world. The US public education system is as socialist and government-operated as the Soviet system, but the general populace of the US does not have close to the scientific prowess of the typical cold-war child.”

    Amen to that. I was born and educated in a country of the former communist block (and I’m now a software engineer in the US :). The decay of the educational system back there is a tragedy, and the lack of interest and investment into the US educational system is going to hurt badly in the long run as well.

  • Andrew

    It’s no longer called “the Ukraine”

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  • Speed

    azxplorer, usually Geiger Counters use Becquerels since they are the SI unit of radioactivity.

  • MikeCD

    Those two unfinished structures aren’t reactors, they’re water cooling towers.

  • http://www.ivanandbecca.com Ivan

    Brilliant story and images, Trey. Not much is being written about this disaster and consequences, so I’m glad you’re bringing some fresh observations.

    On the technical side of things – is there a reason why I get errors when I’m trying to push the “back” button on your blog? I use PC Mozilla and it keeps doing this again and again.

  • http://tiburos.com Scott

    dont know what’s better – the amazing pics, or your unfettered commentary. cheers!

  • James

    Excellent story.
    I like the “no heels” warning in the last pic :)

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  • http://www.stuckincustoms.com tratcliff

    haha yes… When I first went in there, I was afraid they were going to make me strip down!

  • Ricco Leung

    Real Adventure! Excellent Picture! Cool!!!

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  • susan

    Great pictures and wonderful way you tell the story Trey!

  • Ted

    the 3rd picture, is Russian Pedro

  • Chris

    This is an amazing story of yours. I’m glad to see that you were willing to share it with everyone online. Thank you for that as well as the photos. Top notch stuff.

  • Angela Bams

    That is totally crazy you are a loon!

  • SirOJ

    “Every woman in my life told me this was a bad idea. Every man said it sounded awesome.”

    Do women still think that it was a bad idea now that your wiener glows in the dark (and you’re probably growing an extra one somewhere on your body)?

  • http://www.stuckincustoms.com tratcliff

    Haha it’s all very Skin Deep around here.

  • morganusvitus

    The site looks great ! Thanks for all your help ( past, present and future !)

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  • brainde

    Hi!

    It’s realy interesting, i’d travel to there too, although my friends say i’m crazy, but i’m only very interested. By the way, there are really lot’s of animals there, Yuri had right, and the nature shows it’s face like never was happened. There was a hungarian expedition to chernobyl 1 year ago (from the technical university), they have made great pictures too, and explorations, and a video, that you can download, unfortunately only in hungarian, but when i have time, i maybe make subtitle in english. The video is here: http://www.reak.bme.hu/csernobil/index.htm?sajto

    Pictures:
    http://www.reak.bme.hu/aszodi/Chernobyl_online_album/index.html

    PPS: ENGLISH TOO!!!
    http://www.reak.bme.hu/csernobil/sajto/Csernobil2005_MNT_HuEng_v8.pps

  • brainde
  • http://www.cyclechaos.com/blog/ Motorcycle Guy

    That amusement park is so creepy….

  • MetallMann

    HI-RES images of *DANGER* zone….

    What else do we wish…

    Great telling also,

    Tnx

  • Vanteeve Mn

    Great photo’s esp the amusement park as this appears in the STALKER game about the Zone!

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  • SirTie

    dude…. why or why in the world would you go there ????
    I am surprised your digital equipment was working fine in the conditions of high radiation,
    cameras still ok?

  • http://www.stuckincustoms.com tratcliff

    hehe – no prob – camera works better than ever.

  • http://stuckincustoms.com/2007/03/25/my-chernobyl-adventure-part-2-the-dirty-bomb-details/#comment-107327 Pat Shaw

    Visited Slavutich in ’94. Thanks for showing
    parts I missed. Faith of the people amid it all amazed me. Was diagnosed with cancer on return in 2002. Hope you are well. Pat

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  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/sirtie/ SirTie

    hehe – no prob – camera works better than ever.

    so thats why you get such an amazing hdrs…

  • http://WWW.socialjustice.ws GerwingR

    Good Photos. thanks for the narative also..
    Ralph G. Vancouver.bc.ca

  • http://www.thegasgrill.info The+Gas+Grill

    Hello your message is amazing. I will definitely read your diary.. thank you again

  • http://andrewbourkephotography.blogspot.com Andrew Bourke

    That was really interesting. I hope you dry cleaned those clothes really really really really really well!
    Thanks for sharing your fantastic adventure.

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  • dude

    mesothelioma is lung cancer caused by asbestos,
    but i loved the article, and i want to go to Chornobyl and take the tour.

  • tk

    your pictures are just great. Ive been making a story that involves a nuclear winter and your pictures are great. If you could give me more information about your trip, that would be great!

  • sjr02

    Very good read and great pics! How do you know that all of the radiation is off of you?

  • http://www.kemizz.com kemizz

    dude , I read you story about 600 times , since I’m planning to go there as well during summer (already in contact with embassy)

    but I have a few questions for you if you don’t mind …

    drop me a mail if possible , since I can’t find a contact adres here

    cheers

    Robin.

  • keith

    wow good job with everything, my time is not spent reading :p but goddamn u did such a good job, heartbreaking at same time as eye opening

  • SKG

    Took a handful of my 8th grade students on your site today and were fascinated with your pictures and commentary. Thanks for such a remarkable pictorial story. Your site stimulated highly intellectual leading edge thought for 8th graders.

  • http://www.stuckincustoms.com tratcliff

    Hey great – glad to hear it!

  • Alex

    The most stunning pictures of Pripyat and the Zone I´ve seen…
    What did you do to the pics? Is that a little Photoshop magic? So surreal…
    Great work, thanks!

  • Alex

    OK, found the tut!
    HDR…
    This will be a lovely tool to play with!!
    Thanks for the tut, and again for the Pripyat story.

  • http://www.stuckincustoms.com tratcliff

    Thanks!

  • magpie

    hey there! congratulations for this wonderful documentary!
    i am from Romania (a country south from Ukraine);
    I was always interested about the city of Pripyat;
    I am also a skillful 3D modeler and so I wanted to bring this city to me by modeling it; I would like to please submit me some high quality pictures of the buildings (blocks, flats, cinema, militia, post office or any other buildings) and other objectives (parks, parking lanes, cars, pylons, light pylons, symbols, “propaganda”); I did not found any map of Pripyat;
    I kindly wait for your response and e-mail with photos… Thank you very much :D

  • http://www.revenuerobot.com androo

    a great collection of information and photos… thanks for the good read!

  • Jimbo Jonas

    Amazing story written with a great sense of humour. Thanks for that and the great pictures.
    Jim

  • Namagem

    Oh, wow.
    What an amazing adventure.

    If you are interested at all, the areas in those pictures seem to have been extremely accurately reproduced in the game Call Of Duty 4.

  • michele

    I would LOVE the chance to get to visit Pripyat – especially with a camera. You are soo lucky!
    Nice pics, the ferris wheel is especially poignant for some reason.

  • haylee

    What a fantastic composition & an incredible set of images you captured. Not to mention your intriguing sense of humor.

  • drburtoni

    wonderful series of photos and descriptions. if radiation dust can settle on you, what keeps the camera clean? including the internal working parts? more on the harmful levels of radiation would clarify some of the readings you encountered. how long must you remain at certain levels? are the boys still swimming correctly? sorry about all the questions, but the interest of the story almost demands them.

    thanks.

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  • http://nonce david Birtles

    Incredible images.

    I am going to Pripyat Chernobyl in december ( 26th) looking through your photos I am so excited to to do this!!!

    Thanks for taking these images!

    David

  • Brian

    Great blog!

  • http://www.spoutnik-production.com Le Louarn

    Hello,
    Very interesting pictures… I am french and I will go there in january for an artistic création… Four artists follow me for the ship… Could you give me some contact with ukrainian people who will be ok to speak about the tchernobyl catastroph and to help us to visit Pripiat… or others area contamined ? Please. It is very important for french people to understand nuclear dangerosity…
    best regards
    Phil

  • Bram2008

    Amazing story, it open my eyes!!! Thanx.

  • R?dolfs Putni?š

    Some of my relatives were fooled to do the cleaning after the Chernobyl disaster. When you ask a 19 y.o. red army private to do special assignment that will cover up the remaining half a year service in a few days, they rarely said no. Nice photos, I’m quite eager to pick up those HDR skills.

    There are even more astonishing sights in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. An abandoned town called Chernobyl-2 has great sights and the forsaken radar station Duga is also an unforgetable sight (You could search wikipedia for “Rusian Woodpecker” to see some photos of that monster antenna).

    P.S. Sorry for the broken english, post-soviet educational system was not too keen on foreign tongues.

  • http://www.stuckincustoms.com tratcliff

    Interesting!

    Thank you everyone for your good feedback.

  • Toni B.

    I would never have done this, but so glad that you did. Very amazing pictures and story.

  • brookliner7

    Wow, Trey, amazing pictures and story!

    I have always loved exploring in combination with photography, and Pypriat is my exploration grail.
    After seeing and reading your story, I finally feel motivated enough to make this trip happen, so thank you in advance for your inspiration.

    I want to plan a trip there as well (and for a vacation) to do some photography.

    I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind corresponding with me via email for some more detail.

    warm regards,

    Christopher

  • Joe

    Hi!
    I like people with guts and you’re one of them.
    I wish to try to visit Chernobyl but I don’t know where to start from.
    Maybe you or someone can help me to get there.
    Thanks a lot and congratulations.

  • http://www.iamsignal.com www.iamsignal.com

    ??? ???????????? ????? ??????. ? ?????, ??? ??? ???? ???????? ???????.

  • http://dmagliano.blogspot.com/ Diego

    Hello mate.
    I’m 19 & I’m from Argentina. I was serching photos of Chernobyl @ Flickr, and I found your blog.

    First of all, I must congratulate you by the experience description, and of course, the photos.

    The sensations being in a place like that must be indescribable.

    I want to know it some day.

    A big hug.

    Diego A. Magliano Dêdâcek

  • http://www.stuckincustoms.com Stuck In Customs

    Thanks all!

    Diego – I am coming to Argentina in a few months… you in BA?

  • conor

    hi i think what you have done is awsome and very interesting. would u email me on any more info about you journey and other things. thank you. conor, UK

  • Justin

    Of course, if it was TNG, they wouldn’t need to rub each other down with decon cream, because they would be scrubbed inside the pattern buffer >.> 22nd century ^.^

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  • david

    very nice “travel” documentary. i remember well the day it happened. thanks.

  • http://safariman.com safariman

    Very interesting and well told adventure story. It’s the kind of trip I like to take, but I don’t have a story to top yours!

  • http://mesotheliomalawyersny.com/ mesothelioma

    Very nice. Thanks for this.

  • Bill

    Very interesting article. Cool pictures. The ambulance chasing mesothelioma ads at the bottom are a bit tacky tho.

  • Sue

    You are a very talented and lucky guy (like your mom must say). I love your photography and am in awe of the experiences available to you.I waited anxiously for a year to tour the Mansfield (Ohio) Reformatory and worried about the lead paint. You go to Chernobyl… Keep up the good work and stay safe.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Steven-Srs/1658480332 Steven Srs

    The Ferris Wheel area and hotel are amazing. Especially since both are recreated exactly in Call of Duty: 4. Its so cool to see actual photographs of them.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Aundr-Bumgardner/1151083534 Aundré Bumgardner

    Wow very powerful pictures trey…Suprised to see how identical these pictures are to thoses depicted in call of duty.

  • luke

    the people might of been looters, or they might of been checking for looters.

    Anyway, thanks for sharing that!

    THANKS, Luke….

    P.S I really want to go there someday!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christoffer-Lundtoft-Larsen/1557450621 Christoffer Lundtoft Larsen

    I just read part 1 and part 2. That was awesome. Thanks for sharing!

  • Waverly

    I love the story and the pictures. I have been to the Chernobyl museum in Kiev and it so cool. I also like the sign above the passport control guys head that says “stop/ control” ha.

  • http://www.twitter.com/RobGladwin Rob

    Hey I have been looking at the trips that go out to the area and am very excited about it!
    Thank you for such amazing pictures and great commentary :)
    For anyone looking, like me, to also visit Chernobyl and Pripyat then this seems to be the best site: http://tourkiev.com/chernobyltour/

    Hope that helps anyone looking for tours, they seem more commercial now rather than private and having to go through government etc…

    Thanks again!!

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  • John Richardson

    I live in Bila Tserkov, just 75km south of Kiev, I have yet to venture farther North than Kiev….my father-in-law was in Chernobyl for the clean up. He is kinda crazy, so I figure I best stay away.

    Here is a website that is interesting about Chernobyl also: http://www.kiddofspeed.com/default.htm

    John

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  • Joel

    Great pictures! I study nuclear engineering and Russian and a photography trip to Chernobyl would be like a dream come true to me. Hope you’ll add some more at some point!

  • http://www.facebook.com/banakas.photos Alex Banakas

    Trey, that’s an awesome adventure. I would have to side with both the men and the women,min saying that it sounded like a very cool trip, but man, that’s crazy that you were there and that geiger counter was going off like it was. I really liked the description you used of “the monster under the bed”

    I would love to be able to hang out with a stranger all day, but I’m just so shy that I would sit and just feel uncomfortable. I dont know that i would be able to ask questions. I admire that you’ve had the opportunities to go out to remote places and share your experiences.

    The work you do has become an inspiration to me as I love going places, trying to capture the experience, then tinker with the images on the computer, and finally share them with those that are interested in my work.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001717830037 John Richardson

    Great stuff!  I live just south of Kiev and have always wanted to vista, sadly about a month ago the government closed dow all tours until further notice. When I hear that they are back on I will post here.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Vladyslav-Garmatnuk/100003477431623 Vladyslav Garmatnuk

    And have you visited Kiev tours? for example like this http://smartclever.com.ua/eng/excursions.html ? 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=501210147 Amanda Roach

    Out of everything, your description of squirrels stuck with me most….

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