AA Unknown Fields Visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

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July 13-14, 2011

During a two week field trip organized by the AA (Liam Young and Kate Davies) in London, a group of 42 students and experts visited locations where the impact of technology on nature has produced extreme landscapes. The expedition combined nuclear power and space travel by checking Chernobyl’s nuclear power plant in Ukraine, dried out lake Aral, the rocket launch site at Baikonur and the uranium mines of Astana, all in Kazakhstan. As Unknown Fields network partner Volume witnessed the nuclear part.

Into the War Zone

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rules of suspense’ prescribes that the audience has to be informed about a looming danger (the classic scene of a couple enjoying a drink and conversation with a ticking bomb under the table) in order to experience the intended emotion. Entering Chernobyl’s 30 kilometer ‘Exclusion Zone’ this lesson of the old master popped up in my head. Passing the barrier (all had to get out of the bus and individually pass the gate on foot with ample checks of passports and outfit – obligatory long sleeves, long pants and closed shoes – plus signing a form that denied any liability of the Ukraine government for the visitor’s health now and in the far future) made entering a serious thing, but the following 30 minutes ride through woods and fields was without any trace of disaster. It wasn’t exactly leading up to a dramatic confrontation. Unless you knew. The only slightly discomforting sign was the absence of any activity. No human beings, no agriculture, hardly any sounds. Just nature as a pleasant postcard image. A couple of farms along the road had obviously been deserted long ago. That was it. But the 42 of us in the bus were well aware that we had entered a highly polluted area, that we were nearing this immensely dangerous nuclear power plant, a sleeping giant that even 25 years after it had erupted like a volcano and had been tamed at great cost, was still invisibly spreading death and decay and will do so for millenniums to come.

In the spirit of a proper thriller, misleading and redundant information came along. The unfinished reactor no. 5, surrounded by cranes was initially taken for its unfortunate sister no. 4. It would take another day before we would actually be confronted with the shrine of evil itself in full. For now a worker’s lunch and consecutive visit of the nearby vacated city of Pripyat would have to satisfy our appetite for drama, only adding to the suspense of course.

Nature Reclaims

Walking through a vacated town, where trees are growing through the tarmac and inside buildings, where the bus stop is in the middle of a bush and where most window panes are broken, isn’t an everyday experience for most people. Yet, films and photos have made this into a familiar scene. The wind playing with a plastic bag, broken glass all over, water dripping from the ceiling, an empty pool, rusty toys, these are just a few of the uncanny scenes used in movies to create a feeling of discomfort and potential threat. Indiana Jones must be around the corner and our guide in a semi-military outfit is only adding to the feeling that we are taking part in some adventure movie.

One shouldn’t get distracted by the romance of the surroundings and keep an open eye for the former beauty of the city. Life must have been real pleasant here. Apartments are small, but the large and well designed cultural center, a municipal swimming pool and a lovely coffeeshop on a hill with views over the lake are indications of the comfortable lives people lived here. But a series of mistakes, misjudgments, a lack of information and communication causing this disaster in the nearby energy plant, led to the hasty evacuation of all 50.000 inhabitants (plus those in some 60 villages in the wider area) 33 hours after the nightly explosion occurred.

The place is not only a commemoration site and warning for future generations, it is also a real life terrarium to study nature’s reaction to radiation and radio-active contamination. Mythical wingless birds, giant mushrooms, deformed bugs, and poisonous mosquitoes are supposed to populate the place, including bears and other big game, but reality seems less spectacular. Still, the consequences of high radiation levels are dramatic. The forest next to the power plant was completely killed by radioactivity (thereafter called the ‘red forest’) and had to be removed entirely as radio-active waste, together with all the furniture and most of the belongings in the houses, the contaminated machines, cars and trucks, that were all buried in mass-graves on site.

Facts, Bare Facts

The whole two-day visit, including a night at the local hotel (barrack) in the exclusion zone, was a balancing act, trying one’s convictions, trust and beliefs. There were no simple facts to be found. The whole group was wrapped in orange protection overalls, wearing masks and shoe covers and strongly advised to refrain from drinking, eating and smoking in the open. Yet the guards at the entrance gate to the ‘sarcophagus’ were sitting in the sun, smoking a cigarette, and wearing T-shirts with short sleeves (temperature was 33°C and over). During breakfast, lunch and dinner in the canteen or hotel, no one was bothered about his or her clothing, or the food (identical for each meal) itself for that matter. The second day we met a resettler, one of the 150 odd farmers that had returned to stay at their farms after a few years. This couple returned after only a year and a half. They were 73 and 74 by now, farming their own vegetables, feeding a dozen of chicken and a few pigs. When they had just returned they wore protective masks, like the others, but soon they stopped wearing them; too oppressive. And now here he was, open shirt, shoes with holes, but not looking unhealthy.

Another confusing discovery was the number of people still working there. Some 3000 in total go around the area or work in buildings in the vicinity of ChNPP4 to keep things under control, to monitor and prepare for the next phase: the replacement of the concrete cover of ChNPP4 with a more lasting solution. The isolation of the disaster area is in stark contrast with this ‘business as usual’ image on the street: men and women wearing suits walking from one building to another, guards standing idle in small groups. What is supposed to be a dead zone, devoid of life, is in reality still an industrial area with building sites and (a low level of) activity.

On our last day, in Kiev, a visit to the Chernobyl Museum produces yet another take on reality. The funerary chapel atmosphere of the place stresses disaster and human suffering. So do the portraits of hundreds of children that lived there during the time (not necessarily all dead now), so do the rubber suits and gas masks on display of the firemen and other ‘liquidators’ that fought the war in the first days, weeks and months. Immediate death, slowly creeping death, terrible pain and suffering, it is all presented and exposed here. A prayer and a candle for the Chernobyl heroes. The religious approach recalls Agamben’s thesis of homo sacer; by making Chernobyl into a cosmic event, of a magnitude that surpasses our imagination, the mother of all horrors, it becomes a sacrifice. By making Chernobyl ‘exclusive’, the rest of the world becomes normal by contrast. We can continue our lives – Chernobyl is ‘out there’, well protected, under control, a warning for sure, but first and foremost a safety valve to save ‘the system’ as a whole.

Outside the ‘exclusion zone’ the world feels normal, we behave like we do at home. The thin line of barbed wire marks the difference between danger and normality, between the wild reserve of radiation and the ‘natural’ rest of the world. One of the researchers in the groups had started his measurements with his dosimeter in London. Conclusion: radiation levels in London are higher than at the gates of Chernobyl.