Chernobyl 25 Years Revisited – Chapter 1 Correcting Misconceptions

Chernobyl, Diorama Chernobyl Museum Kiev, Jan Smtih 2011

Chernobyl – 25 Years Later

“When I was invited to come work in the Exclusion Zone, the first words that came to mind were: Chernobyl, radiation, mutations, and cancer.” — Max relating how he came to work in Chernobyl.

I found those four words to be common associations made by many people when I mentioned I was embarking to document Chernobyl 25 years after the accident.  In this sense there are a few misconceptions worth correcting about Chernobyl.

Chernobyl – Radiation Levels in Chernobyl

The first point to clarify is that radiation levels in most of the Exclusion Zone are within tolerable limits for controlled human exposure.  In some places the background radiation levels are less than twice what natural background radiation is in most of the world.  The worldwide average background  dose  for a human being is about 2.4 millisievert  (mSv) per year.  Most places within the  Zone oscillate between four and ten times normal background radiation levels. Such levels are within tolerable safe limits.  As a point of comparison, radiation exposure in a jet airliner is at least ten times higher, and natural background radiation in Ramsar, India, peaks at a yearly dose of 260 mSv.  There are notable exceptions in the Zone, where the dose is many thousand times the safe exposure level;  for example the “Red Forest” , some of the exposed metal structures in Pripyat, and portions of the hospital where the first victims of ARS (Accute Radiation Sickness) were treated in the days immediately after the accident.  Although the Zone is generally safe to visit, ingesting wildlife and plants from the area is not advisable.  Nonetheless, nature has aggressively reclaimed the area; wild boar, wolves, and dear are plentiful and seeing them roam without fear of men is common.

Chernobyl – Touring Chernobyl

A second misconception is that Chernobyl is not inhabited.  In 2011 there were roughly 3,000 government workers living in the town, usually in shifts of two weeks in the Zone and two weeks outside.  The accident only affected operation of Nuclear Reactor #4, the other reactors continued to operate during the aftermath of the accident and well into the beginning of this century.  Their continued function was required to feed the energy needs of the Ukraine and Belorussia until alternate sources could be brought up to par with demand.  There is also considerable traffic from visitors who range from photographers and scientists to curiosos. In 2010, 15,000 registered visitors entered the Zone, most of them on half-day “tourist” visits.

Chernobyl – Pripyat is Not Chernobyl

Perhaps the largest popular misconception relates to what cities were most affected by the accident.  Chernobyl is the name of both a town and the site of where the nuclear reactor exploded, but it is Pripyat, a once bustling city of 50,000 that was most affected by the accident.  Its residents were evacuated three days after the accident and the city is now a ghost town and wilting testimony to Soviet architecture and design. The inhabitants of Pripyat, and the outlying villages were the most affected by radiation exposure, and it is among them, and their children in particular, that the highest incidences of cancer, malformations, and general malaise occurred.

There is much to rummage within the circumstances leading to the accident, and of course the human tragedy that ensued.  Of all the suffering, what marked me most was the selfless commitment of the first technicians and fire-fighters who responded to the original explosion and tried to quell the fire.  Very likely, thanks to them–the first 28 dead of ARS–a further explosion was avoided.  An explosion that would likely have resulted in a chain reaction across all reactors in Chernobyl, so large, that most of Europe would be a wasteland for the next 80,000 years.  How many of those names do we know?

They died a painful death.  Muscle parted from bone as if boiled.  During their death they endured interrogation by the KGB.  They were buried in Mitino cemetery in north-western Moscow, in lead coffins to isolate their radioactive remains.

It was with these thoughts that I went to Chernobyl.  I didn’t know what to expect, or really, how to even develop my next work. On January 10th, 2011, the Ukranian government opened Chernobyl to tourism.  Over the eve of Orthodox Chrismtas, in January I was the only visitor there and have the ignominious privilege  of being the last “visitor” and being the first “tourist” , all on the 25th year since the accident.

What follows is the first of several chapters that documents my time in Chernobyl, and more exactly, in Pripyat.  My hope is to rescue some of the dignity originally held by this city.  I do not wish to expound the pain of the tragedy in its most notorious faces. Instead, I want to present a visual documentary and comprehensive testimony of what this city once was–an icon of a former empire and the home of  thousands of discreet and anonymous personal stories that were lost.

The first series of pictures are really just snapshots that narrate my arrival to Chernobyl.  Further posts will explore the city of Pripyat and the stories I found.

Link to Chapter 2 /  Link to Chapter 3 / Link to Chapter 4 / Link to Chapter 5 / Link to Chapter 6/ Link to

See Pripyat 25 Years Later:  Complete Gallery


Entrance to Chernobyl, Jan Smith 2011
Former Cafe Chernobyl, Jan Smith 2011
Chernobyl Sheraton, Jan Smith 2011
Accomodations, Chernobyl, Jan Smith 2011
Chernobyl Canteen Christmas, Jan Smith 2011
Monument to the Slain Firemen, Chernobyl, Jan Smith 2011
The First 28 Dead, Chernobyl Museum, Kiev, Jan Smith 2011
Reactor #4 Chernobyl, Jan Smith 2011