Driving up to the reactors is surprisingly anticlimactic. I expected there to be
signs with rad warnings, and maybe concrete dragon's teeth across the road,
or something otherwise reminiscent of a zombie apocalypse movie. In fact, there's just a nice clean road that goes right up to the reactors, which are surrounded by an amazing cascade of junk best described as "all shapes and sizes" - and when I say "sizes" I mean junk ranging from tiny razor-sharp bits of steel sticking out of the ground to humongous cranes 30 storeys high designed to reach through the roof of the building to lift the concrete lids off of refeuling ponds. It's hard to describe what the junk level around the reactors looks like because I've never experienced anything like it and my brain just sort of goes, "uh, no."
(reactor #4. See the bright pixel right at the base of the chimney? That's some guy doing something with a welding torch. You can see the weird humped-shaped barn-like thing on the right; that's the coffin enclosing the reactor blow-out. At the time of the explosion that whole side of the building was roofless and spitting chunks of flaming graphite into the air...)
We stop about 800 yards from the reactor. There are several buildings there, including another reactor that was allegedly 80% complete when #4 exploded. They were trying to get the new reactor online and were working 24/7 shifts; I suspect it was one hell of a nasty surprise for the work crew when they heard the "CRUMP" sound of #4's roof coming off. Apparently nobody was informed that there was any danger until the next day when evacuations began. "Oh, that? They are just doing some testing..."
(No shit, there I was. Apparently we're going to go visit Reactor #4 today. So we'll be getting lots closer.)
If the rad meter was recording 0.19 in Chicago and 0.20 in Kiev, I don't know what 2.67 means but it's a lot more. Arekadiusz carries a rad meter with an audible alarm, which he turned off at this point because it was making an endless shrieking series of beeps. I thought for a few seconds and realized that was a perfect metaphor for the industry in which I work: if you make too many shrieking beeps, you get turned off. Because people are going to go where they're going to go even if they're told it's not a great idea.
(I was wondering if the ground was more radioactive than the air. It is.)
Our main objective was to see if we could explore Reactor #5/#6, which is the partially constructed one about a mile from #4. The roads around the area are - weird - is the only way to describe them: weaving in and out between gigantic machines buried partly in the ground, rusting. Dead trucks are scattered here and there. Everywhere are electrical overheads, none of which are in use, all of which are bedraggled-looking.
(The guard post at #6. The camo-uniformed guy on the left is our "official minder" who is supposed to follow us everywhere and keep us out of anyplace dangerous. Arekadiusz talked to him at length and he decided to hang out with his buddy in the guard-shack where there's a fire. In other words, they ignored us for several hours. The guy in the brown parka is an Italian urban explorer from Milan, part of our 6-man crew)
There's not a great deal of ceremony; we slip through a small door in the fence and we're walking along the side of an absolutely huge building. Now, when I say huge, I mean "huge" - I've been to the airship hangar at Moffit field in California and I've been to The Louvre in Paris. The airship hangar would fit comfortably inside one of the wings of the reactor building, and if you stacked up
4 copies of one of the wings of The Louvre into a big pile, it'd be about the size of the wing of
the reactor. The whole building looks amazingly shitty. That's the best way I can describe it.
It's ferroconcrete with huge pieces of its inner structure unfinished and sticking out, and the
walls are covered with 4'x8' steel plates welded, overlapping eachother. The welds are
sloppy, the steel is unpainted, everything is rusty, and nothing is straight. "Amateurish" comes to mind. The scale of the building is so insane that it looks much more well-finished
and consistently architected than it is, simply because our eyes interpret really big
things as less detailed than they are.
(Reactor #6: Unbelievably huge)
(In former Soviet Union, you do not have "electrical engineering." Electrical engineering has you.)
It doesn't take very long to realize that everything is dangerous. One of the guys on the tour is a cheerful Brit from London (we consist: of Arekadiuz, our leader and another Pole from Warsaw, The Italian urban explorer and the Londoner - also an urban explorer. And two photographers, a fellow from Atlanta who is incredibly well-prepared with a complete camera store lashed to his body and myself) The Brit and I fairly quickly designate some of the holes as "bottomless plungeholes" - there are pipes everywhere, they just go into the ground and vanish - round echoing openings that you do not want to fall into. There are spots where huge concrete panels are lifted away from over top of scummy water-filled coffins for elephants. We all move slowly and carefully and I'm very happy I wore heavy hiking boots when my foot comes down on a torch-cut bolt sticking out from some concrete, that slashes a gouge in the leather. I was going to wear canvas boots; I am thankful.
(A "fixer-upper") (Google Map)
Now, things become a bit of a blur. The building is huge and mostly incomprehensible. I desperately wished we'd had a nuclear engineer along, or someone who could explain what some of this stuff was intended to do. There's stuff and stuff and more stuff. Everything is covered in pieces of wire, electrical terminals that have been clipped off, and it's all echoing concrete. The style is "industrial brutalist" and has an aesthetic I've never seen before. We climb a huge echoing concrete stairway made of cast ferroconcrete in which each storey is a single casting with huge loops at the end so it can just be lifted into place with a crane. At the landing of each storey is a gap between the concrete pieces 8" or so wide. The place was not designed for women in high-heeled shoes, in other words. There are huge concrete galleries with winch-blocks, obviously designed for getting equipment up and down - bottomless plunge-holes, indeed - an instant concrete coffin.
(What isn't concrete is steel. What isn't steel is garbage.)
This appears to have been an avenue designed for moving pieces of the reactor into position. The floor is 2 foot-thick ferroconcrete with steel I-beams embedded in the surface, under a layer of junk. The wall to the right is where the #6 reactor pile was going to be assembled.
(The Reactor Pile-room)
Around this time I decided that I was not really going to waste much time with photography. It's kind of pointless: endless vistas of concrete and destruction, meaning nothing, with no sense of scale. I start to hit on the idea of using the other guys' lights instead of worrying about my tripod, and begin to drag my camera's shutter synchronizing my trigger to the sound of the other guy's autofocus lenses. That way I get the benefits of off-camera flash while being able to pay attention to what I'm seeing. The shot above was lit with Arekadiusz' helmet lamp as he looked around the room and unknowingly light-painted the walls for me.