This latest report from the zone will be completely dedicated to the film project „The Zone in 4K”, the goal of which is to collect film documentation of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone at a new standard of TV and film resolution. This standard, which is just now becoming popular, has twice the resolution of Full HD and four times more pixels. Thanks to this, the recorded image is extremely sharp and has significantly more details.
I’ve already talked about my idea in the report from the last journey during which I decided to come back and record everything in 4K because I was disturbed by the devastation of the zone and how quickly it was being destroyed. Why 4K? After all, very few people have this kind of television or monitor, not to mention a player or computer that would be able to process such a huge amount of information.
The answer is simple – by the time 4K technology becomes widely available, by the time it’s become the norm, the majority of the places described in my reports will have disappeared. That’s why they have to be filmed now, before it’s too late. To be captured in the highest image quality possible. I can’t put it off any longer.
In the future, the collected film material can be used for various documentary films relating to the Chernobyl disaster.
I have been visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone continuously for over 7 years. Fifteen, maybe twenty times? I stopped counting ages ago. This whole time I have been constantly collecting photo and film documentation of the places I visited. A short tally – several thousand pictures, hundreds of hours of video and two documentary films. Alongside the documentation of the zone that I’ve collected in 4K, it will be the largest collection of film and photographic materials of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
So this time I’m going back to the zone armed with 2 professional cameras recording in 4K. The main camera is a Sony FS700 which records in 4K RAW format. Recording in the loss-free RAW format means significantly greater possibility for processing video material later on. Thanks to the variable lens, it’s also possible to establish the wide-angle POV necessary for shooting in small rooms. We can also get more valuable shots using this camera, e.g. from the inside of block 4. The second camera is a Sony Z100 which, given its more compact size, is useful for shots that require more dexterity and mobility. It’s much easier to get to the top of DUGA with this kind of camera. Additional cameras are a Panasonic Lumix GH4 and GoPro, which were useful for filming aerial shots from the drone thanks to their small size and light weight.
3-4 days used to be enough to see all the most interesting places. Now, especially after the last few trips as described in the two reports from the cycle „Off the beaten track”, I need at least a week. Poliske town, visiting re-settlers, distant but much better preserved villages. Every visit brings something new, which is why I’m going for 8 days this time, and I also hope to find something new.
I don’t manage to get to all the places, including the waste storage yard in Buriakivka. This almost 100 ha terrain consists of 30 huge ditches (150×50 metres each) where radioactive waste from all over the zone was buried. This terrain also includes a storage yard of vehicles which were used to liquidate the effects of the accident. I have managed to visit Buriakivka many times before. The result of these visits was a short film and interview with the manager of the storage yard which were attached to the second part of Alone in the Zone. However, for over a year permission has no longer been issued. Many years of visiting the zone has taught me one thing: if you can’t go somewhere, that can only mean that metal is being cut up for scrap there. That’s how it was with the storage yard in Rosocha (which no longer exists), Chernobyl-2 (part of the antenna was cut from the masts), recently Yanov station was closed for some time (some of the wagons were cut up). Now it’s the turn of the waste storage yard in Buriakivka. Initially I believed that only the abandoned vehicles there were being cut up, but I probably underestimated the Ukrainian entrepreneurial spirit. Whole ditches at the storage yard, where radioactive waste was once buried, are opened to get the most valuable metal elements out of them.
Visits to other places such as the nuclear plant, particularly block 4 and the construction site of the new arch, were once again put off until the next visit. And especially until the situation in Ukraine has stabilised – this has led to increase in the security regime at the power plant and suspending our visit until the situation has improved.
People who haven’t seen Rosocha, Buriakivka or the power plant can see them in one of my earlier reports – HERE
Documentation of the zone wouldn’t be complete without aerial photos. Looking at large structures such as the cooling towers, DUGA radar antenna and unfinished block 5 from a different, rarely seen, perspective will definitely add to the attractiveness of many a film.
I invited my friend Phil to work with me on the aerial shots, he’s the same person who was responsible for aerial shots for the second part of Alone in the Zone. This time Phil brought a smaller drone that also had a much better image stabilisation system. Thanks to this, it won’t be necessary to apply additional stabilising programmes to the images, which significantly degrade the image quality.
This time it was much harder to take the planned shots than before. Flying without GPS, inside buildings, cooling tower, i.e. blindly (beyond the range of vision and signal transmitting the image) demanded much greater skills.
We made the first series of flights above the DUGA antenna. This is one of the places that should be filmed from the air. The dense forest growing around the antenna effectively limits wide shots of the antenna from the ground. Only flying over the trees, from a short distance, allows us to get the whole antenna and fully appreciate its powerful scale.
The next flights we did were over Pripyat. One of the most important shots I wanted to get was a flight along Lenin street, the main street of the town, in the direction of the main square of Pripyat. The drone was to fly precisely between the two rows of high trees leading to the centre and then fly over the central square and the “Energetik” house of culture. I intend to use this shot for the opening sequence of a film dedicated to Pripyat.
Then we made several flights over the amusement park and, finally, we repeated the flight over the 16 storey block to film the emblem on its roof.
We made the next series of flights on the area of the cooling towers structure. Previously we weren’t able to make the flight inside the cooling tower because the GPS signal didn’t reach inside it. This time we managed without it.
We decided to set off from the same point in the direction of block 5. This is very far from the cooling tower, so because of the great distance it was the kind of flight whose final phase happened blindly, i.e. beyond the range of vision and signal transmitting the image.
The increasingly risky shots were sure to eventually end in catastrophe. Taking shots at the Yanov train station, I planned a flight along the tracks towards the nuclear power plant. The drone was supposed to take off from one of the wagons, rise above the overhead contact line and then fly along the tracks to the bridge leading to Pripyat, fly across it and then turn slightly to the right and fly for a short while towards block 4.
Everything went off without a hitch until the expected loss of video signal showing the controller the location of the drone and what it was filming. For unknown reasons, almost simultaneously with the loss of video signal, we also lost connection with the drone itself. The situation isn’t that serious yet – the system steering the drone is programmed so that the drone can safely return and land when connection is lost. In this kind of situation, FAIL SAFE mode automatically activates and the drone, using GPS and the remembered route of the flight, is able to return to the place of take-off and land automatically. Unfortunately, the controller didn’t foresee that the GPS signal has a certain level of imprecision (several metres). This was enough for the drone to hit the contact line and it fell to the ground from a height of about 10 metres.
It seemed like we wouldn’t get anything from the drone after a fall like that. Luckily, apart from damage to the propellers and wire connections, nothing too serious happened. Unfortunately, despite having spare propellers, it turned out to be impossible to replace the wires on site. So we’ll take the rest of the shots on the next visit.
The basement of the hospital is one of the most radioactive places in Pripyat, at least it was before tourists started visiting it and taking the radioactive firefighters’ uniforms out. Two firefighters’ helmets have also disappeared and it’s not impossible that they’re now decorating the home of some collector of radioactive souvenirs. As a result of these actions, the radioactivity in the room which used to have the most clothing in it has fallen from over 2 mSv/h to less than 1 mSv/h. A significant part of that contamination was taken out on the clothing of tourists who were unaware of the threat. And in their bodies, if they weren’t wearing protective masks. I’m not exaggerating, I’ve heard stories about people who have bragged about their bravery (and stupidity), putting a radioactive helmet on their head or trying on clothing and taking it out of the rooms.
Even when you’re being really careful it’s very easy to become contaminated. The last time it also happened to me, when filming the abandoned clothes I accidentally touched the floor or an item of clothing with my knee. I only found out about it when undergoing the compulsory dosimeter examination when leaving the zone. But if you’re aware of the risk and know how to act, it’s very easy to deal with the problem.
The basement of the Jupiter factory is another place where you should be particularly careful. You can still find various unknown and radioactive substances in the laboratories there. I’m particularly interested in 4 metal boxes with radioactive contents whose purpose I still haven’t managed to figure out, despite dosimeter tests.
The high level of ground water and spring rains mean that the basement has been flooded for a year and a half. In a certain sense, this is a benefit, as the water effectively blocks radiation. The dosimeter doesn’t show any heightened radiation when held over the surface of the water. However, on the other hand, we don’t know how radioactive the places and things we’re walking through are now. Especially because there are metallic, multicoloured stains on the surface of the water everywhere, which show that the unknown chemical substances the basement is full of have seeped into the water.
One thing is sure – half a metre of water is effective at putting off curious tourists.
I recommend anyone who’s interested to watch the film Alone 2 where you can see the Jupiter basement, the mysterious cabinet and spectrometer analysis of its contents.
Judging by the number of comments and e-mails I’ve received, the undisputed hit of the last journey to the zone were the pictures of Pripyat at sunrise. Particularly pictures taken from the roof in the centre of Pripyat with the emblem of Ukraine and the power plant in the background, which a certain fan of the zone wanted in 2 metre format as the main feature of his living room. This type of picture is quite hard to take because it’s necessary to get additional permission to stay in zone I at night and the ban on going onto the roofs of buildings is more often and more meticulously followed. But the uniqueness and fleeting nature of this place and the moment led me back again. This time with a camera.
Where in the zone can you still watch the sunrise? From the top of DUGA of course! You just have to remember to get up early enough to climb to the top before the sun rises.
I also wanted to film and photograph the power plant with the background of the sunrise up close. To establish the best place to take such pictures, I used the website suncalc.net which lets you determine the position of the sun at a specific time and place. Unfortunately, the sun’s position at this time of the year made it impossible to get these pictures at sunrise, but it turned out to be possible at sunset. From the roof of the unfinished block 5.
Probably every visitor to the Chernobyl zone has dreamt about someday discovering an untouched house or flat. One that by some miracle avoided the attention of thieves and curious tourists. Shut by the inhabitants leaving it, full of scattered items from a bygone era. This is my dream, too, and it finally came true. That was the greatest discovery of this trip.
Every time I visit the zone, I try to dedicate 1-2 days to visiting completely new places. I often get several dozen kilometres into the depths of the zone. Most often without much success as the majority of houses are collapsed, ruined or empty. Sometimes I find some pictures, furniture or a newspaper or calendar that reveals when the house was abandoned. That’s why I try to find public buildings like schools, kindergartens, clubs, where you can find interesting things more often. Books, notebooks, albums, postcards, photos, musical instruments – objects that have been preserved to this day because they’re not valuable to thieves. During the last visit I was lucky enough to find two well-preserved schools. Often information on the internet about what villages can be visited usually helps me in these discoveries. Sometimes information about the size of the village itself, the number of former inhabitants or distance from other places can very likely determine whether you can find a school or other interesting building there. Sometimes former inhabitants of these villages help me to precisely locate them. Satellite maps of the zone are also really useful.
When preparing for this journey I also did the appropriate research, and then designated several promising places. One turned out to be a hit – a small village several dozen kilometres from Chernobyl. My attention was drawn to the wooden houses at the very edge of it. Several houses were closed with padlocks or metal bars. I went around one of the houses looking for another entrance or broken window that someone else had gone through already. I didn’t find anything of the sort. I couldn’t believe that there was an untouched house. The village is completely abandoned, so it’s not possible that a re-settler was still living here. But I don’t have the heart to force the door open and find out.
Luckily the doors to several other houses weren’t closed with any key or padlock. Sometimes the door is just protected by a latch or piece of needle stuck around the lock.
I take a look in these houses.
For someone used to empty, pillaged and ruined places, interiors full of various objects make an amazing impression. Scattered pillows, blankets, tapestries, photos, plates and other everyday items. The inhabitants must have left their homes in a hurry, but this rush definitely wasn’t connected with the evacuation of inhabitants because of the disaster. Judging by the dates on the newspapers and calendars, these are the houses of former re-settlers: forcibly removed inhabitants who, against the decision of the authorities, returned to their homes and lived there for several years or sometimes over a decade after the disaster.
In this time some of them were looked after by their children or grandchildren who lived outside the closed zone. They brought them stocks of food and medicine, chopped trees for fuel and sometimes they finally took the family member who was ailing and unable to live independently to live with them. The ones who weren’t so lucky were dependant on dwindling state aid or disinterested help of zone workers.
The personal mementos found in abandoned homes, especially photos and personal notes, show that their inhabitants probably died lonely. Without family or friends who would surely have taken all family mementos after their death. But left in place, they give us, the people returning here now, an image of what these houses that were abandoned almost 30 years ago, whose interiors are now completely looted and destroyed, once looked like.
I definitely have to come back here again.
Another emotional moment was finding several wooden boxes in one of the basements in Pripyat. The rusty metal rings wrapped around the boxes indicated that they had never been opened. Of course this piqued my interest. But the contents were easy to predict. Masks. Dozens of children’s gas masks, evenly laid out. Never used, waiting for to be discovered for over 30 years. And under them were evenly laid out filters and the linen shoulder bags they were carried in. Beside it were plastic phials with a post to prevent the glass fogging up. A full set in the event of nuclear conflict.
To finish, it’s also worth checking the progress of construction of the new sarcophagus. Best seen in two films, the first of which presented the stages of construction and raising the first part of the new sarcophagus and the second one moving it to make room for building the second part.
Not everyone knows this, but there are also Polish people working on construction of the new sarcophagus. They were hired by the company Format-Lambda, which is a subcontractor of the company Novarka, the general contractor for the new sarcophagus. Most of them are men in their 20s and 30s working as steel fixers and climbers. The steel fixers install the steel skeletons, which then have cement poured on them which will be the supporting structure of the elements of the new sarcophagus. And the climbers work at the top of the roof of the new arch.
Given the demanding working conditions and threat of contamination, all workers must undergo comprehensive medical examination before starting work, first in Poland and then after arriving in Ukraine. They also have to pass a two-week training programme which takes place in Slavutych where they learn such things as rules for safety and working with the threat of radioactive contamination. Only after completing the training and with no medical contraindications against working with the threat of ionising radiation can the workers get to work. This lasts 7.5 hours per day (including a 1.5 hr break) for two weeks, including Saturdays and Sundays. Then they have a two week break, during which the workers return to Poland. This cycle repeats for the next 6 months, after which they have a compulsory (unpaid) half year break. Working in this kind of timeframe, particularly the length of breaks between successive shifts, was implemented to limit the negative effects of radiation on the person’s body and health.
Working under threat of ionising radiation also requires taking particular precautions and constant medical inspection. The majority of workers have to wear special protective clothes and anti-dust masks. Additionally, everyone has to have a nasal swab taken every day and an anal swab every month. Blood is also taken periodically to be analysed. Every day they also have to undergo tests with special tools to detect radioisotopes in the body.
During work, it is highly important to adhere to the defined radiation dose limits. For workers who have contact with radiation, the daily dose was established at 0.2 mSv. In order to avoid exceeding this, every worker has a dosimeter with them. It measures the level of radiation and emits a special audio signal when the received dose of radiation is approaching 0.2 mSv. Then the worker must immediately stop working and leave the construction area. Then he’s free for the rest of the day.
The maximum daily dose of radiation (0.2 mSv) was not established by chance. If we multiply it by the number of working days in a year (approx. 90), the worker cannot exceed the maximum allowable annual radiation dose established for workers coming into contact with radiation (20 mSv). As a comparison, 100 mSv is the maximum annual dose for radiological workers and emergency service in exceptional situations (e.g. accident at the power plant) and 500 mSv in situations involving rescuing humans. In contrast, the average annual radiation dose in Poland is approx. 3.35 mSv (of which approx. 2.4 mSv is from natural sources).
To compensate for the danger of working with ionising radiation (and to find people willing to work) the average pay for constructing the new sarcophagus is higher than for regular construction. Interestingly, it’s higher, but not equally for everyone. For example, a Polish steel fixer gets approx 1700 euro per month and his Ukrainian colleague gets 4 times less for the same work (in reality for both it’s for two weeks of work because the other two are free). But, given the average cost of living in both countries, they aren’t that disproportionate.
To finish, it’s worth mentioning that at 22:00 all workers must return to the workers’ accommodation and everyone is prohibited from drinking alcohol. After work, too. Following this last rule is probably harder than working on the sarcophagus itself.
Time to take a break. Like the builders working on the new arch, I need a bit of a break from radiation. As you’re reading this, I’ve already got one foot in Africa. The car is already on its way and I’m making final preparations. I’m returning to Africa to continue the photographic project Lost Souls that I started in 2012 .(Report from 2012)
See you soon…
P.S. I’m going back to Chernobyl in winter :-)
PREVIOUS REPORTS FROM THE ZONE:
2014 – OFF THE BEATEN TRACK 2
2013 – OFF THE BEATEN TRACK 1
2013 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 2 – BEHIND THE SCENES
2013 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 2 – PREMIERE
2013 – LONG WEEKEND IN THE ZONE
2012 – HEROES OF A NON-EXISTANT COUNTRY
2011 – REACTOR 4
2011 – LITTLE REACTORS
2011 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 1 BEHIND THE SCENES
2011 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 1 – FILM
2010 – ALONE IN THE ZONE 1
2010 – VICTORY DAY
2010 – CHERNOBYL 3RD EXPEDITION
2009 – CHERNOBYL 2ND EXPEDITION
2008 – CHERNOBYL 1ST EXPEDITION