This Is What the Chernobyl Disaster Site Looks Like Now
Photographer Philip Grossman has documented the abandoned landscape of Chernobyl's "exclusion zone" for over a decade. Here's what he found.
What was Chernobyl, anyway?
If you need a refresher on what happened at Chernobyl, here’s the history: The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union, is the site of the worst nuclear disaster in history. It all started at 1:23 a.m. on April 26, 1986, when a routine safety test at the plant went horribly wrong. A bad combination of faulty design and human error caused one of the four nuclear reactors to overheat and explode, starting a fire and spewing radioactive material into the air. To this day, the site contains harmful levels of radiation, making Chernobyl—and the 1,600 square-mile “exclusion zone” surrounding it—one of the world’s most dangerous tourist destinations.
Who is Philip Grossman?
Long before he visited Chernobyl, photographer Philip Grossman witnessed a nuclear disaster right in his own backyard. “I … grew up 11 miles from the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant” in Pennsylvania, he says. “I was in the third grade when the accident happened there and remember it vividly.” While Grossman studied architecture and civil engineering in college, he was always drawn to photography. In 2010, he decided to combine his passions by documenting what Chernobyl looks like today. These photos are just a fraction of the images he has captured after nearly a decade of expeditions to the exclusion zone.
Control Room 4 (before)
On Grossman’s first trip to the Chernobyl plant, he had the rare opportunity to visit Control Room 4—or what he calls “the epicentre of the catastrophe.” There were five people working in this room when the reactor exploded, he says.
Control Room 4 (after)
Grossman has since returned to the exclusion zone nearly a dozen times, spending over 100 days exploring and photographing the site of the infamous disaster. “The more I learned about what happened and the effect it had on people, the more I wanted to learn about the catastrophe,” he says. “It became a passion project for me very quickly.”
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The operating room (after)
The explosion, which was over 400 times larger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, killed an initial 30 people and sickened dozens more with radiation poisoning. During one of Grossman’s expeditions, an ambulance driver who brought the first patients to the emergency room described how the injured were triaged before being sent to another hospital in Moscow.
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District 4 of Pripyat (before)
The city of Chernobyl itself was home to about 14,000 people at the time of the accident, but many more lived in the nearby city of Pripyat, which was founded in 1970 as a community for the nuclear plant’s employees and their families.
District 4 of Pripyat (after)
When Grossman saw the exclusion zone for the first time, “it was completely surreal,” he says. “The city of Pripyat was so overgrown, and the buildings were collapsing.” This aerial shot shows one of Pripyat’s four micro-districts, home to about 50,000 people in 1986.
School in Pripyat (before)
In 1986, the city had 15 elementary and five secondary schools, with nearly 12,000 students enrolled. “They were told at a moment’s notice that they had to prepare to leave for a day or two and had about one hour to prepare,” Grossman says.
School in Pripyat (after)
Visiting the abandoned classrooms in Pripyat was another experience that left a mark on Grossman. As it turned out, the residents of Pripyat never returned. Though tourists may visit the area for short periods of time, it’s estimated that Chernobyl won’t be inhabitable for at least 20,000 more years.
Reactor control room (before)
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had four nuclear reactors when the accident occurred. Two more reactors were under construction at the time, and one was even scheduled for completion by the end of 1986.
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Reactor control room (after)
Despite the risks, the other three reactors remained in operation until the plant was finally shut down in 2000—nearly 15 years after the disaster. Chernobyl’s engineers worked five-hour shifts and spent half of each month outside the exclusion zone to keep their radiation exposure low, according to Esquire.
Hotel Polissya (before)
Hotel Polissya in Pripyat once hosted the frequent and esteemed guests who visited the plant during the 1970s and 1980s.
Hotel Polissya (after)
After the accident, however, it housed people overseeing the “liquidation” or clean-up of the city, Grossman says. Grossman himself stays in a hotel in the city of Chernobyl during his trips to the exclusion zone. When he visits the site, he carries a dosimeter to track his radiation exposure, as well as a Geiger counter to measure the radiation coming from other objects.
Pripyat bus station (before)
The bus station pictured here is located just a few hundred metres from the Pripyat city limits, Grossman says. Although officials initially told residents that the effects of the disaster were minimal, that turned out to be one of the biggest lies in history.
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Pripyat bus station (after)
It took at least 24 hours before the Soviet government began evacuating the nearby communities after the explosion. Because many residents did not have cars, more than 300,000 people were transported away from the contaminated area on buses instead.
Natatorium Lazurny (after)
The pool actually remained open for swimmers during the city’s clean-up in 1986, Grossman says. In the 10 years since his project was launched, Grossman’s photos have been featured in several gallery shows in New York, a solo exhibition at the United Nations for the 30th anniversary of the catastrophe, and a show on the Discover Science Channel hosted by Grossman himself.
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Amusement park (before)
This Ferris wheel is among the most iconic features of the city of Pripyat, according to Grossman. It was part of a new amusement park that was scheduled to open during May Day celebrations—just days after the accident.
Amusement park (after)
Members of the Communist Party had already enjoyed an exclusive tour of the park only a few weeks before. Little did they know that they would be the last ones to see it; after the disaster at Chernobyl, the park was abandoned along with the rest of Pripyat.
City Centre of Pripyat (before)
At the end of the one-kilometre long Lenin Avenue sits Pripyat’s city centre, once a grand promenade with a public clubhouse called “Energetik” at its heart.
City Centre of Pripyat (after)
The centre would later become the gathering place for thousands of the city’s residents before they were evacuated, according to Grossman. Today, overgrown trees and grass cover most of the landscape, surrounding dilapidated and collapsing buildings.
ChNPP Admin Building (after)
The plant’s administrative building, located east of the nuclear reactors, was used as an emergency bunker and command centre for workers as they struggled to contain the fallout from the explosion, Grossman says.
Turbine Hall (before)
The 600-metre-long Turbine Hall runs along the front of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and houses the generators that once fed electricity to the cooling pumps for the plant’s nuclear reactors. Each generator is a whopping 128 feet long and weighs over two million pounds, according to Grossman.
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Pripyat post office (before)
Believe it or not, this is no ordinary post office; it also served as Pripyat’s telecommunications centre before the accident.
Pripyat post office (after)
The Pripyat Phone Company operated approximately 2,926 local phones inside this building, and another 1,950 were owned by the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Complex, according to Grossman.
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You can find more of photographer Philip Grossman’s work at philipgrossman.com; he’s on Twitter @pgpimages, and on Instagram at pgp.images.