Especially after the acclaimed HBO series of 2019, the events of the Chernobyl accident, as well as the drama of the local population and emergency staff, are at least basically known to the general public.
Since the nuclear disaster, a large area, comparing well in size with Greater London (but somewhat larger), has been severed from the rest of the world by means of a security cordon, forming the so-called ‘exclusion zone’, on the border between Ukraine and Belarus.
Access to the zone is strictly regulated. You have to carry a radiation dosimeter. Nobody can spend more than some days in a month in it, and no more than four days in a row. Some areas should not be accessed at all, and inside the exclusion zone are two sub-regions, an outer one where also Chernobyl town is, and an inner one, more severely contaminated. The latter is closer around the power-plant, and includes world-famous Pripyat – the mother of all ghost towns. To access this inner zone you are checked further, and stricter permanence restrictions apply.
Despite that, and the obvious – but not so dramatic – unhealthiness of the area, there are many businesses still going on, mainly around the power-plant – decommissioning the whole plant and monitoring the ill-fated reactor 4 is still producing a constant flow of work man-hours – but also in the agencies devoted to studying and monitoring the natural reaction to a never otherwise reached level of scattered radiation. As a matter of fact, huge parts in and around the exclusion zone have been turned into a special natural preserve. There are also services in several centers scattered over the zone, like canteens, hotels, transport companies, ranger stations, etc.
Not least, the Ukrainian Government is somewhat promoting visits to the area by the general public, and following the 30 years anniversary of the accident in 2016, touristic flows have literally exploded, with tens of thousands visitors per year. Clearly, you are not allowed to enter or move around on your own. There are two basic philosophies for visiting.
For those who just like the thrill of being in a contaminated place, an eerie ghost town or in proximity to a damaged nuclear plant for a while, there are quite a few options to get to the zone from Kiev on a one-day guided trip. You won’t see much more than the very basic highlights of the show, but you will be entitled to say ‘I’ve been there’. For those with an interest in taking great pictures, urban explorers, Soviet fans (?) or people with an interest in the history of the accident, private custom-designed multiple-day tours are available, managed by competent authorized guides. Considering the size of the exclusion zone, it is going to be a rush anyway, and you will leave with the sensation of having missed at least as much as what you have seen, but you will definitely see more than on a one-day trip, and not only the most obvious highlights. This was my option when I visited in November 2019 (more practical info at the end of the chapter – scroll down for this), and photographs in this post and related posts on this site cover this incredible experience.
Soviet Over-the-Horizon Anti-ICBM Early Warning System ‘Duga’
Among the highlights most typically overlooked on a short visit to the zone is a one-of-a-kind relic of the Cold War. The Soviet early-warning radar Duga-3, aka ‘the Russian Woodpecker’ (or the ‘Steel Works’ or ‘Steel Yards’ to Western intelligence), started the testing phase in 1976, well into the electronic age. This system was intended to counteract the American intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat, by detecting a single or more missiles soon after launch from the continental US. This implied detection beyond the line of the horizon, hence the name of this class of defense system – OTH, ‘over the horizon’ back-scatter radar. The physical effect exploited by this device was an alteration of the ionosphere by missile exhaust plumes, studied since the late 1940s, and such to be detectable by the back scatter of a purpose-designed radar beam.
The radar was made of a couple of two gigantic receiver antennas, one a little bigger than the other, and of a set of emitters. The couple of receivers make for a staggering total length of about 2’200 ft! The two antennas worked on two different frequency ranges. The bigger one was the low-frequency antenna, about 450 ft tall, whereas the smaller high frequency one was ‘only’ about 270 ft tall! As a matter of fact, they can be spotted from quite a distance, for example from the taller buildings of Pripyat.
The receivers were built about 7 miles in a straight line northwest of Chernobyl town – and they found themselves about the same distance southwest of the power-plant, today in the inner, highly contaminated circle within the exclusion zone. A segregated residential area for military technical staff and their families, known as Chernobyl-2, was built nearby. A large and sophisticated control center, as well as a training academy for the technical staff, was installed on site too.
The emitter antenna was located some tens of miles to the northeast of the receiver, closer to the village of Rozsudiv (aka Rasudovo), out of the exclusion zone. Nothing of the original antenna remains there today.
Building this radar system close to a Gigawatt-size nuclear power-plant might have been done in purpose, for the system needed an outraging electric power supply to work (in the order of some tens of Megawatts). By the way, the system reportedly cost to the USSR about twice the money needed for building the nuclear power-plant…
The Duga system was built in only two operational examples. A set of smaller-scale prototype installations had been originally completed as Duga-N and Duga-2, both located in the village of Kalynivka, near Mykolaiv (aka Nikolayev), southern Ukraine. These systems were successfully tested in the early 1970s, detecting simultaneous launches of four missiles from Baikonur, some 1’600 miles away. As a result of the success, it was decided to deploy two full-scale Duga-3 installations, capable of covering the North American sector. The two selected locations were Chernobyl, Ukraine, and Bolshaya Kartel, in the easternmost part of Russia. As said, these were completed around 1976.
In the event, the whole OTH detection system never went fully operative. Major technical issues related to the instability of the ionosphere in the polar region – an effect that inland-looking testing with the experimental small-scale Duga systems had not highlighted – made the north-pointed Duga-3 largely unreliable. The Soviets military finally accepted the Bolshaya Kartel installation in 1980, whereas testing went on for years in the Chernobyl installation, until it was hastily shut off following the power-plant accident in 1986. Parts of the Chernobyl system were transferred to the twin site in Bolshaya Kartel. The latter ceased operations in 1989, even before the end of the USSR, without having been fully commissioned ever.
The contamination of the plant in Chernobyl-2 made its disassembly economically disadvantageous. As a result, this humongous witness of the Cold War is still standing today, notably the last of the group of OTH early warning radars deployed by the USSR in the years of the confrontation with the West, now totally or partly demolished – for sure, this is the only surviving ‘Steel Works’ antenna.
Similar to all villages in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, the military town of Chernobyl-2 was evacuated and abandoned following the nuclear accident in 1986. It had been built anew for the 1’500 staff of the Duga classified radar station and their families, and as such it was a segregated, secret military town, sufficiently small and far from larger Chernobyl and Pripyat to attract little attention. The local firefighters station was reportedly the only one from the area not taking part in the emergency operations connected with the 1986 accident – it had to devote itself completely to the local military installation and village. This illustrates how serious the concepts of ‘secret’ and ‘segregated’ were for the Soviet military staff!
There are three main focuses in the exploration of this site – the monster antennas, the radar control center & training academy, and the Chernobyl-2 village. In my view, the mixture of a secret Cold War military past, unique Star-Wars-like vintage hi-tech, a history of forced abandonment and nuclear contamination, together with the general ‘something wrong’ atmosphere of the exclusion zone, makes this area one of the most intriguing on the ‘Chernobyl-menu’ of weird sights!
Access and Radar Antennas
You get access to the area after leaving the main road connecting Chernobyl town to the power-plant soon after the inner-zone checkpoint. You drive some miles deep in the trees along a typical Soviet military road, made of prefabricated concrete slabs. The evergreen trees effectively hide the giant antennas, which you spot only when basically at a walking distance from the target.
You may stop immediately ahead of the original fence of the segregated area – the gate still bolsters the Red Star Soviet military markings! A likely apocryphal huge head of Lenin has been placed besides the entrance. From there on, you must go by foot. By the way, there are a few guards living (at least on shifts, in accordance with contamination limiting regulations) in the original checkpoint by the gate!
Walking to the bigger low-frequency antenna – the taller one, located closer to the site entrance – you pass by a nice Soviet military-themed mural.
Walking closer to the antenna, and going past an abandoned inner control booth, you start to realize the abnormal size of this item – as well as its rather complicated make.
The overall shape is roughly rectangular. To the far ends you can find two pylons, as tall as the central part of the antenna, and holding an array of horizontal cables.
The most visible part of the antenna is composed of an incredible tubular structure, apparently made of several pod-like substructures. Seen together in the pics, these pods may deceive their actual size – their diameter compares to the height of an adult man!
The pods are connected by cables and pipes. The arrangement make for impressive pattern geometries – almost a nice design object!
Walking along the base of this thing, you will notice it changes shape depending on your point of view. Taking the whole larger antenna in a single photo frame is not an easy task, even with a wide lens – it is really big!
Right besides the taller and longer low-frequency antenna, you find another cable-holding pylon, as well as the ‘smaller twin’, i.e. the high-frequency antenna.
Our visit was rather early in the morning of a very cold late November day, and the sight of this monster antennas was made even weirder by the unreal silence of the area, broken only by the low metallic clacking sound of this mega-structure, dilating after catching the first beams of the morning light… Visiting later in the day would have not been the same – when we left, some other small groups of visitors could be seen around, somewhat breaking the mystery atmosphere.
Past the antenna, you find a concrete technical building running all along it, with a very long corridor.
Control Center and Technical Buildings
The major building in the technical area to the back of the antenna hosts the radar operation and control center. Originally, this sheltered arrays of signal-conditioning electronics, computers and related technical stuff, as well as control rooms much similar to NASA space mission control centers you can see in Houston, TX or Cape Canaveral, FL.
Accessing the building, you will be overwhelmed by the number of photo opportunities. A pinnacle for Soviet vintage fanatics is a couple of fine murals – despite most of Soviet military-related artistic works are really naive, there exist exceptions, and these two murals are among them. One of the paintings is fancy-space themed, whereas the other is science-themed.
A highlight is of course the huge control room. Original control stations for the subsystems can still be seen, with plenty of vintage cathode tubes. The main report panel, once occupying the entire end wall of the room, has been largely dismantled, but traces of electronics can clearly be seen.
In the same building, you can find dark rooms with arrays of cabinets once holding electronic boards or electric material.
Another highlight is a kind of propaganda room – not uncommon in Soviet military towns, see this post. Here you can find quotes of Lenin, articles from the Soviet law, as well as photographs and descriptions of US and NATO military assets. A stained glass board portrays the might of the Red Army, whereas another poster denigrates the ‘Yankees’…
From the top of the control building, you can enjoy a nice mid-height view of the antennas.
Back inside, you find another interesting room, with a scale model of the Darth, the Duga radar system and its function. In the same room you can find many control panels. Also interesting are the decorated glass windows, with military-themed stained glasses.
Walking back to where you had started your exploration of the antennas, you find a flat building, originally hosting a training center for the technical staff operating the Duga. A training room is a major highlight of the show. Here you can find descriptions of the working principles of the OTH antennas, as well as a sample list of the US/NATO strategic missile and anti-missile assets! This is really interesting, also because portraits are made by hand and complemented by basic technical data.
There are also technical schemes, and some further purely decorative portraits in naive style.
Military buffs – like myself – would easily loose track of time in this ‘didactic area’! Among the interesting things carelessly left on ground, tons of original Soviet radio and signal conditioning material!
Chernobyl-2 – Firefighters Station and Village
Leaving the innermost technical area, you may then walk to Chernobyl-2, the segregated military village. A rather interesting place here is the firefighters station. Very well preserved, you can find in it an incredible scale model of the Duga and of the village, i.e. the area in the range covered by this station. In the same room, you can find tons of technical posters, and a nice epic mural dedicated to firefighters.
Chernobyl-2 is a ghost town in its own respect. Made of large prefabricated blocks, it is not even one-tenth of Pripyat in size, but it resembles similar military towns in former Soviet-occupied areas of Europe (see for instance this post). Not much visited and very quiet, it makes for a really mysterious sight.
Moving around the deserted blocks, you come across a small playground – basically intact, as if children had left the day before, a really impressive time-capsule effect!
Chernobyl-2 – School
But the time-machine effect reaches its top in a visit of the local school. Similar to other schools in villages of the exclusion zone, this is really in good shape, and offers tons of interesting sights for explorers. In the music room you can see portraits of Russian and European composers – strangely enough, including Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff, which left the USSR for the West… – a vertical piano, and tons of didactic stuff in the cabinets.
A very Soviet room features a kind of celebration of youth service.
There is also a math/science room, with books, models, portraits.
Most surprisingly to Westerners, you can find a language teaching room, where apparently English was taught. Considering the limited penetration of English in today’s Russia, and the fact that this was the language of enemy propaganda from the Soviet standpoint, this room makes for a rather puzzling sight!
Other rooms include a biology lab – with some botanical specimens still in place! – and much more.
There is also the unmissable school gym, rather well preserved.
Chernobyl-2 – Entertainment Center
A final highlight of the village of Chernobyl-2 is the entertainment center. This offered a theater and a large gym, together in the same building. Both are still in a relatively good shape. A nostalgic quote on a red banner is still hanging from the ceiling in the large theater.
The gym is decorated with naive sport-themed paintings, as well as Russian bears on stained glasses.