Visiting the Duga-1 Radar in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

As a young child I experienced the last years of the cold war and later the fall of the Berlin wall. Part of my childhood was the possibility of a nuclear conflict. For example, my parent’s house had a shelter in the basement that could be locked down by thick, metal window blinds and an even thicker and heavier door. Conveniently, we used the room for storing food. Only later I realized that there was a reason that all food with a long shelf life was stored in that room. Not that any of this would have made a difference in case of an actual nuclear war. However, a tiny interest in nuclear catastrophes remained…

While I grew up with nuclear war looming over my head my interest developed into a different area. Using (and occasionally building) antennas to transmit and receive radio signals. I was mostly active on the citizen’s band radio since I never managed to get certified for amateur radio. My call sign was the Mir station (Мир) due to my fascination for space. Only years later I learned that there were significantly more interesting radio signals emitting entities in the former Soviet Union, such as the number station UVB-76 (recordings) and the Duga radar. The Duga radar was also referred to as Russian Woodpecker (radio amateurs) or STEEL WORK (NATO). The Мир is long gone. The number station remains more or less secret and is not keen on opening up to visitors. But the Duga radar can be visited since the opening of the Chernobyl exclusion zone to foreign visitors. Hooray! Here’s my report from my recent trip to pay the aging Duga radar a respect visit.

My day in the exclusion zone

Our tour guides from Chernobyl.welcome were just awesome! They introduced us to the history of the accident, the challenges of the cleanup operation afterwards, and how this affected and still affects everyone’s life within the exclusion zone. They insisted on us leaving Kyiv as early as possible even before breakfast time. Thanks to their foresight and nudging we were almost always the first group to be at a site. This allowed me to take hundreds of amazing photos without groups of disaster tourists destroying the “lost place” atmosphere. However, it has to be said that the exclusion zone is not at all a lost place. First, it is inhabited by security forces (wearing a questionable mix of uniforms), liquidation workers, scientists, support personnel, and an estimated number of ~100 free settlers. The latter type of exclusion zone inhabitant taking radiation less serious in favor of freedom and loneliness. During daytime the area is penetrated by guides leading groups of tourists to the best photo spots and educating on the history of artifacts and places.

I was able to take a picture from within the exclusion zone facing outwards after we passed the checkpoint. What you can see there is the first wave of tourists arriving. More and larger busses arrived later, occasionally causing traffic jams on some of the smaller roads. According to the guards they had over 900 visitor registrations on file for that day. Later they corrected that number to “close to a thousand”.

The city of Chernobyl was always proud of being part of the Soviet Union’s nuclear power program. The city sign has traditional communist symbols but on top thrones a stylized atom.

After leaving Chernobyl we drove on a quite OK-ish road given the circumstances related to 30 years of low maintenance. Suddenly our driver took a turn left and we were on something that can barely be called a road. It was clearly made for military equipment and did barely accommodate our sprinter bus. The first thing I noticed when took the turn was a bus station. I learned this is a fake bus station. It was never in use. Since the Duga radar antenna was disguised as a children’s camp it made sense to put a bus station there to stay true to the story. This is also the reason why the bus stop pictures a teddy bear instead of the usual communist artwork.

After a long drive we arrived at the alleged children’s camp. We could already spot the antenna. Just a mid-sized TV antenna like every decent summer camp has it, right?

Once we passed the entry we had to take a walk to the antenna. On the concrete a couple of ants were busy doing ant-things. I quickly tested them hoping for the discovery of nuclear super-ants. They were cool with that and had nothing to hide. Too bad.

Just when I thought we made it to the antenna another gate showed up. Unguarded and rotting it was not much of an obstacle.

As I slowly approached the antenna I became quieter. This thing is huge! Unbelievable huge. I ran forward to take more pictures while the group looked a bit baffled how someone can be crazy about a piece of rust.

Beautiful, solid work. The picture can’t really tell the size. One has to see it for oneself.

Me trying to reach to the lowest segment of the Duga radar antenna. I came not even close. It’s sooo high.

Of course someone would look for Pickachu at such an electric site. I quickly opened up Pokemon Go and found out that the site is an arena. The only Pokemon in that arena at that time? A Spearow which is close enough to Pipipek. Much to my surprise I had perfect cell phone reception including data. I guess it’s an antenna after all…

The sun rising behind the Duga radar antenna.

Another failed attempt at catching the size of the antenna.

Me catching some (sun) rays.

Radiation levels were acceptable around the antenna.

After visiting the antenna we took a walk around the supporting infrastructure. That meant mostly looking at run-down buildings. Occasionally we would find piles of scrap metal like pipes or looted radio equipment.

We continued our exploration tour and drove close to the exploded reactor. Nowadays a new sarcophagus hides the old sarcophagus which encloses the reactor remains.

A dog joined us hoping to be petted. I took another chance of finding a nuclear power animal but was once again disappointed. Mr. dog was not radiating above expected levels and was just chill.

Later we drove to the famous city sign of При́п’ять (Pripyat).

Only a few meters away from the city sign an area called the red forest begins. It was one of the most contaminated areas and got its name from the trees turning red from radiation. The radiation levels were quickly rising when we came closer. May not be an area one wants to go camping in…

The last stop for the day was the city of Pripyat. It was evacuated soon after the reactor incident and is now a wild combination of untouched traces of human civilization and nature claiming the area back for 30 years.

A puppet in midst the remains of a former kindergarten. I had the impression it was put there to look scary and make a good photo for tourists. It was incredibly hard to tell if a scene was or was not altered by previous photographers. Officially no one is allowed to touch anything. But the area was so crowded with tourists that I have a hard time believing it’s all just like it had been left.

While we walked around Pripyat I took measurements here and there. This spot yielded a particularly high reading. I would have missed the spot if it wasn’t for our experienced guides telling me to measure right there.

The old auto scooter of Pripyat’s amusement park. Fun fact: The park was never opened because of the incident happening right before it was scheduled to open to the public.

Of course I did the most touristy thing every Pripyat visitor does: I took a picture in front of the famous ferris wheel. Now I can check that off my list. Great.

Further Information