How to explore Chernobyl’s nuclear zone

Drone journalism logs

Flying a drone in a radioactive zone. Of all the nerve.

Documentary maker Philip Grossman stayed for thirty days in Chernobyl, shooting the surreal and desolated cityscape. And yes, a drone can become radioactive, he says in an interview with DND.
Philip Grossman portrait with drone in Ukraine

Philip Grossman worked as senior director Media Technology and Strategy at The Weather Channel (Atlanta, U.S.). In October 2014 he changed his career and became a full-time documentary maker. He is working on Exploring the Zone for four years now.

Drones and nuclear zones have a match.The device offers a relatively safe way to explore a large and dangerous zone.

Take the Japanese multicopter company HEXaMedia, for example.In 2014 they explored the Japanese ghost town Tomioka, that was successively struck by an earthquake, a tsunami and the nearby Fukushima nuclear disaster.

 

Or the Safecast multicopter with Geiger counter, built during a hackathon. The drone links radioactive measurings to geo-locations.

The Safecast drone mounted with Geiger teller. Photo: Safecast

The Safecast drone mounted with Geiger counter. Photo: Safecast

But safety is not the reason why the American documentary maker Philip Grossman uses them. He never mounted a Geiger counter to his drone during his visits to Chernobyl. For him, the drone is about cinematography. Grossman is one of the few journalists that got permission to visit and fly in Chernobyl. He has returned to the city several times. His obsession – his own words – with Chernobyl started in 2011, during a helicopter flight.

Overgrown city of Pripyat

Photographer Philip Grossman visited Chernobyl by helicopter in 2011, exactly 25 years after the nuclear disaster; after someone wrote a SOS signal on this building. Grossman became fascinated so he decided to make a documentary.

Exploring the zone

Grossman: ‘On my first trip I managed to secure a local helicopter pilot in Kiev and got a permit fly over the zone. It was amazing to see the area from the air at an altitude of about 150 meters. But we could not get close to the city or the reactor complex. I knew I wanted to get better shots. So when I returned I brought a multicopter, a DJI S-800. This time I was able to fly at much lower altitudes and get up close to areas I could never have covered with a helicopter.’

Slowly his idea for the documentary emerged. In Exploring the Zone, the working title for the documentary, Grossman says he wants to present the area with as limited human bias as possible. ‘I want to take people on a journey through the zone of exclusion, and allow them to draw their own conclusions.’

The explosion of the Ukrainian reactor in Chernobyl in 1986 caused radioactive particles to spread over large parts of Russia and Europe. The direct surroundings are still uninhabitable because of the radiation, but tourists can visit. Philip Grossman roamed the city for days for his documentary.

So far, Grossman made 28 drone flights. It took him thirty days, spread of three different visits. That means he entered the contagious zone many times.

How dangerous is that?

‘Chernobyl is open to the public, but it is considered too radioactive to live there permanently. People typically work for two weeks, and then must leave the zone for two weeks before returning again. However, there is a handful of people who still reside in the zone full time. Most elderly folks, in their late seventies, early eighties.’
Grossman does however, take safety precautions. ‘I always carry around a Geiger teller and a dosimeter. The first is for measuring radioactivity in the air, the second the built-up amount of radiation. There are areas that are extremely radioactive, but the majority of the areas in the City of Pripyat are only slightly more radioactive than where I live in the United States. But the Red Forest (The trees died as a result of high radiation. Pine trees colour red when dying)1 is still extremely radioactive. And some areas in the city still have an increased radiation. I filmed in the basement of a hospital and found firemen clothing, showing a high amount of radiation on my Geiger teller.’

The firemen clothing in the basement of a Pripyat hospital showed increased radiation on Grossman’s Geiger teller.

‘The reason to fly a drone is to get a different perspective, not because it is safer. The drone itself can become radioactive: Radioactivity can, sort of, be compared to magnetism. If you put a magnet on a screwdriver for a period of time it rearranges the atomic structure of the metal and becomes magnetic. If a drone is exposed to a high enough level of a radioactivity, it can also become radioactive. But the levels I fly in, are nowhere near close enough to cause that.’

Shooting from a helicopter Grossman realised he wanted to get closer. Only a drone could make that possible.

The Ukraine conflict

The Ukrainian conflict (war) with Russia is causing the making of this documentary to be dangerous on a different level. ‘In Chernobyl it was never allowed to just start flying a drone. The local government had to give permission because there is a lot of fear for terrorism in the zone. Unfortunately, that meant I could not film in certain areas, like near the reactor. I was actually in Chernobyl when the Malaysian plane crashed, in 2014, but I didn’t return home earlier. But because of the conflict, I did bring a smaller drone to avoid problems with customs.’

Big Wheel of Chernobyl with hexacopter

The Big Wheel of Chernobyl is a famous scene from the war game Call of Duty. The flying drone is mounted with a DSLR camera. Photo: Grossman

Tips for traveling drone journalists

Tip 1. Bring spare parts

Flying with a drone in a foreign country needs to be prepared carefully. Grossman learns from every new trip. ‘The first twelve flights I did, all went smooth. But during the thirteenth flight one of the propellers fell out during the take-off. The drone started spinning and crashed shortly after.’

His camera survived the accident, but Grossman did not have enough spare parts to continue. That is his ultimate advice for travelling drone journalists. ‘Bring enough spare parts. I know I will, next time.’

Tip 2. Practise

‘Flying a drone is not much different from flying an airplane; I have a pilot’s licence too: you have to continually practice to stay proficient. Fly as much as you can, so that it becomes second nature. Experiment with angles and movements with the drone and see what the results are in the video. The reason to fly a drone is to get a different perspective, but that requires you to know what the “other” perspective is, so: practice practice practice. At the moment I am preparing myself in flying in the Atti mode, with no GPS, so I feel more comfortable reacting to unexpected events.’

Philip Grossman in the streets of Pripyat

Grossman exploring the streets of Pripyat.

Grossman is planning to more shootings in Chernobyl. But next time he brings a fancier drone, to film in 4k (3840×1260 pixels), instead of 2.7k (2704×1524 pixels). Due to the conflict, he has no idea when the documentary will be finished. Meanwhile, a 5 minute trailer of Exploring the Zone can be watched on Vimeo.

  1. I changed this explanation on reader’s advice (thanks)

Stijn Postema

Stijn Postema is a journalism lecturer and freelance reporter from the Netherlands. He has a background in journalism, arts and design.

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