The Claw of Chernobyl: most dangerous thing in the exclusion zone

Libby-Jane Charleston

Forgotten in time, this creepy relic known as ‘The Claw’ is so dangerous only a handful of people know where it is.

The Claw was used to dismantle the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and other radioactive areas. It is still so irradiated that, 30 years on, touching it could prove lethal. Picture: R Maxwell. Source:Supplied

The Claw sits alone in a dead pocket of a forest on the outskirts of Pripyat, where it was abandoned in the aftermath of the clean-up efforts following the 1986 disaster.

Workers, unsure of where to leave the highly radioactive claw, dumped the frightening piece of machinery in the depths of the forest, far from the beaten track, in the hope nobody would ever find it – it was simply deemed too dangerous to leave anywhere else.

But while the Claw isn’t easy to find, a handful of official guides know where it’s located. Even so, very few tourists request permission from Ukrainian officials to get close to the highly contaminated Claw.

It’s now become a creepy relic of the tragedy that happened 33 years ago yet, like almost everything about Chernobyl, even a discarded piece of radioactive machinery is still capable of stirring up feelings of both horror and morbid fascination.

Tourism to Chernobly has skyrocketed in the wake of the HBO TV series “Chernobyl” but the question remains: would you be content to stick with the official exclusion zone tour, or would you go out of your way to visit the Claw? Here’s what happened when our Chernobyl expert, Robert Maxwell, got as close as you can get to the most dangerous thing in the zone.

Radioactive Graphite

The claw is a large piece of crane machinery that was used in the weeks after the Chernobyl disaster of April 26, 1986 to help clean up the radioactive graphite and material that exploded out of reactor four and onto the neighboring roofs of the power plant.

When it was no longer useful, the claw was removed from the crane and dumped, deep in a forest where it was hoped nobody would find it.

But, of course, they did.

Sydney archaeologist Robert Maxwell, who is the only archaeologist in the world who has worked at Chernobyl during two field excursions told me that the work of the Claw was critical.

“The three rooftops alongside the exploded reactor four were, at the time, the most lethally dangerous places on earth. One of the rooftops was measuring in the tens of thousands of roentgen, which was the measurement of radioactivity back then,” Maxwell said.

“When reactor four of Chernobyl exploded, it liberated the lid of the reactor vessel, this 6-10 tonne concrete roof was blown into the air and then landed vertically into the hole. All of the control rods, the graphite, the fuel rods and everything else blew out of the reactor and landed on the rooftops nearby.”

“So imagine someone trying to stand on a rooftop that was so radioactive that it could give you such acute radiation sickness, that you basically cook yourself and die. So this claw was deeply involved in all the intensely radioactive material as it moved the material back into the core. To say the Claw is highly radioactive and dangerous is not an exaggeration.”

A picture taken in June 2018 shows the wreckage of a car in the ghost city of Pripyat in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Picture: Genya Savilov/AFPSource:AFP

A graveyard of robots

Nobody really knew exactly what needed to be done in the Chernobyl cleanup effort. At first, the Soviets tried to use robots to clean up all the material on the rooftops. They even used a valuable lunar rover; which was one of several rovers the Soviets designed to explore the moon.

According to Maxwell, they also used a robot they’d borrowed from West Germany.

“It wouldn’t have been easy for them to ask the West Germans for help but they asked if they could use one of their robots and they agreed, sending over a robot I believe was named ‘Joker’ and he was put on the roof. But the robot lasted just a few minutes before it totally fried,” Maxwell said.

“The Soviets had told the West Germans that, in terms of radioactivity, it was only 2,000 roentgen maximum that these robots would have to put up with. So, in saying that, the Soviets were claiming that 2,000 roentgen, was the maximum radioactive contamination coming out of the reactor - but we know that was not true. In fact, their figures were wrong to the power of ten.”

“So the West Germans thought it was fine to lend them their robot but, as soon as the Joker got up to the roof, it trundled forward a metre or so and then died. Later it was dumped in a forest, but not the same forest as the Claw. And so not only are there all these dead vehicles spotted all over the exclusion zone, there’s also a little graveyard for robots.”

A replica of the Soviet-built solar-powered lunar rover Lunokhod 1. Picture: Camera Press, London Picture: HWT archive source:News Limited

There’s also a graveyard of vehicles that covers a large area outside of Pripyat. According to Maxwell, tourists might be able to get access to this area, depending on what Ukrainian officials think is appropriate at the time.

“It’s a large car and aircraft graveyard full of the vehicles used in the immediate aftermath of the disaster which is now so radioactive they really can’t be touched. They can’t be pulled apart for spare parts, they can’t be used, they can’t be driven; they’re all just sitting there, dumped and corroding in the forest.”

A visitor takes a picture of the wreckage of a bus in the ghost city of Pripyat during a tour in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Picture: Genya Savilov/AFPSource:AFP

Searching for the Claw

Maxwell’s guide managed to track down the Claw during one of his field excursions (2010 and 2011) and, once he knew the Claw was still accessible, he was determined to see it for himself. He also wanted to take a reading to see how radioactive the Claw is decades after the disaster.

“I had a private guide because I was an academic in the field as opposed to a tourist, and that’s why in one day we did 33 different sites within the zone. The guide asked me, ‘Would you like to see the claw?” and I said, ‘What on earth is the claw?’ We drove through the forest and they were trying to figure out exactly where it was; ‘Is it this way? No, it’s that way!’” Maxwell said.

His guides had a “vague idea” of the location of the Claws’s resting place which involved driving a short distance from Pripyat, taking various wrong turns and then making their way through the forest, until they finally stumbled upon the discarded equipment.

“When I had my encounter with the Claw – let’s just say it was screamingly radioactive,” Maxwell said.

In a stroke of luck, Mr Maxwell's guide stumbled upon the discarded equipment just a short distance from Pripyat. Picture: R Maxwelll. Supplied.Source: Supplied

Mr Maxwell (right) went searching with a guide for one of Chernobyl’s most contaminated relics in order to take a reading. Picture: Supplied Source:Supplied

Maxwell decided to put his hand inside the Claw to get a reading, which is something he doesn’t recommend anybody should do.

“There are many things in the zone today for which contact for any prolonged period will definitely kill you and the Claw is definitely the most dangerous of all because it’s not roped off or inaccessible like other hazards. It’s essentially just sitting in a forest clearing for the rest of time. It's severely, potently lethal,” Maxwell said.

“I put my hand inside it because I wanted to get a reading with the Geiger counter. Was I worried? Yes, but I was worried the whole time. The guide kept saying to me, ‘Do not touch it, do NOT touch it!’ So I just put my hand in very quickly and took it out again. It wasn’t easy to get a reading because the Geiger counter was climbing so fast and, because it’s a digital reading, every time I took a photo it was between digits so I kept getting a blank screen. Eventually I got some numbers, we yelled ‘Now!” and I pulled my hand out,” Maxwell said.

“The one photo that came out readable was showing 39.80 microsieverts per hour (uSv/hr). The average background radiation in Sydney is usually something in the region of 0.17 uSv/hr. So the Claw is magnitudes higher, and releases something in the region of 950 uSv of radiation a day. Any length of time spent in the company of The Claw is extremely dangerous. We were in and out very fast and made sure to keep a good distance between us and it except for the photography.”

“The Claw was so unusual and so little-seen that I was taking several photos, then my guide was taking photos of me taking photos, and both my guide and driver were taking photos themselves because it was the first time they’d seen the Claw in person. It was a bit like seeing a mythical creature.”

Mr Maxwell likened seeing the Claw for the first time to 'seeing a mythical creature’. Picture: Supplied.Source:Supplied

The Silkwood scrub down

To protect himself, Maxwell made sure he was covered up to the wrist but his hand was exposed, even if only for a few seconds. He said the experience with the claw made him think of all the radioactive contamination in the exclusion zone, and that when he was there, he became very rational about what he did and didn’t touch.

“When you’re in the zone, you become very aware of radioactive contamination, especially on surfaces where there is dust, as these are microscopic radioactive contamination that is landing on things, being absorbed into the surface. So if you can minimize your contact with those objects and give yourself what I call the ‘Silkwood scrub down’ at the end of the day.

“When it comes to the scrub down, you must make sure you don’t scrub too hard in case you scratch yourself and put radioactive materials into you. Give yourself a thorough scrubbing with normal soap and that really is the best way to mediate the effects. When I was at the zone, I’d have lunch every day at the power plant because the canteen is still functioning for meals. They don’t encourage you to eat outside in case you ingest radioactive matter while you are eating.”

As for the Claw, Maxwell believes it will stay in the forest forever because nobody wants to move it.

“The claw will just stay there until the end of time. I wrote a book chapter about the Claw called ‘Soul of Electrons.’ That object will sit there emitting these particles for thousands and thousands of years, the Claw will still be singing a song of electrons about the disaster.”

“There’s a very good reason why the Claw is kept in a very secluded part of the forest, away from anyone and anything. As for tourists? I don’t recommend a visit. There are plenty of less dangerous things to see in Chernobyl.”

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I'm a journalist and author writing across a wide range of topics, including tech, travel, history, business/startups, relationships, beauty & fashion, British royal history, & local stories concerning Charleston, S.C (where I have a long family history on my father's side: hence my surname! ) Former HuffPost Assoc Ed, ABC TV, ATV Beijing correspondent and many more. Author of "Fatal Females." Mother of three boys: I will love them until the Statue of Liberty sits down.


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