A Missile Radar in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Is Now a Protected Heritage Site

For decades the Duga-1 radar array warned the Soviet Union of incoming missiles, now it’s a monument to a nuclear disaster.
Image: Getty Images Photo

Thirty-five years ago, an accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine caused two explosions that irradiated the surrounding area. It was one of the worst nuclear disasters in world history, and more than three decades later, the area around the plant is still an exclusion zone. The surrounding buildings, nuclear plant, and gigantic radar array called Duga-1, abandoned suddenly and left to decay over decades, are haunting reminders of the dangers of nuclear power and recognizable the world over because they keep appearing in popular movies and video games. 


Now, just in time for the disaster’s 35th anniversary, Ukraine has declared that the enormous Duga-1 radar array is a protected cultural monument.

You’ve probably seen Duga-1 before, even if you didn’t know you were looking at a famous Soviet-era piece of radio equipment nestled deep in an irradiated forest. Almost 2,300 feet long and more than 450 feet high, the steel beams of the radar tower over the surrounding forest. From a distance, it appears to be a massive wall or the start of a cage.

The Duga-1 is the setting for several Call of Duty maps, including a prominent place for a sniper’s nest in the new, 80s themed Warzone map. It also appears as the final map in Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War and the Sosnovka military base in Player Unknown Battleground. I first saw it in STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl.

The Association of Chernobyl Tour Operators first announced that Ukraine had made Duga-1 a protected heritage site on its Facebook page. Interfax, a Russian news service, later reported the official designation. “Our heritage is not only the area around the power plant but also the buildings located on its territory,” Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s Minister of Culture and Information Policy, said in a Telegram thread about the announcement. “So now we are working on identifying other objects that should be part of the list of monuments. Our goal is to prevent destruction when possible.”

Constructed in 1972, the radar system was meant to be an early warning system for incoming ballistic missiles. If America planned to nuke Russia, Duga-1 would warn the Soviets.

When Duga-1 came online sometime in the mid 1970s, radio operators around the world noticed a strange signal coming from the forests of Ukraine. The system was so powerful it disrupted some frequencies with an irritating thumping noise. Amateur radio operators dubbed the signal’s source “The Russian Woodpecker” because of the repeated tapping noise it pumped into HAM radios.

Ukraine sees Pripyat, Chernobyl, and the Exclusion Zone as part of its heritage. When people think of Ukraine, they think of the Chernobyl disaster. Duga-1 is a part of that landscape. Ukraine wants the Zone and its buildings to become a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, and this designation is an important step in that process.

“This decision will strengthen Ukraine’s chances of including the Chernobyl Zone in UNESCO in general,” Tkachenko said on Telegram.