THINK of Chernobyl and just one thing comes to mind - the nuclear power plant meltdown of 1986.

The world's worst nuclear accident belched 400 times more radiation into the air than the Hiroshima bombing, led to the permanent evacuation of 300,000 people, the fencing off of almost 4000 sq kms of land and the death of at least 50 people which could rise to 4000 over time.

But in the highest echelons of the Soviet military, Chernobyl had long been known for something else: an ominous top secret Cold War facility buried deep in the forest just a few kilometres from the notorious power plant.

To the USSR military it was known as the Duga array. To those who discovered its existence in the West it was dubbed the "Russian Woodpecker." A cheery name that belied the fear and mystery that surrounded the facility.

Entrance to the former Duga radar station in Chernobyl, Ukraine
Entrance to the former Duga radar station in Chernobyl, Ukraine

When Chernobyl blew, it wasn't just the city of Pripyat which disappeared off the map; so did the enormous military installation. It became bathed in radioactive dust and was left to rust in the exclusion zone, where it remains to this day.

Not that Duga was on any maps. It was marked, instead, as a children's camp. But there were no kids here. Secret it may have been but come anywhere near it and it was hard to miss.

Built in 1976, from afar it looks like a giant wall towering over the forest. But get closer and it's far more porous - a massive metal lattice work that stands some 50 stories tall and stretches for 500 meters long.

Despite its size, few outside of Chernobyl knew of its existence. Few of the West knew of it either - but then they began to hear it.

From the mid 1970s onwards a strange rapidly repeating interference began to be noticed on some radio frequencies. The incessant tapping was reminiscent of a woodpecker. Now and then, the signal would stray off little used frequencies and interrupt radio stations around the world.

A section of the Duga array that is hidden deep in the forest near Chernobyl. But its sheer scale gives its presence away.
A section of the Duga array that is hidden deep in the forest near Chernobyl. But its sheer scale gives its presence away.

THE RUSSIAN WOODPECKER'S ROLE

Ham radio enthusiasts, as well military experts, deduced the signal was coming from somewhere north of Kiev, now in Ukraine but at the time part of Moscow ruled USSR. The Duga array had successfully given away its own secret location.

Luke Johnson, who took a tour of the Duga for Atlas Obscura magazine, said it wasn't just the west that was picking up the eerie signal from Chernobyl.

"Higher-end Soviet television sets were sold with a special 'woodpecker jamming' device built in. More alarmingly, the mysterious signal began to interfere with emergency frequencies for aircraft," he wrote.

But what exactly was the purpose of the Russian Woodpecker? Speculation in the West was rife with some theories that it could control the weather or even that the huge structure transmitted some kind of mind control power.

Writing in Newsweek, Alexander Nazarayan scoffed at the idea: "Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I am flattered by these nefarious suggestions. We would have, believe me, if we only could, but it was hard enough to keep the grocer's shelves stocked."

The radar became known as the Russian Woodpecker as it emitting an incessant tapping signal that could be picked up by radios worldwide.
The radar became known as the Russian Woodpecker as it emitting an incessant tapping signal that could be picked up by radios worldwide.

At the time the US and USSR were at the height of the Cold War with thousands of nuclear tipped missiles ready to be launched at a moment's notice.

The Duga's main role was as a huge radar receiver, part of a network of facilities designed to detect the launch of missiles headed towards the USSR.

Traditional radars could only detect movement as far as the horizon. The metal monstrosity south of Pripyat was part of an "over the horizon" radar that would bounce signals off the ionosphere to peek far further around the globe.

Moscow's hope was it would give the country precious extra minutes to take cover if the US actually pushed the big red button.

As the Soviets transmitted the powerful signal, it was picked up as the distinctive interference.

By all accounts, the Russian Woodpecker wasn't a huge success only succeeding in alerting the west to the fact it existed.

But to this day, some believe it had other purposes. If so, all evidence of it has been squirrelled away to Moscow.

The Duga array lies abandoned, but accessible, in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
The Duga array lies abandoned, but accessible, in the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

THREE MINUTE WARNING

While most visitors to Chernobyl make a beeline for the power station and abandoned town of Pripyat, the Duga array remains off the beaten track.

"During the Cold War, even approaching this spot would have had dire consequences, but today there is just one guard, near a dilapidated guard house with wood smoke rising from the chimney," writes Mr Johnson.

Fading Soviet murals decorate the facility's walls while twisted metal, ejected over time from the lattice work, lie strewn on the ground.

"It looks as if someone had taken a 20-mile stretch of electricity pylons and squashed them into a line the length of a football field," he said.

Masses of discarded computer terminals, that once would have provided the USSR with the three minute warning, now lie broken and battered in the snow.

"While the nuclear reactor remains a nexus of international concern, the Russian Woodpecker stands largely forgotten," said Mr Nazarayan.

"Surrounding structures have been conquered by trees, gravity and rust, but it is humungous from afar and humungous from up close, dwarfing the very idea of perspective,"

When rector 4 exploded, Duga's fate was sealed. Solidly within the exclusion zone, and its effectiveness already being doubted, Moscow evacuated the staff and eventually shut the woodpecker down.

The authorities removed the most sensitive components and documents and effectively left the gates unlocked and let nature takes its course.

To this day modern incarnations of the Chernobyl radar exist, in Russia and elsewhere, constantly scanning over the horizon - but doing so far more subtly than the Duga.

It's thought that the final transmission from the Duga array occurred sometime around the end of the 1980s.

The distinctive tapping sound was last heard sometime around 1989. And with that, the Russian Woodpecker fell silent.

benedict.brook@news.com.au

The “Russian Woodpecker” is located to the south of the Chernobyl rector (at the top of the image). Picture: Google Maps.
The “Russian Woodpecker” is located to the south of the Chernobyl rector (at the top of the image). Picture: Google Maps.
View from the top of abandoned Duga radar system in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine.
View from the top of abandoned Duga radar system in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine.
The Duga radar’s control room now lies abandoned.
The Duga radar’s control room now lies abandoned.


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