The day started with an alarm, this one at 7am. John and I were straight up and into the shower; both absolutely electric (no pun intended) with anticipation for the the day’s activities. We opened the curtains of our hotel room’s window to a stunningly clear day. Perfect for shooting photos.
We checked the clothing guidelines for the tour: no shorts, no open shoes. Damn, one place I can’t wear my thongs.
It was about 28 degrees outside, so jeans weren’t the most comfortable option but we had no other appropriate option. We walked out of the hotel and soaked in a beautiful Kiev morning.
As we were about 30 minutes early, we decided to go for a helping of McDonald’s breakfast. I had 2 bacon and egg McMuffins and an OJ, and we each bought a bottle of water for the trip. When we walked back to the hotel, there was a group gathered out the front, surrounding a small man wearing a “Hard Rock Cafe Chernobyl” t-shirt. There was a “menu” of radioactive isotopes listed on the back of the shirt. John and I agreed it was hilariously “Soviet.” His name was Igor, and once our names and passports were checked we paid, and then got into a shuttle bus. We sat in the back seat and chatted with an English bloke with an enormous beard named Patrick, who told us about his land-cruising voyage from London to Mongolia and back to raise money for an orphanage there.
As we drove through Kiev, we were given a quick briefing before being treated to a screening of the excellent “Battle of Chernobyl” for the remaining two hour journey.
I suppose at this stage it’s probably a good idea for me to give a rough introduction to the Chernobyl disaster.
The V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station was built in 1977, 18km North of the city of Chernobyl. A town to house 50,000 workers and their families was established 3km from the plant, and was named Pripyat. Reactor number 2 was commissioned the following year, number 3 in 1981 and number 4 in 1983. Two more reactors were being constructed at the time of the accident, and had they been completed, the Chernobyl site would have been the largest Nuclear Power Plant in Europe.
Unfortunately, on the 26th of April 1986, the plant operators decided to do some fateful tests. Basically, nuclear power plants need to be cooled all the time; whether they’re producing power or not. With this in mind, one thing that hadn’t been considered in the design of these particular reactors (RBMK) was what happened if the power was cut to the reactor completely; that is, how would the radioactive material be cooled? There was a backup system of 5 diesel generators, but there was also a gap of about 1 minute between grid failure and build-up to full speed of these generators required to power the pumps that cool the system.
The test was designed to see if the momentum of the steam turbine in the plant (as it decelerated) could power the pump during this “gap”. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union needed power, and at the last moment they were denied permission to run the tests with the day team, and as such a different “night-shift” team was given the test procedure.
At 1:23:04am the tests began, and the plant was shut-down. As the turbine slowed, the flow-rate from the pumps decreased, and steam bubbles entered the pipes of the cooling system. Because the water absorbs neutrons from the reactions, but air does not, this caused the nuclear material to heat, and thus more steam bubbles ensued. This created a vicious cycle, known as a positive-feedback loop. However, at the same time, control rods (which absorb neutrons) were automatically inserted as the reaction increased, which decreased the power created. At this point, someone realised what was happening, and it is alleged they pressed the emergency-shutdown button. This shutdown basically inserts every single control rod, encasing every bit of radioactive material in a neutron-absorbing block. Unfortunately, a flaw in the RBMK reactor design that wasn’t yet discovered meant that as the rods are inserted, water is displaced, which initially increases the rate of the reaction. A few seconds later, the team witnessed a massive power-spike and the first explosion occurred, breaking the control rod channels and stalling the rods one-third of the way down. This caused the reactor to heat further, creating even more steam buildup, and eventually the reactor was creating 30GW of electricity, 30 times the maximum regular output. Seconds later, a second (serious) explosion occurred, which set fire to much of the reactor and blew through the roof. The poor quality materials used in the reactor were combustible, and as such, continued to burn, creating a massive plume of radioactive smoke; one that would spread all over Europe. More on that later.
We passed through a checkpoint at the 30km Zone of Exclusion, where our passports were checked and no doubt our driver paid a disseminated some hryvnias amongst the guards to let us in. Our visit to Chernobyl was now a reality.
We drove into the town of Chernobyl, which has since become the headquarters for the ongoing clean-up operation. I found it shocking to think that the plant employs thousands of people but the plant itself doesn’t produce a single watt of energy. The tour HQ was also in Chernobyl, and we finally met our guide Yuri, the infamous ‘stalker‘ of the zone.
Yuri gave us an excellent rundown of the zone, then in his delightful Ukrainian accent said, “sorry, I have problem with my throat because of bad vodka last night so can someone please read these rules aloud to save my voice for the road?” One of the girls stood up and read them. Highlights below:
It is prohibited to: carry any weapons, drink liquids, take drugs, have meals or smoke in the open air, touch any structures or vegetation, sit or place any photo or video equipment on the ground, take any items outside the zone, violate the dress-code or stay in the exclusion zone.
Everybody shall be aware that, while staying in the area of the exclusion zone, they’ll be subject to external and internal exposure at the result of radioactive contamination of the environment. This means: air, soil, water, objects, buildings, transport facilities and equipment.
Accordingly, I agree that the state department and administration of the exclusion zone shall not be liable for any further deterioration of my health as a result of the visit to the exclusion zone.
We all eagerly signed the forms and got back into the bus. As we drove through the administrative centre, we went past the post office which displays the radiation levels around the zone.
Our first stop was in a yard with some abandoned tanks.
We drove off towards Pripyat river, where we saw some abandoned ships.
We headed in the direction of the reactor and passed several houses, resettled by those who originally lived there. They are allowed to live out their lives in the zone, but their children are not. Once everyone from the area has died, the area will be completely abandoned. We stopped off at Chernobyl Fire Station and observed a monument to the firefighters who bravely fought the flames immediately after the accident. In fact, they arrived within 2 minutes of the sounding of the alarm, and weren’t told exactly what had happened. They fought the flames for 5 hours, putting out all of them except for the main reactor fire, which burnt for several days – contaminating most of Europe in the process.
The monument was built in 1996 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the disaster.
We drove to a bridge over the Pripyat river, where we had an excellent view over the entire zone.
We drove through the 10km checkpoint, and shortly after observed massive trenches dug to bury all the houses scattered throughout the zone. This had unforeseen consequences, as the radiation was absorbed into the water table and up into trees that grew on top of the mounds. In the future it will be dug up and stored securely. For some reason our group decided it wouldn’t be cool to see these mounds (much to our dismay) so we continued to an abandoned fish farm in the lake next to the reactors. During winter the lake wouldn’t freeze over due to the heat created by the plant, and so some smart guy decided to breed catfish in there and see if any changes occurred. Normally you can feed them but apparently they weren’t around today.
Yuri tried to convince us that eating radioactive animals isn’t a problem as “80% of radioactivity will leave your body naturally within 80 days – just don’t make a soup with the bones as they store many radiation.” No thanks, Yuri.
11.18 roentgens of beta radiation in a deer antler. That’s 11 million micro roentgens. Fortunately, beta radiation can’t mutate our cells.
We got back into the van and headed towards the main plant, passing reactor 5 on the way.
We drove to the “red forest” to the west of reactor four, the direction where the radiation cloud first blew. The nickname “red forest” came from the colour the trees turned immediately after the explosion, as they died from receiving massive amounts of radiation. The whole forest was buried not long later, but new trees have grown, and are constantly sucking up the radiation through their roots. We stopped and watched in horror as Yuri walked from the road (3000 micro roentgens) into the forest. This is one of the most toxic places on earth.
Obviously, this amount of radiation is very high (800 times higher than normal) but it would take quite a while for it to adversely affect you. Then again, Yuri does this every day…
Finally, we stopped 100 metres from the reactor. There is a monument the “liquidators” – 800,000 people who worked (40 seconds at a time) to remove all of the radioactive debris from in and around reactor number 4. All of these people exceeded their lifetime limits of radiation. WHO claims up to 4000 of them died as a result of the doses they received.
The dosimeter was reading 300 micro roentgens here, which is very high given we were standing on concrete, and the area has been painstakingly cleaned up for the monument. Yuri was rushing us back into the van because “Pripyat is much more interesting.” Perhaps he was also worried about the dust.
A bit more on the sarcophagus, first. It is made of concrete, and traps in about 200 tonnes of radioactive Corium and 16 tonnes of Uranium and Plutonium. It has it’s own ventilation system which regulates the conditions inside. Because it has exceeded its lifespan, plans are underway for a replacement, which is a massive arch called “Novarka” (new arch). It will cost 1.4 billion US dollars to build, and will take five years. Hopefully the old sarcophagus will hold up for that long. Many countries have donated money to the fund, and work is due to start in September 2010, after 10 years of delays. Novarka will fully encase the old sarcophagus and the plant, and will have cranes attached to its roof which will allow for the decommissioning of the reactor and disposal of waste to be done internally.
We got back into the van and stopped at a truly striking sign.
Priypat was one of the Soviet’s gems. It was an atomograd, or “atom city”. Designed to house the plant workers and their families, it was a very modern city, with 20 schools, a hospital, gyms, pools, libraries, cinemas and a stunning “palace of culture”. 50,000 people lived here. When the accident happened, the whole city felt it. The newspapers the following day didn’t mention a thing, and the people returned to their everyday lives. All radio broadcasts were replaced with classical music; normally a precursor for the announcement of a state tragedy. It seemed as though the Soviets were planning on keeping the disaster completely wrapped up for political reasons (there Soviet regime was showing signs of weakness already, this one would be a significant blow to their domestic propaganda machine). 1000km away, in Stockholm, Sweden, higher than normal levels were detected at one of their power plants. When they investigated they realised it wasn’t their plant, but must have been somewhere else. The US, suspecting the Soviets, captured photographs of the damaged reactor four – spewing smoke – from one of their spy planes. It wasn’t until this was made public that the authorities admitted to the accident, and evacuated the area, including Pripyat, on April 27, at 2pm, 37 hours after the explosion.
Even still, the authorities behaved as though it was a minor event, telling people to only bring enough belongings to last them 3 days, after which they’d be safe to return to Pripyat. Sadly, to this day Pripyat is uninhabitable, and for this reason there is so much left behind, giving its visitors a window into the Soviet era.
We drove up the deserted highway, through one last checkpoint, and into the centre of the city. It’s amazing to see nature reclaiming all of these modern buildings. Man’s not in charge here.
This hotel was built for visitors to the power plant. It hasn’t had a check-in for nearly 25 years, now. Yuri informed us that it had been mostly stripped out and that we were only going up there for a panoramic view of Pripyat.
From the 8th floor we had a magnificent view.
We descended the stairs and headed to the Palace of Culture and Sport.
We moved on to the gymnasium complex.
One thing I noticed as I walked through was the marks on the wall made by the basketball. For a moment I had forgotten that people used to use this building. It all came back and hit me very quickly. Pripyat is an unfathomably sad place. Lives were ruined here and there are countless personal artefacts and traces of life’s shadow that remind you of this.
It was all getting a bit depressing, when Yuri mentioned we’d be going to the amusement park next. My heart began to race. For me, this was the most iconic symbol of the abandonment of this place.
We went to the next location, this time the Olympic swimming pool. On the way in we passed a storage room, with all sorts of paraphernalia ready for the May Day celebrations.
After stamping our feet, we got back into the van and drove to one of the highschools, this one 4 storeys high.
Yuri was calling us, so we ran down the stairs to the van so that we wouldn’t be left in this eerily welcoming place. I really had that feeling, almost like it was returning to my own school, abandoned.
Yuri informed us that this was the end of the trip, and that we’d be heading back to Chernobyl town for a lunch (was anybody actually hungry after that?).
It’s strange to think that something so small can cause so much damage and anguish. A billion-dollar city rendered unusable, hundreds of thousands of lives affected. The official death toll from the Chernobyl disaster stands at 57. These were mostly plant operators and firefighters who all died immediately or shortly after the accident. Unofficially, the toll is much higher. The number of Thyroid cancers reported in the region has increased by over 5000% in the years after Chernobyl. Downs Syndrome rates are up, and birth deformations were very common in the years following the disaster. Women who were pregnant at the time were told to have abortions. In fact, the Soviet authorities were so inundated with people in hospitals, that the “normal” radiation threshold was increased by a factor of five, people were told they were cured and sent home. The true death toll is likely in the thousands.
Economically, Belarus suffered the most. The estimated cost in that country to date is about 235 billion US dollars. 1.7 million acres of agricultural land was contaminated.
The effects are ongoing. Of the 440,000 wild boar killed in Germany in 2010, over 1000 were contaminated with levels of radiation over the permitted limit, due to eating contaminated grass.
We arrived back in Chernobyl town, and went into this building for lunch:
After a 3 course lunch (which felt very strange) we said our goodbyes to Yuri, and slept the whole way back to Kiev.
If you weren’t already convinced of the severity of this disaster, here’s a story to consider. A lava-like substance called Corium, was burning through the floor of the reactor. The floor below contained a massive pool of water. Should the lava touch the water, it would have created a massive steam explosion. Three engineers wore diving suits, entered this pool, and opened valves to drain the pool of all water. Two died shortly later, but the mission was a success. The risk of a steam explosion was not over yet, as this material could still make its way to the water table. The solution for this? Freeze the soil. So, with oil drilling equipment, 25 tonnes of liquid nitrogen was injected into the soil per day. This was proving to be too dangerous for the workers, so eventually the decision was made to fill the entire bottom floor with concrete, trapping in the “lava”. Had that steam explosion occurred, Europe would be one massive uninhabitable wasteland.
My final thoughts are this. Visiting Chernobyl was an unforgettable and sobering experience. I would recommend it to anyone, and I will visit again if the place isn’t closed off (Yuri thinks the authorities won’t let people in from 2011). I would love to explore it all on my own, or at least “off the beaten path”.
The nature in the area is stunning, but the contrast between the horrible silhouette of the ever-present reactor and the countless abandoned artefacts of lives unfairly interrupted, is overwhelming. Visiting Chernobyl was a sensation like no other because it reminds us of the widespread impact of human decisions.
Nuclear power and the idea of the “Atomograd” was the pearl of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. That it played such a key part in the ultimate failure of the Soviet system must have been the greatest heartbreak for its ideologues.