Day 3: Chornobyl, Ukraine

by - August 26, 2012

Today was set to be one of the most unique travelling experiences I am likely to ever have.  For the last decade, the Ukrainian nuclear authorities have allowed small groups of tourists to enter the 30km exclusion zone around the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.  A trip, costing $150, is the only way to get into the exclusion zone and results in a radiation doseage equivalent to a long haul flight from London to New York - so more than I would have had if I had sat at home, but not enough to turn me into an X-man.  Arranging the trip had actually been very easy - there are lots of tour companies on the internet who will do it and I had just picked the one that the hostel recommended.  I transferred a $50 deposit per person through Western Union and paid the rest up front when we met the company in Independence Square in Kyiv.  We were in a small group of eight and travelled the 105km north to the Chornobyl site in a minibus while being shown a really good English documentary about the disaster.

Me, Ollie, Benny and Charlotte at the Chornobyl entrance
An overview, for those of you who don’t know the story.  In the early hours of the morning of 26th April 1986 the management of Chornobyl power station decided to conduct an experiment where they simulated a ‘worst case scenario’ where the nuclear fuel rods were left exposed during a power cut.  Unfortunately, the experiment turned out to reveal all of the flaws in the Chornobyl design - bad construction, planning and management, which culminated in a massive explosion that blew the 500 tonne concrete protective slab off the top of the reactor and allowed tonnes of radioactive material into the atmosphere.  First on the scene were 28 firefighters who entered the exposed reactor with no protective equipment to try to put out the massive fire.  A nuclear fire is no match for conventional firemen however and by the end of the evening the first firemen were starting to die from radiation exposure.  Meanwhile the communist authorities were unwilling to admit that there was a problem and it took them a few days to start evacuating the nearby towns of Pripyat (a town that had been constructed in 1970 to serve the power plant) and Chornobyl, the smaller town that the plant was named after.  At first a 10km exclusion zone was created, but studies of the surrounding land soon discovered that 30km was more appropriate and this is where the boundaries are found today.

Chornobyl Reactor Number 4
The burning magma at the core was still burning however and the Soviets only started admitting a problem when nuclear power plants in Sweden began to detect a massive surge in radioactivity at their nuclear stations.  At first they checked that it wasn’t one of their own power stations and quickly assumed that it was someone elsewhere.  Any western country would have made it clear they had a problem - so all eyes turned to the Soviet Union, who only really realised the scale of the problem when they heard that the rest of Europe was being contaminated with a radioactive cloud.  Things were looking a lot worse as well, as the magma at the core was beginning to melt through the floor below it and was heading towards a pool of water that had been created by the firemen who had been first onto the site.  I don’t know the physics of it, but had the molten magma reached the pool of water, it would have caused a second explosion that experts said would have the power of a 5 megaton bomb - enough to kill 100,000 people in the immediate explosion and perhaps even scarier, enough radiation to render all of Europe uninhabitable.  The true scale of what could have arguably been the worst ever catastrophe to affect mankind has only recently been released by the authorities and we all owe it to the Soviet Union’s ability to mobilise manpower (and send men to their certain deaths) to avert this.  At first, robots were sent into the power station to prevent humans from coming into contact with the radiation, but the sheer strength of radiation was causing the circuitry of the robots to fail within a few hours of their deployment.  To respond to this, the Soviet’s came up with perhaps the most communist of solutions - the bio-robot.  The bio-robot was just a young army reservist, wearing as much lead protection as he could legitimately strap to himself while still being able to move.  Looking like medieval knights, these young soldiers would then be sent into the most radioactive sections to work for less than a minute, before running back again.  Sheer strength of manpower (around 500,000 men worked on stablising Chornobyl) saved the day, but 4,000 people have since died as a result of radiation based issues and 125,000 have severe disabilities.  The state continues to undermine their benefits.  The sarcophagus that holds the reactor is starting to come to the end of its 30 year life and the European Union has paid for a new sarcophagus which will make the site safe for the next 100 years.  Anyway, that’s the history, now for our visit.

Abandoned kingergarten, Chornobyl
Having passed through the military checkpoint at the edge of the 30km exclusion zone we went to the town of Chornobyl.  Despite its famous name, there isn’t a whole lot to see there except for a small museum with some fairly average exhibits and a memorial to the 180-odd villages that were abandoned within the exclusion zone.  Apparently 4000 people still work within the 30km zone, maintaining the sarcophagus and monitoring the site - for every 15 days they work they have to take 15 days of holiday to prevent them getting too much exposure.  From the town of Chornobyl we passed the memorial to the 28 firefighters and stopped at what appeared to be a random spot of woodlands.  It turned out that this had once been a village and we followed our guide through the undergrowth to find a very overgrown and worn down building that apparently used to be a kindergarten.  We had to really stick to the path our guide had taken as she carried a geiger counter to work out the safest way forward - a couple of metres to the right or the left could have resulted in a ten-fold increase in radiation exposure.  The kindergarten was EXTREMELY eerie - the building was falling to pieces but contained dolls, childrens shoes and all the other things you would expect to see in a nursery that belonged to people who are now in their 30s.

Pripyat’s abandoned ferris wheel
From here we carried on towards Pripyat, which is within the 10km exclusion zone where radiation is much higher. We got to see our first glimpse of the infamous reactor number 4 on the horizon, within its concrete sarcophagus and also passed the abandoned construction sites that would have been reactors 5 and 6.  Interestingly, the Soviets had planned an enormous twelve reactors at the site with the last one to have been completed in 2012 - how differently things turned out!  The town of Pripyat was to be the highlight of the trip.  The city of 50,000 people was totally evacuated in 1986, with the residents told that they would return within a couple of days.  They have never been back and the entire city has become an overgrown Soviet time capsule.  We spent an hour and a half walking around, looking at abandoned cafes, supermarkets, cinemas, houses and government buildings.  We stopped for photos next to the now famous ferris wheel, due to open three days after the explosion.  The town has become enormously overgrown and apparently several parts of it are out of bounds as they have been taken over by wolves and wild boars.

Pripyat’s Cultural Bureau
Lunch was included in the tour and we had it in the canteen where the Chornobyl workers eat.  On the way in, we had to have our radiation levels taken in a scanner - all of us passed except for Charlotte who had to go and wash her hands (and then passed - nothing to worry about).  The food was pretty good and we were told to take lots of extra bread to feed the giant catfish that live in the river next to the restaurant.  The catfish are only giant due to a lack of predators rather than radiation, if you are wondering.  After a further radiation test (which we all passed) we headed back to Kyiv, extremely impressed by what we had seen.  Its strange though - Chornobyl is the site of a major catastophe but somehow it doesn’t quite feel like that.  Thousands of people have died as a result of the disaster, but the invisible nature of radiation means that often the victims are totally overlooked.  This is proven by the way that the authorities deal with 'veterans’ of the Chornobyl 'campaign’ - soldiers who were exposed to life threatening doses of radiation get far less help from the authorities than soldiers who served in combat zones.  That evening we met up with Katie who had spent the day in Kyiv and spent the evening in the hostel making homemade dumplings with the hostel staff.  It had been a once in a life time experience to explore Chornobyl and Pripyat and I would encourage anybody who has the chance to go there.

PS: I found a new 'dramatic tone’ filter feature on my camera which seemed like it was designed to take photos of Chornobyl - just before you think that the lighting in the area is as dramatic as it is shown

You May Also Like