Tour we were doing a full day, 12 hour tour of the Chernobyl nuclear power station which is the site of what is considered the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history, The Chernobyl disaster (hereafter referred to as ‘the Incident’) was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 – I can remember the news being dominated by the footage of the mangled reactor when I was in highschool. I do not remember images of the fire that took days to contain, as the Soviet Union wasn’t really great at caring and sharing back then, (*cough* some may say they are still not). The incident occurred at the Number 4 light water graphite moderated reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant which is located near the town of Pripyat – about 104 km north of Kiev… so of course today is a good day to do something stupid like pick up my hairbrush off the floor and send a group of muscles in the centre left of my back into severe pain spasms.
We were being picked up about 0715 and at about 0655 I found myself doubled over in pain experiencing acute stabbing pain just below my left shoulder girdle with every movement, including breathing. FFS! I considered cancelling and sending yale without me, but I never know how long the spasms and elevated pain levels will last (sometimes a few hours, or on one occasion earlier this year around the time of GNW, about four days :/ ) What to do but get on the bus, try not to cry, and hope for the best.
Our mini-bus driver, Igor (no shit), was charged with driving us the 100kms to the first of a series of checkpoints, called the Dytyatky checkpoint, where we passed through the official entrance to the Exclusion zone. Igor appeared to take his job seriously. He had the physique of a security guard, work a black beret and a determined chin, and he drove like some sort of ex-military transport specialist in desperate to hurry to get to his next smoko break. So with me and my back all stirred up – the drive out here was not fun (read: fucking painful!). At the Dytyatky checkpoint, we exited the bus and stood in line with our passports while the local police (who now have jurisdiction over the 2,600 km2 Exclusion Zone, since the military withdrew) checked our passports. No photos of the checkpoints. Instead have an APC…
Many people in the group had chosen to hire Geiger counters for the duration to be able to see how radiation we were being exposed to in various areas. These counters were also able to collect spot readings off the ground or items in the area. This reading is about half what you would get if you turned on this meter in downtown Kiev… we are being exposed to very low levels of radiation constantly, but at this checkpoint, 30kms from The Incident site we are in a very clean area.
The long empty roads in this complex are somewhat unnerving as you drive past so many abandoned buildings. Our first stop is in the little village called Zalissya which has several abandoned houses and barns, a shop and a medical clinic. I was a bit flummoxed that they let tourists enter these dilapidated houses – they are definitely unsafe and we found ourselves walking on as many broken floorboards as broken glass. From an OH&S standpoint – no way this shit would fly at home. Or in the US. Or in most of Europe. Or… well, anywhere else really.
The roads and buildings were all abandoned about nine days after The Incident, when the government had to finally admit that the radiation from the reactor meltdown was much worse than they were prepared to own up to, and decisions were eventually made to evacuate first a 10km radius and then a 30km radius from the reactor site. Nature has started to encroach on all the disused buildings and take over the roads that are now only looking like clear pathways.
The damage that is apparent on the buildings has been accelerated by Stalkers – people who enter the zone illegally for various reasons. Some Stalkers are thrill seekers who want to skulk around the abandoned towns and villages, some are plundering whatever they can find that may be of re-sellable value (including things like scrap metal, copper wiring, and initially hidden valuables after the evacuation.
The zone is a primarily a destination for scientists studying the effects of long-term radiation exposure on the flora and fauna. It is also quite well visited by documentary film crews and curious tourists, like us. But some people don’t want to deal with the red tape (of which there appears to be a great deal), and they prefer to simply trespass into the Zone knowing that they only risk a fine if they are caught. It is pretty dangerous here though, being over 60kms from the nearest hospital, unguided people have died here, mostly from misadventure – several have died from falling when climbing old Soviet military installations, like the radar we went to see a bit later. Cumulative exposure to radiation aside, ‘Stalking’ seems like a pretty stupid pastime.
Inside the houses you can see that many household items were left behind. This was the Zalissya medical clinic and birthing centre and the papers that are strewn, about are patient records. Things like this have just been left where they were found, even the Stalkers don’t seem to want to move/interfere with them. The local market. Our guide Nicky described how a trip to the local shop would be riddled with anxiety when she was a child growing up in Soviet Russia. The mature women who ran the shops were more than unusually stern and goods were often in high demand and low supply, so they had quite a position of power in their little villages. Lines are torn into the walls and ceilings where the copper has been ripped out by looking Slackers. Zalissya is the only town that saw a lone self-settler named Rozaliya Ivanivna return to her home after the area was sort of declared ‘safe’. She lived alone in this abandoned little town for many years, growing most of her own food needs (in the contaminated soil) until her death of non-radiation related old age. Apparently, on one occasion, she had a pack of wolves surrounding her house for three days, and she was unable to leave the house… it is a particularly harsh sort of lifestyle, especially if you do not have a village to rely on.
Our next stop took us along a long and very direct military grade road. You could tell we had gone off the civilian roads and onto the military roads as they were now made of concrete and not asphalt (some military vehicles would just rip up asphalt, so they preferred concrete, as it was easier to maintain if a section needed replacing. The road leads to what was once a top-secret Soviet site containing the Chernobyl-2 “DUGA-1” Radar. Giant radar antenna “DUGA-1”. At the end of this long road, a secret military town of Chernobyl-2 was built in the 1960s which provided the administration, maintenance and support for the antennas of an early warning horizon tracking system that was designed to detect ballistic missile launches during the Cold War.
The Soviets had planted kilometres and kilometres of dense forest on every side of the installation to obscure the radar from being seen from any direction. There were three checkpoints on this road, which hapless civilian campers and fishermen may accidentally drive down. Nicky told us that at the first checkpoint, drivers would be greeted thus: “Comrade, there is nothing interesting down this road, you should go back.”, but they were not compelled to follow the instruction and if they chose to keep on going, they would eventually encounter another checkpoint where they would be greeted again with: “Comrade, there is nothing intersting down this road, you should probably go back.” If the idiot driver didn’t take the hint, they would eventually encounter the third checkpoint with: “Comrade, there is nothing interesting down this road, you should go back. I am authorised to shoot you on sight.” Which I imagine would have been an excellent deterrent if phrased that way in the first place. The abandoned military town is now manned by a local police checkpoint – there are like three guys here sitting around smoking, but we can’t take photos of the ‘security measures’. On many of the walls of buildings in the towns and later the city of Pripyat, Soviet propaganda is evident. This mural is literally ‘The Red Army Want YOU’, which ironically is painted on a wall inside a top-secret military town where the only person who had access, were already enlisted.The DUGA-1 Radar: Radioactive mushrooms. The radar is enormous and was part of a series of six of these installations scattered around the Soviet Union from here in Ukraine to the very east near Vladivostok and the border with China. Turns out the radar system was not particularly efficient, it was only operable during the day and depended on the weather, clouds, sun flares and all sorts of shit to be reliable. Local radio operators could hear serious interference from the radar and were constantly complaining to the government about a ‘doof, doof, doof’ helicopter sounding noises that it was emitting, to which the Soviet Government would respond, we don’t have an antenna out here’. When challenged with satellite images they would claim the enormous radar installation was a weather station – ‘It is a big country and we need big weather stations’. When the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred in 1986, the military personnel maintaining and monitoring the site were evacuated – meaning the entire network of radar sites became pretty much towers of expensive useless as the radars had to work together to be effective.
So far, I had been managing to keep up with the group – but here they wandered a little further afield that I was able to move with my back screaming at me every step and every breath. I thought I’d skip a section knowing they had to come back this way, in order to take a rest. Which turned out to be a mistake as you literally can not sit down anywhere in the Exclusion Zone – the objects are contaminated, the ground is contaminated – there is nowhere to rest, and it sounds like I missed out on hearing an interesting anecdote about a radar operator who saw what looked like five missiles appear on the radar out of nowhere moving in perfect formation, but failed to hit ‘the button’ because he felt it ‘just didn’t look right’. Turns out he saved us from WWIII – as it was just some birds. But that didn’t matter to the Soviets. He was dishonourably discharged from the army in disgrace for abject failure to do his duty.
Our next stop was to the almost entirely buried village of Kopachi. Kopachi had very high levels of radiation on their buildings and on the ground, that attempts to make the area safe involved taking down most of the buildings and burying them under mounds of soil. The area is still way too hot to be inhabited, and the only things that remain of the village of Kopachi are a few random buildings that were not destroyed, a memorial to the Unknown Soldier (every village in the area has a similar memorial), and a kindergarten. The area is full of ‘hot spots’. As we moved about the Geiger counter alarms were starting to go off all the time, and several people in our groups were checking the ground looking for the highest readings they could find – it was a bit like some sort of grotesque grown-up version of the “Hot or Cold” we used to play as kids. Outside the kindergarten… there are man objects laying around that look like they have been just in situ for many years. But I imagine most of them were placed by avid photographers over the years. I didn’t touch or move anything… as ‘found object’ photography sites go, this place is crazy.
After our visit to Kopachi, we were making our way to ChNPP (the actual site of the reactors) via a lunch break at a canteen that is run for the workers of the power plants. On the way, we saw a newly built containment unit that is designed to store up to 200,000 tonnes of nuclear waste that is going to be moved from an old containment unit that has outlived its use by date. Seriously, there is nowhere to put this stuff… are we just going to keep building more and more containment sites as the old ones stop being effective for the next 240,000 years until the material is safe to be near humans again?
We also went past a concrete factor that was purpose-built after The Incident because so much concrete was needed to built the original Sarcophagus that covered the Number 4 reactor in 1986, that logistically it was more sensible to build a concrete factory rather than ship concrete in. We were going for an ‘ecologically-clean dinner in a Chernobyl state canteen’ that was purpose-built for the Exclusion zone workers, or as Vicky kept referring to it: Atomic Lunch. To enter the canteen, we all had to pass through a decontamination frame to make sure we had no radioactive material on our person or on our belongings. The food is all shipped safely in from Kiev and none of it is sourced locally.
The industrial canteen had quite the set up an din a huge hall. Staffed by stern Ukranian women, lunch was whatever they put on your tray (vegetarian option available).Cabbage, carrots and beetroot. Some sort of potato soup. A weird battered and panfried mystery meat thing on rice. Bread. A sweet bun and rhubarb juice.
Outside was this mysterious piece of art that was commissioned by a local artist to adorn the city of Pripyat prior to the 1986 nuclear disaster. Apparently, after the disaster occurred, no one was interested in the artwork anymore and so the artist never got paid for this work. It is supposed to be a dove, looking back and holding a flower and represent a conjoining of nations or something to do with the Soviet Union being a singular cohesive state. Who knows? #modernartThe statue of Prometheus that used to be in the middle of Pripyat, but has been moved here to ChNNP to keep it safe from Stalkers. So now we are finally arriving at Chernobyl NPP, the site of the late-night safety test which failed spectacularly on so many levels as leave the world with the word ‘Chernobyl’ being synonymous with ‘catastrophic disaster on an unimaginable scale’. The test was to simulate a situation where the station had a blackout power-failure. In the course of tests, various safety systems were deliberately turned off. From here, a combination of inherent reactor design flaws and human errors in the form of reactor operators arranging the nuclear core in a manner that was somewhat contrary to the actual checklist for the testing eventually resulted in an uncontrolled reaction condition (read: monumental cluster fuck). Water used to cool the reactions flashed into steam which generated a massive steam explosion that blew the 1,200-tonne concrete roof off the reactor, which led to an open-air, extremely radioactive, graphite fire. This fire was spewing radioactive material as much as 1km into the atmosphere and produced considerable updrafts for about nine days. Nine days during which none of the people surrounding the reactor were evacuated. These plumes of fission materials that were being spewed into the atmosphere. During the fire that burned for days, they estimated that approximately the same amount of airborne fission material was released continuously as was released on the initial explosion. The radioactive material blew and landed according to prevailing winds in two directions to the west and then to the north, before finally precipitation onto large areas of Western Russia and central Europe… during which time, the Soviet Government was busy assuring everyone, that everything was fine.
There were 500,000 people involved in the cleanup efforts which took over 200 days. The ‘liquidators’ put themselves at extreme risk in some areas being only able to work for minutes or even only 45 seconds at a time so as not to be exposed to fatal levels of radiation. The main plan to contain the explosion and the radioactivity that was still leaching from the reactor core was to enclose the remains of the Number 4 reactor building with a large cover which was named the “Object Shelter”, but more commonly referred to as ‘the Sarcophagus’. The purpose was to reduce the spread of the remaining radioactive dust and debris from the wreckage and to stop weather from decaying and disseminating the wreckage any further. The Sarcophagus was finished in December 1986, and completed just as the reactor was starting to cool down on its own. A team of 3,000 miners had been working to dig underneath the reactor to start installing freezing equipment to cool the remaining volatile nuclear material – but when their mine was completed, they discovered the core temperature had reduced to a point where the mine was not needed, no freezing equipment was installed and the entire mine was concreted full again. The Sarcophagus enclosure was not intended to be permanent radiation shield, but was built quickly as an occupational safety measure for the crews working at the other undamaged reactors at the power station which basically had to stay online. The Number 3 reactor was in continuous use until 2000.
The Incident prompted massive overhaul and safety upgrades of all remaining Soviet-designed nuclear reactors like the Chernobyl Number 4 reactor – the RBMK type, of which 11 were in continuous use until 2013.
The Sarcophagus was designed to last approximately 30 years, and a new French designed and built, New Safe Confinement building which is over 100m high, (known as The Arch) has been built over the top of the old Sarcophagus to contain radiation. A memorial “Life for Life” has been erected in front of the Arch to commemorate those people who were instrumental in fighting the ‘Battle of Chernobyl’. The Arch has been designed to last 100 years, and has only been completed – it is the largest moveable building in the world, as it was built a few kilometres away and moved into place over a two week period using rails and jacks. The French engineers are in the process of training locals staff to maintain the building and monitor all the fancy recording equipment that is installed in the Arch.
Next stop was to be the city of Pripyat… once an affluent city of 50,000 people, it is now abandoned. Before the evacuation, Pripyat was a thriving modern Ukranian metropolis with 50,000 people most of whom worked at the power plants. They were on better than average salaries and the city provided all the modern conveniences that a semi-Soviet city would expect. A beautiful river port, Hospital, five kindergartens, ten schools, two swimming pools, cafes, restaurants, two stadiums, an ‘Energetic Palace of Culture’ cultural centre, youth clubs, amusement park and all sort.
the hospital receiving the firefighters and NPP workers, badly affected by the accident;
a river port and the most prestigious Pripyat café at the embankment;
a town hall – the first headquarters for mitigation of the accident consequences;
Polissya hotel, a correction point for helicopters dropping lead bags over the 4th reactor ruins;
Energetic Palace of culture, the main recreational site for the Prypyat youth;
Ferris wheel in the amusement park which was never open;
Swimming pool “Azure”, which was still in operation after the accident; The prestigious Pripyat cafe near the embankment of the river port. Before and after – the local cinema with the statue of Prometheus that is now situated at ChNNP. The local cultural centre – known as the ‘Energetic Palace of Culture’ for conventions, weddings,etc.
Restaurants: Evidence is everywhere of Stalkers: Inside a local market:
More Stalker grafitti:
The amusement park: Nicky pointed out a hotspot on the bottom of this Ferris wheel carriage – readings over 100 were taken here. Possibly debris particles landed here directly or an accumulation of radioactive particles caused by rain. Nature reclaiming the stadium fencing. The fancy new Pripyat Stadium that was built in 1986 – right before the explosion. On the night of the on disaster April 26 1986, a team of local footballers were practising at the brand new stadium getting ready for the Grand Opening which was to happen on May 3 1986. They were told that due to the accident there were to be no games held that weekend and within days it was decided to evacuated Pripyat so that no games were ever held at this brand new stadium – bad timing!
It is hard to see Pripyat as it was before the disaster… on the way back to Kiev, Nicky showed us a video which I found on Youtube which brought what we had seen and the town we had been walking through, into stark contrast.
At the nearby fire station, the crew here were the second crew to work on extinguishing the fire at the NPP at night of the disaster on April 26, 1986. Several of their crew died of radiation exposure as a result of working to put the fire out. This unofficial monument was created and erected by firefighters to commemorate them. Farewell to the Exclusion Zone – ‘Have good roads’ As far as the cost and the casualties are concerned, the Chernobyl accident is considered to be the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history with over 500,000 workers affected and an estimated cost of approximately 18 billion rubles. According to the IAEA – International Atomic Energy Agency – the official death toll is around 4,000 people as a result of the accident. The truth of the matter is that the real toll will never be known. The Soviets did not research and follow people who suffered considerable exposure and who were moved out of the zone never to return. Thyroid cancers have been known to have spiked as well as other cancers, and children have been born with many deformities – but no official figures exist on the extent of the damage.
If anyone wants to know more about the Chernobyl Disaster, we watched this excellent, and somewhat alarming, documentary on the bus on the way to and from the Exclusion Zone. Also, keep an eye out on a BBC World short film on why people travel to visit Chernobyl, I was interviewed for a tourist’s perspective and may appear in the film.
We got back to Kiev late – around 9pm, whereupon we had to go find somewhere to have dinner. I was absolutely Fucked with a capital F, but out we went. We found a restaurant and had a quick dinner… and then trudged back up a steep hill to the hotel. By the time I got back up here, I lost it and there was pain and tears and mess. If you ever needed proof of how stubborn I can be – here it is. Every step and every breath causing acute exacerbation of pain.