26th April 1986, Chernobyl, Soviet Union (present day Ukraine).
In the early hours of the morning, Chernobyl reactor number four exploded during an experiment, spewing radioactive waste into the atmosphere and the immediate environment.
Abnormal radiation levels were detected at nuclear plant in Sweden, and monitoring stations in Scandinavia, suggesting there had been a serious accident at a nuclear facility in western USSR. Initially, the Soviet Union denied this, but admitted there was a problem two days after the accident. The environmental and health consequences have left a lasting impact on both Ukraine and Belarus, but could have been much worse.
I’ve been intrigued about the Chernobyl disaster since a school project in 1996, and even more so several years later, when I learned that it was possible to visit the site. My first trip to Ukraine was ten years ago for a Ukraine v Scotland football match, although as we only had one full day in Kyiv, a day trip to Chernobyl was not possible. However, in February 2015 I visited Ukraine for a longer period of time, thus had time to visit the exclusion zone and reactor site on an official tour operated by the Kyiv based tour operator, Solo East tours. They offer various tours starting from $97 (which includes a mandatory $10 insurance fee). An alternative option is Chornobyl tour, and there are a few other companies as well. As I was trying to keep my trip fairly flexible, I had avoided booking anything in advance, so just stopped by at the Solo East office one afternoon; it’s located in the centre of Kyiv on ulitsa Proreznaya 10. After paying for the trip, I was provided with some basic information and details of the pick-up time and location. It’s worth pointing out at this point that visiting Chernobyl is safe provided you adhere to some basic rules and regulations, and the total quantity of radiation received is equivalent to that of a trans-atlantic flight.
Those attending the tour began congregating around 8 am at the top end of Independence Square, known locally as Maidan Nezalezhnosti. There were twelve of us. Igor, our driver, arrived shortly after, duly checked we had our passports and that our clothing was appropriate (basically long sleeved tops and trousers), and we were then on our way!
The journey from Kyiv took just over two hours, and passed relatively quickly, thanks to the various informative documentaries and videos related to the disaster. I was also acutely aware that this would have been the route that the Kyiv firefighters took in the early hours of that fateful morning: racing towards the horrors of a nuclear meltdown, not really realising
We reached the Dytyatky checkpoint at the edge of the 30 km exclusion zone, where we were introduced to Helen, who would be our guide for the day. After showing our passports and another check to ensure we had appropriate clothing, we were officially registered to enter the exclusion zone for that day, and we continued towards the town of Chernobyl.
Chernobyl town is around 20 km from the checkpoint, during which we passed sites of villages which had been evacuated. As this was winter, the trees were relatively bare, allowing us to see abandoned buildings that would normally not have been visible from the road between spring and autumn. Of course, some villages were destroyed during the decontamination process, and now only exist on historical maps. We stopped at the edge of the town to get the obligatory photo of the official welcome sign.
The first record of Chernobyl was in 1193, and during the following century, it became a crown village of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The following centuries saw the area controlled by numerous countries, thus ensuring a rich religious history including Christian Eastern Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Hasidic Judaism. As of 2016, the town has a population of 704, compared with 14,000 inhabitants prior to the nuclear disaster. Some of those who were evacuated following the disaster have now returned, despite the safety concerns of permanently residing in the exclusion zone.
The town itself isn’t particularly big, and everything of interest is in a relatively small area. The Wormwood Star Memorial is of an angel blowing a horn, and relates to one of seven apocalyptic events described in The Bible; a great star called Wormwood falls to Earth and poisons a third of the worlds freshwater. Whilst many are eager to indicate the similarities with the nuclear disaster, in addition to wormwood being the literal translation of ‘Chernobyl’ in the Ukrainian language, it’s also worth noting that we’re still waiting on the other six apocalyptic events. The adjacent memorial has less religious connotations, and is a simple reminder as to the number of Ukrainian and Belorussian villages that were evacuated following the disaster.
Memorial to the various towns and villages that were evacuated
Having seen the memorials, we took a small tour of Chernobyl in the minibus, saw where we would be eating lunch later that day, and continued to our next point of interest. In the days that followed the disaster, various remote controlled devices and vehicles were used to clear radioactive debris from the reactor site, in an attempt to minimise the human impact. Unfortunately this process was slow, and as high radiation levels became problematic for the electronics, these machines quickly malfunctioned and ceased to operate. These machines are now on display at a small open air museum on the edge of Chernobyl town.
As these robots were inadequate, it was necessary to utilise human workers. A 600,000 strong work force, consisting of firefighters, soldiers, miners and volunteers from throughout the USSR, was tasked with tackling this unprecedented catastrophe. Collectively, they were known as ‘liquidators’. There is no doubt as to the heroic nature of these brave individuals, particularly to those first on the scene, many of whom received lethal doses of radiation and died from acute radiation poising in the days and weeks preceding the accident. The official death toll of the disaster stands at 41, yet the unofficial figure is much higher. Those who survived have faced an array of health complications, including an increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
The monument dedicated to the liquidators, which doesn’t officially exist, was built and paid for by money contributed and raised by the liquidators. The inscription on this monument simply says “To those who saved the world”.
Immediately behind the monument is a fire station, which is still in use – one of the major concerns in the region is forest fires, which could potentially re-disperse a significant quantity of the original radiation contamination. We boarded our minibus and continued in the direction of the nuclear reactor; soon we encountered the Leliv checkpoint, which was entry to the 10 km zone.
A recent addition to the tour schedule is a visit to site of the Duga-1 radar. I’ve watched many documentaries and read media reports on the Chernobyl disaster, however I had no idea as to what to expect regarding Duga-1. The Soviets, concerned that their satellites would be unable to detect any missile launch directed at the Soviet Union, constructed several long range over-the-horizon radar systems. One of these was constructed only 10 km from the Chernobyl power plant, which for obvious reasons, was an area of high security and off limits to the general population.
As we drove deeper into the exclusion zone on a seemingly endless journey, there was nothing but dense forest. Eventually, we arrived at a small security checkpoint, and the guard duly waved us through. We disembarked the minibus and continued on foot for several minutes, at which point we got our first glimpse of the radar.
This enormous steel structure has a height of 146 m; a few of us climbed up to the first level (which was probably around 7 m), although this was still well belong the average tree height, so didn’t provide any better views. However, it did convey a certain appreciation as to the scale of the structure. This powerful radio signal interfered with broadcasting in many countries throughout the world, which led to several manufacturers introducing mechanisms to filter unwanted interference. It was nicknamed the “Russian Woodpecker” by the West, as it could be heard as a constant tapping sound at 10 Hz. Whilst today it’s a ‘tourist attraction’ on the Chernobyl tour, the plan is to dismantle the structure, although this unlikely to be imminent. More information is available at this site.
The area near the radar had become a dumping ground for both vehicles in various states of decay, as well as scrap metal. The majority of which were presumably contaminated to some degree. Some walls were decorated with Soviet propaganda and slogans. Avoiding soft ground and rigidly keeping to the concrete paths, we returned to the main gate, taking numerous photographs en route.
We made a brief stop at Kopachi village, which is located only 4 km from the reactor. As it was located within the exclusion zone, it was abandoned shortly after the disaster, and uncontaminated soil was used to bury the most of the village. Radiation warning signs offer a stark reminder of the potential danger in the vicinity.
The only things that remain in the village are a memorial to Soviet soldiers who died during the Second World War. and the kindergarten, which we were able to enter.
As you may expect, the kindergarten was in fairly poor condition given it had been lying empty for the best part of three decades; smashed windows, broken toilets and sinks, holes in the floor, could have been indicative of any building in disrepair, yet the kids toys and painted lockers added a tragic context to the scene.
Having read various articles and watched documentaries relating to the disaster, this was my first real feeling of actually being in the exclusion zone. Remembering the black and white photos from my school project, it was quite surreal to be standing 300 metres from the reactor (or at least what remains of it). The constant beeping of the Geiger counter indicating a constant stream of radiation that is emitted from the reactor: an invisible and silent enemy that has plagued the region for the last thirty years.
The destroyed reactor was hastily enclosed in a metal and concrete sarcophagus which reduced the quantity of radiation released into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, this structure was only a temporary solution to the reduce radiation levels, and in recent years has been deemed unsuitable for repair. Consequently, a new sarcophagus is currently being constructed at an adjacent site, and will eventually positioned over the reactor, which should contain the radiation for the next one hundred years.
A concrete memorial resembling a giant hand has been erected in the car park. The inscription, “To heroes, professionals, to those who protected the world from nuclear disaster. In honour of the 20th Anniversary of shelter object construction. 30th November 2006″, is another reminder as to the sacrifices of those involved in the aftermath of the disaster. The radiation absorbing properties of concrete were duly demonstrated as the readings decreased by around two thirds (to 1.36 µSv/hour) when the Geiger counter was shielded from the reactor.
The following article, published in The Guardian, tells the story of Sasha Yuvchenko, an engineer-mechanic on duty at the power plant that fateful night, and the Zero Hour documentary, which aired in 2004, provides a detailed account of the accident.
After the accident the remaining reactors continued to operate until 1992 (Reactor #2), 1996, (Reactor #1) and 2000 (Reactor #3), although construction on Reactors 5 and 6 ceased in the late 80’s (Helen pointed out the unfinished cooling towers and reactor buildings). Unfortunately we never got to feed the famous giant catfish that live in the cooling pond near the power plant, but there was still plenty to see on our excursion.
Pripyat is purpose built city situated only 4 km from the power plant to house workers and their families. Constructed in 1970, it was a modern city, and had a population of around 50,000 prior to the disaster. On the afternoon of the 27th April 1986, the city’s residents were evacuated in three hours, an impressive accomplishment given the chaotic circumstances. In the years that followed, some buildings continued to be used by the liquidators. Today it is a ghost town, abandoned to the forces of nature, a Soviet city essentially frozen in time, and a fascinating place to explore.
With it being February, it wasn’t exactly tourist season, thus we were the only visitor group in the exclusion zone that day. Helen explained that during peak season, Pripyat can get ‘quite busy’ with several tour groups, so fortunately we had the town to ourselves. Having disembarked our minibus at the central square, which is still known as ‘Lenin Square’, we proceeded to explore the immediate area. I don’t find silence particularly uncomfortable, however standing in abandoned town the size of Pripyat is somewhat eerie and disturbing; perhaps similar to the opening scenes of a post-apocalyptic film, except you’re actually experiencing it firsthand.
The square contained several buildings, including Hotel Polesí, a restaurant, the Palace of Culture, a supermarket, and some residential buildings. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to enter any of the buildings here, although there were plenty of opportunities to take decent photos of this bizarre urban environment.
We walked around behind the Palace of Culture towards the amusement park, which is now one of the most iconic images of the disaster. The rusting Ferris Wheel with its bright yellow gondolas, the decaying dodgem cars, and the surrounding area which is succumbed to the forces of nature. The park was never officially opened, as the city was evacuated a few days before the official opening date, which was scheduled for the May Day celebrations.
We boarded the minibus; this time for a short sightseeing trip. Our first point of interest was the swimming pool and gymnasium. These were among the last buildings in use, remaining functional until 1996. A new city, Slavutych, was built 50 km to the east of Chernobyl after the disaster, and is home to the many scientists and engineers involved in monitoring and maintaining the reactor. Anyway, we wandered around the sports centre, which would have been one of the many modern and up-to-date facilities that the privileged people of Pripyat enjoyed. Of course the pool is now empty, so it’s possible to walk around in the shallow end.
A short trip from the Swimming pool and the gymnasium was one of the city’s elementary schools. The corridors resembled a scene from ‘The Walking Dead’ or ’28 days Later’. The classrooms full of dusty books, soviet posters hung on the walls, and gas masks were strewn around the room; presumably as a precaution against a possible chemical attack by the West.
Our final stop was the Fujiyama building on the edge of Pripyat, is one of the tallest buildings in the city, and one of the more recent additions to the tours. After climbing the 16 stories, we somehow exited onto the roof for panoramic views of the city, the power plant (and new sarcophagus), and of course, the Duga-1 radar, which was clearly visible despite being nearly 12 km away.
As it was now mid-afternoon, attention within the group shifted towards lunch, which was scheduled at the local canteen in Chernobyl. On leaving Pripyat, we passed around the far side of the reactor (the Geiger counter was registering high levels of radiation at this point!). Upon exiting the Leliv checkpoint.we were required to pass through radiation control. Photography at the checkpoints is strictly forbidden, and I had no desire to enter into some argument with a Ukrainian solider, so left my camera in the minibus. A full body scanner, which looked fairly ancient, confirmed that I wasn’t carrying any radioactive particles, and I was waived through. The lunch was a fairly simple affair: soup, bread, main course and dessert. It’s necessary to obtain all ingredients from outwith the exclusion zone due to the contamination risk, so everything is ecologically clean. If you want to purchase any souvenirs, there a small cabinet with t-shirts, pens, etc. After our lunch it was time to leave the exclusion zone, but not before another radiation control at the Dytyatki checkpoint. Same protocol as before; and we were all cleared to leave. The journey back to Kyiv was relatively quiet and sombre, as everyone reflected day’s experiences.
Visiting Chernobyl certainly falls under the dark tourism umbrella, and won’t be to everyone’s taste. However, it was an incredibly interesting trip, and an important part of recent European and Cold War history.
For those unable to, or apprehensive to travel to Chernobyl, there is a Chernobyl museum in Kyiv, which gives a reasonable account of the incident.
The ‘protective outfits’ worn by some of the liquidators
Environmental And health impacts
There is no doubt that the Chernobyl disaster had serious health and environmental implications. Consequently, nuclear power is no longer viewed as the solution to meet the global energy demand, although it could be argued it remains an important source for the foreseeable future in some areas of the world.
Many of the firefighters and liquidators working near the reactor would have died from acute radation sickness in the days and weeks that followed the accident. The short term implications of radiation sickness are fairly well defined, and depend on the level of exposure to ionising radiation; symptoms range from the reduction of blood cells, which can lead to anaemia or a compromised immune system, to the more severe gastrointestinal and neurovascular problems. In contrast, the long term health impact are difficult to predict, primarily as the effects of low level radiation on the human body, i.e. below the threshold capable of causing acute radiation sickness, are not particularly well understood. As there has been no previous nuclear meltdown scenario on the scale of Chernobyl, there is no model available to accurately predict the long term health impact (and ultimately the final death toll).
In the years proceeding the disaster and initial clean-up, the absence of human interference within the exclusion zone has allowed nature to thrive and flourish, to the point it may now be considered a nature reserve. This leads us to question how harmful radiation is to the environment, or rather, how quickly the environment is able to respond and recover from such a catastrophe. Of course the radiation contamination was not ubiquitous throughout the exclusion zone, or indeed the wider area that experienced radioactive fallout, and current wildlife data certainly suggests that area is generally habitable. Given the scale of the disaster, this is somewhat surprising; of course the alternative interpretation is that human influence is more detrimental than radiation to wildlife and the environment. There is hope that one day the exclusion zone will become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Realistically, all that various organisations can do is monitor the incidence of health conditions and the environmental impacts associated with an increased exposure to radiation, and record the results. Chernobyl is a case study.