Chernobyl, Ukraine: Nuclear Fallout

Trip Start Jul 28, 2013
Trip End Feb 06, 2014

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Flag of Ukraine  , Kyivs'ka oblast,
Thursday, September 12, 2013

I admit US$160 for a day trip to go stand in a radioactive ghost town sounds a lot but it was definitely worth it.

We caught a bus from Kiev centre at 9am with a bunch load of other people - probably about 20 in total. A very informative documentary was shown on the two hour journey detailing the events of 26 April 1986 and the fallout thereafter. We were met by Nikolai, an army officer who would be in charge of us throughout the day, at the entrance of the exclusion zone which is also know as the "Zone of Alienation". This zone is split into three - 30km; 10km; town of Pripyat.

The town of Chernobyl sits within the 30km zone where radiation levels are low enough for it to be considered a safe place to live and indeed half the town has been turned into living quarters for those who work in or around the area - police, fire fighters, army officers such as Nikolai who assist with tours, workers on the new confinement structure for reactor 4, cooks, cleaners etc. The other half of the town has been overrun with vegetation and wildlife. Those working within or around the town do so on a ration of either 4 days on, 3 off or 15 on, 15 off and are required to leave Chernobyl on their days off.

We were able to walk through both areas. In what used to be the town centre now stands a row of flags indicating each of the towns evacuated and/or destroyed. I'm not sure of the exact number but there were a lot.

Back on the bus we continued on to the second patrolled check point and entered the 10km zone where the reactors are located. Midway we stopped at what used to be a nursery but is now just a shell peering out from behind the trees. Here we had our first indication of higher radiation levels when Nikolai stepped into a hot zone which sent the geiger counter beeping to 10.5 which, at the time, we thought was high having not had much over 0.05 before that (0.3 is Ukraine's safe level).

Within the dilapidated nursery floors were littered with paper, toys and glass. Once bright lockers hung from hinges and bookshelves buckled under the weight of abandonment. Rows of empty bunks were left to rust and toys lay eaten with mould and decay. I don't doubt that certain things were strategically placed for us tourists but that didn't take away from the image of what once was.

Back on the bus we drove on towards the reactors. Reactor one was built in 1977, two in 1978, three 1981 and four 1983 - it blew up 3 years later. A further two reactors were commissioned but never finished, what was built still remains standing along with all the machinery which is deemed too toxic to move and use elsewhere. Running near the reactors is a manmade river used for the cooling systems which must surely be one of the worlds most radioactive due to the sediment laying beneath.

Standing within 200-300 metres of reactor 4 you began to understand the implications faced on the day of the explosion and thereafter. They were basically tackling a radioactive monster with water pistols. Amazing to think what took only a few years to build is still being fought 27 years later.

Moving on from the reactors we entered the final check point and the town of Pripyat. Built in 1970 to house families of the nuclear power plant workers and destroyed in 1986. Located 3km from the reactor the population of 50,000 thousand was only evacuated 36 hours after the explosion. Until then they had been going about their lives as per normal despite fatal levels of radiation, 400 times that of Hiroshima, gushing into the air only a few kilometres away. When they were eventually evacuated they were told it was only for a few days - no one ever returned and they became the world's first nuclear refugees.

Today nothing exists in the town except reminders of the past. A rusty ferris wheel gifted to the city and due to be officially opened on 1 May, five days after the explosion. Bumper cars left mid ride. The hotel and apartment blocks are now home to natures creepy crawlies. But whilst one thing crumbles another thrives and spotted within the debris is a fruit laden apple tree. Natures very own poison apple.

Walking through the town and over mossy stones was both mesmerising and sad. Crazy to think a whole town had to be evacuated in a matter of hours due to human error.

Here are a few things we were informed of during the day, either by Nikolai or on the documentary.

1. The official death count of 31 is disputed due to the number of people who suffered with long term effects and subsequently died from diseases such as cancer.
2. It cost 18bn Russian (which was then approx 1:1 to the US$) to contain and build the current structure covering reactor 4 which has a life span of 30 years (expiry 2016).
3. A new safe confinement structure, which is hoped to last 100 years, is currently being built by the French to cover the existing one at a cost of €1.5bn.
4. It was Sweden who notified the authorities that something was very wrong after one of their nuclear plants indicated an unusually high increase of radiation.
5. Satellite photos showed the explosion which Russia had previously downplayed/denied.
6. Had the second explosion occurred it would have made all of Europe uninhabitable.
7. The highest geiger reading on our tour was 115 which was measured by the bumper cars.
8. The last reactor to be decommissioned at Chernobyl was in December 2000.

Interesting hey. Hard to believe it all stemmed from an experiment scheduled during a routine shutdown. Talk about a monumental human f**k up!

On leaving the zones we were required to go through two radiation detectors to ensure we were all "safe". As no alarm was raise one is to assume we were but whether or not they actually worked is another question entirely.

Finishing off with something less serious I wanted to share my two favourite comments of the day:

1. "Did they have a football team?" Question raised by an Englishman when referring to the destroyed town of Pripyat.
2. "Look, I've just photographed a radioactive tree." Comment made by another man to Nikolai who responded "No, that's just another tree."

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