The Chernobyl Disaster
My visit to Chernobyl is going to be very hard to put into words. The magnitude of the devastation which this disaster has left behind is hard to comprehend. As I’m sure everyone knows, Chernobyl’s Nuclear Power Plant’s Reactor #4 exploded catastrophically on the 26th April 1986 causing one of the worst disasters of the modern age. Radioactive fallout spread outwards from the plant at a rapid rate contaminating everything in its path. The radioactive particles would go on to spread out as far as western Europe. Clearly though the radioactive fallout would have the biggest effect on the nearby villages and of course the city of Pripyat only a short distance from the reactor itself.
When the reactor exploded many people from Pripyat rushed to get a better view of the spectacular rainbow coloured flames being spewed from the core of the reactor reaching high into the sky. Rather poignantly one bridge which many people rushed towards to see the flames is now nicknamed the “Bridge of Death”. Anyone who watched the flames from this point was exposed to a fatal dose of radiation. In one documentary a survivor who was living in Pripyat at the time gives a description of what he remembers from the day. He had seen the flames from a safer distance and described them as the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Soon after the explosion at 1am on the 26th April, local firefighters were sent straight in to tackle the blaze, exposing themselves to fatal doses of radiation. Ultimately, they gave their lives for the protection of their town. After 5 hours of fire fighting all blazes were put out apart from the fire in the core of reactor 4 which continued to burn for several more days.
Despite the clear consequences of the disaster, the city of Pripyat was not evacuated until a day and a half after the explosion. Some people had seen the explosion and flames coming from reactor #4 in the early hours of the 26th of April but there had been no official reports about it, only hearsay. Most people continued on with their lives completely unaware of the heavy doses of radiation they were being subjected to. Many people fell sick of radiation poisoning during this time but still nothing was arranged until 2pm on April 27th, a day and a half after the initial explosion. Buses were lined up outside apartment blocks and residents were told to collect only their necessary personal belongings. They were then transported out of the 30km exclusion zone which had now been set up around the plant into a contamination free area. For many however, the damage had already been done.
The city of Pripyat and the surrounding villages were now mostly empty of residents. All that remained were police, military personnel and the men in charge of limiting the damage. In the days following the explosion, various methods were employed in order to halt the spread of the radiation. Helicopters dropped bags of sand, lead and boric acid on the reactor in order to shield the radiation being emitted. Both humans and robots were used to clear radioactive debris from the roof of the reactor. The robots were barely able to function in such an environment and many ended up shutting down. During this time water started to build up under the reactor and in order to avoid a further explosion, three volunteer engineers had to dive underwater to open the necessary sluice gates by hand in order to release this water. They died soon after from radiation sickness, adding to the toll of casualties this disaster had already claimed. All of these methods helped stop the spread of radiation slightly but it was by no means a permanent solution.
Over the next eight months a concrete sarcophagus was built to encase reactor #4. This would reduce the amount of radiation being emitted from the reactor. The construction of the sarcophagus involved a quarter of a million construction workers who all reached their lifetime limits of radiation. This sarcophagus is still in place to this day however a newer one is currently being constructed and will soon be moved into place to cover the entire building unlike the current sarcophagus which just surrounds the core of the reactor itself.
Today, there is still a 30 kilometre (this has been expanded even further in some areas) exclusion zone set up around the reactor #4 to limit public access to these areas of highest radioactive contamination. Within this zone lie the forgotten abandoned villages and also the sprawling city of Pripyat. This city, once thriving with nearly 50,000 people now lies isolated and abandoned within the exclusion zone, completely uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years.
Innumerable lives were lost due to the disaster however the official death toll from the Soviet Union still remains at 31 deaths. It is thought that over 5,000 people lost their lives in the long term due to cancer brought on by the exposure to radiation. In reality the death toll is most likely even higher than this but it is impossible to measure.
There are some very informative documentaries out there which I would recommend watching if you want to get a better idea of the scale of what happened. We watched this particular documentary on the minibus on our way from Kiev to the exclusion zone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dS3WvKKSpKI It is a very poignant documentary but it gives a great insight into exactly what happened.
Entering the Exclusion Zone
28 years after the Chernobyl disaster, tours now run regularly into the exclusion zone visiting Chernobyl Town, Pripyat and even the exterior of Reactor #4 itself. One of my main reasons for coming to Ukraine was to visit Pripyat. For years I’ve been fascinated by photos from within the ghost city showing an abandoned amusement park, huge tower blocks stretching into the distance, empty buildings left to the elements and rather hauntingly, toys left behind in schools. long forgotten and discarded.
Finally after years of waiting I found myself on a minibus making my way from Kiev towards the 30 kilometre exclusion zone surrounding Chernobyl. The only way into this zone is through official tours these days. I would love to have free reign of a place like this but unfortunately the area is heavily restricted and well secured so the only option is to go with a tour group. (There are other riskier ways in but without the proper contacts you are at a loss.) Luckily there were only 6 of us in the tour group though (due to the unrest in Ukraine at the time of visiting, there weren’t a huge amount of tourists in the country) which would hopefully mean that we would be able to get through the earlier parts of the tour quicker and spend more time in Pripyat. Each tour group is assigned a government tour guide who joins the group at the entry to the exclusion zone. Officially you are not allowed inside any of the abandoned buildings in the exclusion zone any more. This directive was issued in 2008 and unfortunately makes things slightly difficult for curious explorers like myself. In effect however the tour guides will show you around a few of the buildings which they believe are structurally safe, unfortunately though this is quite limited.
We arrived at the exclusion zone after a long drive from Kiev city centre. After a quick check of our passports we were through the military checkpoint and joined by our government guide for the day. First up was Chernobyl town itself which lies far enough away from Reactor #4 that it is a mostly functioning town. There are shops here, some small hotels, a canteen, factories and various other buildings. As far as I understand workers here work on a 15 day shift so that they are not exposed to too much radiation but I cannot recall the exact details. We stopped in Chernobyl Town itself to have a quick look at some of the monuments which have been set up in remembrance of the people who lost their lives in the disaster.
After this quick stop in Chernobyl Town we continued on and visited another monument on the outskirts of the town, this monument was built in memory of the firefighters who gave their lives to tackle the blazes in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. It is titled “To those who saved the world”. We also made a quick stop to see some of the robots that were used in the clean up of the radioactive material before continuing onward towards our next destination, the kindergarten at Kopachi Village.
Kopachi Village Kindergarten
Our next stop on the tour was the Kindergarten in Kopachi Village. Kopachi lies very close to Reactor #4 and therefore was quite badly contaminated by the radioactive fallout. The majority of the village ended up being bulldozed and buried beneath the earth due to the high radioactivity here. One of the only buildings to survive is the old Kindergarten.
It’s amazing what still remained in the Kindergarten 28 years after the original evacuation. There were various toys in most rooms, children’s books were scattered across the floor and the children’s original bunk beds were still in place. It’s obvious that a few of the items have been moved around for the staging of photos but other than this it’s amazing what was still left here after all these years. Overall it made for a very haunting atmosphere. We spent a good while here exploring the different rooms of the building and looking through the items left behind by the kids and teachers all those long years ago.
Chernobyl Power Plant Reactors
After too short a time spent in the Kindergarten we got back in the minibus for the journey along the canal towards Reactor #4 itself. Along the way we passed an old cooling tower and also Reactors #5 and #6 which were never fully finished. These were under construction at the time of the disaster and therefore were never completed. They now lie half finished with the original construction cranes still in place surrounding them.
After this short drive along the canal we pulled up into a carpark outside Reactor #4. Here it was, the place where this entire disaster had originated from back on the 26th April 1986, now one of the most radioactive places on the planet. The concrete sarcophagus could clearly be seen on the side nearest to us. Apparently it has weakened considerably since it’s construction and so a new sarcophagus has nearly been fully constructed to replace it.
This place should have been quite eerie but there were workers around going about their business and there were cars coming and going so it all felt strangely normal. Apparently the workers here work in 5 day shifts so as not to pick up too much radiation.
The new sarcophagus was being constructed right beside us. It was very near completion at the time of visiting. Once finished it is going to be rolled on rails over Reactor #4 hiding it from view completely for the foreseeable future. This should reduce the amount of radiation coming from the reactor even more.
At the time of visiting the radiation picked up by the Geiger counter was reasonably high (nothing of any major concern but still noticeably higher than elsewhere) so we didn’t hang around for that long. We made our way back onto the minibus for the short drive to the part of the trip I was most looking forward to, a place I had been waiting years to get to, the ghost city of Pripyat.