Location: Pripyat, Ukraine
Guidebook: The Chernobyl Disaster
Chernobyl tours, visiting the area around the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the city of Pripyat, have been offered for several years now. In the early hours of 26 April 1986, the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred when a botched experiment caused an explosion that destroyed reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Lethal radioactive material was spread over a wide area and an intense fire in the reactor core continued to pour out lethal radioactivity until the concrete ‘sarcophagus’ could be built over the reactor months later. Being the Soviet Union, the disaster was covered up for several days and only came to international attention when the Swedish noticed increased levels of radiation around one of their own nuclear power plants and started investigating. By that time radioactive clouds have traveled across large parts of Europe.
Today the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone covers over 2500 square kilometres of land – much of it heavily contaminated – around the former power plant. Devoid of human habitation, the area is rapidly becoming something of a wilderness. However parts of the zone are open for visitors, who can sign up for organised Chernobyl tours that visit the abandoned town of Pripyat and a site close to the remains of reactor number 4.
Inside the 30km exclusion zone some former residents have returned to live in the area, tolerated but not encouraged by the authorities. Within this area is the modern day Chernobyl town, populated by workers in charge of decommissioning the nuclear power plant. The last Chernobyl reactor was only shut down in 2001 and work will continue there for some years. All Chernobyl tours pass through here first to get a safety briefing and background information.
On the edge of the town a memorial remembers those who lost their lives cleaning up the Chernobyl accident.
The right side of the memorial commemorates the firefighters who first responded to the explosion. Immediately after the accident at reactor 4, dozens of fires blazed in the vicinity, threatening the cooling systems of the adjacent reactor 3 and raising the spectre of a second nuclear explosion. The Chernobyl firefighters extinguished the blazes on and around the reactor, but received fatal radiation doses within minutes. A month later most were dead. Those who went to fight blazes on the reactor roof, directly above the exposed core, never came back.
The left side of the memorial remembers the 600,000 liquidators who cleaned up the aftermath and built the concrete protective shelter (the ‘sarcophagus’) in the following months. Before this could be done, the fire in the reactor core had to be extinguished and the myriad pieces of highly radioactive reactor core, scattered throughout the immediate vicinity, had to be put back inside the reactor building.
Robots were tried but their electronics quickly succumbed to the radiation, leaving the job to 600,000 military reservists, dubbed “liquidators” or “bio-robots”. These men ran onto the reactor roof, collected a shovel of material, and dumped it back into the hole in the roof. The radiation levels were so intense that they were limited to 45 seconds of exposure. Nevertheless, many received fatal doses while others survived but suffer health effects to this day. Many of these men receive no compensation for their injuries.
The 10km exclusion zone contains the most heavily contaminated land and only brief visits are allowed. As well as being covered in radioactive dust and fallout, much of this land was used as a dumping ground for the highly radioactive vehicles used in the clean up process. Chernobyl tours must pass quickly through the most dangerous areas such as the Red Forest, where much of the material was dumped.
The road to the Chernobyl power plant passes the channels used to bring cooling water to the reactors. Opposite are the incomplete remains of reactors 5 and 6, under construction at the time of the accident and destined never to be finished.
Then suddenly, reactor four is in sight. Reactors 1 and 2 on the right, and on the left, encased in its concrete sarcophagus, reactor 4. From this distance it looks innocuous, but the contents of the hastily constructed concrete shell will still be deadly in 20,000 years.
Even here the radiation levels are relatively low – 0.6 μSv/h (microsivierts / hour) – about 5 times higher than 18 km away, but still well within safe limits for short exposure. The real danger here is contamination – or worse, ingestion – of dust or dirt which will continue to expose us to radiation after we leave the area.
The roar passes reactor 4 and the so called Red Forest, where the radiation was so intense it burned the trees. The trees have since regrown, but the dosimeter still screams its displeasure as we pass this short stretch. Abandoned buildings litter this area.
In front of reactor 4 stands another memorial to those affected by the accident. The concrete sarcophagus is slowly leaking radiation and is due to be replaced by another which will last 100 years. It won’t be the last. Here, a few hundred metres from the reactor, the dosimeter reads 2.91 μSv/h (micro-sivierts / hour). Apparently the reading nearer the fence a few metres away is 9 μSv/h – a fact I don’t feel the need to independently verify…
The primary stop on most Chernobyl tours is the abandoned city of Pripyat. Just 2 kilometres from the nuclear power plant, a model town built for the Chernobyl plant workers and their families. It housed 50,000 people and despite its proximity to the plant, it was not evacuated until 36 hours after the accident. It has been abandoned ever since and now stands as if in a time warp, gradually decaying.
The main road in is overgrown and the summer greenery hides the former town square.
Many of the buildings here, including the former hotel and the Palace of Culture, have been stripped by vandals and looters in the years after the town’s abandonment. Despite its reputation as a perfectly preserved “ghost town”, much of Pripyat has suffered this fate. Some families were allowed into the town in the weeks after the accident to collect their possessions, and poor security in the exclusion zone allowed looters to take much of the remaining material. According to our guide the effect is less the higher you go in the apartment buildings – TVs and sofas being much easier to carry from the ground floors than the upper levels!
Inside the gym 25 year old notice boards remember sporting successes, as nature slowly takes over.
The story of the amusement park – due to open on May Day 1986, just days after the accident, is fairly well known. These rides were never used and now stand rusting.
Radiation levels vary drastically here. A relatively low 0.89 μSv/h in part of the amusement, but just two metres away, the bumper cars kick out 2.47 μSv/h – a similar level to right outside reactor 4. I always knew bumper cars were dangerous.
Around every corner long abandoned buildings are slowly crumbling, their original purposes as homes or offices long forgotten.
The former school…
Gas masks, issued to every student, litter the floor. Their presence is nothing to do with the accident – they have been left here by looters looking for the silver used in the air filters.
Before leaving we need to go through this device. Hmmm.
Chernobyl tours are offered by several companies, and it seems they tend to pool their customers anyway. The biggest difference seems to be the length of the tours (2 day / 1 night trips are available) as well as the ability to have private guided tours.