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Published: August 23rd 2009
The amusement park
The amusement park stands in the middle of Pripyat as a reminder of what could have been and as a kind of monument over the disaster
Devastation can be devastatingly beautiful
When we were making plans for our summer holiday this year one of the things that made us choose Ukraine was Chernobyl - the sight of the worst civil nuclear disaster in history. As a tourist destination this is a totally unique experience. In the entire World Chernobyl in Ukraine is the only place where you can enjoy a tour of an area that has been devastated and rendered uninhabitable by nuclear fallout. The word "enjoy" in the previous sentence was not meant as an irony. Chernobyl really is devastated, but it is also devastatingly beautiful. Look through our pictures and we think you will agree to that.
To visit Chernobyl you must have a permit. The easiest way to get one is to join a tour. The tour company will arrange the permission for you and it is always granted. It is possible to visit Chernobyl on your own but it is far more complicated.
The tour started in Kiev. On the way from Kiev to Chernobyl we watched a very interesting documentary about the Chernobyl disaster. The documentary gave some interesting background to what we were going to see.
Vehicle graveyardChernobyl disaster
These vehicles are contaminated and were parked here when there was no more use for them
started on April 26 1986. In the fourth reactor, also known as Chernobyl 4, the operators had been running some tests and in doing these they had shut off the safety systems. Something went wrong and a chain reaction started in the reactor that ended in a massive explosion that tore the reactor into pieces and blew up a massive hole in the building. The reactor was a kind that used graphite as a neutron moderator
. The explosion made the graphite ignite and within seconds a massive fire had started.
The local fire station was alerted of the fire and went to the reactor and started to put out the fire. The fire fighters were trained to put out fire but were not aware of the specific dangers that are involved when a nuclear reactor is on fire. The fire was in the reactor itself and the smoke from the fire was highly radioactive. Also the explosion had torn the radioactive reactor core open. The radiation from the core could now escape making the radiation levels around the reactor lethal. The fire fighters who put out the initial fire in the reactor had within minutes received radiation doses high
When they built the sarcophagus they had to transport large amounts of material to Chernobyl. The ships and barges used for this were contaminated and had to be abandoned.
enough to kill them. Within a few days they were all dead from acute radiation syndrome
The explosion in the reactor and the subsequent fire happened in the middle of the night. Some people in the nearby city Pripyat
were curious and went to a railway bridge not far from the reactor to have a look. The railway bridge is slightly elevated and the people standing on the bridge could see that a fire was raging the power plant half a kilometre away. But they could not see that the core was wide open sending radiation in all directions. On this bridge, half a kilometre away, the radiation levels were high enough to give lethal doses to those who stayed in the area for too long. A few days later most people standing on the bridge had died from acute radiation syndrome. This bridge is now known as Bridge of Death.
After the explosion the reactor core was, for obvious reasons, impossible to control. This resulted in a complete meltdown followed by the release of enormous amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. In spite of this the management of the power plant refused to acknowledge that they had a
Abandoned boats near Chernobyl
disaster on their hands. At first they seem to have tried to cover the entire thing up. When rumours of the disaster started to spread locally the management admitted that they had had an incident but claimed to have the situation under control. This statement was probably meant to calm people but was totally misleading because the situation was far from under control. They had a reactor that had been blown to smithereens and an open reactor core from which radioactive material was being ejected into the atmosphere.
According to the documentary we saw the management at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant did not even inform the highest politicians in Moscow how severe the accident was. The first place outside Soviet Union anyone recognised that there had been an accident at Chernobyl was at Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden. When the morning shift started to arrive on April 27 the radiation detectors at the gate started to register high radioactivity. At first they in Forsmark thought that it was in their own power plant they had a leak. But it didn’t make sense because it was the arriving crew that had radioactivity on them, not the ones leaving. They
Monument to fire fighters
A monument to the fire fighters who put out the initial fire after the explosion. These fire fighters all died from acute radiation syndrome
took contact with other nuclear power plants in Sweden and they admitted that they too were picking up strange readings from radiation detectors. That ruled out the possibility of a Swedish power plant being the culprit. The Swedish authorities soon came to the conclusion that it had to be a Soviet power plant and took contact with the Soviet authorities.
In an interview Mikhail Gorbachev made a comment about the phone call from Sweden about the detected fallout from Chernobyl. He said that the authorities in Chernobyl kept saying that they had had a minor incident but that things were under control. Only when the Swedish authorities called did he in Moscow realise that the situation in Ukraine was far worse than they thought. In his own words “The Swedes
were telling us
we had a problem!”
The authorities in Moscow now started actions to get in control of the situation in Chernobyl. They sent people to assist the locals with advice. But since this was the first time anyone had seen a complete nuclear meltdown of this size they initially didn’t know how to handle it. They realised that they somehow had to cover the remains of
"Eye of Moscow"
A large antenna belonging to an old Soviet radar station
the reactor and at the same time stop the ongoing chain reaction in the core. After the meltdown the uranium in the core kept on “running”. You might describe it as a gigantic superhot oven they were unable to turn off.
They decided to evacuate the people of Pripyat and other towns and villages in the vicinity of Chernobyl Power Plant on April 27, one and a half days after the disaster. Pripyat, a city only a kilometre or so from Chernobyl, had about 50000 inhabitants before the disaster. The people who were evacuated thought that it was only temporary and that they were going to return to their homes within a few weeks or so. Even when the city was being evacuated the people were not told how bad the situation really was. The city Pripyat was so badly contaminated by fallout from the disaster that people can not live there for hundreds of years.
Today Pripyat is a totally deserted ghost town where nature is slowly taking over. The houses of the city are still standing but trees are slowly taking over. Within 50 years or so Pripyat will look more like a big forest than
The sign is fitting because the village Kopachi doesn't exist anymore. Kopachi was evacuated and the authorities pulled down all the houses and buried the remains.
If we understand things right the people who used to live in Pripyat were never allowed to return to the city to collect their belongings. We know from the documentary that they could not bring more than the most necessary things with them when they were evacuated. According to Wikipedia the city has been looted. That makes sense to us because when we visited Pripyat on the tour we could see that people have been there taking things with them.
The struggle to get in control of the reactor went on for several weeks. In the initial phase they threw bags of boron and sand directly onto the reactor core. Boron is a basic element that in a reactor can absorb neutrons. It is the neutrons that keep the chain reaction in the reactor going. By adding boron to the reactor you remove neutrons and can slow down or stop the chain reaction. Or in other words, the boron turns off the superhot oven.
The sand was thrown into the reactor to cover it and stop radioactivity from escaping the reactor. Later on they also threw lead onto the hot reactor core. The lead had
A "house" in Kopachi
Today the only trace of the village is a series of mounds each one topped by a radiation symbol. Each mound contains the remains of one house
the desired effect that it melted from the heat and formed a lid over the reactor. Unfortunately it also had the undesired effect that it also evaporated and ended up in the nature. Since lead is poisonous it added to the pollution around Chernobyl.
When they finally had created a cover over the reactor radioactive materials could no longer escape right into the air. But that was by no means the end of the disaster. Instead they had an even worse situation building up under the “lid”. When the fire fighters put out the initial fire they used water. This water ended up in a large pool underneath the reactor. The boron they had mixed with the sand had slowed down the chain reaction. But the core was still very hot. Heat was also building up in the core faster than before since they had put on a “lid” that prevented the heat from dissipating. It is like when you are running on a warm day and you get hot. If you put on a cap, warm trousers and a thick jacket and keep running heat builds up faster and you get hotter than before. The reactor was now
Reactors 3 and 4
Reactors 3 and 4 were next to each other. The sarcophagus over reactor 4 is to the left in the picture
getting so hot that it threatened to burn a hole in the floor of the reactor building. The red hot reactor core would, if it was allowed to burn itself though the floor, end up in the pool of water which would cause a gigantic explosion.
When they realised that they might face a massive explosion underneath the reactor, an explosion that would spread thousands of tons of highly radioactive material over large parts of Europe, they started to make plans for stopping this. Three divers were sent down in the pool to open a valve to drain the pool. They managed to do this but all three died in the pool. They probably knew before they went down that they were scarifying their lives on this mission. If they didn’t drown when the water in the pool started to rush out they would die from exposure to radiation.
With the water under the reactor gone the reactor core there was not any immediate threat to the reactor. Next step was to install a cooling system under the core and after that the work on stopping the disaster from expanding was over.
Chernobyl had in 1986 four
In the canal there are some huge carps
functional reactors running and two more were under construction. After the disaster the construction work on Reactor 5 and 6 was halted permanently. But the three other reactors, Reactor 1, 2 and 3, had all survived the explosion in Reactor 4 and needed to be restarted again.
To make it possible for people to work in the other reactors they had to remove the radioactive fallout in the vicinity of the reactors and shelter the remains of Reactor 4 to prevent radioactive dust to spread into the air or seep down in the ground water.
The explosion in Reactor 4 threw highly radioactive material out on the ground and on top of Reactor 3. One of the most difficult parts of the cleanup process was to take care of this. In the beginning they tried to use small robots for the work. But the radiation levels were so high that the robots soon started to malfunction. Instead they had to let humans do this work. These humans had to replace robots and were consequently nicknamed bio-robots. To prevent these people from acute radiation syndrome they had to wear protective gear and were limited to work for only 40
A railway bridge over the canal where the carps live
seconds at the time. They were, after having shovelled debris for 40 seconds, sent away for a week to let their bodies recover. After that they were sent in for another 40 seconds. These people could do this 5 or 6 times maybe before they had received such high doses that it was considered unsafe for them to go on.
Near the reactors all the top soil was bulldozed and replaced with soil taken from elsewhere to reduce radiation levels. Many thousands of people worked with this and the thousands of vehicles used are today sitting abandoned in a field. They have been contaminated with radioactivity and can not be used.
Building a shelter or, as it is called, the sarcophagus over the debris was an extremely difficult project. The radiation levels in the area were so high that humans could not move around freely. They had to prepare the building process carefully and the people working with the construction had to make use of protective gear and had to be sheltered from the radiation. In spite of the difficulties involved they managed to build the sarcophagus.
As many as 600000 people were in one way or
Emma in front of reactor 4
Behind Emma is the sarcophagus covering reactor 4
another involved in the process of stopping the disaster and to clean up afterwards. These people, also known as liquidators
, were in many cases soldiers in the Soviet army who were ordered to do this work. In the Soviet Union it is possible to order half a million people to dig contaminated soil or shovel highly radioactive chunks of graphite. If something similar would happen in Ukraine today or in Western Europe or in the US it would be impossible to just order people to do risk their lives doing all this work. But in Ukraine in 1986 they did it Soviet style. The liquidators just followed orders and didn’t ask questions.
The tour we took started in Kiev and the first stop was at a checkpoint where they made sure we had permits. The checkpoint is near the edge of the Zone of Alienation
, the area 30 kilometres out from the power plant that was evacuated after the disaster and still today can’t be entered without permit.
The next place we stopped at was in central Chernobyl, that is the city Chernobyl. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant was constructed in the 1970-ies and simultaneously the city Pripyat was
Ake in front of reactor 4
Behind Ake is the sarcophagus covering reactor 4
erected to house the workers on the power plant and their families. About 15 kilometres from the reactors there was a town named Chernobyl. This town has been there for hundreds of years. The power station was named after this town for historical reasons.
Chernobyl was evacuated with the rest of the cities, towns and villages in the Zone of Alienation. Once Chernobyl had about 14000 inhabitants but is today effectively a ghost town. There are some people living in Chernobyl today but they are fewer than 100. They live there only to keep certain support functions for the power plants and the Zone of Alienation running such as a small shop, offices, a small restaurant and they also run a small hotel. Officially Chernobyl is the only place inside the Zone of Alienation where people live. Unofficially there are some people who, in spite that it is not permitted, have moved back to their old houses and villages. If any such unofficial residents exist in Ukraine we don’t know but Ake has read a book about Belarus and he knows that in the sections of the zone that stretches into Belarus there are.
In Chernobyl we were
Emma with a radiation detector
The readings were running high but not alarmingly so.
brought to an office cum reception building where we were met by our guide. The guide gave us a short briefing on what we were going to see and in what areas we were going to spend the day.
The first real stop on the tour was at a former football field in Chernobyl. On the field there are a few trucks, bandwagons and a few other vehicles parked. They are a few of the thousands of vehicles used in the clean up after the disaster. These vehicles are badly contaminated and were parked here when there was no more use for them. Still today, 23 years after the disaster, they are so radioactive that we were not allowed to touch them.
There is also a big vehicle graveyard with thousands of trucks and even helicopters. We could not see that though because the Ukrainian authorities have decided that section of the Zone of Alienation to be off limits to tour groups. That was pretty much the only place we were not allowed to visit. In the rest of the Zone of Alienation we were pretty much permitted to go anywhere and take photos of anything.
the vehicle graveyard the tour continued a little bit before we stopped by a dam used as a graveyard for barges and ships. When they covered the reactor and later built the sarcophagus they had to transport large amounts of material to Chernobyl. The ships and barges used for this were contaminated and, just like all the vehicles used, had to be abandoned. They were left in this dam and today they are rusting and are sinking to the bottom.
The next place we stopped at was a monument to the fire fighters who put out the initial fire that was blazing after the explosion. They were the first but not the last ones who died from acute radiation syndrome as a result of exposure to radiation due to the Chernobyl disaster.
In the Zone of Alienation there used to be three or four towns and cities and about 50 villages. All of these settlements have been evacuated and are today ghost towns. On the way to the reactors we passed one of these villages, a village named Kopachi. Kopachi was evacuated together with all the other villages. After the village was emptied the authorities decided, as an
"Welcome to Pripyat"
experiment on how to handle the contaminated buildings, to pull down all the houses and bury the remains. Today the only trace of the village is a series of mounds each one topped by a radiation symbol.
From Kopachi we could also see a large antenna belonging to an old Soviet radar station
. The radar station is sometimes called "Chernobyl-2" or "Eye of Moscow". The station was abandoned after the disaster in 1986 and according to the guide operations of the radar station was never resumed again.
After the stop at Kopachi we were driven to a spot where we had a good view over all the reactors at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. In 1986 there were four reactors operating in Chernobyl, reactors 1, 2, 3 and 4, and two more were under construction, reactors 5 and 6. Today the cranes that was used in the construction work are still standing but are threatening to collapse from being exposed to weather for well over 20 years.
The operation of the three surviving reactors was stopped temporarily after the disaster. Later they were put back in service again. Today all the reactors have been closed down permanently.
Bridge of death
On the night of the disaster people stood on this bridge watching the fire half a kilometre away. Few of them survived
the more odd stops at the tour of Chernobyl was just off reactor 1. There is a canal there that used to bring cooling water to the reactor. In the canal some huge carps are living. These are trapped in the canal and seem to lead a good life there. It is hard to estimate how large the biggest were but one and a half meters is not enough. They were really monsters. They can grow to this size because there are no predators in the canal.
After a short bus-ride we were let off at a spot near the sarcophagus. That was the closest we were allowed to go to reactor 4. We were maybe 100 meters away from it. The guide let us use the radiation detector when we were there. The readings were running high but not alarmingly so. There is very little contamination at that spot. All the contaminated soil was in the cleanup process removed and replaced with other soil. Pretty much all the radiation we could detect came from the reactor itself.
On the way from the reactor to the city Pripyat we stopped at the Bridge of Death. From there we
Pripyat city centre
Trees are taking over Pripyat. The house in the picture used to be a hotel
could clearly see the reactor in the distance. Few people who were standing there on the night of the disaster survived.
In the city Pripyat we stopped at three places. The first was in the city centre. There we could visit the old hotel, apartment buildings, a theatre, a restaurant and a few other buildings. All of them abandoned of course. The entire city is abandoned and now trees, grass and animals are slowly taking over. According to Wikipedia at least one building in Pripyat has collapsed due to lack of maintenance. Since many houses no longer have any glass in the windows the deterioration of the houses and buildings will go quickly. Give it 20 years maybe and it will be dangerous to move around in the city.
Inside the houses the paint is peeling off the walls and there is litter mixed with old furniture that gives the place an eerie feel. It is a pity we had so little time to walk around in Pripyat. It used to be a big city and we are sure there are many other interesting places to visit there.
The second stop in Pripyat was the famous amusement
Pripyat city centre
The houses are abandoned. The house in the picture used to be a restaurant
park. It was meant to be opened only five days after the disaster in 1986, on May 1. By then the entire city had been evacuated and now the park stands in the middle of Pripyat as a reminder of what could have been and as a kind of monument over the disaster.
The third stop in Pripyat was at the Pripyat’s public bath. That was the least interesting part of the entire tour. An interesting fact is that this was the only time of the tour where we felt like there was a danger involved. The pool in the public bath is empty and quite deep. If visitors are not careful they could fall into it and hurt themselves.
On the way from Pripyat back to Chernobyl town we went past a place called Red Forest
. That was a forest that was so badly contaminated by fallout from the disaster that the trees turned red, hence the name, and then died. Tours don’t stop at Red Forest but when we passed the guide held the radiation detector out through the window of the bus. After a few seconds he pulled it back inside the car, pointed at the
Pripyat city centre
This house used to hold a theatre among other things
display and said “Out of range”. There is so much Caesium-137 in the soil still today that the radiation detector he had can’t be used there. It is not as bad as it sounds though. If he had put the detector in an X-ray machine it would probably also have been thrown out of scale. But camping in the Red Forest just isn't a good idea.
When we came back to Chernobyl town after visiting Pripyat we first had to go through a radiation detector to make sure we didn’t carry any radioactive dust on our feet and hands.
After that we had lunch at the restaurant and then we headed back to Kiev again. When we left the Zone of Alienation we had to pass one more radiation detector, this time scanning a little bit more than just the hands and feet. Everybody passed the test.
So, is it dangerous to visit Chernobyl? The answer is, not really. There is one exception though: If you are pregnant visiting Chernobyl is not a good idea. Foetuses are known to be extremely sensitive to radiation and if you are pregnant you would take an unnecessary risk. To go
Paint peeling off
The paint on this wall is peeling off
on a guided tour to Chernobyl gives you a radiation dose similar to what you get taking an intercontinental flight or that of having one or two X-ray pictures taken. It is actually a greater risk to your health if you are out in the sun and get yourself sunburnt than to spend a day in the Zone of Alienation. Some people live in the Zone of Alienation today and it doesn’t kill them, though it is not something anyone would recommend. Since they live near Chernobyl they get exposed to radiation. And if you get exposed to radiation for a long time if could affect your health. It’s a bit like when you have your teeth X-rayed at your dentist. The dentist always leaves the room. As a patient you are being exposed to X-rays maybe a few times a year and that is not dangerous. A dentist takes maybe 10 or 20 X-rays per day every day of the year and that might be dangerous.
As we mentioned earlier we watched a documentary when we went from Kiev to Chernobyl. In this documentary you could hear Mikhail Gorbachev in a speech to the Soviet people say that
A public toilet in an abandoned building in Pripyat city centre
the Chernobyl disaster was the first nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev was not telling the whole truth there. The Chernobyl area is unfortunately not the only place in the World where people have been evacuated because of nuclear fallout. In Russia there are at least two other such places, Lake Karachay
. Neither of these are open for tourists though as Chernobyl is.
An odd conversation that could come up in the nights after a visit to Chernobyl:
“I am trying to sleep. Turn off the lights...”
“The light are already out…”
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