Exactly 2 years ago I spent 2 months in Europe, visiting family & friends and trying to decide what to do with the rest of my life.
This is the time I first considered going to visit the site of the (then) largest nuclear accident – Chernobyl.
Instead, I used those few days in a wooden cabin in a forest in Sweden to really introspect.
Which is a little ironic, because it is the Swedes that picked up on higher-than-normal radiation levels in the atmosphere in late April 1986 – and how the accident at Chernobyl was brought to international attention.
Now that “the rest of my life” includes a longer stay in Europe, I have taken the chance to finally go on this tour that I had heard about in 2003, I think. I thought of which of my friends would like to join me – and immediately thought about my ex.
She had me in stitches when she posted on facebook, “Booked a long weekend in Chernobyl with my ex. What could possibly go wrong?” I think it is a great title for a book I would still like to write someday. She was, though, 100% correct – nothing went wrong – we had a fascinating time in Kiev, Chernobyl and Pripyat.
So it is that we found ourselves in central Kiev on 11 October at 08h45 ready to board the tour bus. We did not let the words in the back window of the bus worry us… “godspeed”…
We were a mixed group of around 30 travellers – adventure / disaster / thrill-seekers / whatever-you-call-them travellers. Most were under 40, and from various parts of the globe.
We spent the first 2 hours driving north through the Ukrainian countryside – eyes glued on the TV in the front, right next to the driver’s lucky horsehoe. We were shown the eye-opening documentary “True Battle of Chernobyl”.
It gave a good introduction to the accident when Reactor #4 at Chernobyl exploded at 01h23 on the morning of 26 April 1986. And what the men on site had to go through in the aftermath. And how very (very) close we were to a second much (much) larger explosion that would ostensibly have destroyed most of what we know as Western Europe.
The 90 minute film is on youtube, if you want to see it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Q7w17VSqTM
The initial 28 firefighters that were sent to the scene – without any information of what happened – were all dead within 2 weeks. Only 10 years after the accident was a memorial put up in their honour – we would see it later in the day.
After 2 hours of driving north, we reached the first check point – at the edge of the 30km exclusion zone. This is where we had to present our passports to be allowed into the first part of the “dangerous” area. It is also where those who had ordered Geiger-counters were given their temporary toys.
I had loaned one from a colleague – a very good model it turns out – and immediately started playing with it.
“Normal” ambient radation is between 0.08 and 0.1 microsieverts per hour. This is what we have in most cities and country areas. At the checkpoint we had only slightly raised readings of 0.15 to 0.2.
We continued through the thick forest on both sides, to the sign at the entrance to Chernobyl town – which is still about 10-15km from the actual power plant. Here I discovered the first “Hot Spot”. Along with the cameras, the Geiger-counters came out again. I had readings of mainly in the range of 1.5 to 3.0 (yes!) and even a heart stop moment when a Hot Spot showed up as 5.0. Much like dust collects in the corners of rooms, so radioactive material also settles together. This, and certain plants, thereby creates Hot Spots that get the counters (and cameras) working overtime.
This was the first of many photo stops – I quickly realised that for some participants this tour is like the first game drive for those on their first safari. On your first game drive it is all about finding and photographing the Big 5. You don’t care as much about the chameleon or the fascinating bird. Show me the big stuff that makes great photos.
Similarly here – for a lot of the fellow travellers it was about the highest Geiger-counter reading, mutant animals and abandoned homes. There is so much more that I would want to know.
There was even a quiet revolution on board when a group of guys wanted to head straight to Pripyat, and not see any of the other stops on the way. But they realised quickly they were alone.
But the guide did know where all the Hot Spots were “for your facebook photos” ☺
But I digress…
In Chernobyl itself about 25% of the buildings are currently in use – by tour guides, military, scientists, caterers, etc. They live there for 15 days at a time, with a break for 15 days.
We stopped next to a statue of the Angel Gabriel, and a row of 186 signs of town names. Each of these had been a town in 2600 square kilometre exclusion zone – and all were evacuated and flattened. One (Kopachi) was even buried – all its wooden buildings – until it was discovered that the radiation trickled down into the groundwater.
A wooden fence divides the town of Chernobyl into the safe area and the abandoned area. This is where most of us headed to first, to photograph the houses that are falling in on themselves. To see the unkempt gardens growing wild, and to sneak into a building and take some of those eerie photos. It was immediately clear that many people had been here to ransack and loot the places. But it was still fascinating to see.
There was a funny moment when I was hunched down on the ground photographing this tiny daisy growing out of the radiated ground. While I was focussing on the shot I heard an excited voice behind me, “Did you find something!?” Desperate to not miss a thing ☺
On the way out of Chernobyl we passed the Statue to the 28 initial responders, and then made a stop at a display of the robot vehicles that had been used in the clear-up.
These had been put into use on the roof of the plant to try and push the very radioactive material back into the reactor. But, as basic as these vehicles and robots look to us 27 years down the line, most of these stopped working after a few days. The radiation had affected even the technology.
That is when the men were sent in again – working for 40 seconds at a time on the roof of the reactor in the most radioactive spot on the planet at the time.
Shortly afterwards we were in the location of the buried town, Kopachi. Their Kindergarten building still stands, and it is here where we had the first sightings of the naked dolls in the grass, the solitary shoe in the classroom and the notebook with the disaster date on it.
A part of me was sceptical about how much had been “placed” there for interesting photos. But while I had probably expected to see the beds with bedding, and the classrooms with pens and notebooks on each desk – I had not taken into account that of course there would have been looters going in there over the years.
It was therefore less about the fact that I was expecting it to be “all preserved untouched” from the day of the evacuation – but more the realisation that the child from 1986 who had drawn this picture would never see it again, and would never go home again.
This is also where we had a new high reading at a Hot Spot under a tree: 12.0! But mostly here it was around 1.0 – 2.0.
Following that we drove to a spot where we could get a good “panoramic view” onto the nuclear plant and the reactors as a whole.
On the picture above, from RIGHT to LEFT you can see the unfinished reactors #5 and #6. These were being built at the time – but the site including the rusty cranes were abandoned shortly afterwards.
In the middle are two black blocks with white stacks in front – these are reactors #1 and #2.
And on the left in the silver-grey structure with the tall tower are the remains of reactors #3 and #4.
Reactor #4 is the left half of the building with the lower roof. And the silver-grey colour is the metal sarcophagus that was placed over the concrete cover of the reactor. This was designed and expected to last 30 years. A new cover was due this year, but it has been delayed. And it’s gonna be tight…
On the far left is the brand new, US $1 Billion, cover that is being built, which will be moved over these reactors in 3 years time, we anticipate. This one is designed and expected to last 100 years.
And yet, so very very short.
Because that reactor is expected to be radioactive for 20’000 years.
That means they need to replace that new cover 200 times.
200 times for a period of 100 years each.
Or 10 times the time since Christ was born.
That means that the next 800 generations will need to keep this process going (if you work on an easy-to-use 25 years per generation).
800 generations. I don’t even want to write down how many “greats” I would need to put before grandchild.
Anyway, the water in the canalised river in front was used to cool the reactor, and for a reason I cannot remember was populated with catfish. Now that there are no more human enemies, these fish are said to get up to 2 metres in length!
We drove along the river and around the plant to a parking space near reactor #4. The reading in the bus on the way was 4.07.
We eventually stopped probably about 300m away from the reactor. From the centre of this huge disaster. From prime-evil.
But it was silent. And the air was fresh, and chilly. What was all the fuss?
And then the Geiger-counter started beeping.
It was giving us readings of 12 – just in the air, 300m from the reactor.
And that was the eerie thing, which also confused a lot of the residents in the area: the invisibility of radioactivity.
You don’t hear anything, you don’t smell anything. Without a Geiger-counter you would have no clue or suspicion.
So we stood there, debating whether to smile in the photos in front of the reactor. Pondering how innocent the building looked – like a somewhat run-down factory. Wondering at the necessity of the huge new cover being built a few metres away.
And all the time the yellow Geiger-counter bleeping, “get out of here! Get out of here!” while my counter was borrowed by fellow travellers to take a facebook photo with this inordinately high reading.
Even as I write this I need to take a moment to just pause and take it all in again.
Then we continued to the town of Pripyat. This town of around 45’000 people was built in 1970 for the employees of this new power plant. The town would only exist for 16 years.
On the morning after the accident the town’s residents went about their business as usual. No warning was given to not go outside, to not breathe the air.
Kids went to school and finishing touches were being put to the funfair being built for the 1st of May celebrations a few days later.
On 27 April – a day and a half after the explosion – the residents of the town were told to be ready for a temporary evacuation at 14h00. They were to bring 3 days worth of clothes, and their papers.
Within 3 hours, 1’000 buses had cleared the town – and no-one was ever to move back.
There are a handful of people, mainly elderly, who do remain in the exclusion zone. Those who insisted to return, or who refused to leave. The government has largely made peace with that fact that they won’t leave, and would prefer to have a shorter life, but be “at home”.
But no-one was ever to move back into Pripyat.
The thing that impressed us most was how nature is slowly slowly taking it all back. Without any humans around – the plants are growing wild. Tall trees coming through concrete and buildings. Growing dense right up to the apartment blocks.
Herds of wild horses – with a foal – that live healthy lives in the area.
Apple trees that have bumper harvests that no-one can enjoy.
We walked through the funfair, seeing the brand new ferris wheel rusting away. The wooden platforms rotting.
Stopped at the rusty red and yellow bumper cars that never had giggling children sitting in them with their dad.
We saw 4, 8, 10 storey apartment buildings where life had thrived, which were now empty and soul-less. We noticed that there were no curtains in any of the windows…
We could not go into any of the buildings, but we were at a supermarket that had been looted and been deserted. One of the first supermarkets in that communist country at the time. (This prompted one American to ask a visibly surprised guide, “so where did you buy your food?”).
We walked through the town square with it’s beautiful street lamps and stairs where lovers would have walked, kids would have cycled and parents will have pushed prams with their babies.
And all of these spaces were surrounded by happy, healthy looking trees. Had weeds and plants breaking through the paving and the bricks.
It was eerie to see nature thriving in a space where humans would not. And to not feel or see or taste anything.
The guide made a point of giving the thrill-seekers their photos: Hot Spots that gave us readings of 21.0 and even 42.0 in one area with a lot of radioactive dust… but for me it was about so much more than 30 people with the same photos of a Geiger-counter or a rusty ferris wheel.
I was trying to picture what had been, what was lost and wondering what the ex-residents think about us visiting. About where they are now (most villages were re-settled together in new cities or areas).
Imagine you live there from age 13 to 30. Those are formative years in your life. And overnight you need to leave it and never return to it.
The driver eventually honked his horn, and “godspeed” was ready to go… I suspect he doesn’t like being there for too long anymore.
We had one last stop before lunch – at the fire station where the first responders came from. And where one of the vehicle graveyards is for those trucks and buses used in the aftermath.
We drove back to Chernobyl with a stop at the 10km Checkpoint for a first radiation check. This involves standing inside a metal-detector type contraption with your feet and hands on certain points. This measures your radiation – and we all had the all-clear here and at the second point at 30km.
We at lunch in the canteen in Chernobyl: Borsch, garlicy pork-fat on bread and fish with rice and canned peas.
I had a giggle and a cry when I saw the “free wifi” sign – a tool to enable us to post our pictures from within the danger zone.
Most of us slept on the drive back to Kiev – but I am not surprised. Much like the radiation is invisible – this is a subconsciously emotional day.
Some more thoughts from my journal:
1. We were so close to the reactor
2. Those passengers only interested in going to Pripyat
3. How nature is taking it all back
4. The hand-drawn pictures the children and parents will never see
5. The cover-ups in military and politics at the time
6. All these thousands of people never to return
7. The “excitement” at seeing the high readings – and the “disappointment” at seeing the ‘low’ readings around 2.0 that were so scary a few hours before.
Am I glad I did it? Yes.
Would I recommend it? Yes – but I do encourage you to read up as much as possible before hand. The guides are good – but there is so much to take in, that the more you know before, the better.
Would I do it again? Yes – but I think I would save up and do a private tour. That is more expensive, but if you can afford it, the experience will be on another level.
We did the tour with SoloEast – the leaders in organising these tours. I can only recommend them.