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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Chernobyl: A Visit to a City Preserved in Radiation
The name Chernobyl was first recorded in a charter that described a hunting lodge owned by a Kievan Rus prince in 1193. Nearly eight hundred years later, Chernobyl is featured in virtually every magazine and newspaper around the globe, and is now synonymous with the worst nuclear accident ever to occur.
Text and photos Piers Gladstone

On the night of 25th April 1986 Reactor Number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was to be shut down for routine maintenance. Flouting safety procedures, the workers decided on an unscheduled experiment that resulted in a nuclear explosion in the early hours of 26th April.

The explosion was equivalent to 40 tons of TNT, rocketing 9 tons of radioactive material into the sky. 30 fires on the roof of the power plant were ignited as red-hot pieces of nuclear fuel rained down, resulting in the roof collapsing into the reactor hall. The fires were successfully extinguished by 37 firemen during the night, all of whom wore no protective clothing. 31 died from acute radiation sickness.

At 10 a.m., an official announcement was made over the radio of the city of Pripyat, one kilometer from the plant, that the city was to be evacuated. The town’s 47,500 inhabitants (the plant’s workers and their families) were driven out in 1,100 buses brought from Kiev over a four-hour period in the afternoon. The convoy stretched for 10 miles. The drivers had no idea what had happened and the passengers had been told it was just for three days, but in actual fact it was to be forever.

The immediate death toll would have been much higher, but luckily for the inhabitants of Pripyat, the lethal fallout landed around the city, not on it. Similarly, the intense heat of the explosion lifted the radioactive cloud 1 mile into the atmosphere, saving the inhabitants, although this meant that the cloud drifted around the Northern hemisphere, depositing high doses of radiation wherever it rained, mainly in Belorussia.

After four days of dropping clay, sand, lead and dolomite from helicopters, the fire at the reactor was smothered sufficiently so that it was only emitting daily the same amount of radioactivity that Hiroshima experienced in 1945. This did not stop the scheduled May Day Parade in Kiev from continuing, despite the fact that a nuclear cloud was drifting towards the city. While bureaucrats and politicians in the know left the city with their families, the population stayed on in a state of ignorance.

On the 5th of May, while there was no official information on the disaster, word had spread and the train and bus stations were choked with people trying to get their children as far away as possible. At the same time, there was a core-meltdown at the reactor that released almost the same amount of radiation as the initial explosion.

Nobody knows the exact amount of radioactive material that was released, mainly because the radiation levels in the immediate aftermath were far above the recording limits of the on-site meters. But around 90 times what Hiroshima experienced is accepted as being most likely. More radioactive waste exists here than in the rest of the world and the explosion contaminated 43,500 square kilometers of land in Belorussia, 59,300 in Russia and 53,500 in Ukraine, the majority of which was farmland and forest. More than 350,000 people in these countries were evacuated and resettled; while close to 200,000 continue to live in areas above the official radioactive levels of safety.

The Chernobyl power plant accounted for 15% of Soviet energy capacity and 80% of its energy exports, so there was no way that the authorities were going to abandon the plant. Instead, a 30-kilometer exclusion zone was put in place (part of which included Belorussian territory) and a huge clean-up process was started. During the period of the clean-up, 600,000 “liquidators” (both military and civilian) worked 15-day tours of duty to strip the surfaces of contamination. The budget was not big enough for the entire zone, so just roads and their verges, Pripyat, the town of Chernobyl, and the area around the power station were decontaminated.

150,000 cubic meters of radioactive soil was removed and entire villages were buried in pits by bulldozers. Highly radioactive debris was shovelled off the roof of Reactor Number 3 by hand, buildings were sandblasted, scrubbed and then coated with liquid glass. 11 miles of dykes and dams were built to try and prevent radiation spilling into the Pripyat River, a major tributary of the Dnieper River and the source of much of Ukraine’s drinking water.

The vehicles and machinery used during this period never left the zone (unless they were looted and sold as scrap metal), and became part of more than 20 million tons of highly radioactive waste, some of which is still in temporary storage dumps and leaking into the environment. Disturbingly, not all the dumps were mapped or marked.

Perhaps the most important part of the clean-up process was the protective shell that was designed and built to encase the remains of Reactor Number 4 and the 200 tons of nuclear fuel and waste inside. It took 9 months for 90,000 liquidators to build what was officially known as The Shelter Object, but it is better known by its nickname, The Sarcophagus.

Visiting the Exclusion Zone

The minibus stops at a respectable distance from the security checkpoint and our passports and letter of official permission to visit the Zona Vidchuzhennya are collected and handed to the guards for inspection. The English translation used for Zona Vidchuzhennya is “Exclusion Zone”, although “Zone of Alienation” is a closer, and perhaps more fitting translation.

There is no traffic here, no sign of life. And there is a lonely, middle-of-nowhere feeling. The barriers across the road really feel like barriers. There is a tangible sense of a frontier as I stand and look at the desolate forest-flanked road stretching beyond the barriers and into the distance.

On arrival in the town of Chernobyl we are met by our guide Maxim, who works for Chernobylinterinform, an agency specifically set up to provide information and assistance to visitors, whether they be scientists or tourists. He leads us into a room that has the feel of a school classroom and briefly explains the background of the disaster and what we will be doing on our tour, before reassuringly adding, “There is no problem with radiation for you.”

Maxim is young, enthusiastic, and wears a bright orange T-shirt, which in Ukraine is a political statement. I ask him what it is like to work here. “I have been working here for ten months,” he says, peering around the headrest of the passenger seat in the minibus, which we have boarded for our tour. “Before I took the job, I was very afraid. I didn’t know about radiation, and had thoughts of mutants. But, if you respect the rules, it is safe.”

Our first stop is at the memorial to the fire fighters who lost their lives in the disaster. It stands outside the gates of the fire station, a constant reminder to those who work here now. Maxim tells us that the fire fighters here are the best in Ukraine, and that there is an annual national competition to select new recruits.

After another security check we pass into the 10 kilometer exclusion zone, where radiation levels were lethal. It will remain uninhabitable for thousands of years to come. The roads are rutted, the white lines in the center of the road are faded, weeds encroach from the verge and tracks that lead off the road, presumably to villages, are choked with overgrown vegetation.

We pull over at Kopachi village, now just a collection of mounds with yellow radiation hazard markers sticking out of them. “All the houses were destroyed because of high levels of radiation and then covered up,” explains Maxim. I ask if I can get a bit closer to take a photograph. “It is not advisable to leave the road,” Maxim informs me matterof- factly. On the other side of the road, an old billboard still stands in front of a forest: “Forests are the lungs of the planet,” it proclaims. The irony is bitter at best.

While standing on the tarmac nearby what was Kopachi village, Maxim tells us about the Samosels, the ‘self-settlers’. Several hundred people, predominantly old women, have returned to live inside the zone semi-legally. They are the zone’s only permanent residents. Only three months after the disaster people started to sneak back to their villages. Ukraine’s Supreme Court ruled they had a constitutional right to live where they wished and the government decided to let those over 50 return if they so desired.

As we get closer to the nuclear plant the number of mounds with radiation signs increases while the signs with village names are still by the roadside. Our minibus pulls over at the artificial cooling pond of the power plant. Water from the Pripyat River has to be continually pumped into the pond to stop it from evaporating and exposing 6 SqM of highly radioactive sediment. Nevertheless, the cooling pond is a major source for contamination of groundwater that flows into the Pripyat River, but cleaning up the pond is practically impossible; as there are no funds available, it is too hazardous and there is nowhere to put the radioactive waste.

Distant metallic clangs can be heard from our vantage point a few hundred meters away from the Sarcophagus, an innocuous looking structure. It is falling apart and in need of constant repair. “The workers on the Sarcophagus do 4-minute shifts on the roof”, Maxim explains. “It is highly radioactive, and even with protective clothing it is only safe to be exposed for twenty minutes a day. They are extremely well paid,” Maxim adds with a rueful smile.

More than 75% of the building is highly radioactive. The Sarcophagus has 100 SqM of cracks and openings. Without protective clothing, two minutes’ exposure would bring acute radiation illness, ten minutes a fatal dose. Apart from the 180 tons of nuclear fuel, there are also 10 tons of radioactive dust and 3,000 cubic meters of radioactive water inside. Confinement is the only viable approach to such a hazard and that is why a new arch, 328 feet high and weighing 20,000 metric tons is being assembled by the side of the plant and will be slid over the plant in sections. It is designed to last 100 years, a fraction of the time that this place will be lethally radioactive. What cannot be confined is the gradual contamination of the soil and groundwater beneath the power plant.

The abandoned city of Pripyat is where I have an emotional connection to the disaster. We pass through a checkpoint and drive slowly up a poplar-lined boulevard. The trees are overgrown and bushes encroach on the potholed road, but I can see from my window that this is where lovers would have walked, families would have played with children, walked their dogs or just sat on a bench and people-watched. Instead, the entrances to the high-rises where they would come from are engulfed in a jungle of foliage and saplings. It is almost impossible to see the first two floors of any building through the growth. Nature seems to be slowly reclaiming with total indifference what was, at the time, the area’s youngest and now, shortest-lived city.

We visit the public swimming pool where the multi-level diving board watches forlornly over an empty pool. A pair of flippers lies in the shallow end and the shattered glass of the huge windows crunches underfoot. Everything seems to have been smashed or looted.

At the school I get the feeling that the rooms have been emotively prepared for visitors. Books, chairs, posters and chemistry sets lie about. This feeling is compounded when we are taken to the kindergarten. Small shoes and baby gas masks lie next to painted pictures, building bricks, toys and class photos. It is dark and eerie because none of the bright sunlight can penetrate the dense undergrowth, a sickly green hue invading the dank air.

Driving around various parts of the city, I realise that as long as one looks up, it could be any living city in Russia or the CIS. But with no traffic or people on the streets, with the cracked and weed-infested pavement and the overgrown vegetation, the sense of abandonment is palpable. This is fully brought home to me as I stand on top of a 16-storey apartment block surveying the radioactive nature reserve that is the Exclusion Zone, that the power plant and the city below being slowly devoured by nature. I realise the only sound I hear is that of the wind. It is quite literally deathly quiet.

I have visited ghost towns in America, but nothing could prepare me for the utter sense of desolation of Pripyat. Everywhere I look, I see a post-apocalyptic pre-Perestroika museum piece of a model Soviet city (minus some artifacts) with its abandoned House of Culture, and its fairground, central ploschad, cinema, restaurants and hotels, and apartments still with the families’ shoes by the door. And now it is beginning to resemble an Aztec or Mayan city being reclaimed by the jungle.

The human cost was terrible. The Chernobyl Museum in Kiev illustrates this, simply but graphically, with photographs and personal effects of those affected. Of the 600,000 ‘liquidators’, 4,000 died from radiation exposure and 170,000 suffer fatal diseases. The most heart-wrenching exhibits are the photographs of the children who suffered, predominantly from thyroid cancer, an extremely rare disease. In the decade before the disaster there were 7 cases in Belarussia. Between 1986 and 1998, there were more than 600 cases. In total, 1,800 cases can be directly traced to the disaster in Belarussia, Ukraine and Russia and conservative estimates state that another 8,000 cases will occur in those who were children in 1986.

The financial cost will stand at $200 billion by 2015, and the Exclusion Zone will need to be contained and managed for centuries to come. In short, the human, environmental and economic costs of Chernobyl are a stark warning to those who want to build more nuclear power stations to secure the world’s increasing energy needs.

Piers Gladstone travelled to Chernobyl through Sam Travel,
vul Ivana Franka 40B, Kiev.
Tel: +380 044 238 6959.
Prices vary depending on numbers. For two people, $200 per person.
Chernobyl Museum, prov Khoryva.
$1.00 entrance, closed Sundays.

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