Chernobyl: Trip back to 1986
Even though I was not even seven years old at the time, I remember the Chernobyl disaster well. I am actually not sure if i recall the disaster as it happened (information flow was far from twitter like at the time) or whether I remember it from the many Ukrainian children that were sent for holiday to East Germany. Be it as it may, its a tragic event i remember well and recent photojournalistic work by my dear friend Tina reminded me of a long overdue visit.
Short drive in: I booked an organised tour to get all the paperwork to the exclusion zone done. There are in fact two zones – 30km around the exploded reactor and 10km. Details about the events in April 1986 can be found here. After a 2,5h drive from Kiev we arrived at the 30km zone check point. Having been a completely deserted area post the nuclear accident, there a fews settlers back. All old people that usedd to life here numbering less than 100 today and falling as people die of age or nuclear impact.
Radiation varies: This outer zone shows only limited levels of gamma radiation (0.15 mSv) though much more can be found in the ground rendering living off the land a potentially fatal exercise. We measured 24mSv at an old school (30km zone) and even 46mSv in Pripet town (10km zone).
The 30km area might actually self – heal … in a few hundred years. There is no such hope for the 10km one that remains uninhabited though has daily power plant and other commuters. There was, however, no mentioning during our tour of undetected fall-out or forced relocations in the area as late as 1995 in the tourist version we got presented (see here for a bit more reality).
There two mandatory radiation checks on each check point when you exit the exclusion zones. We got a total of 1mSv all day – a typical plane ride can easily be 4. So looks ok ;o)
Chernobyl town & nearby village: 14000 people used to call this place home. Today still some 3000 workers (ex the power plant) live here that deal with radioactive waste removal, science, foresting etc. There are three hotels around for the keen. We visited a monument for fire fighters, a machine park with remote controlled vehicles used to fix reactor 4, saw crosses in memory of 97 erased/deserted villages and a nearby village with its kindergarden.
Chernobyl power plant: The 1986 ‘sarcophagus’, which had been built to cover radiation with an estimated lifetime of 30y, has since 2016 been complimented by a new structure above it. Radiation here was higher at 0.8mSv though still relatively low. The reactor type used here was usually only for army use, but cheap and used for energy even despite its (known) dangers. No comment. Today’s workers here are chiefly busy with deconstruction work that is expected to last to 2065. Ukraine still spends huge sums (5% of GDP) on Chernobyl – money missing elsewhere – taking the total economic cost of the disaster to multiple times the countries economic output over the years.
Pripet town: This was the largest settlement in the direct vicinity of the plant with 50000 inhabitants. It was considered a soviet model town, with well above average salaries at RUB200-300 at the time vs RUB100-150 in Kiev (at the time, the FX rate vs USD was 1:1). Here you find the most striking site – a deserted amusement park. Empty scooter parlour and a large ferris wheel. The latter actually never worked, but legend tells of a few spins just on day of tragedy and within days of the official opening on 1st May 1986. Beyond that you find all kind of buildings in desolate states – hotels, schools, hospitals. Tragic for all those who could never return to their homes.
Soviet radar station: Last stop was a soviet (over the horizon) radar station with the biggest antenna i have come across (90m high, 180m long or thereabout). And we only saw the receiver! These were extremely powerful things (up to 10MW at times, see here) and carried the name Russian woodpeckers from the knocking-like interference they caused. Impressive structure though long decommissioned by now.
Tour to Chernobyl: i booked with the moderately priced go2chernobyl guide company. UAH 2000 for the c12h roundtrip from Kiev (lunch extra). I think there is no point getting geiger/dosi meter, as the guide has one and takes frequent readings. Our guide was very average and lacked any real insight or story. Most about the accident i learned during a movie on our way to Chernobyl and from my friends work.
‘Clouded lands – 30years Chernobyl‘: On the 30 Oct 2016 I received a mail from Tina asking for support for her Chernobyl venture. I helped, no question, and am still impressed by the work she and her friends produced. I copy one of her pictures below, but urge readers to check the whole fotoset & story here: Life after Chernobyl