I could write for hours about the trip I was lucky enough to go on, touring the infamous exclusion zone around the Chernobyl power plant. This was something of a bucket list item for me.
I’ll keep talk about Kiev short, except to say that I absolutely fell in love with the little bit of the city I saw. The mix of architecture styles is simply stunning; mainly sort of Austro-Hungarian with large Orthodox Christian churches sprinkled in for good measure. This was only the old town, I didn’t get chance to head out the little island in the river to experience the beach or much beyond the riverside. I’m saving that for a return trip. While in the city I did go round the small Chernobyl museum, complete with vehicles on display outside, but that just couldn’t compare with Chernobyl itself.
We started the tour at the sites of the reactors, viewing the memorial outside for the first 27 victims of the explosion itself. Reactor 4 was the site of the disaster in April 1986 and mirrored in construction to reactor 3. At the time of the incident, reactors 5 and 6 were under construction which was obviously abandoned to deal with the aftermath. What I hadn’t realised was that the other reactors were up and running by the end of 1986, although they aren’t operational now. We saw the control room of one of the reactors, which is rare to gain access to. The control room and the whole reactor building had a very distinct 70s design theme, right down to the wood panelling, lino and that weird beige-y brown colour palette everywhere.
The buildings seemed to be in very poor condition, with ad hoc repairs made only where really necessary. The gaping hole in the floor clearly wasn’t a necessary repair. Even though the reactors were still operational for a while, it was clear that the buildings are destined for decommissioning and not much has been done inside. We were led into an unlit, uneven and otherwise unimpressive corridor only to find that the wall was the closest to reactor 4 we could get as this was the shared wall between the two mirrored reactors. Here of all places, was a memorial to the first victim whose body was never found. In quite a sombre moment, my supervisor’s Geiger counter tripped the alarm, reminding us exactly where we were.
We then went on to my favourite bit of the entire trip- outside the old sarcophagus of reactor 4 and the new tomb that will be slid over the existing structure shortly. The contrast between the old and new was amazing. The new tomb is being constructed on a specially designed jack system so it can be pushed into position, whereupon efforts to decommission parts of reactor 4 can be completed from the inside of this immense structure. Some of the design details are incredible and the scale is vast.
Memorials are a big thing in Ukraine and the exclusion zone has plenty. The main memorial to the Chernobyl disaster is in the town of Chernobyl itself. Along with an angel type being and a scale map of the villages affected, is a long path of all the village names. Each of these villages were evacuated, with some of them being entirely demolished and buried, with only a small radiation trefoil indicating the position of a building. Others remain somewhat standing but can never be habitable again, while others have been repopulated by the “resettlers”, formerly evacuated persons who have decided to move back to what remains of their old villages. There is also a tribute to the Fukushima incident, an acknowledgement of shared nuclear tragedy unique to Ukraine and Japan.
A display has also been made of the unmanned vehicles and machinery used to clear highly active debris off the roof of reactor 3. The radiation levels up here were so high that the electronics of the vehicles would fry, rendering them useless. Eventually in this endeavour, men dressed entirely in lead were sent up to shovel the debris off the roof
. They received 10 years worth of dose in the 45 seconds they were up there before being brought down. Some of these men repeated this job five or six times. They arrived at hospital units in the latent phase of acute radiation sickness, appearing in good spirits and fair health. They died a few hours later.
We stayed inside the exclusion zone overnight at a hotel in Chernobyl town. I was previously under the impression that the exclusion zone was empty but it has a significant worker population, who rotate in and out of the 30km zone around the reactors to manage their dose exposure. The fire service is particularly large, dealing with forest fires so as not to disturb the contaminated, largely sandy soil.
We spent the second day exploring all kinds of abandoned buildings (half built cooling towers, nurseries, summer camps, animal testing labs, prisons, schools, swimming pools, fairgrounds and stadiums) and the now infamous Pripyat. I’ll be honest though, I was quite disappointed by these places for reasons which I’ll explain. The town of Pripyat was purpose built and as such, lacks the variety and character that an evolving town would have. The wide open spaces and layouts make the town feel very hollow and artificial. Some years after the disaster, the town was stripped of all it’s assets in quite a brute force manner. So while some of the degradation of the buildings is due to the ingress of nature and weather, some of it is man made. Add onto this the number of visitors, including photographers, filmmakers and games enthusiasts, who have all moved items around for artistic purposes or otherwise fiddled with the remaining furniture and items, and the entire place felt very artificial. Creepy, but artificial.
The tour concluded with a trip to the huge radar receiver antenna of Duga-1. The over-the-horizon radar system was intended to detect missile launches, although there’s lots of alternate theories if you’re into Cold War conspiracies. The scale of these detectors is just immense and the repeating structures in the glorious sunshine made them a spectacular view. These receivers still stand today because of their location within exclusion zone.
There was so much more to this trip that I would love to cover in great detail, but I fear that wouldn’t make for a good blog post. Safe to say, it was a truly amazing trip and I’d definitely recommend going, especially using the Solo East tour company. I’d caution against going in July though, unless you enjoy dehydration and wearing long sleeved tops in 35*C blazing sunshine.