Abandoned Utopia: a visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine.
Why visit Chernobyl?
I have a fascination for Soviet history and abandoned human environs- and luckily a Ukrainian friend who suggested his homeland would be a good place for a summer holiday- and he was right! I hadn’t watched the HBO series before visiting- I only knew about it from documentaries, books and sadly, an episode of Top Gear.
I can guess what you may be thinking- isn’t it dangerous to visit a place that is radioactive? The standard line from tour operators is a day trip to Chernobyl exposes visitors to the equivalent dose of radiation one would acquire on a long haul airline flight.
Background: The Chernobyl Disaster
There are plenty of online articles explaining the worst nuclear disaster in human history- the effects of which have still scarred the beautiful farmland and countryside and was a contributing factor of the weakening of the USSR and the collapse of the Soviet system in 1991. This National Geographic article has an excellent summary with not too much scientific jargon. In a nutshell for the purposes of this blog post:
The Chernobyl disaster was a nuclear disaster which occurred on April 26, 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyat, Ukraine. At that time, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.
This event was one of the worst accidents in the history of nuclear power. It was rated at level 7, the most severe level, on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The only other accident with a level 7 rating is Fukushima in 2011.
Because the RBMK reactors used at the plant had no containment building to keep the radiation in, radioactive fallout drifted over parts of the western Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, the UK, and the eastern United States. Large areas of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia were badly contaminated.
Around 60% of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus. About 360,000 people had to be relocated, after the accident. In addition, many people suffered from long term illnesses and some people were even diagnosed with thyroid cancer and acute radiation poisoning.
What a day-trip might include:
J and I both used Gamma Tours on consecutive days; visitors to the zone need to be over the age of 18 and sign lots of forms and waivers- so we took turns to stay with Miss E at the hotel, who at age 11 had neither the permission (nor the interest) to visit.
The tour can be summarised as such:
7.30- 8.00 a.m. – depart Kyiv in comfortable vehicles after having met the group and had passports checked.
It takes around 2 hours to get to the main entrance of the zone –checkpoint Dytiatky, where you pass passport control, sign radiation safety rules and the tour starts.
Stop in the village of Zalissya with almost 700 abandoned houses. Our group was able to wander through some of these buildings.
The township of Chernobyl – the busiest part of the zone nowadays. Almost 5000 people work and live there in shifts. Here you can see the main square of the town of Chernobyl/memorial “The Wormwood Star”, Statue of Lenin (one of the few remaining in Ukraine, because it is too full of radiation to disturb/ pull down), an abandoned Synagogue, Chernobyl river port with sunken boats and ships, Memorial “To those who saved the world”, exhibition of original, remotely controlled robotic machines used during cleanup. Then Leliv checkpoint, entrance to the 10km zone.
The village of Kopachi where almost all the buildings were demolished and buried during the decontamination works in 1986. The area is very overgrown now. We stop near the remaining nursery school. Here you can face and measure radiation for the first time and learn more about contamination. The tour guide had a personal dosimeter-radiometer Terra-P, and we took turns at seeing the level of radiation readings.
The car then took us to the industrial site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. We passed by the cooling towers of the Chernobyl NPP 3rd generation and Unit 5, unfinished reactor of Chernobyl NPP
Then some photo opportunities at New Safe Confinement (“Arch”) – visitor`s site at 250 m distance.
The NPP cooling channel and Memorial “Life for Life” in front of the main administrative building of NPP. Also, a Prometheus statue, which was evacuated together with Prypiat citizens.
Lunch (included) 13.30-14.00 (vegetarian meal available upon request), Ukrainian cuisine, all products are delivered from Kyiv. This was served in a big canteen and was delicious! It was a good opportunity for me to chat with people from other groups.
Prypiat – the ghost town. Time stopped there on April 26th, 1986 and you now have a unique opportunity to travel back in time and plunge into the Soviet era. Our professional guides have expert knowledge of the area and will help you explore the town on foot for roughly 2 hours. Please note, it is officially forbidden to enter buildings in Prypiat as it is unsafe. We entered some buildings for a sticky-beak- on the condition that we promise to NOT TOUCH ANYTHING!
You can expect to see all of some of the following:
- Prypiat welcome sign and decontaminated Red Forest area
- Bridge of death (where residents watched the reactor burn shortly after the explosion)
- Prypiat hospital 126
- Prypiat ferry terminal and riverside café with amazing, laminated stained glass windows
- Prypiat town hall –after 1986 – main headquarters for military and liquidators
- Polissya hotel
- The main square of the ghost town
- Palace of culture “Energetic”, the biggest entertainment center of Prypiat
- Supermarket building
- Restaurant building
- Bumper cars in the amusement park which was never opened
- Iconic Ferris wheel, the most famous spot in the entire Chernobyl zone
- Prypyat stadium “Avangard” which is slowly turning into a forest
- Swimming pool “Azure”, which had been in operation until 1996
- Middle school of Prypiat
- Fire station of Prypiat
Upon leaving Prypiat, we were then taken to the Top Secret military base Chernobyl -2 and Duga OTH Radar.
Radiation check at 10km zone checkpoint
Final stop and last pictures at Chernobyl road sign
Obligatory radiation control at 30km zone checkpoint
Back to Kyiv in time for dinner.
Jetlagjane’s day trip to Chernobyl:
We started from the centre of Kiev near the Maidan Square. I was in a small people mover with 2 Finnish boys on a road trip and a boy from Melbourne. I use the word boy because it because it became quickly apparent that between the tourists, the young lady guide and driver, I was the only one who was alive to see the news of when it really happened. Not that the worst man-made disaster of human history really registered with me at the age of 14- I was telling them that the union carbide disaster in Bhopal and the explosion of the Challenger were embedded more deeply into my memory.
It takes around 2 hours to get to the main entrance of the zone from Kiev-below are photos of the checkpoint “Dytiatky”, where we passed passport control, signed radiation safety rules and bought souvenirs.
The first stop was in the village of Zalissya which had almost 700 abandoned houses. We walked down one overgrown street, starting with the doctor’s house and the ‘maternity ward’ and in another saw an abandoned cup of tea, kid’s toys and a playground which with that clown smiley face on the top of the slippery dip would have looked creepy even pre 1986. It was a really lovely village- I could imagine having a perfectly nice life here. ( notwithstanding living under Soviet control and near a nuclear power plant about to explode.)
Prypiat: a walk through an abandoned city
I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to visit such a significant place. A place that had the potential to render Europe uninhabitable. A place which showcased the weaknesses of the Soviet Empire, leading to its collapse. A city in which real people lived and worked, and was then so hastily abandoned. So I want to honour it by doing my best to explain as much as I can about it using my observations and reading.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is located about 150 kilometers north of the city of Kiev, Ukraine and about 20 km south of the border with Belarus. In 1986 it was made up of four reactors that were designed and built during the 1970s and 1980s: the four together produced about 10% of Ukraine’s electricity at the time of the disaster.
Reactor number 5 was being built at the time of the accident; the cranes for its construction are still there – it is too dangerous to move them. A manmade reservoir, roughly 22 sq. km in size and fed by the Pripyat River, was created to provide cooling water for the reactor.
The newly built city of Pripyat was the nearest town to the power plant at just under 3 km away and housed almost 50,000 people in 1986. A smaller and older town, Chernobyl, was about 15 km away and home to about 12,000 residents, many of whom at the time of the disaster were preoccupied with planting their potato crops. The remainder of the region was primarily farms and woodland.
The model city of Prypiat was built in 1970 to house the workers in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The town of Chernobyl was where most of the construction workers came from.
It would have been a really lovely place to live and work.
The town was very well planned with wide boulevards and playgrounds and parks. It had many apartment blocks and a handful of stand-alone houses. (in keeping with the Soviets need for equality, everyone had to live in the same kind of housing). The supervisors had slightly nicer houses, though.
It was on a beautiful river which was used for fishing, swimming and boating. The supermarkets were quite well stocked for a Soviet city because it seemed to be a priority to look after people who worked in nuclear power plant.
Insert gratuitous selfies with iconic Ferris Wheel here…
The iconic Ferris wheel in the small amusement park was ironically never used. It had been built for the May Day celebrations but as the disaster occurred on 26 April, the population had been evacuated before it was ever inaugurated. The May Day celebration still took place in Kyiv (which is one of the many tragedies following the disaster: officials knew how dangerous the winds were yet insisted the parade go-ahead to give the impression that nothing was wrong) and many people became ill from radiation sickness as by that time the wind had carried the poison south to the capital.
The following information about the (criminally) delayed evacuation of Prypiat comes from the book ‘Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy’ (link to an excellent review of it here), which I am still reading by Serhii Plokhy:
“ The columns of buses that had been waiting on the roads between Chernobyl and Prypiat for hours, absorbing high levels of radiation, began to move at 1:30 a.m. on the morning of April 27. Levels of radioactivity in the city were rising quickly. On April 26 it registered in the range of 14-140 milliroentgens per hour, but by about 7:00 a.m. on April 27 it had risen to between 180 and 300 milliroentgens; in some areas close to the nuclear plant, it approached 600.
The original plan was to begin evacuation on the morning of April 27, but officials decided too late to meet the deadline. They pushed the evacuation to the early afternoon.
The evacuation of 47,000 inhabitants of Prypiat took place via 1,200 buses and 200 lorries. Locals were told to take few personal belongings and identity papers, to quickly evacuate as it was thought they would be returning several days later, which was not the case. The buses spread radiation to other locations.
Evacuation occurred with 50 minutes notice.
To some Prypiat citizens, the evacuation came as a long-awaited relief, to others as surprise. Prypiat city radio transmitted the announcement soon after 1:00 p.m.
“Attention! Attention!” came the calm voice of a female announcer speaking Russian with a strong Ukrainian accent. “In connection with the accident at the Chernobyl atomic power station, unfavorable radiation conditions are developing in the city of Prypiat. In order to ensure complete safety for residents, children first and foremost, it has become necessary to carry out a temporary evacuation of the city’s residents to nearby settlements of Kyiv oblast [province]. For that purpose, buses will be provided to every residence today, April 27, beginning at 14:00 hours, under the supervision of police officers and representatives of the city executive committee. It is recommended that people take documents, absolutely necessary items and food products to meet immediate needs. Comrades, on leaving your dwellings, please do not forget to close windows, switch off electrical and gas appliances and turn off water taps. Please remain calm, organized and orderly.”
Can you imagine? Here is an article written by woman who was ten years old at the time. It can give you an idea of the trauma of leaving your home, your possessions, your pets- at a moment’s notice.
We were allowed to walk into one of the abandoned apartment buildings. I went into a couple of different apartment styles, fascinated by how people lived their ordinary lives there. The bottom apartments were larger with three bedrooms and the upper apartments with balconies were smaller with two bedrooms. They would have had carpeted floors and wallpapered walls. The kitchens were very small. When you open the front door of the apartment you look straight into the toilet at the end of a small hallway!
It was a sombre experience; visiting a place to observe and wonder and not touch anything. It has a way of reminding us as tourists that we are only allowed to come and go quietly and respectfully. We are not allowed to be a part of this place, or to make our mark on it in anyway- it belongs to the past and to nature.
As a student of Russian history I also have a bit of schadenfreude about the fact that those brutal men who lorded over the population are now dusty portraits lying on the floor of the storeroom housing the May Day parade props. None of the tour guides know or care who they were (my history book says the one on the left was the local head of the KGB).
I believe that is a fitting epitaph to the hiccup in history which saw a vast swathe of humanity live under such a secretive and controlling system of government. The Soviets were so focused on holding onto their power that they forgot what was truly important- looking after their people.
The poet Ivan Drach, one of the leaders of the democratic movement Rukh, later recalled that “Chernobyl roused our souls, showing us in real terms that we were on the edge of an abyss”.
The only way to safeguard Ukraine from a repeat of the disaster was independence from Moscow. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was powered by a wave of popular revolts in the non-Russian republics. The catalyst of the Ukrainian revolt was…Chernobyl.
In the Chernobyl exclusion zone is also a military base; a Missile Detection Tower was also hidden deep in the forest of silver birch and spindly pines behind creepy star embellished gates and was only revealed to the world when the Chernobyl reactor exploded.
The tour car drove on a road made of concrete blocks- easier and quicker to replace if the road is damaged.
Used between 1972- 1986, it is 750 meters long and truly massive in size and significance.
The ‘Duga’ (meaning arch) used short radio waves capable of travelling thousands of kilometers using a technique called “over-the-horizon” radiolocation to detect the exhaust flames of launching missiles.
Unfortunately for the designers of this system, the Duga systems were extremely powerful, over 10 MW in some cases, and broadcast in the shortwave radio bands.
Tap, tap, tap.
They appeared without warning, sounding like a sharp, repetitive tapping noise which led to it being nicknamed by shortwave listeners the ‘Russian Woodpecker.’
The taps disrupted broadcasts, amateur radio operations and shipping and air communications. It was obvious they were coming from somewhere within the Soviet Union.
The signal became such a nuisance that some receivers such as amateur radios and televisions actually began including ‘Woodpecker Blankers’ in their circuit designs in an effort to filter out the interference.
First sending out its powerful transmission (10 megawatts) in 1976, the Duga-3 was one of three radar installations in the Soviet Union powerful enough to detect an incoming American intercontinental ballistic missile by bouncing a signal off the ionosphere.
Apparently it cost the Soviet Union 7 billion rubles to build it- about twice the cost of the Chernobyl power plant.
Did it work? Was it worth the money spent on defending the Soviet Union during the Cold War?
I guess that we are lucky we never had to find out. I am sure none of the engineers, workers, officials and civilians would guess that the collapse of their entire political system and the environmental destruction of the area would be the result of something much different that a missile from the USA.
Also, the fact that even an amateur radio enthusiast could hear it, it can’t have been too secret.
It is such a huge structure, I asked my guide why no one ever asked about it. It was very hidden but in winter the trees couldn’t completely disguise it. She replied that no one asked questions in case the KGB arrested you for being too ‘curious’. Apparently it was on the official map as a children’s holiday camp, and when Phil Donahue flew over it whilst reporting on the Chernobyl disaster, officials told him it was the building site of a new hotel.
I remember when I was studying Soviet History, there was a theory that Reagan began an economic war of attrition- the massive US spending on military capabilities- and the Soviets had to keep up with them and they simply couldn’t afford it, which was a factor leading to the Union’s collapse.
Now it is crawling with tourists taking selfies. I wonder how all those earnest workers would feel if they knew that their secretive project was now obsolete, rusting away and now a sad anachronism.
Kopachi: the abandoned nursery
Chernobyl: the town itself
To be honest, this day trip seemed to last forever. Not in a bad way, though. There was so much to take in- not just this history of the tragedy but acknowledging that this is still a place where people work and live. Gentle dogs wander around, looked after by the workers, as of course animals can’t leave the zone as they have too high a level of poison in their bodies.
The Reactor and the Sarcophagus
We continued along the road to Chernobyl (there is a chronological anomaly here for narrative flow- I wanted this to be the last part of the post) from the Secret Military Enclave and the first thing I noticed was one of the cooling towers, built to cool the water in Reactors #5 and #6, which were never used. (Looks like big concrete tube from Homer’s work on The Simpsons)
For some reason the boys and I weren’t shown the introductory video, which all other groups were shown- so all elements of the tour came as a surprise to us!
The FAQ section below is mainly from a website and not entirely my own words. The website is referenced below the paragraphs.
1. What caused the Chernobyl accident?
On April 26, 1986, the Number Four RBMK reactor at the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, Ukraine, went out of control during a test at low-power, leading to an explosion and fire that demolished the reactor building and released large amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. Safety measures were ignored, the uranium fuel in the reactor overheated and melted through the protective barriers. RBMK reactors ( the older cheaper model- most western countries used a different system) do not have what is known as a containment structure, a concrete and steel dome over the reactor itself designed to keep radiation inside the plant in the event of such an accident. Consequently, radioactive elements including plutonium, iodine, strontium and caesium were scattered over a wide area. In addition, the graphite blocks used as a moderating material in the RBMK caught fire at high temperature as air entered the reactor core, which contributed to emission of radioactive materials into the environment.
2. How could this happen?
This catastrophic event took place during a routine safety operation. At the time, no technician with an advanced understanding of nuclear physics was on duty. What’s more, no staff knew how to fully implement the required safety measures in case of an accident. (Human error) Poor decisions by physicist Anatoly Dyatlov led his staff to commit more errors. He instructed personnel to override the official emergency procedures, which essentially made the meltdown worse. Politics also played a part in the disaster. Soviet engineers worked in isolation from the rest of the world. The Soviet Union was secretive about its technological developments; there was no knowledge sharing with experts from the West, for example.Consequently, the Chernobyl plant itself was built using outdated technology and posed many problems. Its graphite moderated light-water reactor model, for example, had already been scrapped by Western countries. To make matters worse, the Soviets didn’t immediately release news of the reactor meltdown. Until 1986, the government kept any radioactive leaks as classified information, fearing that such details would cause citizens to panic.
3. What were the consequences?
Not only were the immediate areas around Chernobyl affected, but the radioactive matter was spread by wind to neighbouring European countries, increasing the levels of radiation in the soil and contaminating vegetation. This continued for many years afterwards, and probably still does.
4. Why did containment take so long?
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, resource-poor Ukraine simply did not have the resources to ‘clean up’ the mess, so Western powers offered financial assistance. However, it was not until 2007 that the French Novarka consortium won the contract to erect a 30,000-ton sliding steel arch, 110 meters in height and 165 meters in length, with a span of 257 meters, over the old sarcophagus. Construction of the arch, which needs to last for the next hundred years, began in 2010; the deadline for completion, originally scheduled for 2005, was finally completed in 2018. Its cost has been estimated at 1.5 billion euros, with the total cost of the New Safe Confinement Project exceeding 3 billion euros.
5. Is it safe to visit?
Yes…ish. Lots of people have asked if it is indeed safe to visit the exclusion zone. Tourism has been allowed in the exclusion zone since 2011. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that one may certainly visit the Chernobyl area, a 30-kilometre radius surrounding the plant. Although some of the radioactive isotopes released into the atmosphere still linger (such as Strontium-90 and Caesium-137), they are at tolerable exposure levels for limited periods of time. Some residents of the exclusion zone have returned to their homes at their own free will, and they live in areas with higher than normal environmental radiation levels. However, these levels are not fatal. Just don’t eat the mushrooms. Exposure to low but unusual levels of radiation over a period of time is less dangerous than exposure to a huge amount at once, and studies have been unable to link any direct increase in cancer risks to chronic low-level exposure. So If I wore no clothes and stood with my feet in the soil all day, maybe I would be exposed to dangerous levels.
PS … Goodbye Lenin!