Short history lesson (skip below for pictures and story of visit)
In 1986 something unimaginable happened. No person in history could predict that humans could leave a mark like this: an invisible 30km (19m) circle in Ukraine was unlivable for 20,000 years.
During the morning of 26 April the forth reactor of the Chernobyl complex was scheduled for routine shutdown. The plant leadership thought that it would be a convenient time to circumvent the usual protocol and for the first time test risky emergency procedures. The test failed and uncovered some crucial design flaws – but it was too late. The core of the reactor exploded, spewing radioactive material it into the air like the most deadly fountain in history. An emergency was declared, 31 fire fighters arrived and were exposed to lethal levels of radiation immediately. The next day, 53,000 people were evacuated from the cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat with hours of notice. The citizens were told they could return in three days, but were never allowed back. Reality hit the world; the safe days of nuclear power were over.
The wind immediately started carrying deadly particles of radiation around the world. The USSR didn’t even tell anyone until two days later when sensors in Sweden (1000km away) reported a spike in radiation levels.
Somewhere up to 250,000 people were sent to help clean up the site over the next two years. In some places, radiation levels were so high that they were only allowed to work 1 minute at a time before taking a break. Attempts were made to cleanup or neutralize the 180 metric tons of radioactive material trapped in the reactor, but they were futile. The only possibility was to initiate the “largest civil engineering task in history” and cover the site with the with a massive concrete sarcophagus to surround the reactor. Today, the sarcophagus is still protecting the world from unstable sludge of radiation.
Hunting parties were sent out in the 30km area to kill every living animal they could find, because of a fear of deformities. Haunting pictures of three legged animals are on display at the visitor’s center. Months after the accident, all trees directly downwind of the reactor died at the same time and turned a reddish-brown color. The “red forest” is still today one of the most contaminated areas on the face of the earth. Sadly, Belarus, the country which borders Ukraine to the north received over 60% of the radiation fallout. Wild boar in Germany are still found today with excessive radiation levels.
The health effects are virtually unmeasurable, and widely debated, but the estimates are:
- Immediately: about 50 workers killed from acute-radiation poisoning
- Regionally: a total of 5000-9000 deaths due to radiation or fatal cancers
- Worldwide: an estimated total of “985,000 premature deaths as a result of the radioactivity released” (who knows how they came up with that number)
You’ve likely breathed in contaminated air from Chernobyl at some point. The most surprising fact is that there are three other reactors on the site that kept running. Due to Ukraine’s electricity needs, they kept the other reactors (with the same design flaws) operating. In fact, they ran the last reactor until the year 2000, 14 years after the accident.
Our visit to Chernobyl
Today, the site remains restricted with both 10km and 30km checkpoints to control entrance. In 2011, the area was opened up to a limited amount of visitors if they book through approved tour providers and each person must receive a government permit. In July 2012, I and two others got a chance to visit the area.
The story started as a internet fraud warning on 60 Minutes – I sent an email to one of the tour companies and got a quick response. They thought they could get us the government permit with short-notice, but they needed $60 to confirm our reservation. I sent the money, waited anxiously for four days and finally heard we were in. We were told to meet a man in a white van outside of a hotel on Saturday morning at 9. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirt, shoes fit for walking on broken glass, and bring cash for the rest of payment that was due.
We showed up on time, to meet a person who promptly collected our money. We headed off in the
white van, with a non-English speaking driver, and met the three other people on the tour: 2 Americans from San Francisco and a older French man. We weren’t too thrilled because it was a dark and cloudy day with occasional showers. Maybe it would clear up on the drive.
After 90 minutes of snaking through small villages in rural Ukraine, we were at the first 30km checkpoint. We drove a little bit more and reached the 10km checkpoint and the rules were read to us. Don’t touch anything, don’t leave the group, don’t take pictures of certain things, and you could be detained if you get contaminated or violate the rules. As our guide was telling us not to worry about the radiation, we made a stop to change shoes and grab two Geiger counters – one for her and one for us. Yes, of course. Don’t worry about anything.
Our second stop was the entrance to the city of Chernobyl which was not as contaminated as some of the other cities because of the wind pattern during the explosion. It’s a pretty small and very quiet town with a couple dozen buildings in sight (including a bright green cantine). Some of the workers and tour staff live in apartments here but for no more than 14 days per month.
The second stop was an abandoned school where things started to get spookier. I’m surprised that the floor hadn’t caved in while we were there. You could still see the class roster on one of the walls. There were books and toys, which would never again be used by a child, scattered all over. You could tell it had been looted, but there was still a lot left.
We kept driving and had our first stop within view of the actual reactors. They are very sensitive to taking pictures at certain angles, so after this stop, when we were driving ~100m away from the reactor where you could see some more of the infrastructure and other parts that are now abandoned.
Our geiger counters started to pick up intensity – we were moving in the direction of the heaviest fallout zone. We passed the red forest, which is still today the most radioactive place on earth. It’s called that because several weeks after the accident, all of the trees in this forest turned red and died. We also passed over a bridge raised above train tracks where many of the residents were evacuated from.
Our next stop, and most interesting, was the ghost town of Prip’yat. This town was built to house most of the workers and families of the Chernobyl complex, about 50,000 people lived there.
We weren’t supposed to enter the buildings because of the radiation level or getting hurt or something, but they weren’t too strict on the rules as you can tell. Dodging broken glass, sharp exposed metal pieces, random holes in the ground, and crumbling cement we got a first-hand view of what years of neglect can do to our precious untouchable society. In many cases, it was clear that the buildings were looted and valuables stolen. Many times there were rooms full of chairs, electronics, pianos, furniture, and filing cabinets left to rot.
Oddly enough, the main warning was to avoid stepping on the moss and any vegetation, as the plants have an affinity to absorbing the radioactive isotopes. It was clear based on the geiger counter readings that this was true, but it was virtually impossible to avoid the vegetation. Moss was everywhere.
The next stop was the abandoned amusement park that was slated to open days after the disaster happened. No child ever used the iconic ferris wheel that now stands there, locked in time, rusting away day by day, soon to be just a speck of radioactive dust and memories.
We left the city of Pripyat to the next stop – the cantine for lunch. Yes, the tour included a traditional Ukrainian lunch (think borscht) on-site, conveniently located about 1km from the reactor complex. Sound weird to be eating so close to the disaster, but don’t worry, it’s on the side that didn’t get fallout and the food is shipped in daily so they can feed the reactor staff and any visitors. To ensure you are not overly contaminated, you get screened on the way in… and they let you wash your hands with soap.
If you have any leftover bread from lunch – you are directed to bring it. We are off to go feed fish from a bridge spanning a canal that circles the complex. These aren’t just any fish – these are monster catfish the size of small sharks. Why are they so big? Interestingly enough, it is not due to the radiation, but rather they are just thriving in the deserted environment. Two tips: they only like white bread (not brown) and it’s really fun to hit them in the nose with a big piece of bread. Sorry – I didn’t get any good pictures here.
We proceeded to the memorial honoring the 31 firefighters that lost their lives and rushed in to save the day. We were not allowed to take pictures of the reactor from this angle for security reasons.
We all solemnly hopped back into the van where we drove on a new route with the the four reactor complex to the left of us and the river to the right of us. Surreal to see a giant natural river right next to a series of reactors. We arrived at the final stop – the viewpoint of the sarcophagus from 200m. It was crazy how close we were to the reactor – you could see the details of the structure that was built as quickly as possible during post-apocalyptic conditions. It is definitely showing signs of aging, but surprising well built all things considered. To the right (not pictured or you would get arrested) was the new super-sarcophagus that was being built to protect the reactor long term. The geiger counters were going crazy at this point.
We said goodbye to Chernobyl and took one last breath of the fresh air before we hit the road. Our final stop was a sad, sad convenience store that had four hideously designed “souvenirs”: hats, shirts, coffee mugs, and lighters.
On the ninety minute drive back to Kyiv, we took some time to reflect on the visit, but it was almost too much to process right away – perhaps we even had a small PTSD. There’s something about a bond formed while exploring an abandoned nuclear site that can’t really be described… except in the back of the van, in true Ukrainian form over a bottle of vodka and some imitation crab flavored croutons.
(a couple of photo credits to Danny and Johnny)