“You are going to Chernobyl? Why on Earth?”
“Well, if you have to ask that, I don’t think I’ll have an answer that will satisfy you.”
Ever since I heard that it’s possible to go on a trip to the Chernobyl power plant and in the city of Pripyat in the turn of the millennium, doing that has been one of my dreams and Things To Do Before Dying. Why? Well, I refer you to the quote in the beginning of the blog post, a discussion I’ve had several times in the last few weeks. Ever since I was a kid I have been very fascinated with post-holocaust settings and “A World Without Us” types of scenarios, modern ruins have had a certain weird appeal to me for ages, and then then of course Chernobyl is a name that gives rise to all kinds of thoughts and feelings.
I was 11 when the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded. I’d like to say that the moment had a big impact for me, but it really didn’t. It’s a bit strange, since my memory goes really far back to my childhood and Chernobyl certainly affected Finland, which got a big dose of fallout along with Sweden. Somehow, apparently, it just didn’t affect me personally enough that I had committed it to memory back then.
In 2007 I became aware of the new sarcophagus being built over the old one in 2008, when the Ukrainian government also forbid traveling to the graveyard of the military vehicles used in the clean-up. “That’s it for that dream”, I thought stupidly and more or less forgot about the whole idea – until Toni phoned me earlier this spring and asked if I was interested in accompanying him and some other people to the radioactive zone.
ARMING OURSELVES WITH KNOWLEDGE
”Although readers probably understand the basics of reactor technology and why nuclear power is used to produce electricity, a brief outline on the principles of RBMK, PWR and AGR helps to explain the accident at Chernobyl.” – Z. A. Medvedev: The Legacy of Chernobyl
The first step was to pick up some books and actually gather some facts about the Chernobyl disaster and the state of the area nowadays. People generally think they know a lot of about radiation, nuclear power and how things are supposed to be in and around Chernobyl, but they really don’t. Arrogantly enough I thought that too, having read quite a lot of stuff about radiation as a kid. The background research challenged many of those preconceptions, though, and gave me a totally new perspective to the disaster.
There are three books that we can recommend for anybody who’s coming to Chernobyl and Pripyat, or who is interested about the disaster:
Igor Kostin: “Chernobyl: Confessions of a Reporter” – Igor Kostin is a photojournalist who took the only surviving photo of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the day of the disaster. Since then he has been photographing the plant, its surroundings and the people affected by the disaster. This is a photo book with short articles and explanations about the background of the photos. It’s an excellent way to get a very atmospheric overview of the Chernobyl disaster, the area and people around it, and the repercussions of the explosion.
Mary Mycio: “Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl” – Everybody knows that the Chernobyl area is a radioactive dead wasteland where nothing can survive, right? Wrong. Wormwood Forest gives an overview about the nature around the exploded power plant, and reveals the surprising fact that it has actually a thriving and diverse ecosystem, a refuge for several endangered species and affected by the disaster surprisingly little.
Zhores Medvedev: “The Legacy of Chernobyl” – If you want a really technical blow-by-blow explanation about the backround and the progress of the accident and the repercussions it has, this is your book. It was published around 1990, so it’s partly out of date, but the best part of the book is the explanations of why the accident happened from the technical and human points of view, and how the Soviet system contributed to it happening and hindered the clean up efforts. Zhores Medvedev is a biologist and he has worked a the head of Obninsk molecular radiobiology laboratory during the Soviet times, so his viewpoint to the subject sounds pretty solid. The mid-parts of the book are a bit of a plod, with endless information about how many becquerels are there in a liter of cow milk in southern Germany and so forth, but this book is still very much worth reading.
One book we can’t recommend is Journey to Chernobyl: Encounters in the Radioactive Zone. The writer, one Glenn Alan Cheney, sounds like just the kind of arrogant, condescending cock who gives Americans a bad name all over the world. He doesn’t speak a word of Russian or know Soviet culture, but keeps ragging on the English of his guides and getting peoples’ names wrong; goes on about how the locals are stupid for not adopting the obviously superior capitalistic system and spouts out mind blowing idiocies like “[The sarcophagus] was built in a big hurry by people who didn’t feel like taking extra pains to do the job right.”
Our plan was for Susi and I to meet the rest of the group in Kiev. Maria and Olga had been travelling for a couple of weeks already, coming down from Latvia to Belorussia and Ukraine. Toni and Juhana joined them in Belorussia, but we joined the ride for just the Chernobyl weekend. Our trip was uneventful and we spend a big part of the time napping. Helsinki has been hot as hell, the temperatures hovering around +30C and the humidity being through the roof. The taxi and the plane were the coolest places we had been to since coming up from the caves in Wales in the previous Sunday.
We managed to find the right bus in the Kiev end, in spite of neither of us speaking any Russian or Ukrainian (I at least know how to read cyrillic letters – badly) and to get off at the right stop. The rest of the group took us to our accommodation, an apartment close to the Kiev central railway station. It’s apparently a common practice to rent an apartment for a weekend, week or other such short time, since the hotels are quite expensive. Our flat was pretty nice, with really funky wallpapers and regrettably no warm water. Then again, in those temperatures a cold shower was surprisingly welcome. The beds were taken, so Susi and I slept on the floor on mattresses made out of three cushions – which turned out to be cushioned by springs and dry hay.
In the evening we went to meet Maria’s friends and have a dinner with a bunch of people in a Grusian restaurant, where we went totally overboard with the excellent food. Although we had the apartment windows closed and it was stiflingly hot, I managed to get a surprisingly good night’s sleep before it was time to leave for Chornobyl and the Zone.
ZONE OF ALIENATION
In the morning we put on the clothes for exploring outdoors, put together our overnight bags and headed off to the collection point for the trip. Sleeveless shirts, skirts etc. were forbidden, since the clothes should protect the skin from radionuclide laden dust. I also took a spare outfit, since in case the clothes got contaminated, they would have to be disposed of. Our plan was to spend a night in the zone, in a Chernobyl hotel that was originally built for the scientist and workers operating in the area. On Saturday we were a part of a bigger group of day trippers, which was somewhat annoying – especially so when the first moron with a hangover was neck deep in a plastic bag before our bouncy minibus had left Kiev. That aside, the trip was comfortable and we spent most of it watching a documentary about the disaster.
A couple of hours later we were at the checkpoint to the 30 kilometer zone, also known as the Exclusion Zone and Zone of Alienation. It’s the area around Chernobyl that was evacuated after the disaster, and technically nobody should be living or moving inside the perimeter without permission. In practice some of the evacuated people, mostly elderly ones, moved back to their old homes, and there is some illegal logging, poaching and looting.
After a quick toilet break and some bureaucracy we were waved through the checkpoint and we were in the Zone. The signs of active human habitation faded, the road got bumpier and the vegetation more lush. You could notice some ruined buildings here and there, completely overtaken by vegetation. Some of the villages had been completely destroyed and buried, and we drove through some of those. All that was left of a town of 1000 people was a grassy field with an occasional radiation hazard sign on the ground. Without them you wouldn’t have noticed that anything man made had existed there.
TODAY WE LUNCH AT CHORNOBYL
Our first stop was the Chernobylinterinform headquarters in the city of Chornobyl. It’s the department of zone administration that handles visitors to the area amongst other things. We met with our guide Maxim, an ex soldier and a fun guy in a very straight faced Slavic way. He told us about the day’s program, clarified the rules of conduct and had us write the release forms, after which it was time for a big and delicious lunch.
Our first stop was to see some military vehicles that were used in the cleaning works. Their treads and wheels made the dosimeters tick. After that we stopped to admire some boats and barges that were used in the liquidation works and abandoned, because they were too radioactive to be used for anything else afterwards. Now they lie in a small offshoot of the Pripyat river, half sunken.
THE POWER PLANT
The next stop was the Chernobyl nuclear plant itself. On the way there we could see the half built reactors five and six, which were abandoned after the accident, and their cooling towers which we would visit later. Our first stop in the power plant area was a bridge over the cooling water channel, where the workers have been feeding catfish at around noon for years. After people stopped catching them, the catfish have grown to gargantuan sizes – and they are really used to getting their noontime lunch.
It felt weird that we could just drive to the yard of the exploded nuclear plant, which really nearly caused half of Europe to turn uninhabitable to humans, but that’s just what we did. This was one of the moments when I was really happy that I had read up about the disaster, since if I hadn’t known what had happened in the area in 1986 and what that rusting, huddling hulk of a building contained and meant, I don’t think I would have gotten so much out of the visit.
So, there in a distance of a hundred meters or so is a clump of radioactive fuel, with radioactivity of around 18 million curies, in a protective building that’s partly together by just friction and partly leaning on the original damaged structure. At the time of the disaster the core was molten lava-like substance that has now turned into several varieties extremely radioactive ceramic, that has seeped into the plant’s structures. The sarcophagus does what it was meant to do, but barely and not for long. It was the best that could be done in very very difficult circumstances, but still a chilling thing to see with your own eyes. Also, getting the new sarcophagus project going again wouldn’t be a bad idea at all.
On the yard of the power plant the dosimeters ticked measurements of 500-600 microröntgens per hour, or 5-6 micro-Sieverts. For comparison, the normal background radiation is 0.12-0.24 micro-Sieverts (12-24 microröntgens) per hour. To put this in perspective, when you are flying in a normal airplane in the height of 10 kilometers, what you get is 2-7 micro-Sieverts per hour and the maximum recommended dose for general public is about 5.000 micro-Sieverts (0.5 rem) per year and for a nuclear energy worker 50 000 micro-Sieverts (5 rem) per year. So, in the end we got far more radiation flying to Kiev than standing a few minutes in front of the plant. Then again, you wouldn’t want to spend hours and hours standing there…
PRIPYAT, DAY ONE
After Chernobyl we were off to Pripyat, the city of a 50 000 people that was within a couple of kilometers of the exploded power plant. Pripyat used to be a Soviet model city built for the power plant workers and their families. The population was generally young and well educated, there were malls with luxury items that were hard to find in most places in Soviet union, high-rise buildings, cafes, theaters an a stadium – and on 1986 it was fully evacuated in two days and left to the elements and looters.
What makes Pripyat a special place for me is that even now the buildings and structures seem very modern. If any of those houses were transported in middle of Helsinki, nobody would bat an eyelid. And there they are, rising in middle of a forest that has taken over most of the city. Some smaller structures are completely taken over by trees and you can see them only as glimpses through the foliage, but the larger buildings jut up as surreal and very fragile looking relics. When we were driving to the city, we started paying attention to the big trees next to the road being spaced a bit too regularly – and that’s when we realized that we were driving along an old boulevard, with the decorative trees having grown enormous. It’s easy for people to think of cities as separate places from the nature that surrounds them, whereas in reality cities are just little scabs on top of nature, and if left alone, very very transient.
We were lucky to have “only” 34 people in our Saturday group, but nevertheless our pace through Pripyat was brisk. I wasn’t envious to our guide, since keeping the group together was like herding cats. I managed to tune most of the people out very efficiently and I’m happy for it. We visited the most well known landmarks, such as the Hotel Polissya, which offers a grand view over Pripyat from the top floor and the Palace of Culture “Energetic” next to it.
One of the very iconic places of Pripyat is the funfair with the ferris wheel and the bumper cars. There’s also a couple of radiation hotspots in the area. Being made out of metal, the funfair equipment is still rather radioactive, but the most radioactive place is a small innocent looking patch of moss, that puts out at least 25 microsieverts (2500 microröntgen) of radiation per hour. Moss and lichen are very good at sucking up and retaining radioactivity, because not having roots they get all their water out of the air.
After seeing the olympic size swimming pool and one of the schools it was the time for us to head back to the Chernobylinterinform. Right before the end of the trip the hot and humid weather broke into an thunderstorm. Our trip back took us through the Red Forest, the area next to the power plant that took the biggest part of the fallout after the explosion. The name of the forest comes from the fact that the radiation killed most of the pines, which turned reddish brown. The amount of radiation the forest got during the disaster was about 20 times the nuclear bombs dropped in Japan. The current radiation levels can be from one röntgen to ten milliröntgens per hour, which is on the other side of healthy.
The drive past the forest and by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was perhaps the moment that burned into my mind the most from this day: watching the power plant, the lightning flashing over it, and listening to the dosimeters do their “dee-daa-dee-daa” alert sound because of high radiation of the Red Forest punching through the car.
In the evening, when the day trippers went back to Kiev, we had a walk around Chornobyl city with our guide. We did a bit of shopping and had a nice chat about how it’s like to be a guide in the Zone, what’s the life like in the city – and what kinds of artistic freedoms did the Call of Duty 4 makers take with Pripyat. It turned out that our guide is a bit of a gamer too. Speaking of games, the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series is apparently responsible for a big increase in visitors to Chernobyl and Pripyat – according to the guide to the tone of 20% per year.
We finished the day with some champagne bought in one of Chornobyl’s small shops. According to Olga and Maria, who speak Russian, people in the shops were extremely friendly to both us and to each other. The place had that certain small town feeling, where everybody knows each other by name. Apparently there’s about two thousand people living there nowadays, most of them working in some capacity in maintaining or guarding the Zone.
PRIPYAT, DAY TWO
I have to say that if we had left after the first day, I would have been disappointed by the trip – although our guide was good and our surroundings certainly interesting, we were part of a large mob and there was no time or freedom to explore. Our second day was a complete jackpot, though. Now it was just us: from gawkers to Stalkers, so to say. We got an another guide called Dennis and presented him a list of places we want to visit. We decided to skip the lunch so we’d get the maximum possible amount of time to explore Pripyat and the surroundings. We weren’t given a licence to roam completely freely, of course, since that’s against the regulations. We moved to each of the locations by car, but inside we could take our time and enjoy the surroundings.
On the way I noticed one of those places you might not pay attention unless you have read about the disaster: this small unassuming railway bridge next to the town, a bridge with a great view to the power plant. Also nicknamed The Bridge of Death, since some of the inhabitants came there to see the multicoloured radioactive graphite fire in the power plant, and received about 200 röntgens (not milli, not micro) of radiation.
Our first stop was the cooling towers of the unfinished reactors five and six. Those things are the iconic shape of nuclear power. The day was hot and bright, and the two structures were really massive. This time I had my own dosimeter, so I could check out the radiation levels as we moved around. This made me realize how whimsical radiation really is. The thing could be ticking away a background radiation of 0.10-0.20 micro-Sieverts, but after one step suddenly burst into alarm when the level jumps to 3-4 micro-Sieverts – just for a step or two. Some times you could find a reason for that, like a patch of moss or apparently disaster era barbwire, but sometimes there didn’t seem to be no reason at all.
Our second location gave us a bit of adventure too. It was a radio-ecological laboratory that used to be a fish farm before the accident. On the shoreline there were rusting scaffolds for open water fish pens, plus there were two buildings. The first one was a large hall full of nets, tanks and other fish farming equipment, and the second one was a laboratory and an administration building. We found an actual lab in the back corner of the building, full of syringes, test tubes and jars of specimen stored in formalin.
So, about the adventure. Me and Olga were the first ones to find the laboratory, and when we got out, the rest of the group got in with their cameras. We went to explore the upper floor, and at one point I thought I heard someone shouting downstairs. Olga and I got back down, didn’t see anybody and thought they had gone back to the car. When we were leaving the building, I heard Susi shout my name really loudly. We went back to the lab, where the door was surprisingly closed – apparently wind or something had slammed it shut, trapping everybody else inside. There was no door handle and we didn’t have tools to jimmy the door open, so we had to go through it. Olga gave the door a couple of kicks, which made the doorframe crack. I took my turn and put some weight behind the kick, slamming the door open and blasting my stupid face with dust.
I’m a bit pissed off that we had to even that little bit of damage to anything, because I really wanted to leave everything as we found it. But then again, they were trapped – and I can say that I’ve kicked in a door of a radioactive animal testing lab to free my friends who got stuck in.
ROAMING IN THE CITY
The photos tell the story of the day better than words, so I encourage you to go and check out my Flickr photoset of the trip. In any case we managed to visit all the places on our list, and something more. We went to the Pripyat hospital, which was completely gutted and Silent Hillish as hell. There were empty operating rooms, rusting medical equipment, and a large hall with a rotting floor, a piano, and a bas relief that was falling apart. The hospital had a basement, where some of the clothes of the firemen who were the first ones at location are stored. Still now, after over 20 years, the place has radiation levels of 15 000 microröntgens, or about 150 micro-Sievert. We didn’t find the entryway to the basement, which is probably a good thing.
We went to a riverside cafe and dock, where you could see that it must have been a really beautiful place back at the time. Now it was completely overgrown and had those surprisingly hot patches of moss where the dosimeter suddenly beeped up to seven micro-Sieverts and more. From the cafe you could kind of see the power plant, and because the people of Pripyat weren’t warned at all about the radiation danger “to avoid panic”, there had been families spending their day out in the shoreline right after the disaster. Inside the cafe there were beautiful painted glass windows, some remnants of a counter, and an interesting basement passageway.
From the cafe we went to the stadium, which is now practically a forest. When you climb up to the stands, you can make out the form of the field. It had also one of those moss hotspots with a radiation of over 37 micro-Sieverts.
After the stadium we went to one of the 16 floor high rises of Pripyat, an apartment building that commands a truly great view over the whole city. Most of the apartments are totally looted and gutted, with only some pieces of furniture left. On the ninth floor there’s a piano that’s otherwise intact, but someone has taken the hammers out of it. You can still play it by plucking the strings, which makes for really melancholy music. In the empty floor right below the ceiling we found a mummified dog. The guide said that it’s from the disaster times, and maybe it’s true – the upper floor is very dry and airy, and the dog was completely dried out. The dosimeter kept quiet, though. There would have been a kindergarten right next door, but because we are morons, we completely forgot to check it out.
The largest structure in the city is the Jupiter factory, where they used to make tape recorders – and according to rumours all kinds of more interesting and very classified electronics for the Soviet military. It was a massive place to explore and I think we managed to go through about two thirds of it, from the administrative building through the factory floor to the yard. In the backyard there were some busses that had been pushed to their side. I wonder if they were used in the evacuation. The dosimeters stayed rather quiet, so perhaps not.
One of the more interesting finds were the footprints of a largish canine. This made us remember the fact that there actually are wild boars and wolves roaming in and around Pripyat. Adult boars can be quite aggressive, and in the previous day Maxim had told that one time when the guides were looking for a lost Russian, they had noticed seven wolves around the city. That made me pay even more attention to my surroundings, if possible.
The last leg of the trip was Pripyat police station and jail, where we saw the holding cells, piles and piles of supposedly rather confidential police records, the prisoners’ yard and cells, and something that looked like a common room and a visitor meeting area. We had planned on finishing the day by meeting some of the self settlers who had returned to their homesteads, but simply ran out of time, which is a crying shame. We had to be out of the Zone by 16:00, non-negotiable.
When we were driving through Red Forest, I dug out my dosimeter. It went up to 17 micro-Sieverts.
I’ve been in some rather impressive and interesting places in my life, and it has usually been hard to put them into any kind of order, but I have to say that Chernobyl and Pripyat take the top position. There are so many reasons for that. They have their urban exploration appeal and they interest me as a science buff, but it’s also a massive catastrophe with a very human side to it. There are millions of stories connected to the disaster, hundreds of thousands of liquidators who worked to keep the contamination from spreading over half the Europe and Russia, and often paid for it with their lives. There are people relocated, whole communities literally wiped off the face of the Earth. And then there’s the absolutely massive scale of the disaster and the realization that without a whole damn lot of luck and plenty of hard work the situation could have been so much worse. Instead of an abandoned Pripyat we could be walking in abandoned Kiev or Berlin. What was a big surprise for me when learning about the disaster is the potential scale of it, and the small margin it was avoided.
So, what’s my stance on nuclear power? I think that it should be used in place of fossil fuels where practical, but ultimately we should aim to use as much renewable energy as possible, and to cut down on energy consumption in the first place. Saying that RBMK reactors are an inherently unsafe design is true, as is the fact that the disaster was a horrible clusterfuck where the Soviet political and bureaucratic culture played a big part. Then again it’s horribly naive to say that there is no possibility that this will happen ever again. According to Medvedev and Oak Ridge National Laboratory by the year 1990 there had been 238 nuclear accidents that had resulted in a lethal level of radiation for someone – and that’s not counting the Soviet Union.
A catastrophic failure in a nuclear power plant can render half a continent uninhabitable, so maybe we should take a really hard look at that and do a bit of risk-benefit-analysis. In Chernobyl only about three to five percent of the nuclear materials in the reactor got out during the explosion and the ensuing fire, and it was enough to cause serious contamination as far as Sweden, Finland, even UK. If the molten nuclear fuel had reached the roomful of water under it, the resulting steam explosion would have been comparable to a massive nuclear bomb detonation that would have spread most of the nuclear payload to the atmosphere and the surrounding area. You can draw your own conclusions about that. Also fissile material has to come from somewhere and go to somewhere, and especially the first part is often handily forgotten when thinking about the environmental impact of nuclear power.
In any case, now I have seen Chernobyl and Pripyat for the first time and in a very good company. I’m glad all of us in our group had the same ideas of what to see and what our thresholds of discomfort were, which is rather essential in trips like this. I’m very happy that I finally made the trip. I wish I hadn’t been so stupid ten years ago and gone when things would have been in a slightly better shape in there, but better late than never.
There’s still plenty to see in the city, including some of the higher radiation areas, and I’m basically saving the money for the next trip.