Prior to my visit to Chernobyl I only knew that a major nuclear accident happened there in the past and that it became unsuitable to live in due to high levels of radiation. Now I know that the Chernobyl accident was the biggest and worst nuclear accident in the history of the world.
To understand the post and why was this so catastrophic I will give you some facts:
⊗ The Chernobyl disaster released 400 times more radioactive material than Hiroshima atomic bomb.
⊗ The amount of radiation within the most affected areas close to reactor 4 was 300mSv per hour when the normal average of safe exposure is about 2.4 – 3mSv (0.0024-0.003Sv per year).
⊗ A standard dose of radiation in a chest X-ray is 0.1mSv.
Now that you understand this I will take you through my visit to Chernobyl. Chernobyl is located 130 km from Kiev and it took us about 3 hours to get there in small minibus but it was worth it to see the ‘ghost towns’.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was built between the 70’s and 80’s made of four reactors in total and a reservoir – the cooling pond – to provide cooling water for the reactors and moderate the reactivity.
Chernobyl was a smaller town with about 12,000 people at that time located about 15 km from reactor 4.
What happened in Chernobyl?
On the night of the disaster, workers had a planned test for the reactor; they would switch the reactor down to test a way of cooling the core of the reactor in an emergency. On April, 26 at 01:23 a.m. as part of the experiment, when hot nuclear fuel went to the cooling water, steam was created, then a massive power spike occurred, the core overheated and the first of two explosions happened. Still today some of the alignments of the facts during that night are unknown. The explosion released a cloud of radioactive material that spread across Russia, Belarus, USSR and northern Europe. For 10 days radiation just poured out from reactor 4.
The first’s deaths occurred within the workers there at the time of explosion, followed by the firemen’s that immediately went there in hope to put the fire away. After three months, 31 people died from radiation exposure.
The cleaning up of the radioactivity at the site was carried on by about 20,000 people, that, in the days after the disaster, received high doses of radiation 250mSv-500mSv, and most of them were not aware of the real risks they were going through.
During our visit it was raining heavily and very foggy, which made the experience even more creepy and scary. Measuring the levels of radiation with the Geiger counter (we rented for our trip) made it even more interesting to see that in some areas the level of radiation is still very high, especially near reactor 4.
As you arrive to the first check-point you understand straight away that this is not one of your usual ‘touristic tours’. Since 2011, Ukraine opened up the 30km area exclusion zone to tourists. During our experience we had at least 3 checks for radiation within the zone and had to wear long sleeves, trousers, boots and do not touch anything as recommended.
The tour starts at Dytyatky checkpoint, the entrance to the exclusion zone, moving on to the village of Zalissya were we saw abandoned houses, barns and a shop, it’s impressive how you get the feeling that one day everyone just disappeared and left what they were doing behind.
Then you visit Chernobyl Town where you get to see the workers for the exclusion zone that work for 15 days on and have 15 days off as a safety precaution with the radiation levels. At lunch time we went in their canteen and a very basic soviet food was served but we did not know about this so we packed our own food for the day. There is also a memorial for the immediate victims from the disaster.
After this we continued our visit to ‘Chernobyl-2’ (radar DUGA-1) the secret soviet giant radar antenna to track the launching of ballistic missiles from other countries. The structure is enormous and it’s hidden deep in the forest. It took us about 30 minutes on the bus to get there throughout the forest. There we went inside the ‘missile school’ and the building where the people monitoring the missiles lived in.
We continue to the village of Kopachi that was buried at the time of the disaster as most of the houses were made of wood and cannot be washed. The only thing left behind was a kinder garden that is still full of toys and I must say it’s very creepy with the dolls and the amount of high radiation levels that the Geiger counter is still measuring.
Then we pass nearby the Red Forest, which is now decontaminated but at the time the high levels of radiation killed all the vegetation and turned the area into a red colour. We were not allowed to go into it as the levels of radiation are high.
After this we went to the most impressive part of the tour, the Prypiat town. It was the nearest town to the power plant; almost 50,000 people lived there at the time of the accident. Prypiat was at that time one of the best cities of the Soviet Union to live in, as you learn during the tour. In the city there was no shortage of anything unlike in the rest of USSR (Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic) and because of this a lot of people were swapping their big houses in Kiev for little apartments in Prypiat.
We went around the town, mostly walking when the heavy rain allowed us. We went inside houses, shops, the swimming pool and visit the Amusement Park that never opened. As you walk around you can see that the town seemed a very nice place to live in.
One of the saddest things that you learn is how the accident was covered up by the Soviet authorities for almost 36 hours after it occurred. On the day of the accident, most people had a normal day, children went to school, people went to work and the workers from the plant said nothing to their families at home as they did not realize the dangers of what was happening.
By the time that the Soviet authorities admitted that something was wrong (only because a big cloud of radiation was spotted near Sweden and they had no choice), it was April 27 late afternoon and a lot of people were already complaining of radiation sickness.
Again, at the time of evacuation, residents were lied to, hoping to come back to their houses within a few days, they did not pack almost anything and left their valuables of a life behind.
That’s why when we walked around the town, we just saw everything just there waiting for them to come back to!
The consequences of the disaster were devastating for humanity. The radiation released was mostly from iodine-131 which can be rapidly ingested though air and tends to localize in the thyroid gland.
This is one of the main reasons why you are not allowed to eat or drink anything of the bus when you visit the zone.
Throughout Ukraine, Belarus and Russia there are thousands of cases that may be linked to thyroid cancer, but to actually link this to the Chernobyl disaster is very difficult, because most workers and people living in the zone do not have a proof of how much radiation they were exposed to.
At the time of the disaster the damage reactor was eventually sealed in a concrete sarcophagus intended to contain the remaining radiation and is now being renewed by another sarcophagus by the end of November. We got to see it both, old and new, from about 300m distance.
Even now, after many years of research and investigation, there are still a lot of long-term health problems that the massive radiation exposure caused and at the moment the area will not be safe for human living for at least 20.000 years.
*Update: A new radiation cover for the Chernobyl reactor ruin was officially put into service at the end of November 2016 after my visit.
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