On April 26, 1986 at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine a routine systems test was being implemented. A sudden increase in power output during the test prompted an emergency shutdown. As power levels continued to rise, a series of explosions rocked Reactor #4 which exposed parts of the reactor to the atmosphere, causing them to ignite. The resulting fires sent a plume of radioactive material into the sky and sparked the worst nuclear accident in history.
The city of Prypiat, near the reactor complex, housed the Soviet citizens who worked there. It was a bustling city of 50,000 people and an apartment there was highly coveted. Prypiat boasted a standard of living exceeding that of other Soviet cities at the time, and it is rumored that Prypiat was the only city other than Moscow where the black market perfume, Chanel No. 5, was available for purchase. All of the residents were evacuated on April 27, 1986. No one has lived there since that day.
On May 6, 1986 the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation, or Exclusion Zone, was established. Radii of 10 km and 30 km surrounding the reactor were put into place based on radiation levels at the time. The Exclusion Zone covers an area of approximately 2,600 square kilometers and is managed by the Ukrainian Ministry of Emergencies. The Zone is controlled by a series of checkpoints and access is strictly regulated.
Generally speaking, the radiation levels found in the areas visited by tourists are considered safe. Most readings show levels of 0.15 to 3.0 microsieverts per hour, with a lethal dose being 3 to 5 sieverts. Radiation exposure during a two hour airplane flight at 30,000 feet is approximately 6 microsieverts. That being said, radiation levels vary widely within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and fluctuate due to wind and weather patterns. Ultimately, the choice to visit the zone is a personal one, but children under 18 and pregnant women are not issued a pass.
The Ministry of Emergencies requires that reservations must be made 10 days in advance with an authorized tour company. One, two and four day tours can be arranged and the price varies depending on the size of the tour group and the duration of the tour, typically from 150USD to 200USD per person for a day tour and up to 600USD per person for a four day tour. Strict rules regarding dress and behavior are also enforced. Clothing must cover your arms and legs, and closed shoes must be worn. It is mandatory that masks are issued to each visitor, but they are not required to be worn. Eating, drinking and smoking outside of approved areas is strictly forbidden. Disturbing soil, placing personal items or sitting on the ground, and touching or taking plants and animals is also prohibited.
On Saturday July 14, 2012, twenty five years after the meltdown at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, I boarded a bus at Kiev’s Revolution Square. As the bus made its way north and the suburban houses slipped away, I was initially struck by the beauty of the Ukrainian countryside. Cattle and horses grazed in lush fields dotted with wildflowers. The verdant pastures were broken by dense forests of birch, aspen and pine. Elderly people sat near the road, small tables laden with eggs, honey, flowers, fruits and vegetables for sale. Small towns boasted cottages with thatched roofs and children rode bicycles and played while chickens scratched in the yards.
As we continued our journey toward the first of the checkpoints in the Exclusion Zone, I wondered when the devastation would become apparent: the scorched earth and trees, the mutant animals, the gas masks and ominous signs heralding the universally recognized symbol for radiation. The only signs that I had seen were the ones proclaiming, in Russian, that forest fires are bad. The families picnicking amongst the trees alongside the road didn’t seem to be concerned about the fact that the imaginary line delineating the most radioactive place on earth was just a few kilometers away.
We arrived at the first checkpoint where we met our guide, Oksana. As she described the process of checking in and advised us to take no pictures of the checkpoint, it began to sink in. Perhaps it was Oksana’s heavily accented English which illustrated the gravity of it. It is hard to hear a Russian accent and not immediately be taken back to the Cold War era, especially when that accented voice is telling you to produce your papers.
Once all the members of our group had cleared the checkpoint we entered the 30km exclusion zone. Oksana explained that she is one of approximately 4,000 people who currently work inside the Zone. Critical employees such as scientists and engineers are working at the reactors, but tour guides and support staff filling many different positions also make up the population of workers. People working very near the reactor will work four days, then have four days off. Workers like Oksana tend to have fifteen days on and fifteen days off. They are housed near the edge of the Zone in apartments which we could see from the road; apartments made very homey with flower boxes and curtains fluttering in the breeze.
The outskirts of the Zone are littered with semi-occupied buildings, memorials and monuments such as the statue of Gabriel constructed of rebar and replicas of the robotic vehicles donated by Germany and Japan that were used, with little success, in the containment efforts. We passed by the memorial dedicated to the victims of a helicopter crash and stopped at the one honoring the 28 firefighters that died of radiation poisoning. However, this monument wasn’t reason that we stopped here. It was what lay at the end of the trail beside it.
The nursery school building was overgrown and crumbling. Oksana cautioned us that the floor was unstable. Broken glass littered the steps leading to the front door. Dolls, clothes, and other toys were strewn across the floor. Bunkbeds were made up with moldy bedding. Dusty papers were stacked on desks. Tree branches pressed through the broken windows. The air was heavy with decay and desolation. The few minutes spent there set the mood for the rest of the tour.
We returned to bus to begin the short drive to see the reactor. However, this drive would take us through what is known as “The Red Forest”, so named for the color of the trees in the days following the explosion. The evergreen forest turned a deep blood red before the trees died and were bulldozed and covered. This part of the Zone is considered to have one of the highest radiation levels on the planet. While our driver coaxed the bus to a shuddering 120kph, Oksana held her Geiger counter out the window, and we listened to the frantic beeping of the machine as she read off the numbers. The highest reading was 16.0 microsieverts, but the soil readings would have been much higher, had we stopped to check.
The contaminated forest behind us, we slowed and stopped for our first view of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant itself. Austere and solemn, the cooling towers rose from the river banks and the reactors loomed in the distance. We continued on and stopped briefly to hurl chunks of bread into the cooling channel for the monstrous catfish. They are so big not because of a mutation, but because catfish continue to grow all of their lives, and there’s no one left here to kill them. Across the street is another memorial wall, and a statue of Prometheus surrounded by day lilies. The statue had originally been placed at the movie theater in nearby Prypiat, but has since been moved to the power plant itself.
A quick jaunt in the bus brought us to the epicenter, which is Reactor #4. Shrouded in concrete sarcophagus riddled with holes, the reactor loomed ominously dark, even under sunny skies. Two guards lingered nearby, ostensibly to make sure that we pointed our cameras only in the allowed directions, but it seemed as if they couldn’t be bothered to do much of anything but stare. A hundred meters from the reactor is the construction site of the new containment system. A steel arch measuring 190 meters wide and 200 meters long will cover the concrete sarcophagus and is expected to be finished in 2013.
Lunchtime followed the visit to the reactor, and we were expected at the Chernobyl canteen, where the workers took their own meals. We were obligated to pass through radiation scanners before being allowed into the building. Our lunch consisted of borscht, salad, chicken and bread and was served by stone-faced Russian lunch ladies that would strike the fear of Stalin into anyone. Lunch was quick and to-the-point and we were soon back on the bus for the final and arguably the most interesting stop on our tour, the abandoned city of Prypiat.
To be continued in part two when we visit the haunting city of Prypiat.
Many thanks to our tour company and guide for a very informative and memorable experience.
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