Chapter 12 – Chernobyl

One of the main reasons for going to Ukraine, other than getting the passport stamp, was to visit Chernobyl and Pripyat and get an understanding of the disaster and how it affected everyone involved. The plan was to visit the museum in Kyiv a day or two before and then do the full day tour to Chernobyl. This has been one of the most difficult chapters for us to put together. Trying to find the balance between being informative without being overly technical, sharing what we did without going step by step and explaining how we felt as we went along without boring everyone to tears has been very difficult. Part of it is due to the lack of consistent information, rollover from the soviet days, but also simply the fact that we did just move from one place to another stopping for a photo and then moving on.

Site of Reactor 4 now with New Safe Confinement

So for those who don’t know much about it, in the most simplistic form the disaster unfolded like this. On the evening of the 25th of April, Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, around 110km north of Kyiv, was undergoing some test procedures, as part of the test procedures they shut down the majority of the safety systems of the reactor. As they undertook the testing there was a massive surge of power in the reactor in the early hours of the 26th. This lead to an explosion within the reactor core, and with no hard containment around the reactor a fire caused the spread and dispersion of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Within minutes of the explosions emergencies crews were on site but no one, including the engineers and supervisors working on the plant realised how serious the damage was, particularly in regards to the radiation. This resulted in around 30 people dying from acute radiation poisoning within a few weeks. The number of people who have died or been affected by the radiation widely varies depending on who you’re speaking to.

The Town of Pripyat

Pripyat was a purpose built city only a few kms to house around 50,000 workers and their families of the plant. They were eventually evacuated on the afternoon of the 27th, 36 hours after the event had occurred. The residents were left unaware of any real dangers posed and were told that they would only be evacuated for 3 days. It wasn’t until the morning of the 28th when anyone outside of the Soviet Union had any idea of the incident when a nuclear plant in Sweden noticed spikes in their radiation levels. Eventually they worked out it was coming from somewhere within the Soviet Union. To put it into perspective, there was 400 times more radioactive material released at Chernobyl than in the bombing of Hiroshima. The fires would go on for 9 days, continually spraying radioactive material into the atmosphere which would spread across the USSR and Europe.

Abandoned kindagarten

The day before the tour we went to Chernobyl Museum to learn a bit more in detail of the disaster.  The exhibition has an amazing number of artefacts and shows some quite detailed information about the people involved and some of their personal belongings. While it was definitely worth a visit as it gives a good perspective on the enormity of the situation, there wasn’t enough information about the technical side of the incident and how/why it occurred. It was initially blamed on operator error but this was revised to a few years later which shifted the blame onto poor design and construction of the reactor. We also thought that it was very light on with details about acute radiation poisoning and the lasting health effects, probably because they don’t want to admit how bad it was or how many people were really affected by it.

Old rolled bus

The biggest question when doing something like this is always, is it safe? In a nutshell, a day trip to Chernobyl exposes one to the same amount of radiation as an intercontinental flight. The workers inside the 10km exclusion zone are allowed to work for 5 hours per day for a month before having 15 days off. We had to take some precautions whilst on the tour, we couldn’t risk touching anything or having any of our personal effects (e.g. camera) touch anything as it may become contaminated, we had to go through a radiation scanner upon leaving and if something was contaminated it had to be left behind. We travelled with a geiger counter the whole time and our guide was able to show us the occasional hot spot.

Left overs in the school

The tour took us within the 30km and 10km exclusion zones which were set up after the accident. These are strictly guarded, we had to present our passport to be let in. There are 300 or so people living in the 30km zone who refuse to be evacuated and there are also lots of workers and soldiers around which surprised us both. We drove within a few hundred metres of reactor 4, it is now covered in a new safe confinement system, a big metal roof that was installed late last year.

Overgrown apartment building

You can also see reactors 5 & 6 which were under construction at the time of the disaster and subsequently the construction was abandoned, cranes and everything still in place as it were. The remaining 3 reactors all continued to operate after the disaster and were progressively shutdown from 1991 until 2000. After seeing the reactors it was time to tour through Pripyat. It was quite an eery sight seeing a place where people lived and then completely abandoned within hours.  Everywhere you looked nature had taken over.

House boat washed ashore

The Chernobyl disaster is said to be one of the contributing factors to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The people had a growing distrust of the soviet government, they wouldn’t believe anything that the government was saying, and the shear cost of the clean up has been enormous.

Diving pool

The final part of the tour took us to the Duga Radar, which was a part of the Soviet early warning network in case of nuclear ballistic missile. It was a pretty spectacular structure, it is hidden in amongst a densely populated forrest and it almost seems like its from another world. It was used as a guide for the wall around the city in the movie Divergent. It is a stark reminder of how serious things were during the Cold War.

Duga Radar

Whilst was definitely a worthwhile experience, we were both expecting to learn more about certain elements, particularly the technical details of the accident and the effects of radiation on the human body, but these details were extremely vague and often non-existent. Whilst Pripyat was also intriguing to look at, we weren’t able to connect on an emotional level as much as we had expected. We didn’t quite get the human connection to it, particularly when things are staged or have been moved around for the sake of tourism/photos.

Dodgem cars

So thankfully we made it through radiation control without any problems, and we have not seen any unusual growths, yet.

The iconic Ferris wheel





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