My latest post is going to be broken into two parts, one on my travels in Ukraine in general from Kyiv to Lviv. This part, however, is about my day in one of the most staggering places I have ever visited – Chernobyl.
The Chernobyl disaster occurred on the 26th of April 1986 when a safety test on reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant failed with devastating consequences not just for the Ukrainian SSR in the Soviet Union, but for Europe also as the subsequent radioactive fallout reached as far north as Sweden.
The disaster caused 35 deaths to workers and firefighters in the immediate aftermath with a further 11 in later years. An untold number of peoples lives have been affected by the disaster with medical issues and 100,000’s of life uprooted and moved after the exclusion zone was put in place with a total of 96 settlements in Ukraine and 92 in Belarus abandoned as a result.
There are many books and articles on the disaster including a new fantastic series by HBO on Sky Atlantic telling the story of the disaster in full, but the reason for this blog is to write about my day in the Chernobyl exclusion zone 32 years after the night reactor number 4 exploded.
The day started at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi railway station in the heart of Kyiv. I found my tour group then met our guides for the day, Vicky and Alexandra. This tour was booked with Chernobyl Tour www.chernobyl-tour.com and was around $90 per person. If you feel inspired to visit after reading my blog I really recommend going with these guys.
The bus ride from Kyiv to the first exclusion zone checkpoint was around 2 hours. While on the bus we were shown a documentary on the Chernobyl disaster and background on the events after.
We arrived soon enough at the first checkpoint at Dytiatky here we had a small break while our guides sorted out the relevant paperwork and documentation checks for us to enter the 30km exclusion zone.
Now inside the exclusion zone, we stopped at our first village, Zalissya. This village had a population of around 3000 people before the disaster. Now abandoned completely and slowly returning to nature. Our guides gave talks on typical life for villages pre-disaster and we were given a little bit of free reign to explore the houses. Possessions still present.
Moving away from Zalissya our next stop was the Duga-1 radar a Soviet military missile defence early warning system. Used from 1976-1989 at the height of the cold war. This is an unusual installation was impressively well hidden given its size. The residents of nearby Pripyat who did notice this beast were encouraged not to ask questions about its purpose. Officially this area was actually marked on the map as a childrens summer camp.
The area today is still under the control of the Ukrainian Army and there was still a relatively heavy military presence at Duga.
The Duga structure is huge and mightily impressive, Duga-1 earnt its nickname of the Russian Woodpecker due to its distinct sound when amateur radio operators tuned in, you can hear the woodpecker here.
At Duga we met Tarzan, one of the many stray dogs in the exclusion zone, “Don’t feed, only pet, dog on diet” I was told by a soldier standing by the foot of the radar. My guide Vicky explained that the stray dogs tend to have a poor diet of crisps, biscuits and other snacks and are overfed by visiting tourists.
We made a quick stop next at a Kindergarten in the village of Kopachi. Although interesting this personally was one of the more creepier stops during the day. In the distressed rooms an array of bunk beds, cots and toys were left scattered around. The earth has started to reclaim a lot of the exclusion zone. Lots left as it was in 1986 when the evacuation order was given.
It was also the first place we could find some radiation hot spots, Alexandra showed some areas to hold the dosimeters over, within seconds the alarms were going crazy on them. Another surreal experience to add to the morning!
Moving on from Kopachi it was time to see the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant for the first time. The area around the plant had an eerie feel. The new silver arch-shaped new safe containment on display over the top of the remains of reactor number 4.
We were coming up to lunch time and as we’d paid for lunch to be included we were now on our way to the worker’s canteen for something to eat. There are still thousands of workers at the power plant site and this is where they eat.
Our lunch was called the atomic lunch, it was all food that helps keep the effects of radiation at bay. For $5 extra it was worth having and tasty, but don’t expect a gourmet lunch!
After lunch we were taken to various sites around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, our guides showed us a small section with a bridge over a river from the nearby cooling pond. From there we fed some rather large catfish that have been happily living in the cooling pond since the accident.
We moved round to the other side of the plant where a memorial stood and at that point, we were informed we were only 200M from reactor number 4, reactor number 4 that exploded on the 26th of April 1986. “It’s only 200M away” I had to keep telling myself. A surreal experience and frankly one thought made me feel a little excited.
Having had a look at the reactor it was time to see the abandoned city of Pripyat. Pripyat was a modern city built only in 1970 with a population of 50,000 before 1986. Built to house the workers of the power plant and their families.
On April 27th 1986 one day after the accident the residents were evacuated from the city. They were told only for 3 days and only to bring one bag with them and only essential documents.
The residents or Pripyat never returned to their homes.
We started at the cities football stadium not that you’d know it. All that was left of the stadium was the main grandstand and a little bit of the running track. The main pitch in the middle is now completely overgrown with trees and other shrubberies.
A walk around the city center past abandoned tower blocks, many now beginning to collapse due to over 30 years of no maintenance.
We visited a supermarket in the center, shopping trolleys still in the aisles and shelves that once contained goods for shoppers.
We soon found probably one of the most famous and recognisable sites in Pripyat, the amusement park. Complete with dodgems, a Ferris wheel and other attractions. The amusement park never actually opened. It was due to open only a matter of days after the accident.
Alexandra one of our guides showed us some more hot spots on the Ferris Wheel, getting some incredibly high readings from Ferris Wheel.
Leaving Pripyat we were taken through the Red Forest, where a large amount of the fallout from the power plant explosion fell. It is still highly irradiated so we were told we could not stop. However, we were told to hold our Dosimeters to the windows to see what would happen. One by one they all began alarming having some of the highest readings we’d seen all day.
Next stop was a little roadside museum containing some of the robotic machinery used to clear the debris from the exploded power plant at the time of the disaster. Debris that was too contaminated and radioactive to move by hand.
Next up we visited the Chernobyl Fire Station. There there is a monument named ‘To those who saved the world’ The Fire Fighters from Chernobyl Fire Station were the first on the scene after the explosion. They didn’t know what dangers they were facing but they faced it anyway. Many of them died and those that didn’t had their lives changed forever.
Without their sacrifice who knows what could have happened to the rest of Europe.
After this, it was time to head back to Kyiv. It was a long day inside the Chernobyl Exclusion zone but a memorable one and an emotional one. The disaster claimed the lives of many and changed and disrupted the lives of many more.
If you find yourself in Kyiv, or even in Ukraine for that matter make the time to come here and see one of the most amazing places that you can visit on the Earth.
But you can’t visit there…
‘Isn’t it still dangerous’ is the most common question I’m asked regarding my trip to Chernobyl. The short answer is yes… but there’s a little bit more to it than that.
The total average radiation dose received from the day was 0.003 mSv per hour. That’s roughly about the same amount of radiation you’d take in on an hour on a commercial airline. So in that sense, the dose isn’t that high.
However, there are huge hotspots still and areas you cannot go. Obviously, tours are carefully planned. We were warned about certain areas in abandoned villages and places not to stand or touch.
If you go, respect the area and respect what your guides tell you to do. After all, they’re the experts.