Destination: Chernobyl & Pripyat
- Mission 1: Take a special tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and all the iconic sites (kindergarten, fairground, Pripyat etc.) (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 2: Discover the “hidden” Soviet over the horizon radar system (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 3: Dine in the Exclusion Zone in Chernobyl’s only cafeteria (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 4: Get as close to Reactor 4 as possible and witness the new confinement structure under construction (ACCOMPLISHED);
- Mission 5: Pass the radiation scanners (ACCOMPLISHED-phew).
Highlight: Surely among the most spectacular and monstrous structures in the world, Duga-1, the over-the-horizon radar “hidden” in the Chernobyl-2 site. How do you hide such a monstrosity? I shall divulge the secrets.
Lowlight: All houses and buildings were looted long ago for valuable metals and items of worth, hence there is barely as much as a light switch circuit remaining within.
Feat of Architecture: The simply colossal Duga. Without the slightest ounce of doubt. You will feel like an ant in comparison.
Recce fact: “Chernobylite” is the name given to a potentially unique radioactive zirconium silicate crystal compound found in the lava-like substance found in the deadly and aptly named elephant’s foot at the Chernobyl power plant after the meltdown.
“Isn’t it necessary to suit-up to avoid radiation?” “Are you not concerned about the risks?” Truthfully, slightly, but not overly. It is deemed perfectly safe at 0.05 to 0.1 μSv/h along the beaten track… provided you don’t lick anything.
“Chances are you’ll pick up higher levels of radiation exposure on your flight over” – is the typical reassurance statement, which wasn’t entirely believable as my handheld dosimeter alarm was goin’-a-dinger. Admittedly, it did feel like I was playing Fallout 3 and gradually accumulating rads by strolling around. Nuka–Cola, anyone?
It’s couple of hours drive away from Kiev, but the most tedious part is crossing checkpoint after checkpoint, defended by stone-faced guards who scrutinise passports and clearance documents at every single stage. I didn’t count how many checkpoints there actually were, but the concept of trying to sneak past all the barbed wire and patrols to illegally enter the zone (as people often do) is unthinkable as an amateur. These are not friendly, understanding people that anyone should like to get into an altercation with. Fortunately, our guide for the day from Chernobyl Tour had a good rapport with the guards, as he had worked in Chernobyl for many years prior. He had prepared our documents in advance, so there were no questions; only poking fun at our passports (not entirely sure what the source of amusement was in a small group of German, Flemish and Northern Irish nationals). It’s significantly cheaper to do the tour if you are a Ukrainian national (avoiding much of the admin/paperwork). Interestingly though, only a minority of Ukrainians apparently to choose to do so. Perhaps they don’t particularly want the reminder which is understandable…
Checkpoints Beyond Checkpoints
There is a heavily-guarded 30km zone and an equally heavily-guarded 10km inner zone (closer to the reactor), as well as several other intermittent checkpoints throughout. Don’t even think about taking photos of the checkpoints or guards. They are rather menacing and have zero tolerance for stepping out of line. As soon as the group set off from Kiev, our guide warned us that after a brief pit-stop at a petrol station, we should assume that we will not encounter another flushing toilet until we return to Kiev again. The plumbing systems within the Exclusion Zone haven’t been maintained in approximately 40 years!
Due to the proximity of Chernobyl to its border, Belarus and its people suffered an estimated 70% of the fallout, which has continued to have a catastrophic impact on the country’s health, environmental and economic status for decades. As for Ukraine, the government maintains the rigid restrictions around the contaminated areas primarily to control access (and spread of contamination), protect environmental monitoring projects and prevent resettlement. There are an estimated 3,000 employees who still work at Chernobyl today (excluding thousands more working on the safe confinement), and there are of course hundreds of settlers who never really left. It’s almost impossible to arrive at reliable figures for the resulting deaths due to either acute radiation sickness or more chronic conditions, congenital defects, diseases, cancers etc. which were directly caused by the disaster. The near-bankruptcy which followed the events is said to one of the eventual attributing causes of the fall of the USSR (at least in Gorbachev’s view).
Just a minor detail to clarify; when you see images of the schools, the amusement park, kindergarten, swimming pool etc., those places are not technically in Chernobyl. They are located in Kopachi and Pripyat- the dedicated town built for plant workers just a few km away. Chernobyl is the smaller city which is home to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant itself, a few houses, some current workers’ accommodation/amenities, a small church, some monuments/memorials and the secret “Chernobyl-2” complex used by the Soviet military as a large surveillance and communication station.
Chernobyl-2 and Duga-1
A beloved child has many names and so does a colossal 150 x 800 metre over-the-horizon radar system to detect intercontinental ballistic missile launches. It goes, affectionately, by the names of: “Steelyard” (NATO), “Chernobyl-2”, “Duga”, ” 5Н32-West”, “Duga-1” and “Woodpecker” (when you listen to this YouTube sound clip of its audible transmission frequency pattern, you’ll understand why). In fact, these Chernobyl-2 constructions (two antennae) only form half of the system as the receiver end. The transmission antennae were erected in nearby Liubech-1 (can’t find any sources which mention their fate). You’ll see this radar system incorrectly designated as “Duga-3” which actually never existed.
So how, exactly, does one (Soviet Union) manage to conceal such a secret facility from the 1970s until years after the Chernobyl disaster? Step One: Choose a site deep in the Polesie Forest (which stretches through Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and into Eastern Russia) and carry out construction of radar and secret garrison in parallel with Chernobyl Power Plant to detract attention. Step Two: Construct a long, long, long narrow road through the dense forest which appears to lead to nowhere. Step Three: Place a decoy “Misha the Bear” themed bus stop at the end of this road so it must be for school children and couldn’t possibly be used to transport military personnel along said long, long, long narrow road. Step Four: Don’t brag about the fact that you have effectively constructed a gigantic steel yard in the sky and if anybody asks you about it, say “What facility?”, “What massive construction poking out over the trees? I don’t see a thing”, “Are you crazy”? etc. Guaranteed success… until everybody starts picking up Meshuggah-like polyrhythmic pulse transmissions on their radios; not least of all NATO.
Okay, so its existence couldn’t realistically be kept a secret, yet even to this day, its purpose(s) were never completely determined. A Wireless World publisher in 1982 reported:
As a radio amateur, I have often been annoyed by the Russian “woodpecker” pulse transmissions which have plagued the h.f. bands for many years. There has been no official explanation of the purpose of these transmissions, and various theories have been expounded in the media, ranging from spy communications to death rays.
Was it for the purposes of mind control? Weather control? A combat systems detection unit? Or to jam other frequencies beyond the Soviet Union? The latter two for sure, hence the “woodpecker” rhythm. There is a theory that the Duga system had never functioned properly and was a financial failure for the Soviet Union- so the Chernobyl disaster actually diverted attention from this failure and was attributed to be the eventual cause of it ceasing to operate, rather than the fact that it was no longer useful (and far be it cheap to run). Rumour has it that it cost twice as much to build as the nuclear plant and consumed 25% of its power- golly gosh.
When you see it, you’ll be humbled in its presence. Even its “little brother” radar beside it is huge at 100m tall. It was actually not possible to get it all into camera view from any angle. Some bonkers folk like to climb the ladders all the way to the top (which takes approx. 25 mins at a reasonable pace) and even B.A.S.E. jump. There is nothing stopping you doing so except your wits. The access lifts stopped working many years ago. The thing is, if you look around, you will find nuts and bolts all over the show, which doesn’t exactly instill much confidence in the integrity of the structure. Furthermore, it’s quite fathomable that you could be clunked on the head by an 8″ bolt falling from the sky (pictured) and meet your maker.
Sod yer Eiffel Tower. This beauty is twice the weight in steel and so much more resplendent and romantic (for me at least). Duga-1 is probably the only quality steel that hasn’t been looted from the zone. There are talks of dismantling the gargantuan structure to reclaim that 14k tonnes of valuable material, so go now and see it while you can.
The disaster occurred within Reactor 4 at 01:23 on 26th April 1986 while the people slept in their beds. A very detailed account can be found here of the timeline of events which followed, including the scientific details of how the accident occurred as scientists were carrying out experiments to observe the reactor reduced to lower power levels, when it went unstable. A monument inscribed, “To those who saved the world”, is dedicated to the firefighters who initially arrived at the scene, completely unaware of the extent of the hazard that they were tackling, and sadly most perished within 24 hours due to Acute Radiation Sickness (surely one of the worst ways to die imaginable). The Chernobyl accident was said to have released 200 times more radiation than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs combined. These brave men allegedly prevented a second, more powerful explosion which would have spread even more radiation. I believe it’s possible to suit-up and go down to the basement of Hospital-126 where their extremely highly radioactive boots and uniforms are buried which must be an equally saddening and eerie experience.
The people of Pripyat resumed life as normal the next day, assuming a fire had merely taken place at the plant. Gorbachev received a phone call at 5am on the morning of the explosion and quickly assembled a panel of the Soviet Union’s top experts in the field. It was soon evident than no one really knew what to do. As a matter of precaution, residents were evacuated “temporarily”. Little did they know they would never be allowed to return to their homes. It was only when radiation was found on the shoe soles of a worker in Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant as far away as Sweden, that the rest of the world began to realise that something serious had occurred and the magnitude of the consequences. At this point, Moscow had to release a news broadcast stating that an accident had occurred, but said it was under control. The next day, the US had obtained pictures of the site which proved otherwise. Fires continued to burn, despite helicopters dropping tonnes of sand, boron and lead on top of the reactor.
Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) were brought to the scene to attempt to remove radioactive fuel debris, but very quickly stopped working as the radiation destroyed their electrical circuits. These ROVs can be seen on display. The only option left was to send in human liquidators or biorobots. 600,000 military and civilian personnel were sent in or volunteered to extinguish the fires and remove debris. It was estimated that each person could withstand a given amount of exposure, and so each individual put themselves at high risk for a short period of time in a relay fashion. These liquidators were elected as heroes, but unfortunately many suffered throughout their lives with cancer and other complications. Even the Ukrainian giants’ (the Klitschko brothers’) father died of cancer in recent years which was believed to be have been as a result of his valuable contribution to the clean-up process.
The Kindergarten and Schools
There were certainly no shortage of education institutes in the height of industrial activity in the region, with a plethora of schools located around the zone; from the famous kindergarten in Kopachi (копачи) to the Middle School No. 3 in Pripyat (one of five secondary schools, in fact).
All too often, other Chernobyl-goers like to grumble about how artificially “set up” the schools are in terms of props, with sinister one-eyed dolls with missing limbs scattered around the place, books open at a page displaying a certain poignant song or poem, and not least of all the gas masks (which have become an unofficial symbol for Chernobyl, despite their complete irrelevance). But I’d guess that a reasonable number of these items are originals and who can blame opportunists for rearranging the furniture for the perfect snap? The most interesting thing by far here is the random “hotspot” just beside the tree on the approach to the kindergarten. This is a frequent encounter- whereby a particular localised area of topsoil can cause the dosimeter to shoot up to tens or hundreds of μSv/h within a single pace and dissipate again with one step in the opposite direction. Most of the irradiated topsoil was removed, but of course it’s not possible to remove all traces, and the Red Forest (“burnt” red after absorbing 20 times the radiation of Hiroshima) in particular is a danger zone. The middle school had books stewn everywhere in the rooms and corridors, which is a bit perplexing. Sure, everything within the buildings was stripped out and looted, but it really gave the impression that someone was intent on destroying all the books and ripping out the pages, as some sort of anti-book rebellion. Tempting as it might be to pocket something like a page from a book as a keepsake, remember, there are two sets of radiation scanners to pass on the way out, not to mention the wrath of the guards…
Pripyat (При́п’ять) was not merely a functional town purpose-built in 1970 to house the nearby workers; it was a former model town of the Soviet Union and was closed to outsiders. With a population just short of 50,000, it was youthful and modern, complete with its own hospital, hotel (Polissya Hotel), 21 schools, 25 sports facilities, 35 playgrounds and a train station. In the approach to Pripyat, the small houses around the zone gradually transform into once grand apartment blocks (160, to be precise). Nowadays, such buildings are not guaranteed to be structurally sound. The tour did not give the impression of rigidly adhering to a set path. If you wanted to stop and investigate a small house, or wander into a nook or cranny, or even climb something, the guide didn’t protest- nobody would be liable. However, as much as I would have loved to venture into the apartment blocks, the guide advised against it. True enough, more than one floorboard gave way underfoot in Pripyat along the regular route through the schools, indoor swimming pool, gymnasium etc.
The iconic amusement park was never officially opened (only briefly and unofficially). It is strikingly identical to how it is portrayed in widely circulated media. Just frozen still in time. But silent it is not. A cacophony of wildlife constantly chatter, call, howl and squawk in the background; birds, insects, foxes and the unidentified. Wild flowers are blooming in colour in the summer months, reclaiming the once immaculate and well-groomed urban landscape.
So what happened the people of Pripyat when they were evacuated two days following the disaster? A nearby town called Slavutych (Славутич) was quickly erected 45km away the same year, but this was no mere prefab pop-up ville. Slavutych is a place of grandeur, with modern architecture and each quarter influenced (and named after) each of the countries which contributed designers, architects, workers etc. (Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia, Estonia, Azerbaijan and Armenia). It is clear that there is also a deep attachment to this city; as much as to Pripyat, if not more. Workers continue to commute to the plant to work or operate on an x-days on, y-days off rota. As many as 7,000 employees are still involved in decommissioning, security and construction in the zone, maintaining a hive of activity.
ChNPP Reactor 4 and Safe Confinement
The entire facility was not finally shut down until 2000, as Reactors 1,2 and 3 continued to operate post-meltdown. Reactors 5 and 6 were never completed. There is signficiant activity surrounding the reactor these days, as the New Safe Confinement structure is in progress, commissioned to replace the current concrete sarcophagus housing to contain the lethal ionising radiation. French company, Novarka, are responsible for the construction that is set to contain the reactor for 100 years. However, it has slipped rather significantly behind schedule; originally set to be completed by 2012 but is now looking more like 2017, with over 2 billion donated by the international community for the entire project.
Even standing in the vicinity of the reactor in its sarcophagus makes the dosimeter alarm sound, albeit the level wasn’t as high as other locations encountered. Oh, and don’t forget to feed the giant catfish swimming in the river nearby. Number of eyes are standard.
Food of Chernobyl
How else can the thousands of workers be sustained if food isn’t provided in Chernobyl? Heck, there’s even a hotel if you fancy it (apparently it’s not at all that bad). While some resettlers trust in their own harvests, the vast majority do not, and so all produce is transported in from further afield. On the tour we were able to avail of the Chernobyl canteen, where we enjoyed (I’ll use that term loosely) borscht, freshly baked rolls, cabbage salad, salami, schnitzel and, well it wouldn’t be Ukraine if we didn’t have it,…buckwheat. It passed the radiation test anyway. Taste test is another matter. It was, however, an impressive spread under the circumstances.
Mission Chernobyl/Pripyat Summary
It may be a trendy thing to go and do these days. You can take exactly the same pictures as thousands of other people per year and prop up the sinister dolls in whatever manner you fancy, believing you are capturing something unique and untouched. It has now appeared in numerous music videos by famous and not-so-famous artists. But the journey must not be slandered. There are so many variations of the tour that you can do. After the basic day-long tour, try the overnight stay, pair it with Slavutych, the hospital, the reactor, venture further afield and see other places that manage to elude the eye of the common photographer (stadium, church, railway station etc.), go in the Winter when its covered in snow. But go now, before safety restricts one’s freedom to roam.