Chernobyl: Walking in a Nuclear Winter Wonderland (includes video)
Chernobyl: Walking in a Nuclear Winter Wonderland (includes video)
Here’s some footage that I took on the trip to hell.
Tell most people that you’ll be visiting Chernobyl and you’ll illicit a response of horror and disbelief. Tell a Ukrainian and you can multiply that reaction 100 fold. A trip to the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident is no walk in the park – unless of course you like your parks heavily irradiated, devoid of humanity and creepy as fuck. But as a citizen of New Zealand, a country which evangelically gloats about its environmental credentials – the irony of visiting a region for the exact opposite region appealed to my morbid sense of humour. Why see beautiful fjords and spot rare dolphins when you can visit a nuclear wasteland? But as a New Zealander the nuclear issue is even more personal. The world scorned us for our anti-nuclear policies and demonstrations that barred U.S. nuclear warships and other nuclear material from entering our territory in 1984 – only to quietly shut the hell up two years later following the demonstration of absolute devastation that was unleashed from the minor explosion of Chernobyl plant reactor 4.
Chernobyl itself is of course no laughing matter. The official soviet death toll is 59, a sick joke as it only counts those that died within the first week. The actual death toll will never be known but estimates lower than 100,000 must be treated suspiciously. The evacuation of the nearby 50,000 person town of Pripiat was done 3 days too late and the 110,000 + people charged with cleaning up the fallout zone were given virtually no radiation protection. While Chernobyl may be located within the borders of modern day Ukraine, Belarus took the brunt of the damage – resulting in a fifth of its agricultural land being contaminated. Declared unfit for humanity, the area was subsequently turned into a nature reserve. That may seem funny but the minimum estimate of 350,000 seriously affected people isn’t.
Guided day trips to the region vary in price depending on how many other lunatics have signed up to go with you, but a price of 120 Euros is considered good value – even though this is extortionate relative to the cost of everything else in Ukraine. Both the cost to my wallet and health had me wavering, but I’m bad at saying no to trips of a life time. Chernobyl was on. At 8pm on a Saturday morning, I was waiting outside the main McDonalds in Kiev’s independence square. No mean feat considering the night before and the fact the temperature was hovering around minus 8. Further up the road, a small group of foreign looking people were also waiting for something. Within moments a plain white minibus pulled up we all shuffled over. This was our ride. Apparently 7 other people thought that this was a good idea – although none of them were women. After a roll call and cash exchange, we piled in and began the 2 hour drive north to the Ukrainian/ Belarusian border – the site of Chernobyl. Along the way we were shown a good documentary on the disaster – filling us in on everything so that we knew exactly what we were heading for. It’s not as if there was a bail out now option.
After getting through military checkpoints at the edge of the exclusion zone, we were taken to the main security HQ 15 km from the reactor where we signed health liability wavers and other documents commanding us not to do anything, touch anything or go anywhere unless authorized by our guard/guide. From there it was on to the main event – the power plant itself. Now for a brief lesson in ionizing radiation measurement. Essentially there are 3 units: Microroetgns – of which there are 1000 in a Milliroetgn, of which 1,000 make up one Roetgn. In any normal location radiation levels will barely go beyond 12 microR. Current radiation levels within the Chernobyl exclusion zone average 6x this amount with radioactive hot spots causing spikes in certain locations. That may sound concerning but it’s slightly less radiation than what you’d get from a 2 hour commercial airline flight. A lot of people had to die to ensure the levels are currently this low though. A lethal dose of radiation is in the range of 300 to 500 roentgens when administered within 5 hours, though significantly less is sufficient to kill you – or make you wish you were dead. When firefighters arrived on the scene of the nuclear fire on April 26th 1986, they were being blasted with 1000’s of Roetgns per hour. Some were fried on the spot. We passed a monument to the original 29 fire fighters who had all died within days of the incident.
Our small group had been given 2 Geigo counters – devices which displayed the radiation levels. As we drove along the banks of the frozen Pripiat River, the Geigo beeping began to accelerate. Soon the eerie portrait of Reactor # 4 came into view. Just as tourists do when faced with any monument for the first time, we all snapped away madly – something which wasn’t necessary as we would soon be almost directly alongside it. 200 meters from the reactor the radiation levels sat comfortably between 250-300 microR (30x normal levels) and we had the opportunity to get out of the minibus and take photos. Today the reactor remains cocooned in the lead and steel sarcophagus that was built around it in the months following the blast, it’s the keystone that’s keeping the Chernobyl zone relatively safe for the time being. We didn’t stay for long though, it was bloody cold as well as radioactive, and creepy. It may have been a fine day, but even the sky looked weird around here.
Now we headed to Pripiat. Founded in 1970 to house the workers of Chernobyls nuclear power plant – and their families – the city quickly grew to almost 50,000 people by the time of the 1986 disaster. With the plant just 3km away, an evacuation should have taken place immediately. But with authorities reluctant to admit the scale of the disaster, this was delayed for 3 days – by which time everyone had already received dangerous radiation doses. When the official notice was finally given, people had only 3 hours to pack their most essential belongings – they were told they’d be back within 2 few weeks. At best, a tiny few returned to see their decayed and deserted home town 2 decades later. While the city has inevitably undergone extensive looting, most of it has remained as it was the day it was abandoned. Our first stop was the town square and site of the city’s main hotel. Utterly trashed, the emergency exit stair case provided a means to getting to the top and surveying the melancholic Pripiat skyline with the nuclear plant still clearly visible on the horizon. While the city was deserted only 25 years ago, from the state of the building you’d of thought it was over 50. The brutality of the Ukrainian elements combined with an absence of maintenance have caused massive deterioration everywhere. Our guide noted that Pripiat would almost certainly be a completely forbidden zone within 10-15 years or so – due to the serious danger of ongoing structural decay. This is no Great Pyramid at Cairo, if you want to see it – plan on doing so soon. As if to make the point clear, one yankie member of our entourage failed to grip the handlebar of the staircase on the way down, a rookie move considering that the stairs were covered in a 30cm thick layer of ice. He subsequently went for a slide and was lucky not to hurt himself on the ride down, narrowly avoiding partial empalement on a pile of rusted steel bars. OSH would shit themselves here.
We continued to tour the city, passing through a school, a theme park, a supermarket and a gymanisium. There was nothing overtly disturbing to see, though a dumped silos worth of gas masks in the school was a little unnerving. So were the radioactive hotspots – and our guide gleefully knew where they all were. Generally they were pockets of moss frozen beneath the ice – which naturally absorbed the radiation. The Geigo counters went insane around these – mine jumped up to 8,000 microR when placed over one of them causing me to jump the hell away. The cold was also unsettling – By 3:30pm and the sun was dipping on the horizon and it had dropped to -18. The last stop on the tour was a rendevous at the Chernobyl security HQ – where we were given lunch. It was nothing special but I was bemused to see that mushrooms were on the table, especially after we’d been explicitly told that these were one of the greatest radioactivity absorbers in existence
Finally we drove out, passing through another series of checkpoints including one where we all had to get out and pass through a scanner to ensure none of us had exceeded the Ukrainian standard for safe radiation exposure levels. No one had, and apparantly the scanners have only gone off once for a tourist; a foolish Dutch photographer who’d wandered off by himself into the woods (which are covered in radioactive dust). He’d subsequently been ‘cleaned down’ – whatever the hell that entails.
So, to go or not to go? While not as disturbing as a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chernobyl is definitely unforgettable. Few people have the fortitude to even consider going and by doing so you’re joining an elite nuclei of die hard travellers. I definitely learned a lot and came away with a massive appreciation for the dangers of nuclear energy. Remember, the Chernobyl explosion a was minor one. A major one would have written off an enormous chunk of Europe and it almost happened. The initial small explosion brewed up a superheated, radioactive concotion from hell that was eating its way towards the main reactor core and a pivitol underground water canal which would have (a): Created a major secondary explosion. (b): Fatally poisoned the most important fresh water source in the Western USSR. Or (c): Both. The hasty, desperate and deadly containment operation that followed the explosion was the only thing that prevented a disaster which could have killed millions. Thank god my 2 little islands will never have to go through this shit.