You don’t see it, you don’t feel it, you don’t smell it, you don’t taste it, but it’s there. It’s around you!
Chernobyl is a city in the Ukrainian Exclusion Zone.
30 years ago today, the worst nuclear accident in history engulfed the cities of Chernobyl and nearby Pripyat. On April 26, 1986 a reactor explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant released extensive radioactive contamination into the atmosphere over Western Russia and Europe.
While only 64 deaths had been linked directly to radiation as of 2008, the tragedy has generated longterm health problems for many of those caught in the zone of exclusion. Official post-Soviet data suggests around 60% of the fallout landed in Belarus, while the disaster had unprecedented cultural and economic ramifications for the Soviet Union.
It took 500.000 workers to contain the contamination and avert a wider catastrophe. The Chernobyl disaster crippled the Soviet economy, while many in the area (now Ukraine) continue to pay an even greater price today. The World Health Organization estimates that radiation induced deaths could reach 4.000. Greenpeace puts the figure at more than 200.000, while Russian publication Chernobyl concludes that 985.000 excess deaths occured between 1986 and 2004.
The disaster had an impact over a large area.
Major cities such as Chernobyl and Pripyat had been affected by nuclear radiation. But there are also many villages where people also had to leave their home, like Rudnya Veresnya.
Chernobyl was evacuated soon after the disaster. The base of operations for the administration and monitoring of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was moved from Pripyat to Chernobyl. Chernobyl currently contains offices for the State Agency of Ukraine on the Exclusion Zone Management and accommodation for visitors. Apartment blocks have been re-purposed as accommodation for employees of the State Agency. Because of regulations implemented to limit exposure, workers in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are limited in the number of days per week or weeks per month they stay in Chernobyl. But there are still many abandoned buildings.
The main road behind the exploded reactor 4.
Workers at Reactor No. 4 turned off the emergency cooling system to find out if there would be enough electricity in the grid systems that cooled the core if the reactor were to lose power. As a result of several factors, including a reactor design flaw, operational errors, and flouted safety procedures, there was a power surge, a steam explosion, and finally a nuclear explosion that shot the reactor’s 500 ton roof and almost nine tons of toxic waste straight up into the air
at 1:26 am on Saturday, the 26th of April ’86.
The first eight hours after the accident, the Kremlin received misleading information. There was talk of an “accident” and a “fire”, but no word about an explosion. When Moscow found out that radioactivity was involved in the accident, the Kremlin sent militsia to the town to take measurements. The residents of Pripyat noticed an increase of militsia in their city, but didn’t know why. By early afternoon, the radioactive levels in Pripyat were 15.000 times above normal, and by evening 60.000 times higher. The technicians just thought their equipment wasn’t working properly.
It took five months to put out the radioactive fire. All the first 29 firefighters on the scene died shortly after from radiation poisoning, two that night, the rest in the days following. The first photographer on the scene, riding in a helicopter around Reactor No.4, which was still spewing radioactive material into the sky, was able to take 12 photos before his equipment broke down from radiation exposure. The photos are of very poor quality, as the radiation caused white spots to appear in them and made the images grainy.
Once the seriousness of the situation was known, Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the USSR at the time, quickly gathered the top physicists and nuclear experts at his disposal to assess the situation. Thirty-six hours after the initial explosion, these experts decided the residents of Pripyat must evacuate. Residents were given two hours to gather their belongings. The evacuation of Pripyat’s 43.000 residents took 3,5 hours, using 1.100 buses from Kiev. Residents remember that everyone was in a hurry, but nobody was panicking. The residents of Pripyat were initially told they would be evacuated only for three days. However, to this day, the town is uninhabitable.
Situated on the westernmost perimeter of the nuclear power station, reactor 4 is a massive structure surrounded by decrepit concrete walls lined with barbed wire. In 2006 they built a monument in front of the reactor, a Memorial to the Chernobyl liquidators.
Reactor 4 is now covered by a Sarcophagus, made from steel and concrete to stop the escape of more radiation from elements such as corium, uranium and plutonium, as well as radioactive dust. The sarcophagus is to be replaced with the New Safe Confinement structure. The primary goal of the NSC is to prevent the reactor complex from leaking radioactive material into the environment and the secondary goal is to allow a future partial demolition of the old structure.
A part of the Shelter Implementation Plan funded by the Chernobyl Shelter Fund, the NSC is designed to contain the radioactive remains of Chernobyl reactor 4 for the next 100 years. It is intended to replace the present sarcophagus, which was hastily constructed by Chernobyl liquidators after a “beyond design-basis accident” destroyed reactor 4. The NSC is designed and built by the French consortium Novarka with 50/50 partners Vinci Construction Grands Projets and Bouygues Travaux Publics and is expected to be completed in 2017.
When we stood at the parking spot, we took some pictures of the reactor, the monument and the sarcophagus. When our guide picked us up and told us we had to keep our passports ready. We were allowed to visit the reactor next to the exploded one. After they checked our passport twice and told us the strict conditions, we had to change clothes in white suits. First we visited the control room.
We must cover our clothes with white coats, cover our hair with caps and we needed to use slippers for our shoes.
we entered the massive control room. Buttons, switches, lights, monitors and Ukrain writings everywhere. This control room looks the same as the control room of the exploded reactor.
We walked through the reactor where we took several photos and the Geiger counter increasingly began to sound louder. We stopped at the nearest memorial monument. Behind the wall of this monument is the exploded reactor. When the guide kept the counter near the monument, it makes a lot of noise. Obviously, because here the radioactivity was quite high.
Near the exploded reactor, there are reactors number 5 and 6, capable of producing 1.000 MW each, were under construction at the time of the accident. Reactor No.5 was about 70% complete at the time of the accident and was scheduled to start operating in 7 November 1986. However, the works were halted and eventually cancelled in April 1989, just days before the third anniversary of the 1986 explosion.
By the scaffolding and cranes you can see how they left everything behind during the construction of the new reactor.
And the unfinished massive cooling tower.
The powerplant was within Chernobyl Rayon, but the city was not the residence of the powerplant workers. When the powerplant was under construction, Pripyat, a city larger and closer to the power plant, had been built as home for the workers.
This is the bridge from the powerplant of Chernobyl, to the city of Pripyat.
When we entered the ghost town it has a strange atmosphere. Peace, silence and disbelief. Here you could see what the impact was of the disaster.
Decayed buildings, empty streets and lifeless silence.
In the centre of Pripyat, you can find Lenin Square. Next to the square you see the Palace of Culture and Hotel Polissya. The Polissya hotel is one of the tallest buildings in the abandoned city of Pripyat. It was built in the 1970s to house delegations and guests visiting the Chernobyl Power Plant.
At the top of the hotel, you can see the powerplant with the New Shelter.
Also at the top, you have a nice view over the neglected city.
During my visit at the hotel, the weather was bad. This made a spooky atmosphere. Now you see a real ghost town.
But the hotel is not the tallest building. At the top of Fujiyama, you can see everything. The building has 16 floors that provides a great view.
Anyway, next to the hotel there is The Palace of Culture, named Energetik. The Palace of Culture was a typical institution of the Eastern bloc. The huge buildings were the meeting point for people to enjoy all kinds of recreational activities like sports and arts, and of course they were used for political indoctrination.
The indoor football field of Energetik.
At the otherside of Lenin Square, there is the Pripyat amusement park, an upcoming amusement park. It was to be opened on May 1, 1986, in time for the May Day celebrations, but the plans were interrupted when on April 26 the Chernobyl disaster occurred a few kilometers away. The park was opened for a couple of hours on April 27 to keep the city people entertained before the announcement to evacuate the city was made. Today, the park, and in particular the Ferris wheel, are a symbol of the Chernobyl disaster.
Radiation levels around the park vary; the liquidators washed radiation into the soil after the helicopters carrying radioactive materials used the grounds as a landing strip, so concreted areas are relatively safe.
Around the square, Pripyat contains five areas. Each area has its own houses, amusement buildings and schools; Likewise school No.3, full with little gasmasks.
Not far from School No.3 is the music school. It has an impressive design from the outside.
The grand piano in the auditorium give you the contrast between sadness and happyness.
Although Pripyat was a city predominantly inhabited by educated and privileged people of course no city of that size could exist without a police station. The city did have some crime and many people were arrested for drunkenness: making home-brew liquor, driving under influence or being drunk in public.
At the east side of the city, there is an medical area. Hospital MsCh-126 Medico-Sanitary unit was the general infirmary in Pripyat, serving the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and their families. The hospital could accommodate up to 410 patients and had a further three clinics. The hospital is a large complex of buildings of five interconnected buildings of 6 stories each.
This hospital is where all victims of the accident were first brought to be treated. One died from burns while the others were sent to Moscow’s Hospital Number 6 (it specializes in radiation treatment) that evening. Most died agonizing deaths within a few weeks to months. The last to die was a female security guard who stood by her post after the explosions. Her suffering ended after 96 days.
The hospital still has all the amenities, but in disrepair. The beds are still in the rooms and cribs are ready for the babys.
The basement of the hospital contains the suits worn by the firemen who attended the scene at Chernobyl after the explosion. The firemen weretaken to the hospital by ambulance after being exposed to such high levels of radiation that even after 28 years their suits still emit a lethal dose of radiation.
In the forest of Pripyat is a grasping claw. This is used to move things with high radioactivity for storage. Around the claw, the radiation is not much higher than the rest of the area. But if you put the Geiger counter inside the claw, it gives a high value.
Not far from Pripyat you can find the Emerald resort. The holiday camp is where the children of Pripyat would spend their summer holidays. The brightly coloured murals, depicting characters from nursery rhymes and children’s stories, have survived the ravages of time surprisingly well.
We visited the camp, which boasted around 100 wooden huts set amid acres of peaceful pine forest.
Next to the Pripyat river, there is a Field office department of Radiobiology and radioecology animals.
After the desaster, it was a farm they used to test the contamination of the water. They caught fish in the water and fed it to mink. They then tested the mink for radiation.
Not far from Chernobyl and Pripyat, you can find the Russian Woodpecker.
It was a Soviet radar system used as part of the Soviet ABM early-warning network, located in the Exclusion zone of Chernobyl. The system operated from 1976 to 1989. During the Cold War, this system was designed to track the launch of missiles with atomic charge and gave this information within two to three minutes to the Soviet leadership. It was a notorious Soviet signal that could be heard on the shortwave radio bands worldwide between July 1976 and December 1989. It sounded like a sharp, repetitive trapping noise, at 10Hz. The random frequency disrupted legitimate broadcast, amateur radio, and utility transmissions and resulted in thousands of complaints by many countries worldwide.
The town next to the Russian Woodpecker was mostly composed of army buildings, where the workers of the antennas lived alongside their families. It was a very secret military installation and the residents had to apply for visas to leave this zone.
This monument is for the brave firefighters who lost their lives during the disaster.
The immediate priority was to extinguish fires on the roof of the station and the area around the building containing Reactor 4 to protect No.3 and keep its core cooling systems intact. The fires were extinguished by 5:00, but many firefighters received high doses of radiation. The fire inside reactor 4 continued to burn until 10 May 1986; it is possible that well over half of the graphite burned out. The fire was extinguished by a combined effort of helicopters dropping over 5.000 metric tons of sand, lead, clay, and neutron absorbing boron onto the burning reactor and injection of liquid nitrogen.
From eyewitness accounts of the firefighters involved before they died, one described his experience of the radiation as “tasting like metal,” and feeling a sensation similar to that of pins and needles all over his face. (This is similar to the description given by Louis Slotin, a Manhattan Project physicist who died days after a fatal radiation overdose from a criticality accident).
In the city of Chernobyl there stands a simple memorial to the liquidators who rushed to reactor 4 in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. The firefighters who initially responded to the disaster on the morning of April 26, 1986 were unaware that they were entering a radioactive environment, and rushed to the plant without donning protective suits and respirators. While they labored to extinguish the fires, their bodies absorbed lethal doses of radiation, and many of them later died of Acute Radiation Sickness. Overall, some 600.000 workers, including scientists, miners, and Soviet military conscripts, participated in the Chernobyl cleanup efforts. To this day, many of them continue to experience a variety of health problems stemming from their time spent in the zone. The plaque on the monument is inscribed “To those who saved the world”.