During a regularly scheduled safety check at reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plants, something went horribly wrong. Extremely hot nuclear fuel rods were lowered into the cooling water, creating an immense amount of steam. This led to an uncontrollable power surge. At 1:23 AM on April 26, 1986, an explosion blew the roof off the reactor and released a radioactive cloud 100 times more powerful than the combined radiation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The worst nuclear disaster in history, one which would eventually lead to the downfall of the Soviet Union, had begun.
The local fire department was called to extinguish the fire. The highest officials in Moscow were informed that there had been an accident at Chernobyl and 2 technicians had died. The population of the nearby town of Pripyat was aware that there had been a fire at the plant, but went about their daily lives as if nothing had changed. Meanwhile, the wind blew the cloud over Pripyat, west toward Kiev and Belarus, northward to Russia and beyond to Scandinavia where Swedish scientists picked up the abnormal radiation readings and, after eliminating local reactors as the source, alerted the Kremlin and the world to the giant radioactive cloud drifting across Europe.
The USSR slowly, reluctantly took notice. On April 27, Mikhail Gorbachev announced to the world there had been an accident at Chernobyl. Some 36 hours after the explosion, at 2:00 pm on April 27, the 50,000 people living in Pripyat were ordered to evacuate. They were given 2 hours to pack up their important papers and food for a few days and board one of 2200 buses brought in for the exodus. Everything else was left behind. The evacuation, they were told, was temporary – only 3 days. Alas, it was not to be. The exclusion zone eventually expanded to 94 villages, 2500 square kilometers and 130,000 people, all exiled from the land surrounding Chernobyl for at least the half life of plutonium, 25,000 years.
Here, the story diverges into 3 threads: the political reaction to the disaster, the efforts to tame the nuclear fallout and the remains of Pripyat, a ghost city frozen in a 1986 communist version of utopia. Each aspect was explored during my 2 day tour to Chernobyl via the Chernobylwel.com tour company, where 14 of us were guided by Victoria, with the able assistance of trainee guide Yuliia.
The pre-tour email gave explicit instructions for visiting Chernobyl:
In the Chernobyl zone it is forbidden to:
- Carry any kind of weapons
- Drink liquors or take drugs
- Have meal and smoke in the open air
- Touch any structures or vegetation
- Sit or place photo and video equipment on the ground, use drones – tripod is allowed to use in the Zone
- Take any items outside the zone
- Violate dress code (open-type shoes, shorts, trousers, skirts)
- Gather, use and bring vegetable and cattle breeding products (vegetables, fruits, berries, mushrooms, plants, fish etc.), which were cultivated on the area of the exclusion zone
- Bring in and bring out any animals (dogs, cats etc)
- Drink water from wells, rivers and other open water sources. It is allowed to use water only from Chernobyl water supply system or water from store
- Entering buildings is prohibited since 2012 (there are no exceptions)
- When leaving the Chernobyl zone, it is necessary pass compulsory radiation control of clothes, footwear, personal items
We were required to be with a guide at all times and respect the curfew. The reasons for most of the rules were explained. Smoking was prohibited to prevent forest fires, an omnipresent danger due to the huge number of trees covered in potentially lethal radioactive particles. The curfew and need to walk with a guide was because of a large population of wolves in the nearby forest, prospering in the area with the lack of human inhabitants. Long sleeves, pants and closed-toe shoes limited the potential for radioactive particles touching the skin. For the cautious, paper face masks were provided, but none of our group used them.
The video Battle of Chernobyl (2006) played during the 2 hour drive from Kiev. In it, former premier of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev was interviewed, providing a unique, if slanted, version of the tragedy. He admitted being informed about the accident, but claims he was given incomplete or inaccurate information about its seriousness and its disastrous consequences. Two days after the accident, Moscow television tersely conceded that there had been a fire at the plant, but it was under control. On May 1st, the annual May Day celebrations took place in Kiev; the government urging its citizens to go outdoors and participate without disclosing the high levels of radiation. Meanwhile, Sweden had instructed its citizens to stay indoors days earlier. Finally, a week after the explosion, unable to deny the high levels of radiation reported across Europe and a US satellite providing photographic proof of the blown off roof, the Soviet newspaper, Pravda, conceded that there had been radioactive fallout from the explosion.
Putting out the fires
Containment and damage control began in earnest. The worst of the fire was extinguished after a week, but the potential of a second, more catastrophic explosion remained. Helicopters flew overhead, dropping mixtures of lead, sand and clay into the reactor to douse the flames and cool the reactor. 400 coal miners were transported to Chernobyl and tasked with excavating a tunnel under reactor No. 4 so a coolant could be pumped under the nuclear fuel. A massive concrete sarcophagus was constructed, encasing reactor No. 4 and limiting further radioactive leaks into the environment beginning in May. It was completed by October, 1986.
After passing through 1 of 12 checkpoints designed to control access to the exclusion zone, our tour drove towards Zelessiya, one of the many villages abandoned in the aftermath. There we walked on the remains of the main street of the village of 3,000 people. A rusted, Russian built car sat by the side of the road, devoid of tires and sprouting trees from its hood. The façade of the grandiose community center bore the date 1959 but it had not been used in 32 years. The supermarket’s shelves were bare, its glass windows long ago smashed, In the local kindergarten, plastic broken dolls littered the ground, never to be played with again.
We stopped at Chernobyl 2, or the children’s camp, but known today as Duga, a top secret Russian early warning radar detection system, built near the power plant to have easy access to the vast amounts of electricity it needed. The Soviets initially cleaned the area up to reuse Duga, but that proved impossible and the technology quickly became outdated. Today, obsolete computer shells litter the ground of this once proud installation.
In the exclusion zone are numerous monuments to those who gave their lives to taming Chernobyl. Known as “liquidators’, nearly 500,000 people from all over the Soviet Union came to assist in the clean up effort. Not only was the power plant highly radioactive, but also nearby towns and forests. The red forest earned its name because the trees turned red due to the radiation. It remains one of the worst hit areas. As we drove by it in our bus, the 3 geiger counters inside went haywire, emitting the woodpecker like “beep, beep, beep” signalling high radiation. Walking in the forest was strictly prohibited.
The length of time each liquidator could spend in the zone was strictly controlled. Personnel were regularly rotated. Radioactive soil was buried, plants destroyed, farm animals shot. The early responders and the liquidators are heralded as heroes, many giving their lives to prevent further destruction or aid in the clean up. Of the initial firefighters, 6 died in the first month, along with 22 technicians who worked at Chernobyl. Estimates suggest that of the 500,000 liquidators, at least 200,000 have health related symptoms of radiation poisoning. Memorials commemorating their sacrifice are all over the zone. If there’s a feel good aspect to this whole disaster, it is this sacrifice that forms the focus. Proof that even in the worst of circumstances, there is still some good in human nature.
Just before nightfall, we arrived at Pripyat. The city had been founded in 1970, purpose built to house the workers at the Chernobyl power plant. Its inhabitants were among the best educated in the USSR, and also the youngest, with the average age only 26. 20,000 were children. It was designed as an ideal communist community. Over 300 apartment buildings provided housing, with indoor plumbing and working elevators. Parks with merry-go-rounds and swings separated the buildings; signs warned of children playing and there were 5 schools. A gymnasium with a swimming pool allowed for physical activities. A concert hall backed onto the cinema. Stores sold TV sets and pianos and furniture. A new bar with a riverside patio had opened just a few months before, boasting stained glass windows. Unusual for the USSR, Pripyat’s supermarket shelves were well stocked with all sorts of food, reflecting the vaunted status the city held and its importance to the USSR.
On the eve of April 26, 1986, Pripyat was humming along. The restaurant on the main square hosted a wedding which continued the next day. Preparations were underway for the May 1st party – a ferris wheel and merry-go-round swing were built and a structure housing bumper cars was erected near the main square. There was no school on the 27th – a Saturday- but people went about their daily lives, shopping, going to the park, borrowing books at the library, practising soccer in the stadium.
With only 2 hours notice, the city became a ghost town. Cherished pets were not allowed to leave, cars had to be left, only what people could bring for a brief 3 day sojourn was allowed out. They never returned, but were resettled elsewhere in the Ukraine according to the dictates of the USSR government. The liquidators moved in and buried everything – clothes, books, cars, chairs – with high levels of radiation. Then came the looters, who stripped the city of everything of value – sinks, copper wiring, floorboard, fridges – and sold their radioactive bounty to an unsuspecting public.
As the extent of the radioactivity at Pripyat became known, people realized return was not going to be possible. Security measures were enacted to stem the flow of vandals. Using the water of the Pripyat River was restricted. Agriculture was forbidden. Running water and electricity were cut off to the city. Surrounding villages were also evacuated, with only a few stubborn elders remaining. All, but a handful, have since died.
It is against this backdrop that we visited the city. Most of the buildings still stand as they were 32 years ago, but for the ravages of time. The concrete is chipped, paint is peeled away from the walls, metal rusted. Wood floors have collapsed, glass shards from nearby windows cover the ground. The swimming pool stands empty. The streetlights, even those with light bulbs, are dark. The shops are empty, but for carcasses of their wares. In the music store stood a dozen old pianos. When a key was touched, the note reverberated in the eerie silence that envelopes the city. There are no children giggling or horns honking or neighbors yelling at each other across the balconies. The silence is deafening.
In the showcase hospital, rusted cradles sit empty in the nursery. In the maternity ward, what I mistakenly took for a birthing chair was the opposite. There was a huge spike in abortions of foetuses less than 6 months old following the disaster. The hospital was allowed to stay open for a while after April 26 to care for burn victims and to perform abortions. Our guide Yuliia felt herself extremely lucky – she had been born in Kiev in July, 1986, barely missing the 6 month cut-off.
As we walked around Pripyat, the ironic reality of its abandonment hit home. Without humans, nature thrived. Trees have overtaken the soccer field, the main square, the sidewalks, the streets and will soon overwhelm the human built structures. Wildlife, like the wolves, are thriving without fear of human predators. Mushrooms grow, insects buzz around, birds fly overhead and nest among the trees. Only the dogs, descended from the pets that were left behind, miss humans. At every stop, friendly dogs greeted us, eager for a stroke or two.
The Power Plant
Our final stop was the Chernobyl power plant. We walked into one of the unfinished cooling towers, then observed from a distance the 3 remaining visible power plants that made up the 4 reactors at Chernobyl. Impossible to miss is the confinement unit, as the 2nd sarcophagus covering reactor No. 4 is known. The original one had a life expectancy of only 20 years. The new sarcophagus, with a life expectancy of 100 years, was put over the old one in 2016, following a global effort and financial contribution by many nations. Ukraine had neither the expertise nor the funds to do the job itself.
It is this legacy that many choose to remember. Ukrainians, feeling deceived by the lack of honesty from their Soviet leaders, attribute Chernobyl with sparking the march for independence. The demand of citizens for more transparency in government prompted glasnost – openness – and allowed for more freedom of expression and freedom of the press. It culminated in the 1991 referendum in which over 90% of its population (including the 30% Russian speaking minority) voted to cede from the USSR and independence later that year. The global co-operation aimed at trying to solve the challenges at Chernobyl and assist its hundreds of thousands of victims was unparalleled.
After 2 days, we left Chernobyl for Kiev. The tour was highly informative, learning about the science behind the accident, the dangers of radiation and the horrendous fallout from the accident. But for me, visiting Pripyat was the highlight. It provided a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era. The city was built as a monument to the pursuit of human aspirations and Communist ideologies. It stands now as a reminder of those failings and a tribute to mother nature, who has so poignantly reclaimed what we humans tried to take from her.