When the Chernobyl disaster occurred on the 26th of April 1986, I happened to be in France (or maybe I was there in the following weeks). I was too young to understand the situation, but I do remember people talking about little else and being concerned about what we should or shouldn’t eat.
28 years later, here I was, at the epicentre of the worst accident in nuclear power history.
Today in Chernobyl, the background radiation is the same as in Kiev, but the automobile traffic remains significantly lower.
The exclusion zone is fenced off and 700 guards watch it for intruders and monitor the 12 entrance gates. On the Belarus side of the zone, there is no barbed wire or guards, just signs warning people not to enter. As I wrote when I went to Minsk, Belarusians tend to be an obedient people who like to do the right thing – or in this case, the smart thing (note: this sign is in Ukraine, not Belarus).
However, don’t think of Chernobyl as a completely dead place; 9,000 people work here full-time, most on a 3/4-4/3 or 15/15 days on/off schedule (the former population was about 200,000). Their jobs are varied: ongoing maintenance in the city, construction of the decommissioning infrastructure, administration buildings, support for all these people, and the odd tour guides. While tour agencies in Kiev arrange visits to the site, only Government guides are allowed to take people inside the exclusion zone, and it must be booked at least 10 days ahead to obtain the permit. Because of the fighting in a completely different part of the country, tourism is down 80% this year, just as it was when I visited Odessa in May.
Despite having a safe background radiation level, Chernobyl is not safe for resettlement because there are radioactive hotspots in many places. I measured ground radiation at a former village kindergarten, where the eavestrough drained. Radioactive isotopes that fell on metal roofs were concentrated by rain at the base of the wall, where they sometimes accumulate in moss and other vegetation, preventing them from seeping deep underground. While proper behaviour will keep adults safe here, you could never let children play outside, as activities young children enjoy, like eating dirt, would not be a good idea at all.
The dose I was recording (5.97 uSv/h), if sustained for a year, would exceed the maximum one year only emergency exposure for a radiation safety worker by 6%. For normally acceptable background radiation for the general public, this would exceed North American standards by over 5,200% This seems extreme, but to put things into perspective, this is a level of radiation similar to the upper limit of what you get when you take a long haul flight (depending on latitude and altitude). Also, it is almost 30,000 times higher than what you get walking down the street in Chernobyl. So to attain this excessive annual exposure, you would have to live and sleep in this dirty and wet, small mossy spot 24/7 for a year. Not exactly probable.
A museum was built in Chernobyl, and then immediately closed, no explanations given.
The adjacent monument. I forget what the angel signifies, but the concrete slab is shaped exactly like the exclusion zones, with candle holders marking the locations of the abandoned villages and towns.
Some of the first victims are remembered for the heroic efforts they deployed to contain the disaster.
The long-term effects on those who worked on the site is a complicated subject to say the least. But for the very first responders, the firefighter who were on site at the time of the explosion, the story has no ambiguity at all. Having no idea of the dangers they were exposing themselves to, they went straight to the site of the explosion and began dousing the exposed reactor core with water. Many thought they were fighting an electrical fire that had broken out in the middle of the night. The 30 firefighters sustained absolutely non-survivable radiation doses and all died in the next 2-4 weeks in a specialized hospital in Moscow. I took this picture at the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, last May.
The level of radioactivity 200 m from the core is tolerable today for medium term exposure.
But with radiation, the safety principle is always ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable), so as you can see on the right, a shielding wall was built to further limit the exposure of workers building the new “sarcophagus”.
Where I was standing, the protection wall did not help, and my gamma ray detector was not having a good time!
This is the New Safe Confinement, due to be completed in 2016, at the end of the 30 year lifespan of the original “sarcophagus”. As is typical for a mammoth project like this, it is both late and over budget. When ready, it will slide on rails to take position over the previous structure and remain there for an expected 100 years.
While everyone has seen or heard of reactor #4, what is less known is that a total of 12 reactors were planned for the area. Reactors 1, 2 and 3 were shut down in 1996, 1991 and 2000, respectively. This is reactor #5, completely built in 1986, but never fuelled or started. Reactor #6 was in the early stages of construction.
Chernobyl is known worldwide, but the city had nothing to do with the power station. It just happened to be located nearby. The town of almost 50,000 where all the workers lived was called Prypyat. It was evacuated in only 3.5 hours, when confused authorities realized the situation was not coming under control, but rather going out of control, with radiation rates skyrocketing to 600 times the safety limit (at first, the readings were dismissed as equipment malfunctions, as no such radiation levels had ever been observed by the experts).
Again, while the normal background is tolerable, there exists a number of hotspots that would make the city unsafe for normal occupation.
After almost 30 years, the main town centre has been overtaken by vegetation. If you wonder what the world would look like if humans went extinct, go to Prypyat.
From the stands of the large stadium, there are only trees to look at now.
And the bumper cars of the former amusement park.
While a few kids and adults did go on these rides, the park was not yet officially opened when the town was evacuated. The opening was planned for May Day 1986, 5 days after the disaster.
Today the ferris wheel has only one rider.
Because of a collapse a few years ago, some of the buildings are off-limits today. But we were allowed to enter the high school, although without a guide it would not have been easy to find the entrance.
And the pool. For a city of its size, Prypyat had excellent infrastructure. This was not atypical in the Soviet Union. “Strategic towns” such as this one, or the off-the-maps, secret cities which housed strategic military installations, received the best support and would have been some of the best places to live in the USSR, if you didn’t mind the relative isolation. Most people were educated technicians and engineers, and the average age was very low, around the late twenties to early thirties. With good living conditions and secure, good pay, couples tended to have lots of kids.
In a classroom, a poster teaching kids about electrical systems.
The drawing are the only electrical systems you will see there, as all the real ones were looted in the early 1990’s.
In fact, the whole city was looted. Thinking – or unsure if – the residents would eventually return, the authorities kept the buildings locked and the town isolated for a few years (initially many thought the evacuation would only last a few days). However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, all control was lost and destitute people (and opportunists), looted everything. They didn’t just take jewellery or TV sets, but radiators off the walls and lightbulbs from the ceilings.
Inside the apartments, all that is left is trash, like papers and bulky items of little value, like this couch.
The disaster was initially hidden from the public, and the world learnt of it from the Finnish Government, whose agencies detected a significant presence of radioactive fallout. 4 days after the explosion, this tiny article (in red) appeared in the Soviet newspaper Pravda, which mentioned that there had been an incident in Chernobyl and the situation was being remedied. Although it is tempting to accuse the authorities of covering it up, the issue is more complicated. The Soviet Supreme actually knew very little about the situation, for many reasons. First, nothing like this had ever happened. Second, in authoritarian regimes, you tell your superiors what they want to hear, not the truth. Gorbachev was very aware of this and in a documentary years later, he said that he had ordered the KGB to follow and spy on every scientist and senior official involved in the response and report anything significant directly to him.
Also, there was a legitimate desire to avoid panic. Because of the general public’s ignorance and fear of radiation, this is an important thing to consider. In the West, thousands of women got abortions in 1986 after learning they could be exposed to an annual radiation dose of 2 mSv (vs the normal limit of 1 mSv per year). For those unfamiliar with radiation, that decision is comparable to deciding to have an abortion because your doctor told you not to drink more than a glass of wine and one day you had 2.
The clean-up response was massive, involving half a million so-called “liquidators”, doing anything from cleaning the fallout to destroying the most contaminated villages, to brigades of hunters going through the fields to kill contaminated cats and dogs before they could escape the area. Miners dug a tunnel and a huge gallery under the reactor to help prevent a secondary explosion which could have been worst than the first. Helicopter pilots flew over the core to dump tons of sand and then lead over the destroyed reactor. Many of these jobs exposed workers to very high levels of radiation. For example, flying 200 m over the core could expose you to a potentially lethal dose in 30 minutes. The measure of the health consequences to these men is both controversial and, from a methodological perspective, extremely complicated.
For the wildlife, the disaster proved to be a great opportunity and today Chernobyl is one of the best natural reserves in Europe. While many animals and plants died in the initial stages, now that background radiation is reasonable, most thrive due to the relative lack of human activity, especially species that don’t usually interact very well with humans, such as wolves. The Prypyat river is teeming with catfish, and since fishing is not allowed, some grow to impressive sizes.
I’m sorry for the bad picture, but if you click on the picture and look closely, you see the same fish you saw in the previous photo, with a monster catfish swimming by.
Directly downwind from the reactor, 4 square kilometres of forest was exposed to so much fallout that the trees turned red and everything died. Today, the “Red Forest” is still highly contaminated and just driving by, I recorded a dose rate of 6.45 uSv/h, the highest I witness during my visit. Apparently some crazy guy went running in the forest a few years ago. He did not survive the exposure.
On the way out, it is mandatory to go through detection machines, in order to determine if decontamination is required. My fellow tourist from Poland got a “clear signal”, as we all did.