Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Less than two hours from Kiev, visiting Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is thankfully a near unique experience. It provides an insight into what happened here over thirty years ago, and what life was like here before the disastrous accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station on 26 April 1986.

At the time Chernobyl was the second largest nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union, only Leningrad was larger. Four reactors were built between 1977 and 1983, with reactors five and six under construction at the time of the accident. The plan was to build twelve in total…

On 26 April 1986 there were two explosions in reactor four, releasing huge quantities of radioactive materials into the atmosphere, scattered locally and in time around the world by the wind. There was a Soviet media blackout and few people were evacuated immediately. Eventually 94 towns and villages were abandoned and 100,000 people left the area.

Incredibly six months after the explosion the first two reactors were restarted and the heavily contaminated reactor three restarted in December 1987. In 1991 a fire at reactor two released more radiation. Thankfully in 1991 the Ukrainian parliament decided to close down the nuclear power station, though the last reactor wasn’t shut down until 2000. There are still 4,000 people working at the plant now, working on maintenance and decommissioning, down from 11,000 people at the peak.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone extends for approximately 30km from the power station in Ukraine and across the border into Belarus. The zone has been open for tours since 2002 but since the acclaimed Chernobyl TV series was released in early 2019 the number of tourists has increased significantly. As of September 2019 there were around 500 tourists a day during the week, and a 1,000 a day at the weekends. There are a dozen tour companies and over a hundred tour guides. Thankfully other than congestion at the start and end of the day there was little sign of other groups as it is a large area with many different places to explore.

There are a number of measures in place to manage radiation exposure, including everyone carrying a radiation counter that is measured at the end of the tour, several radiation scanners on your way out, requirement for long sleeves as even fabric can deflect some radiation, and most obviously avoiding any particularly radioactive areas, as it is surprisingly localised. In most of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone the level of background radiation is basically the same as anywhere else in the world. In terms of radiation exposure I got a larger dose of radiation flying from New Zealand to Europe than from a day at Chernobyl.

The first place we visited was the secret town of Chernobyl Two. This was secret as it was home to the 500ft high and 2,500ft wide Duga-1 radar array used by the Soviets to detect American rocket launches. It is the last surviving of three originally built.

Despite being 7km from the nuclear power plant Chernobyl Two was so secret that it had its own coal power station to keep it off the grid.

The fire station was a good example of what the rest of the day mostly involved, visiting derelict buildings that have been decaying for over thirty years, capturing life as it was in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Officially since 2012 visitors are not allowed into buildings given the risk of injury from decaying floors and structures, but it seems like almost every tour does so. The guides choose the sturdier structures, concrete buildings, to visit. Decent foot wear is a must given the amount of broken glass around, watch your step as wooden floorboards have decayed significantly, and don’t touch anything.

Inside the fire station was a model of Chernobyl Two from the time to help with training.

Nearby were apartments for the workers, complete with balconies, and an airplane outside for children to play on.

They even had their own school, an eerie experience to explore.

Chernobyl itself was one of the oldest towns in Ukraine. Now the private houses are overgrown and decaying.

It is home however to the last Lenin statue in Ukraine, the only exception to a 2014 law passed to remove all such statues and reminders of Soviet times.

It also had one of the biggest surprises of the day, the beautiful and well maintained St. Elijah Church, still occasionally used.

From the road much of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant site can be seen, with reactors one to four next to each other, the part completed reactor five still covered with cranes, the river used for cooling, and the cooling tower built after the river was getting up to 50C.

You can get even closer, there is a lookout 200m away from reactor four. After the accident a hastily built sarcophagus, 7,000 tonnes of metal and 4,000 cubic metres of concrete, contained the remains. It was only ever designed as a stop gap solution though and decayed over time. In 1997 planning began on New Safe Confinement, a 32,000 tonne structure designed to encapsulate the sarcophagus. Inside remote controlled cranes will dismantle the original sarcophagus and reactor. It was too radiative to build the structure over the reactor so it was built as two huge arches 300m from the reactor and then moved into place, the biggest structure ever moved across land. It was completed in 2017 after 7 years of construction on site, an incredible feat of engineering.

The closest town to the plant was Pripyat, a purpose built model Soviet town designed for 78,000 people, construction of which started in 1970. After the accident it was abandoned and much of the population relocated to Slavutich, a new town built 50km away in a year and a half to house workers.

Pripyat is home to the much photographed amusement park with a Ferris wheel and dodgems. It was brand new at the time, and was scheduled to open a week after the accident so was never used.

Nor was the sport ground, with the only stadium and one of four original lighting towers still standing.

Pripyat had a much larger and even more disturbing school to explore than Chernobyl Two.

Pripyat was a model Soviet town, with facilities uncommon elsewhere, including this once flash sports complex.

To end with a claw used to remove radioactive remains, now contaminated but seemingly kept to demonstrate to tourists the reaction of a Geiger counter which measured levels about 350 times higher than the rest of the day. The guide placed it inside using a selfie stick and ran away, while others very briefly ran up to take photos of it. I thought it prudent to keep my distance…

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