A trip to the dark side – Chernobyl

(November 2019)

What do you think about so called ‘dark tourism’ – going to see things and places that have less than happy stories to tell? Chernobyl is one of those and despite its dark history – it is part of history and therefore something of interest to many – including me.

That said, is visiting an abandoned city really ‘dark’ tourism? Sure, we know why and how the city was abandoned but is it truly any different to visiting Machu Picchu or one of the great Mayan cities such as Tikal in Guatemala or Luxor in Egypt even?  Don’t get me wrong, I am not comparing the incredible Mayan or Egyptian architecture to that of the Soviet Union in the 70s but is the premise still the same – visiting an abandoned city 🤔🤔? Either way all are equally fascinating to me – a snapshot in time of a civilisation that lived there.

Since the recent TV show depicting the events of the Chernobyl disaster, it has become incredibly popular, though I had booked my trip before the programme came out. Learning about the world and it’s civilisations – good and bad – has always interested me.  Perhaps in the hope that we learn from the mistakes of those before us.

I had time to take a quick walk around the Kiev city centre before I headed to the meeting point for my tour – despite the -8c I was glad I did as it was beautiful with the sun coming up and the changing colours over the monuments.

I then heading to the meeting point for my day tour to Chernobyl. I was quickly allocated my group, guide and van.  There were probably 7-8 vans, each with 10-12 people heading off for the day – I can only imagine the mayhem in the height of the tourist season.

Before I go on, I had better give you a brief history of Chernobyl and the reason I and thousands of others visit (just in case you have been living under a rock).   On Sunday, April 26, 1986, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant exploded during a safety test (oh the irony) and it is still considered the worst nuclear disaster in history.  The explosion and subsequent fire released vast amounts airborne radioactive contamination into the atmosphere which drifted over much of the USSR (as it was at the time) and into Western Europe.  USSR did not admit the accident until high levels of radiation were recorded in Sweden.   Ultimately up to 16,000 deaths can be attributed to the disaster across Europe however only 31 deaths have every been reported as a direct result of the disaster.

We were issued with our ‘Visa’ for the Chernobyl zone, which we were to show with our passport at the police check points and then given an initial run down of the health and safety rules:

  • Don’t eat in the open air
  • Don’t remove anything (and therefore spreading radiation) – you can be given 7 years in prison for this!
  • Don’t put anything on ground or sit on ground
  • Don’t go inside buildings – most are in bad condition and some falling down
  • Don’t pat stray dogs – they are very friendly but contaminated due to the ground and the water (this one was the hardest for me lol)  

We passed a fair few Ladas on the drive towards the Chernobyl zone (and if you have read my previous blogs of my trip around Central Asia you will know I am a fan of them) and when we reached the first check point, we were given our personal dosimeter to measure the dose of external ionising radiation we receive during the day.  During the day, we should receive less than 0.003 microsieverts – you would get more radiation on a flight between the New York and the Ukraine.  The dosimeters get returned at the end of the day and the statistics shown to the Government on a regular basis.

Did you know there are three types of radiation:

  • Alpha – the weakest
  • Beta – which is dangerous to the skin (this is the most difficult to manage in the summer when people don’t want to cover up)
  • Gamma – which destroys DNA and can be the cause of cancers for you and/or your future children.

Our Guide was biotechnologist and had a lot of information to share as the day went on.

Although then day started off at -8 in Kiev, it seemed even colder now we were in the country side it was absolutely bitter and the problem with wearing so many layers to keep warm outside, is rapidly get them off when you get inside the warm van! 

The Chernobyl Exclusion zone covers an area of almost 2,600km2 in the Ukraine with restricted zones marked at 10km and 30km.  Surprisingly a small number of people live within the 30km zone. It is also now considered a nature reserve as nature has fully recovered with many bear, lynx, moose and wolves living in the area.  In the initial years after the disaster, there were a lot of mutations as you would expect, but due to evolution and survival of the fitness, those died off and only the healthy animals remained.  Although it is expected that some of these still have less obvious internal mutations, the populations continue to thrive.

Our first stop after the check points in to the exclusion zone at the Kopachi village kindergarten and its small war memorial just a few kilometres from the power plant.  Here we were given the instruction to “break the rules carefully” as our guide let us go inside the building.  He could not join us as he had to wear a GPS tracker 🥴.  Obviously there has been much deterioration over time but it was clear it was left in a hurry with shoes, toys and books just left – all very eery.  All the other buildings in this and many other villages in the area were bulldozed and buried.  Sadly, this was not such a good idea as the ruins seeped radioactive isotopes into the groundwater!  They built new roads, with new asphalt which they refer to as “safety tunnels”.

There were 15 villages within the 10km zone, and all were destroyed and buried after the disaster.  Despite the explosion happening on April 26, the villages were not evacuated until May 3rd, nor were they given iodine pills.  The heavy particles in the atmosphere (e.g. plutonium) destroyed their immune system – as a result many who died of other things (due to their compromised immune systems) were not considered in the death toll.  There was also a lot of blindness (as eyes absorb radiation easily).  No one can live in this area today and no one can stay more than 6 hours at one time. 

The Chernobyl Nuclear power plant was planned to have 12 reactors in total.  The accident happened in No. 4, and all further building plans were abandoned leaving No. 5 unfinished and the other reactors were closed over the following years (No. 3 closing in 2000).   Not surprisingly, water in the runoffs in the area are still highly contaminated.

Reactor number 4 is now covered with a safety shield or Sarcophagus.  The current one was built in 2012 and was the biggest and heaviest structure moved in the world, as it was built 300m away and then moved into place – 36000 tonnes of steel in total.

In front of the sarcophagus there is a monument to the ‘liquidators’ with an inscription “To those who saved the world”.  “Liquidator” is a general term used to describe the civil and military personnel who dealt with the consequences of the disaster.  Liquidators roles varied greatly; power plant workers on duty at the time of the explosion, fire fighters, Soviet Armed forces who removed contaminated materials, female janitors who had to remove food from abandoned homes, hunters who exterminated domestic animals left behind, coal miners who dug a protective tunnel, helicopter pilots …  These people and many more (it is estimated that around 60,000 people were involved) are generally credited with limiting the immediate and long term damage from the disaster and those who still survive today finally have veteran status, even if they were civilians, having fought for many years to have their participation officially recognised.

Our guide had spoken to an engineer who was on duty the morning after the explosion.  He had said that no one could believe the core could or in fact did explode and for many hours they continued to work in disbelief.  They were initially evacuated but Kremlin engineers made them go back in to continue pumping water into the core – which was now non-existent!

Our next stop was in the town of Pripyat, the location of many of the eerie photos you see of the disaster aftermath.  Just outside the town we came across some puppies – all dogs are supposed to be sterilised but clearly not! A US organisation look after the stray animals in the area and thankfully we could play puppies 👍🏻 (as they are too young to be particularly contaminated) – they certainly looked chunky and healthy.

Prypriat was a good city, purpose built in 1970 by the best designers, with all the best infrastructure – Amusement park, Palace of culture, cinemas, schools etc, connections to railway, bus and boat stations and a massive medical complex.  Everything was provided – health care, housing, education etc.  On top of that, good jobs were available at the nearby Nuclear Power plant, just a few kilometres away.

Although there was an estimated 50,000 people living in the city, there were only 4000 cars as the city was so easy for people to walk around.

Gear from firefighters on first night still in the basement of the medical complex.  They had no radiation protection and people did not understand symptoms of radiation related illnesses.  Nurses, doctors, visitors were all contaminated as they touched exposed workers and their clothes with no protection.  Once the extend of the contamination was understood the Government issue a law that all pregnant women in the city had to have their babies aborted and many children from the city were sent to Cuba for rehab (a friend of the USSR with good medicine).

Next, we headed to the River boat station – there were boat connections to Kiev and Belarus, and the boats were a popular way of travel.  Much more popular than crowded Soviet buses with no AC!  The cafeteria here had beautiful stain glass windows, and apparently it served the best ice cream in the city.  An old vending machine remained – your choices were water, sparkling water and lemonade. 

It really is a snapshot of a moment in time and straight out of an episode of Abandoned Engineering – fascinating if you like that kind of thing, which I do lol.  The interesting thing is that the town was not damaged by the disaster, it was just abandoned, but of course age and environment (and apparently in some cases military training including live ammunition training leaving bullet holes in buildings) has worn it down over time.  I was particularly intrigued by the photos our guide showed of the buildings we were visiting pre-disaster, filled with happy people going about their normal lives.

Both the cinema and musical school was adorned with beautiful unique mosaics, made of aluminium.   This time the guide abandoned his GPS tracker and took us in to the music school 👍🏻 to see the crumbling auditorium where musical performances were once held.

As we wandered through the empty city, we passed a Government building (the centre for Nuclear Energy), the hotel where people brought in to clean up the explosion initially stayed, through the central square and across the football stadium.  Did you know the international nuclear symbol symbolises the 3 types of radiation coming from 1 core?

Our final stop in the city was probably the most famous site, the amusement park.  I think most people have seen photos of the abandoned Ferris wheel or dodgem cars.  Not many people know that the park was brand new and was due to have its grand opening on 1 May 1986, but this was cancelled after the explosion.  Some say it was opened briefly on April 27th, one day after the explosion as a distraction for the locals but before the town was evacuated but this has not been confirmed. 

The announcement to evacuate the city came on the afternoon of April 27th and the whole evacuation (of the almost 50,000) took only 36 hours. People were told that they were back in 3 days, so to pack light – of course they never were to return.

We left Pripyat and headed back to the Administration area to have lunch in Cafeteria No 19, built for Chernobyl workers to eat Soviet workers cuisine 🥴.  Some of the 6,000 people who still work on site (it was 15,000 people when in operation) still eat here.  To enter you had to pass through a radiation detection machine and then thoroughly wash your hands before reaching the dining room. (Good hand washing practice for the future COVID world – who knew!)

Our Soviet workers cuisine consisted of a small plate of salad with some kind of cold sausage and lots of cabbage.  A Boursk – a traditional soup, and some kind of grain with a chunk of pork!  The dining room was busy and by the time we go to eat there were no knives left so I just had to pick it up and bite it!  Thank goodness for my clean hands lol.  It was not amazingly flavoursome but ok 🥴. The coffee was not much better, but worth it for the cup lol.

Although Reactor number 4 and Pripyat were the main reasons for the visit, the next stop at the once top secret Soviet Cold War base fascinated me.  Hidden deep in the forest and after a short walk we arrived at the Duga radar – a Soviet over-the-horizon radar (Duga literally means “arc”), which was part of the Soviet missile early warning radar network (to spot ballistic missiles fired from the USA) and the last one left intact.

It operated from 1976 to 1989 and broadcast over shortwave radio bands.  Unfortunately, it often interfered with broadcasts on radio, tv and sometimes aviation communications with a clicking sounds gaining it the nickname the Russian Woodpecker.  That said, most people annoyed by the interference never actually knew where it was coming from!  Apparently even the Ukraine officials were not aware of it!

It is huge 700m long and 150m high structure made up of made up of hundreds of huge antennas and turbines and is hugely impressive when you stand at the base of it.

We exited the 10km zone with another radiation check and this time the minibus also got checked before we were free to head to the town of Chernobyl.  The town used to have a population of about 14,000 but today the town around 1,000 people live there and is often the overnight base for tourists who take a 2 day trip. 

At the entrance to the town, they have an exhibition of robots and vehicles assembled for the 25th anniversary of the disaster.  The vehicles were bought from various countries to use in the clean up on the roof of the reactor and in the surrounding area, including a copy of moon landing vehicle!  Unfortunately, none of the vehicles/robots could last longer than 13 hours on the roof in the extreme radiation before their circuitry died so they had to resort to using people – or biorobots as they were referred to!!!   More than 70% of those men are now dead.

By this time, it was 3pm but the sun had started to set already which made for some cool photos and a dropping temperature, dropping from the balmy -4 to -8!

Further into the town we came across the court where those blamed for the accident were tried.  In reality they were just scape goats of an attempted coverup of the entire event, and although initially convicted, they were soon released after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The courthouse is still overlooked by a large statue of Lenin – apparently the last remaining Lenin statute still standing in the Ukraine! 

Nearby there is a poignant memorial to all the villages which were destroyed after the disaster.  An ‘avenue’ of village signs, one for each abandoned and destroyed village in the exclusion zone both in the Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus.  Nearby is the “Monument of the Third Angel” – inspired by a Biblical passage, Revelations 8:10-11:

“And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from Heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter”.

Some speculated that this passage predicted the disaster, as Chernobyl was named for the Ukrainian word for wormwood!

After one final check point to measure our radiation exposure (0.002, less than 0.003 allowed so all good 👍🏻) we were on our way back to Kiev after what was a fascinating yet sobering day.

2 thoughts on “A trip to the dark side – Chernobyl

  1. Sandy Webster

    Thanks for this one, Elaine.

    I have kind of mixed feelings about visiting a place of such (recent) history.

    I think it is the recency of events that fuels that reluctance. But, given the opportunity, I think I would definitely travel there.

    It is a glimpse into a time and political sphere that all the world can certainly learn from.

    Your blog is really thought provoking and very interesting.

    Hope you are well.





  2. I really was an interesting trip, thanks for the comment.
    We are still doing well in NZ, off to Stewart Island later this week … fueling by backlog of blogs! Thank goodness I am almost finished 2019 lol


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