Oбережно [Trip to Chernobyl]

Today, at 1:23AM thirty years ago, the worst accident in the history of nuclear power was about to happen. During a systems test at the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station, a massive power spike occurred, the core overheated, and caused some of the fuel rods to fracture which lead to an increase in fuel temperature and massive steam buildup. This explosive steam pressure caused the detonation that destroyed the reactor casing, tearing off and blasting the 2000-ton upper plate, to which the entire reactor assembly is fastened, through the roof of the reactor building. The ejected superheated lumps of graphite and the demolished channels still in the remains of the reactor vessel caught fire on exposure to air, greatly contributing to the spread of radioactive fallout and the contamination of outlying areas. Three decades later Stealth and I decided to give it a visit.

It's 8AM and we are standing in front of the Kozatskiy Hotel in Kiev that is right next to the Maidan Nezalezhnosti or Independence Square. You don't hear much about Ukraine in the West, but everybody has heard about the Ukrainian Revolution that happened between November 2013 and February of 2014. It's somehow weird standing there only two years after violent clashes between the supporters of the European integration of Ukraine and the Ukrainian government completely devastated the whole Maidan and it's surroundings. People still talk about everything that's supposedly wrong with the country and the revolution, but today there's nothing left of what happened, everything is fixed and clean and it looks just like another Eastern European city.

Our guide for our two day trip to the exclusion zone is already waiting, he checks our names and takes us over to his minivan. He introduces himself as Nikolai Fomin, he has been working in the town of Chernobyl for the last five years, four of them have been as a freelancer tour guide in the exclusion zone. He has made over a thousand trips to Chernobyl, he tells with a near accent free English and a slight lisp that somehow made him extremely likable. We went to this trip both excited and with huge scepticism about the tour quality, so we set our expectation very low, assuming some Ukrainian guard would guide us through the safe areas of Pripyat with broken English like "go there", "don't go there" and "we meet back here in 15 minutes". After his short introduction of how our next two days would look like those assumptions completely evaporated. He folded down a built-in screen from the ceiling of the van and started a documentary about the night and weeks after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. That would entertain us for the two hour trip until the 30k checkpoint.

Coincidentally, we found out that Nikolai Fomin was also the name of one of the individuals involved in the accident. He was the Chief Engineer that arrived three hours after the explosion to take over the disaster management of the plant. After being told by the shift leader that the reactor was intact, Fomin kept pressing the staff to feed water to the reactor and transferred more people to Unit 4 to replace those being disabled by radiation. Even after being told by his replacement that the reactor was destroyed, he ordered continued feeding of water into the reactor. The water, however, flowed through the severed pipes into the lower levels of the plant, carrying radioactive debris and causing short circuits in the cableways common to all four blocks.

We finally arrived at the town of Chernobyl. By now we know how our next two days will look like, brown, grey, lifeless. The late winter with covered sky and leafless trees make the atmosphere perfect. We slowly drive through the town and see abandoned buildings left and right, but other do actually are in normal conditions, so do the streets and a working network of heating pipes goes from house to house. Nikolai tells us how there are still people living here in Chernobyl, specially construction workers from the plant, or himself for example, that probably spends every second night here. The picture above shows the names of the over 180 communities that were evacuated after the disaster., three of them were bulldozed to the ground.

This memorial is situated right in front of the Chernobyl Fire Department, setup and founded by the families of the 27 Firemen that first arrived at the plant to put out the flames. Non of them knew that the core melted and half of it was laying around the reactor building. They managed to put out the fire, but all 27 of them died hours later of severe radiation poisoning. The driver of the fire truck described the scene: "We saw graphite scattered about. Misha asked: "Is that graphite?" I kicked it away. But one of the fighters on the other truck picked it up. "It's hot," he said."

This is the nearly finished New Safe Confinement NSC, the structure that will replace the old en brittle Sarcophagus seen in the picture below. It has been under construction since September 2010 and it's main purpose is to, once finished, slide over the current radiation shelter, seal it, and with help of remote cranes and robots be able to break down the old Sarcophagus without setting free any radioactive particles. The NSC itself doesn't shield from radiation, its arch is made out of layers of steel and rubber. It's supposed to be finished and set in place by 2017.

After getting as close as 150m to the building of reactor number 4, we made our way towards Pripyat, which is only a minutes drive away. We were just introduced to radiation and it's effects. Of course we had a general idea of how it works, but this was the first time we felt how devastating it can be. Some of the safest places to be was on the streets, after 30 years of rain they were as clean as in any other city of this world, maybe even cleaner. But standing in front of that city entrance sign you notice that left and right, all around you on the side of the streets there are dozens of radiation warning shields, every 5 meters another hotspot. That place is far from safe.

Two days after reactor 4 exploded, in a matter of an afternoon and with the help of buses from all around Ukraine, 50.000 civilians and citizens of Pripyat were evacuated. They were told only to take some vital belongings and their personal papers with them, the city was being evacuated, they would be able to return within three days. That never happened. Military forces safeguarded the houses after the evacuation while others were enrolled in clean up tasks, like cleaning the buildings from the radioactive dust. and removing contaminated soil.

The little amusement park that was being built in 1985 was supposed to open to the public on May 1st 1986, only four days before the nuclear meltdown happened. It never got used by the population of Pripyat and it turned into one of the most iconic sights of the ghost town.

Nature is taking back what belongs to it. Thanks to the time of the year, no trees had any leaves yet, and allowed us to see what is hidden in the forest that was once a thriving city populated by people an average of 26 years of age. Some places like to football stadium are only recognizable by the spectator terraces, the whole field is covered in grown out trees and bushes.

Schools are one of the few places the scavengers left nearly intact. Once the military backed out of the contaminated zone, nobody was there to guard any of the installations or housing blocks in the city, what attracted many waves of scavengers that were out for anything remotely valuable; personal belongings, money, furniture or even the copper cables of light switches. Even if bolted to a wall, they would tear it out and sell it wherever possible. Thousands of contaminated furniture pieces are still scattered around in Ukraine and the rest of Europe.

Later that first day we got to one of the highlights of our trip. We were able to climb sixteen floors all the way to the top of the highest building in the city, where we got the most amazing panoramic view of Pripyat, the artificial lake and the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. Way out in the distance, around 8Km away, we were also able to see the military installation of Chernobyl-2: The Duga-3 Radar.

On our second day, after a good nights sleep in the town of Chernobyl, we went to visit the docks.
The boats now located at Chernobyl’s dockyard were contaminated with radiation, some were used in the subsequent clean up but others were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Gradually being cut up for scrap over the years, few now remain. We were not supposed to be able to go there, but an apparent error in our documents didn't explicitly state that it was prohibited.

Next we went to Chernobyl-2, codename for a then secret and still guarded USSR over-the-horizon radar system. Duga-3 was used as part of the Soviet Anti Ballistic Missile early-warning network. The system operated from July 1976 to December 1989. Two operational Duga radars were deployed, one near Chernobyl, its transmitter being located at a distance of 50Km in Chernihiv, the other in eastern Siberia. Nikolai was so kind to pose beneath one of the antennas for a size comparison.

With a height of 150m and a range of over 9000Km this Steel Work is breathtaking. They actually tried to tear it down in the mid 90s by starting to cut the lower support beams, there are plenty of the missing, until they noticed that just cutting it down like a lumberjack would do to a tree, would cause an earthquake strong enough demolish the Sarcophagus 8Km further east. They have planned to finally tear it down until the end of this year.

We were also able to visit the underground military installations of the Chernobyl-2 site and its adjacent buildings. These are probably the most destroyed interiors we got to see through the whole two days. Everything that the tiniest bit of electronics in them, cables, control panels, everything was torn out and, if it wasn't laying right there on the ground, it was thrown outside unto huge piles of electronic garbage.

Close to the never finished reactor number 5 you can find two cooling towers that were under construction as well. This was one of the places that, after the explosion, never got cleaned out. Nothing was done here, it was left as it was and never touched again. The whole ground is covered in radioactive moss but there was still a pack of puppies following us around the whole time. We couldn't pet them because of the radioactive dust they were covered in, and that totally broke our hearts, they were so playful.

At about noon we finally got to visit another of the highlights of the tour; the Pripyat Hospital. Until a year ago people, with the adequate protection, were able to go down into the basement of the hospital, but due to some individuals not following the rules, the entrance got completely shut with tons of sand. The 27 firefighters that first got the scene after the explosion, after putting out the fire got immediately rushed to the hospital with symptoms of acute radiation sickness, and their whole equipment got dumped into one of the rooms of the cellar. What you see in the picture above is the neck cover of one of the helmets the firefighters used that night. It is so highly contaminated, that even at 10cm away from it we measured 1mSv, it irradiates over 7.000 times stronger than your average background radiation of 0.15µSv. To put it into perspective, if you would touch that piece of cloth for one hour, it would equate to the radiation your hand would get after being under the sun for 1 year straight.

We enjoyed the atmosphere of the hospital very much. The light was awful, the walls were torn down, water dripping from the ceiling, everything was lying broken in the hallways. And the silence, the nothingness that surrounds your soul while walking through that half collapsing building is just breathtaking, and no picture or video can recreate that, and neither do words. I'm just going to leave these last pictures without any caption, since that's mostly how I experienced our last hour walking through the rest of the hospital, the police station and the scrapyard.

And our last wow moment, the Pripyat fire station, that looks exactly like to one in DayZ. That just put the last smile on our faces before leaving the city and heading back to Kiev. While standing there I had a few moments for myself, I was watching that building and I began to really process where I am, that I accomplished something I have bin wishing for my entire life. Some people look at me strange when I tell them this. I don't think that beauty has to limited to perfect things. A beautiful places doesn't have to be restricted to beaches and mountains and living things. When I think of it, I actually see life through these pictures, the living nature going its path to take back what we, as humans, once took from her. You can see a city that once was, and hasn't been for the last thirty years. Over the course of the next 30 years the buildings will start to collapse, the rusty vehicles will decay into dust, and maybe within a hundred years there's nothing more than a pile of rubble in the forest. That decay is beautiful, it is a part of life.

At this point I have to say thank you to that awesome guy that, not only came with me to this amazing place, but also came up with the idea of going in the first place, and thank you for making everything so god damn uncomplicated, probably the best trip of my life. Thank you, Stealth.

And I cant forget Nikolai Fomin, and I'm talking for the both of us, this tour through the exclusion zone wouldn't have been even half as entertaining without him. I tip my hat to him, he did an amazing work showing us around and explaining so much about the history of the different places, and how it changed over the last thirty years. Thank you too!

That's all I have time to write, I was actually going much deeper into de different aspects of the nuclear disaster and the aftermath of the radioactive contamination, but I managed to delete my whole draft and had do start all over again, limiting the content if I wanted it finished by today. Thank you very much and I hope, whoever happens to read this, that you liked it.



Creative Bonus

For this trip I got myself my first digital camera, a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX100, so of course I played around with it a little bit. I think some of them came out pretty well for a beginner. Cheers!


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