Tour Day 1: Chornobyl and Pripyat

Our first full day in the Zone was to be an intense mixture of photography and education, even if we had no idea what was in store for us as Darren and I ate a familiar breakfast (same as last night’s dinner but with fried eggs instead of soup) at the Chernobyl InterInform Agency (CII) canteen. We didn’t linger over the meal, and before long we were back in the company of Sacha and his driver, heading for the northern edge of town on our first full day’s tour of Chornobyl and Pripyat.

Rusty barbed wire fence trails away into distance, securing what could be a train carriage
Chornobyl Oblast, August 2010

Our guide broke us in gently, starting the day with a visit to Chornobyl’s former athletics stadium. Like many buildings throughout town, the stadium’s administrative block was unremarkable through it’s smashed windows and cracked tile facade, but different from recreational facilities elsewhere due to it’s collection of radioactive tanks. Parked in the centre of a weed-covered lawn that may at some point have formed part of an athletics track were perhaps six or eight tracked vehicles. Sacha explained that these were left here as a kind of monument, their individual radiation levels low enough not to warrant removal and storage next to hundreds of other tanks, buses, fire engines, trucks, and helicopters in a far-off field that’s now too dangerous to approach. One or two of the vehicles in front of us sported radiation warning signs; a basic metal rod supporting a crudely painted yellow triangle and the familiar atomic hazard symbol in red. As if reading our minds, Sacha placed his dosimeter on the tank’s tracks and it immediately burst into life, registering radiation two or three times higher than the background level. Satisfied that our safety equipment was working, we pushed on to our second destination, an abandoned naval base on the Pripyat river.

I don’t know why, but I hadn’t expected Pripyat to have a naval base. Yes, even a cursory glance at the map would have shown that the adjacent Pripyat river is quite considerable in itself and feeds into the Dnieper, one of Russia’s main waterways, but an actual naval base? Maybe something was lost in translation, because it looked more like an aquatic junkyard – think Steptoe & Son meets Popeye. Some of the moored boats were in the process of being salvaged for their scrap metal, others appeared to be just lying dormant. Our guide explained that the naval base was being used by an organisation studying wildlife in the zone, but they must have been keeping a relatively low profile. All we saw of recent human activity was a padlocked shed that looked just like a ship’s wheelhouse – genius.

We had one more stop to tick off in Chornobyl before leaving town: the fire station. The first casualties on that decisive day back in 1986 were among the emergency services, regular municipal workers who had not been briefed or even warned that radiation was a factor in the emergency they were attending. Most assumed it was an electrical fire, yet survivor reports dated 2008 claim that the possibility of radiation poisoning was discussed among those attending the scene in the early hours of April 26th. Regardless, the main objective of the assembled emergency services was to prevent the fire at reactor 4 from disabling the cooling systems of adjacent reactor 3. Their task was a difficult one; steam explosions had distributed burning parts of reactor 4 over a large area, including the roof of reactor 3, the same roof that was illegally constructed using flammable bitumen. Reactor 3 began to burn.

The exterior fires were eventually extinguished by dropping over 5000 tons of sand, lead, and clay using Russian Mi-8 helicopters whose pilots were effectively on suicide missions. The fires inside reactor 4 continued to burn until 10th May, by which time the first firefighters on the scene had already died of acute radiation sickness. They are commemorated through a memorial outside Chornobyl fire station, a profoundly expressive sculpture created by their brothers in arms.

Having paid our respects at the fire station memorial on the edge of Chornobyl we headed north, and immediately faced another military checkpoint, gateway to the 10km exclusion zone, where we were subjected to a more thorough search. Our guide added his passport to ours and the drivers’, all of which were checked against a government clearance form supplied to the soldiers that morning. Our apprehension escalated steadily in line with our guide’s personal dosimeter, now reading 0.20 – 1.00 micro-Sv.

All that we initially saw of Kopachi village, our first stop outside Chornobyl, was some grass-covered mounds and a war memorial at the edge of some woodland. Our guide explained that all the buildings in the village had been demolished and buried, a practice that continued until somebody realised this brought the radioactive material into closer contact with the water table. Only the kindergarten had escaped this treatment, and was being slowly reclaimed by nature in the form of young trees and creepers. On entering the only building we discovered two rooms filled with rusting bunk beds, discarded toys and books making up a third room. Something about this type of scene always strikes a chord with me, even without the suggestively placed (and possibly imported) headless dolls. It’s as if the absence of humans is underlined by the discarded artefacts and personal belongings, objects which you’re not used to seeing by themselves. Our sombre mood wasn’t improved when we saw the playground; the familiar brightly painted Eastern block climbing frames and see-saws overgrown and declared off-limits by more crudely painted radiation warning signs on metal pillars, signs which looked as though they were created by the children themselves.

We climb silently back into Sacha’s car and continue north, everybody silently acknowledging the looming hulk on the horizon, the grey remains of reactor 4. After about 5 minutes we stop for a couple of photos while it’s still safe, and then a couple more when it’s not, though we’re not sure if the danger is form radiation or from the authorities if they were to see us. Sergei or Yuri had said in the interview yesterday that one of the only run-ins they’ve had with security was over photography from a similar spot, which resulted in their group gaining a military escort back to base and several hours of uncomfortable questions. These are my thoughts as I climb to the top of a cement storage tank which was used to create the initial radiation containment efforts. The dosimeters are fairly quiet so I continue to the top for a few unusual pictures of the power plant.

Back in the car we see a herd of wild Prezevalski’s horses, one of the many species taking advantage of reduced human activity to go back to the old ways, the effects of radiation either bred out or still being absorbed. One specimen clearly belongs to the latter camp, bearing many scars and a deformed ear, but that could just as easily have been from territorial disputes. It’s funny how being in ‘the zone’ colours your perception of things which otherwise would go unquestioned. We press on to the official visitor’s platform next to reactor #4. Radiation levels here are quite low (only just above background) due to the safety work that’s been undertaken, and I wonder if the reason for the visitors platform being here is because it’s naturally the lowest area of radiation or whether there’s actually been a concentration of clear-up and containment due to the visitors platform. Probably a combination of both.

We drive a few more minutes to Pripyat, the Russian ‘Atomograd’ created to house the families of workers employed at the power station, where we have to go through another checkpoint before entering the city. More checking of passports and documents, more waiting while phone calls are made. This is as close as we would get to seeing the reality behind those news reports from April 26th, and as we wait behind the barrier we have an opportunity to think about the very human cost of this tragedy.

In Pripyat, people fell ill within hours of the accident, reporting metallic tastes and spontaneous vomiting. This continued for two days before the wider Soviet population was informed via an off-hand 20 second announcement on a TV news programme, which then went on to discuss American nuclear accidents at great length. All state radio broadcasts were replaced with classical music, a common practice leading up to announcements of serious consequences. The worst nuclear accident in history was only admitted outside of Russia by accident, when the escaping radiation triggered an alarm at a Swedish nuclear power plant, 620 miles away. By then the evacuation was already underway in Pripyat, when on 27 April people were ordered to leave personal belongings behind, turn off water and electricity, and board government buses for a short-term evacuation which should last around 3 days. The exodus was organised by local government who, since the power plant was owned by authorities in Moscow, weren’t even told of the scale of the accident. The evacuation started at 11:00. 4 hours later 53,000 people had been moved to outlying villages. Plans for evacuating a 10km radius around Pripyat began the next day.

At first there’s no sensation of being in an actual city. The wide boulevards so typical of Communist metropolis are reduced to single carriageways by extensive foliage and looted junk, which also hides the buildings and reduces visibility between them. It’s like driving through a badly paved forest. We stop at the foot of a large residential tower block, it’s door lying discarded at the base of the concrete staircase along with some rails that may have aided the removal of furniture or other large objects. All the rooms are the same; sodden floors, smashed windows, peeling wallpaper. A large dead dog lies in one of the utility rooms beneath the roof, most likely a victim of the harsh winter rather than radiation. Once on the roof we get a birds-eye view of the city and begin to appreciate the sense of scale which simply isn’t there when you’re constantly surrounded by the greenery that’s taking over – Pripyat is huge. On our way out, Sacha points to a galvanised sign just inside the entrance hallway, which bears the names of each resident family’s. One of the names is that of a plant supervisor who was involved in the accident and died a few months later of radiation poisoning.

A short drive through deserted streets takes us to the Jupiter laboratory, a large factory complex which officially made small plastic parts for cassette recorders. We try to imagine what it must have been like when the two massive halls were full of people and equipment, but the odd piles of junk here and there give no real clue as to the type of machinery that once kept so many hands busy. Instead we pick our way through a few of the offices above the factory, their floors littered with the broken remains of vintage computer equipment. Sacha picks up small metal cylinder with mesh at one end, allegedly part of an old smoke alarm. It contains plutonium, and our dosimeter goes crazy as we test it. In another trashed room we find boxes of dosimeter sensors, which were either manufactured or used here. Our guide is of the opinion that factories making plastic parts for tape recorders don’t need industrial metal workshops or boxes of plutonium tubes – guess we’ll never find out exactly what went on at Jupiter.

After snapping a few frames at the laboratory we make our way to one of Pripyat’s municipal fire stations, a single storey building with bays for a few vehicles and not much else. Opposite is the Police station, which had cells in a very dark corridor and a vehicle graveyard on the side. There’s some old lorries and a large crane, all “clean” enough for us to climb over and photograph. Elsewhere a large field has been set aside for contaminated vehicles used in the immediate clean-up operation, but radiation levels there have recently been deemed too high for this to be included on our tour. Parked there are the lorries, cranes, and helicopters used by the “liquidators”  – construction workers who laboured on the largest civil engineering task in history, the construction of a concrete sarcophagus over reactor 4. This was completed in December 1986 and today still prevents another self-sustaining nuclear reaction by keeping out rainwater.

It’s getting late, but the weather is still good so we head over to the amusement park to take in the famous dodgems and that iconic ferris wheel, neither having ever been used since they were constructed for the upcoming 1st May celebrations. Incidentally, central administration in Moscow saw no reason to alter the plans for similar celebrations in nearby Kiev following the accident, but following a 30 April meeting during which scientists reported that radiation levels there were normal there it was decided to shorten celebrations from their usual 3.5 hours to just two hours. Why would they do that if the radiation was normal? While Sacha was telling us this he placed his dosimeter over one of two unremarkable patches of of fresh tarmac near the ferris wheel and the readout went off the scale. The next day, Nick explains that an organisation measuring radiation levels had moved into one of the adjacent buildings after the accident, and that their work required the laying of cables and manholes under the square. These were patched up with tarmac produced near the reactor, which was deemed OK for use here since the city was contaminated anyway.

Twilight is beginning to set in, so we head back to base for another five course dinner. Our guide changes €20 for 200UAH and we wander to the grocery store where we score 4 beers for 19UAH before settling in our room to download photos. The day finishes with cold showers.