On 26 April 1986, Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, causing the worst nuclear disaster in history.
The science is complex. In a nutshell, preparations for a scheduled safety test were undertaken but the test was put on hold due to orders requiring power supply to be continued. Ten hours later, the orders were lifted but the delay had created conditions in the reactor under which the test should not have proceeded. The test supervisor went ahead anyway. The unstable operating environment, combined with design flaws in the reactor and the deliberate disabling of several reactor safety systems, resulted in an uncontrolled nuclear reaction.
The reactor core exploded and the 8 tonne roof of the reactor was blown off. The burning core spewed radioactive particles into the atmosphere for nine days before it was finally extinguished.
50 million curies of radiation were released, 400 times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Winds dispersed radiation over large parts of the USSR, in particular Ukraine and Belarus, and much of Western Europe.
For the first five days, an even greater catastrophe loomed. As it burned, the core slowly melted the slab on which it sat. Under the slab was a 5 million gallon pool of water. Had the melting core reached the water, the resultant explosion would have vaporised the nuclear fuel in the other reactors, causing radioactive contamination which would have rendered Europe uninhabitable for hundreds of thousands of years.
That potential disaster was averted by three volunteers who waded through the pitch black underground structure flooded with toxic water to manually open valves to drain the pool. Theirs is a miracle story. The environment was so radioactive it was believed they were on a suicide mission. Yet all three lived. One died in 2005 and the other two are still alive.
An initial 10km exclusion zone around the site was later extended to 30km. Intensive clean up work took years, and even now is ongoing. The site remains contaminated, although in relative terms much of it is generally safe.
It is possible to visit Chernobyl, but only as part of a guided tour with a registered operator. Tour operators must obtain approval for each visitor, so you need to book some time ahead to allow time for this process. Where you go is strictly controlled because parts of the site remain operational and because radiation levels remain high in some ‘hot spots’.
Visitors are told to wear long sleeves and full length trousers. Don’t put personal items on the ground. Avoid touching surfaces. Don’t open drink bottles in the open air.
Most people do a one-day tour from Kiev. With the two hour journey each way, it is enough time to get an understanding of the event and see the key sites. But for a more in-depth visit, we opted for a two day trip with an overnight stay in one of the workers hostels in Chernobyl.
At the 30km check point, passports are checked and visitors receive a personal radiation recording device which they are required to wear at all times. It’s part of a study to work out average and exact exposures visitors are receiving.
Several kilometres before the first buildings of Chernobyl town is the welcome sign. Four reactors were operational in 1986, construction of Reactors 5 and 6 was well underway and four more were planned. The sign was placed where planners thought the city would expand to, reflecting the growth and prosperity which nuclear energy was thought to be bringing.
On the outskirts of the town is one of the iconic images of Chernobyl, the Wormwood Angel (formally, the Monument of the Third Angel), a sculpture by Ukrainian artist, Anatoly Haidamaka.
In the Bible, the Book of Revelation records the vision of St John of events which will occur ahead of the end of the world, including:
“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”. Revelations 8:10-11.
Scholars believe the name Chernobyl is derived from the Ukrainian word for ‘black’ and relates to common wormwood, a shrub with black branches, which was abundant in the area when it was first settled 600 years ago.
After the nuclear accident, many came to believe the biblical ‘Wormwood’ was Chernobyl, the ‘great star’ was the explosion, and the reference to bitter waters causing men to die was a description of radiation contamination. Even Ronald Reagan quoted it.
And the statue continues that association.
Next to the angel, a memorial avenue has a post for each of the 94 settlements which were abandoned or whose citizens were compulsorily resettled in order to establish the exclusion zone.
In total, 200,000 people were evacuated from the zone in several stages. We visited Zalissya, a town of about 700 homes which was abandoned in a matter of hours once the evacuation order was given. Like all the evacuated villages, it has gradually fallen into decay. Streets and lanes can no longer be distinguished, and the forest is gradually reclaiming the built environment. Barring human intervention, it seems likely there will be little left in another couple of decades.
We also stopped at the Chernobyl fire station, one of two from which first responders were called to the explosion. The firemen had no information that it was anything other than an ordinary electrical fire or about the radiation risks. They extinguished the building fire within a few hours (no amount of water was going to stop the burning core), but most suffered acute radiation sickness and 28 died in the following weeks. Their bodies were so highly radioactive, they were buried in massive slabs of concrete.
Most were treated at a hospital in Kiev where their clothing remains in a concrete basement room, too radioactive to be safely moved.
A memorial outside the fire station honours the firefighters and others who lost their lives or health in the clean up.
At the power plant complex, we saw the enormous concrete structure housing the damaged reactor. An initial containment known as the Shelter Structure but generally referred to as the sarcophagus was completed in November 1986. It was an emergency measure and as early as 1988 it was accepted the sarcophagus would fail within a few decades.
An international competition produced a winning design for a new containment structure in the form of a massive steel and concrete arch to be slid over the top of the sarcophagus and sealed without excess disruption to the heavily contaminated earth beneath.
The 31,000 tonne New Safe Confinement was completed in 2016 at a cost in excess of €2.5 billion. It is absolutely state of the art, yet it is accepted that even this structure will not outlast the lethal level of radioactivity of the entombed reactor.
A low key memorial has been erected near the entrance.
After the disaster, the other three reactors continued to operate. In 1991, Reactor 2 caught fire and was shut down. Reactor 1 was closed in 1996, and Reactor 3 in 2000. Decommissioning of the units is ongoing and there is still a workforce of about 1,000 at the plant.
To reduce their long term radiation exposure risks, workers are on a ‘three week on, three week off’ schedule. They live in accommodation in Chernobyl town while on shift and return to their outside home for their three week layover.
On our visit we had lunch at the workers canteen adjacent to the reactors, dinner at a workers canteen attached to the accommodation block where we slept, and breakfast in a third one. The food and the grim faces of the serving ladies in all these establishments seemed unchanged since the Soviet era. You certainly do not do this tour for the gourmet experience.
We went to plenty of sites where trucks, buses, railway carriages and farm equipment lie abandoned, either due to being radioactive or just because the ban on people returning meant they could not be retrieved even if they had been deemed safe. It is disconcerting to see these things rusting away, no doubt causing radiation to leach into the ground and the water table every time it rains.
Many others were buried in ‘vehicle graveyards’. Some graveyards were appropriately lined, but this didn’t always happen, so it’s likely radiation is still infiltrating the soil and groundwater from those too. It was particularly concerning to hear that due to lack of records, no one even knows where all these sites are. A project is ongoing to try and identify them.
Machines brought in for the clean up also became radioactive and, again, some were buried and others were not. You can see them in a bunch of locations in the zone. Most impressive is a discarded digger claw known as, you guessed it, the Claw.
In July 2019, a news article syndicated around the world quoted a ‘radiation expert’ as saying he ‘stumbled across it’ on a trip to Chernobyl and ‘only a handful of people know its whereabouts’. Considering viewing the Claw was a stated inclusion on our itinerary, we think that’s unlikely.
Anyway, we saw it. We photographed it.
Our guide put a disometer up to it and it registered 73.99, almost twice the reading of 39.8 which the quoted expert registered, claiming it was the most dangerous object of all on the site.
Acceptable level in Kiev is officially 0.3, so we are certainly not suggesting it is safe. But before anyone gets too hysterical about the Claw, it’s worth considering that at another spot our guide checked out metal fragments on the ground which registered a whopping 765.1.
The point is that radiation does not degrade slowly, the entire zone is still a major environmental disaster and the disposal of contaminated objects was in many respects poorly handled. But from a tourist perspective, exposure is short and unless you do something stupid like climb into the Claw and camp out for the night, you are unlikely to be harmed.
The town of Pripyat was founded in 1970, built solely to provide for the workforce needed for the power plant. By the time of the 1986 disaster, it had a population of just over 49,000.
Around what was once the main plaza of this perfectly planned city, the shells of a community centre, other government buildings and a supermarket still stand.
The best way to appreciate the size of Pripyat, how close it was to the explosion, and the pace with which nature is reclaiming it, is to climb to the roof of one of the apartment blocks. The dome in the background of the second photo is the encased Reactor 4.
Inside, the apartments are mainly bare. The population was given two hours to prepare to leave, and only permitted to take a small bag of personal effects. Most believed they would be back in a few days. So, you might imagine the apartments have a lot of furniture and personal effects in them, but it is not so. The reality is that the contents were highly radioactive and in the months after the explosion, as part of the decontamination, teams of workers known as liquidators emptied out the apartments and the contents were buried.
The buildings were scrubbed and some had a second life as accommodation for workers in the 1990s. There are some ‘left behind’ belongings from that time, but it is generally items like this piano, which was obviously just too difficult to move from the seventh floor.
And while we are on that topic – a word about all those ‘poignant’ photos of abandoned dolls and other kids stuff you see on every blog and tour operator website for Chernobyl. Reality check: they are not real.
Maybe long ago someone saw a genuinely left-behind doll and it became an ‘iconic image’. Maybe. But now there are dozens of them in schools, houses, nurseries and kindergartens in the zone. Firstly, they would have been removed and disposed of along with the other personal effects when the liquidators cleared the buildings. Secondly, these photogenic little additions just don’t fit. A doll sitting on a fireplace whose paint has flaked off and disappeared from under the doll? Postcards sitting on a window sill in the sun for 33 years which haven’t faded or curled up? Come on!
It’s pretty obvious these have been put there, probably by tour operators who think it’s what their clients want to see. Maybe some do. But actually it’s really irritating. This site deserves to be treated with respect and as a place of sober reflection on what happened. It doesn’t need transparent gimmickry.
Pripyat’s population was young, with an average age of 26. There were almost 5,000 children of kindergarten and elementary school age, and another 6,800 teenagers. We saw the inside of several kindergartens and schools.
At that time, school children regularly participated in drills to practice using gas masks, so every school had hundreds of masks. After the evacuation, scavengers came looking for them in order to extract and sell valuable metals known to be contained in the mask mechanism.
After gathering them, they stockpiled the masks in this school room and started their work – only to discover that the masks used for drills aren’t operational and don’t contain these valuable components. Who knows what risks they exposed themselves to, for zero gain.
And yes, we know that hanging one is probably staged.
Because of the national priority and prestige attributed to nuclear power by the Soviet regime, Pripyat received more than the average town. More services, more recreational facilities, more money for public goods.
Pripyat had three indoor swimming pools. It sounds bizarre but the Azure Swimming Pool continued to be used until 1998, by workers involved in the clean up and those still working at the remaining reactors.
Both the pool and the indoor basketball court next door are now long abandoned.
An amusement park was due to be opened on 1 May 1986. Everything was ready. But with the entire population evacuated on 29 April, the park never opened. A Ferris wheel, dodgem cars and other amusement rides are slowly rusting to nothing.
Eye witnesses reported that after the explosion a column of light could be seen shooting up from the burning reactor into the sky. Many locals, unaware of the danger and thinking it was ‘just a fire’ gathered on a bridge over the railway line to get a better view of the spectacle.
It was later reported that no one who watched from the bridge that night survived. It is almost certainly an urban myth. There are no records of who was there, nor any medical evidence to confirm whether any, let alone all, of them perished. Nonetheless the bridge is still stubbornly referred to as the Bridge of Death.
Here is the view from the bridge. The dome of the encased Number 4 reactor can just be seen over the trees which have filled in what was urban space at the time.
Down by the river, there was once a boat dock and a cafe with beautiful stained glass windows. The dock is gone, the boat house has collapsed into the river, but somehow the stained glass remains remarkably intact.
The power plant was a civilian site, but nearby was a secret military facility, Radar Duga. Duga was an over-the-horizon radar system intended to be part of the Soviet missile defence early warning system. Two radars were built, one hidden in the forest near Chernobyl and the other in Siberia.
The system operated from 1976 until 1989 but was never accurate enough to be relied upon. The installations were nonetheless Top Secret. On maps, the one near Chernobyl was stated to be a children’s summer camp.
It’s hard to think they were fooling anyone. You can see the radar from miles away. The first photo below was taken from one of the apartment blocks in Pripyat. The local citizenry probably knew it was best to turn a blind eye to what was clearly not the tallest kids’ climbing gym in the world, but it must also have been obvious on Western satellite imaging.
At the time of the disaster, Reactor 5 was under construction. Work stopped immediately and was never re-commenced. The partly constructed cooling tower for Reactor 5 sits dormant, next door to the one which served Reactor 4.
We were allowed to walk into the shell of Reactor 4’s cooling tower. Rusted scaffolding hangs dangerously from the top. Like a lot of places in the exclusion zone, if this was in another country, it would be deemed too dangerous to have visitors wandering around.
How big are the cooling towers? Look carefully and you can just see a stray dog running through at the centre bottom of this shot.
Inside is a moving mural honouring the doctors who knowingly exposed themselves to massive radiation doses in order to treat people affected by radiation sickness.
There’s very little evidence of graffiti, although there’s a few cutesy ones clearly done by the same person in different spots. We will leave it to readers to decide on their appropriateness.
As mentioned in our post on Kiev, it is illegal in Ukraine to use images associated with the communist era. All the Lenin statues have been removed from the country – except here in a village in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, where a lone statue of ‘Papa Lenin’ survives.
There has been debate about destroying it, but ultimately it has survived on the basis that it is part of an historical site.
We were interested to understand more about the effects on the immediate environment and the extent to which is has recovered. We were lucky, as our guide was a qualified ecologist who used to work full time on studies in the exclusion zone.
She took us to see the Red Forest, an approximately 10 square kilometre area of pine trees which turned red-brown immediately after the explosion as a result of absorbing high levels of radiation. The area was bulldozed and the trees were buried in trenches covered with sand. Pine saplings planted over the area have thrived and the forest now looks pristine, although it remains one of the most contaminated parts of the exclusion zone.
The zone has become a wildlife refuge and species such as wild boar, deer, wolves, foxes, lynx, storks and eagles have thrived in this human-free environment. Bears had disappeared from southern Ukraine due to hunting and habitat destruction long before the Chernobyl disaster. In recent years two bears have made their way here from the Belarusian exclusion zone which abuts the Ukrainian zone and there is hope that the bear population may rebound. Perhaps this mural was in celebration.
There are catfish thriving in the cooling pond and river. And no, they are not giant radiation-mutated cat fish. That is another myth. Before the disaster, locals fished these waters. Like the other wildlife, the fish are living longer, and therefore getting bigger, because the humans have gone.
That is not to suggest radiation is good for animals. There are conflicting studies as to whether the radiation to which the animals are exposed even now causes birth defects and/or genetic changes.
It is similarly impossible to assess the cost to human health of the disaster.
The population evacuated from the exclusion zone, those on the scene in the immediate aftermath of the event and the approximately 600,000 liquidators who worked on the clean up in the first months were all exposed to radiation levels significantly in excess of recommended safe limits.
But no system was established to identify those people and track their health progress.
Furthermore, if a health condition has multiple causes, it may be difficult to be certain whether radiation exposure was the cause in a particular case. Scientists use statistical analysis instead, but different methodologies result in vastly different estimates of the numbers of cases likely to have been linked to the disaster.
What is known is this. Two reactor staff died in the initial explosion. 134 firemen and reactor staff on site were hospitalised with acute radiation sickness. 28 of them died within a month and almost all of the others suffered long term effects of radiation sickness unquestionably due to their exposure.
Childhood thyroid cancer deaths amongst those evacuated from the exclusion zone were statistically higher over the 25 years following the event. Birth defects in children born to Chernobyl survivors have been routinely blamed on their parents’ exposure, but may or may not be the cause in all cases.
The UN has undertaken serial studies over the decades since the event, each time revising its estimates as data emerges. Its current estimates are that between 4,000 and 16,000 people have died or will die from effects which can be directly linked to Chernobyl radiation.
That estimate may be conservative. Already Ukraine has granted special pensions to over 36,000 women on the basis of accepting that their husbands’ deaths were Chernobyl related.
Ukraine has established a process under which people can receive ‘victim of the disaster’ status, entitling them to special health care and other benefits. More than 1.8 million people have been accepted into the scheme. The total health care cost will take decades more to fully determine.
Rates of alcoholism, suicide and mental health problems in this cohort are higher than in the general population.
Viktor Sushko, deputy director general of the National Research Centre for Radiation Medicine (NRCRM) based in Kiev has described the Chernobyl disaster as “the largest anthropogenic (human-caused) disaster in the history of humankind”. It’s hard to think of anything that even comes close.
Missile Base tour
Just a short note to finish – the day after we returned from Chernobyl we visited the decommissioned nuclear missile base near Pervomaysk, now a museum.
The base is still fully equipped – minus the missiles, of course. We visited the missile control centre accessed via the original underground lift and tunnel, with a guide explaining the process for initiating the launch of a nuclear rocket.
The museum also has an outdoor display of Soviet rockets and other military hardware.
So in three days we saw the capacity of both civil and military nuclear science to destroy the planet. Sobering stuff.