Chernobyl. 26th April 1986. Probably everybody at least heard about catastrophic Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.
This April we made a day trip into exclusion zone and proximity of remains of exploded reactor number four.
First thing, you need to arrange your visit with pre-booked agency, it is not officially possible nor wise to go there on your own. After some extensive research, and studying all reviews we’ve chosen Chornobyl tour A price for one day tour is around $80-$110, depending on the day of week, season and how much in advance you book. Basically, to go there during the week is significantly cheaper than during the weekend. You can spend up to one week in the zone for more detailed insight, but we personally think a day trip covers most of places you need to see.
We couldn’t really have chosen a better company and especially our guide Denis was great. He’s really knowledgeable chap with perfect English, who loves his job. That really could not be said about some other guides and agencies.
You need a bit of an early start, as the zone is about 150 kilometres from Kiev, and therefore minibus leaves 8:00am sharp. You don’t need to take anything special with you other to sturdy closed boots, long sleeves and long trousers and your passport for security checkpoints. You can rent a Geiger computer (dosimeter, a device measuring radiation levels, for $10 from your agency) or bring your own. I really recommend this, at least one for a pair, as it adds to your experience.
After 2-2.5 hours you’ll arrive to border of 30 km zone and entrance to the Exclusion zone (Dytyatky checkpoint) . There would be a bit of good old Soviet Union style of bureaucracy, but your guide should sort it out smoothly. WARNING: Without passport you won’t be allowed to enter.
Then we visited ruins of village of Cherevach, with several remaining wooden houses, local shop and ruins of local Soviet, a building supposed to inspire awe of communistic regime in villagers. There were still books, letters and even grades of school children lying in ruins of houses.
Then you pass the actual town of Chernobyl, which is not that interesting. There are people living now, but they need go back to Kiev after 20 days to spend some time outside of the zone to recover, before they could go back again.
Next you arrive at one of the most interesting places you will see for the whole day – a D.U.G.A. What the heck is that, you may ask? That was super secret military “Over the horizon radar”, designed to detect possible nuclear missiles fired on Soviet Union. Theory is to send really strong radio signal which then will be bouncing off atmosphere and land and after it travelled around the globe, you’ll pick it up, amplify it and by possible interference you will be able to compute if Nuclear War has begun. Only it has never really worked. When they turned it on, it was so powerful that you could hear clicking noise on short wave radios all over the world, so the secret was gone. Furthermore, as it was disturbing short wave radio stations and plane communications, there were thousands of official complaints. On top of that, even after couple of years they failed to calibrate the system to be able work as designed.
There were three stations like this in total, each consisting of sender and receiver stations, stationed approximately 60 km of each other. Other two ones were in Siberia and by the Black Sea in southern Ukraine. Triangulating all 3 signals, they should be able to tell where the missile is going to hit. The reason to place this near Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was it needed insane amount of electricity and it would be easier to conceal such a big consumption near the source.
You will see a receiver unit, basically really huge antenna/amplifier array, about 700 meters long and 160 meters high, just slowly rusting in the forest. It is a really impressive sight. On the way there you will pass fake bus stops as whole area was disguised as a young pioneer children camp. There are now incentives to make this and whole Chernobyl zone UNESCO heritage site.
Kindergarten at Kopachi village
Next stop is former kindergarten, with all kids beds and creepy dolls left behind still over there.
In the area there are a few strongest radiation hotspots we were able to measure, one of them 18µSv/hr. You need to be careful not to touch ground there, or do anything equally stupid, but apart from that, you will be quite safe. Btw. there is still a small radiation level in Kiev, about 0.12µSv/hr.
Next we had lunch at canteen where all liquidators eat, eating exactly the same food they do. Yes, even today, 32 years after the accident, there are still people working to contain the dangers of the disaster.
After meal, we got close to the sarcophagus above reactor 4. It is actually second one built on top of the original one, as it was already leaking radiation heavily in 2000. It is built by French company, paid by EU (2,000,000,000 EUR spent so far), still not 100% complete. We’ve measured 1-2µSv/hr there.
Ghost town of Pripyat
Next stop was the town of Pripyat. This was a showcase town of communism, founded in 1970. Town where the average age was only 26 years. Town full of greenery and children. You couldn’t choose to move in there or buy an apartment there, you had to be chosen by the Communist Party. At the night of the catastrophe, there were 50,000 people living there. Most of them working in nearby nuclear powerplant. There were 75 elementary schools, 19 secondary schools, but not a single university. Why? All kids there were still
too young, it was planned for the future. The city was completely evacuated in the afternoon of 27th April, more than 24 hours after the explosion. Lots of people already got significantly radiated unfortunately. More than 1000 buses from Kiev were used to do that.
We walked through the ghost town, saw supermarket still containing shopping carts, hotels, cinema. Most importantly a ruin of amusement park, which has never been opened, as this was planned for Labor Day – 1st of May 1986.
On the way out, we passed a Red forest, the most radiated place in the whole zone. It is a pine forest, through which the first heavy radioactive cloud passed straight after the explosion. We measured 28µSv/h there, over the window of a running car! There are still over 150µSv/h near the ground in the middle of the forest, rendering it not possible to go to, unless in full anti radiation lead-lined hazard suit.
Monument of Robots
There were lots of robots, or remotely controlled machinery used clearing the radioactive debris, where no human could safely be, even in 1986. Unfortunately, most of them haven’t worked or broke after minutes or hours. The only reliable ones was the Soviet Moon buggy “Lunochod” and couple of remote controlled French cranes.
Monument “To those who saved the world”
Last stop was a monument to all the brave people called “To those who saved the world”. All those brave men and women never got officially acknowledged by government nor anybody build a monument for them. So those lucky to survive build one for themselves. After everything we heard and seen that day, it was quite touching experience. Not very many people know that they avoided a very real risk of second explosion, which would mean all the people in Kiev and nearby Belorussian capital of Minsk would instantly die and render the WHOLE Europe inhabitable.
Full timeline of events
During the whole day we’ve received 0.003 mSv, which is about third of a single dental scan, and much less then long flight. Pretty safe, right?