One of the reasons we wanted to visit the Ukraine was to visit Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident until Fukashima. We took a full day 100 km tour of the area. After looking at the various options, we choose a smaller tour of 18 people maximum and booked through Green Tour.
At the meeting point, we loaded into a small van. While we were comfortable, the people in the last seat looked cramped. We suggest you get there early to claim a front seat.
We were shown a movie on the way that detailed the events as they occurred on April 25, 1986 when a routine test ended in disaster. Then came a continual underestimation of what was happening: the risks of explosion, core meltdown, 1,000-meter radiation cloud released by the two explosions (which was 100 times greater than both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs), much less the near- and long-term risks of radiation exposure. Nor did anyone fully appreciate the very real risk of another explosion which had the potential of destroying Minsk and rendering much of Europe uninhabitable.
The movie discussed the incredible secrecy surrounding the accident. It took the Soviet government 48 hours to notify the 49,000 residents of the closest town that they would be evacuated in two hours—but with no explanation of why. The residents thought this was a temporary evacuation and left a lot of their possessions behind. The world’s first notification of the issue came from Sweden, whose monitoring facilities picked up the huge spike in radiation. U.S. surveillance satellites discovered the extent of the damage three days after it had occurred. By that time the world found out about the issue, winds had shifted. Lower, but still dangerous levels of radiation blanketed Kiev and much of western and southern Europe. In the end, it took Gorbachev 18 days to fully acknowledge the problem to the Soviet people. According to the movie, Gorbachev was also in the dark in the beginning. The movie portrayed him as being very upset by how little knowledge his regime initially had.
People were assigned to put out the reactor’s fire. they also needed to dig a tunnel to solidify the cracked reactor floor that threated to leak radioactive magna into the aquifer. If it leaked, it would have contaminated surrounding rivers and even the Black Sea. These first responders received high doses of radiation. 27 of them died within days.
By the end, over 500,000 additional soldiers and civilians were assigned to the clean-up. They had to kill and bury all fur-bearing animals. Cleanup also required the removal and burial of all plants and 20 centimeters of potentially contaminated soil in the central part of the containment zone. Of these additional workers, at least 20,000 died and another 200,000 were disabled within ten years.
Nor does this count hundreds of thousands of others who died in areas that were exposed to radiation, those who were treated or those with undiagnosed complications. Nor has there been any effort to estimate the number of victims or the trauma of the loss of a lifetime of possessions or the permanent dislocation from their homes.
In the end, the hard costs to the Soviet Union and Ukraine totaled about $18 billion, which dramatically accelerated the Union’s decline. The ultimate sharing of international information on the tragedy also turned out to be the first step in the Soviet Union’s “Glasnost” period of openness and the first steps toward an international limiting the spread of nuclear weapons.
Based on what we have read, we were not concerned about our own safety. We were told that we would only be allowed in areas where radiation levels were low. And as our visit was short, we would receive more radiation flying in a plane than in Chernobyl. But safety was still job one. While people can sneak into the highly restricted, exclusion zone, the “police/guards” continually fight to keep unauthorized people out.
We had to go through two checkpoints. One was 30 kilometers from the site and the second was 10 kilometers away. There, we were issued permits, had our passports checked and received our own radiation monitoring devices. We were instructed not to touch any of the buildings or the ground (which remains at more than six times normal radiation levels). If we dropped anything on the ground, it had to be thoroughly washed before we could use it again. And wouldn’t you know it, Tom dropped his pen almost immediately. Our guide quickly took it away from him and gave him a new one.
We passed the entire, long-since deactivated nuclear complex including the partially completed Reactor Number Five which was in the process of being built when the accident happened.
Then our tour stopped at and took walks by and through a number of sites including:
- The two-level, lead sarcophagus in which Reactor Number Four is now entombed;
- The hospital in which the firemen changed and left their highly radioactive clothes and which is still highly radioactive (meaning we couldn’t get close to it).
- The city of Prpyot, which has built as a showcase city to house the families of the workers who were specifically chosen from around the Soviet Union to run the premier nuclear complex. The city was first evacuated. It had conveniences of no other comparably-sized soviet city. It had a community center, an art school, state-of-the-art high-rise residences and schools, the best teachers, a first-run movie theater, a large, full-selection, fully-stocked grocery store, and even a permanent amusement park. This area was the most haunting as you saw what was obviously a fast evacuation. In the amusement area we saw a ferris wheel and bumper car rides waiting for someone to come back to enjoy them. A supermarket had shopping carts still in the aisle.
- The Red Forest so named because trees absorbed high levels of radiation and turned brown/red after they died. It is still highly-contaminated with radiation levels of 10-12 micro-sieverts. While we were not allowed to walk there, we did drive through it.
- Duga Radar, the site of a huge, top-secret, 750 meter-long by 150 meter-high radar array that was one of the three Soviet Union’s key defense systems. A picture cannot convey the immensity of the radar array. The nearby village housed more than 1,000 employees and their families. We explored the array, a checkpoint guardhouse, the operations building and some of the town’s buildings (without going inside). While the site was temporarily closed during contamination, it was permanently closed three years later, largely because satellites had replaced radar for use in the monitoring of ICBMs. But who can resist taking a picture of a little graffiti on the buildings?
- Town of Chernobyl. The historic buildings of this 800-year-old town have been replaced by Soviet-era apartments, many of which now house refugees from Prpyot and other evacuated villages. The area contains a monument with a concrete map of the entire exclusion zone with metal markings for each of the 187 evacuated villages and a path lined with signs of the names of each village. Another monument is dedicated to the firemen who sacrificed and risked their lives to contain the fire and the damage of the explosion.
Some of our fellow tour members had rented geiger counters and measured radiation of the soil (about 0.75 mili-Sieverts), the water (about 4.2), and stones (some up to 7) and a piece of scrap metal (14).
We also experienced one of the biggest challenges faced by the authorities who manage this zone—the “invasion” of people who disregard the dangers to visit or even camp out in permanently evacuated buildings. They viewed sneaking in and camping out as a game, albeit it a dangerous game. They did paint some beautiful murals on building walls though.
On one of our walks, we ran into one guide who confronted trespassers and was pepper-sprayed (and suffering the results of it) for his efforts to run them off.
Our return from the zone entailed even more stops and checks than did our entry. Our sensors were checked (yielding readings of 0.002 accumulated micro-Sieverts—about the equivalent of an hour on a high-altitude, cross-ocean trip), we were scanned by machines on three different stops, our vehicles were scanned and our passes and passports were rechecked.
Overall, it was a fascinating and very provocative tour. It was well worth a day trip.
If you go to Chernobyl, we highly suggest taking a smaller, albeit more expensive, group tour. Some other hints:
- Get to the meeting point early to get a good seat in the van.
- You must bring your passport.
- Do not wear sandals, shorts or sleeveless shirts.
- The lunch (included on our tour) is not great, but it isn’t awful either. It seems to be no-nonsense soviet food from past eras. If you are fussy about food, you might want to bring some snacks and some water.
- While the bathrooms mostly had toilet paper, on our return out of the zone, one of the toilets had run out of it. So bring tissues just in case.
- We were there during cooler weather. But others have reported a need for insecticide (which we didn’t need).