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July 26, 2007

Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part IV: Chisto?

Chernobyl shipyard


With the visit to Pripyat over, our tour of the exclusion zone was slowly drawing to a close. We stopped at the 10km exclusion zone checkpoint, where a guard ran a Geiger counter along the side of the bus and gave us a thumbs up to proceed back to the city of Chernobyl. Before heading back to Chornobylinterinform, we stopped at a ship “graveyard”, memorial park, and small enclosure that contained vehicles used by the liquidators during the cleanup effort.

Chernobyl shipyard
These ships were abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster due to their high levels of radiation.

Chernobyl shipyard

Chernobyl shipyard

bridge near Chernobyl shipyard

radiation sign near Chernobyl shipyard

vehicles used by Chernobyl liquidators
Firetrucks and armored personnel carriers used by the liquidators

vehicles used by Chernobyl liquidators

vehicles used by Chernobyl liquidators

Chernobyl memorial
Memorial erected on the 10th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster

We arrived back at Chornobylinterinform in the late afternoon, and after dutifully standing in line to wash our hands (with our guide mumbling something about particles and parts per million, or whatever) we were served a delicious four course “clean” (meaning, all the food was apparently brought in from outside the zone) meal. I was completely puzzled by one of the beverages, a bright pink concoction with the consistency of jello that hadn’t quite solidified. We dined with an Englishman who had recently returned from North Korea, which, he claimed, was one of the best countries he has visited. I was totally jealous, considering I’ve been wanting to go to North Korea for the past four years. Maybe next year?

Before leaving Chornobylinterinform, we took turns posing for photos on this machine that apparently checks for radiation, or something. Like I said in a previous entry, the health and safety briefing was lacking.

Chernobyl  radiation machine

chornobylinterinform
Ryan, myself, and Laura

Kittens outside chornobylinterinform Kittens outside Chornobylinterinform

kittens outside chornobylinterinform
Ryan and Laura playing with the radioactive kittens. Uh, no, you can’t take them home…and while Purell hand sanitizer kills 99.999999% of germs, I don’t think that applies to radiation.

When we reached the 30km, and final, checkpoint, a guard ran a Geiger counter along the side of the bus, once again declared it clean, and ordered us off the bus. We were led into a building containing a row of machines that check zone visitors for possible contamination. I stepped onto the machine, placed my hands on the side, and stared at the four buttons in front of me, silently praying that the green one marked “chisto” (“clean”), and not either of the two red buttons, would light up. After a few agonizing seconds, the green button declared that I was clean, the steel bar unlocked, and I was free to leave the zone.

radiation check at Chernobyl checkpoint
Chisto!

Several in our group stood there on the machines, waiting for instructions of some sort, until the guard supervising the process grinned at them, gave a thumbs up sign, and urged them on using the only English he knew, “OK, OK!” Our entire group passed, which was comforting, because I don’t think anyone was really looking forward to the decontamination showers. Rather, we just wanted to get back on the bus as quickly as possible, as the skies had darkened overhead, signaling that a torrential downpour was well on its way.

Read more about the tour:
1. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part I: Dude, where’s your Geiger counter?
2. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part II: Liquidators Memorial / Kopachi / Catfish / Reactor 4
3. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part III: The ghosts of Pripyat


July 24, 2007

Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part III: The ghosts of Pripyat

Chernobyl radioactive moss

“Stay off the moss. Very radioactive.”

We were standing on another bridge outside the city of Pripyat, this time surveying the lush green landscape below, hoping to catch a glimpse of the rampaging packs of wild boar that were apparently proliferating throughout the exclusion zone – or so our guide claimed. We didn’t see any.

Chernobyl radioactive moss
No boar, but lots of radioactive moss

road to Pripyat
The road to Pripyat

Pripyat town sign
You are now entering Pripyat, Population: 0

Founded in 1970, Pripyat was a model Soviet city built for the Chernobyl plant workers and their families. It contained all the conveniences that a young Soviet family could desire: high-rise apartment buildings, schools, a cultural center, hospital, swimming pools, theatres, stores, restaurants, cafes, playgrounds, and a stadium. On the morning of April 26, the citizens of Pripyat awoke to the sound of helicopters buzzing overhead and a column of smoke rising from reactor four off in the distance. At noon on April 27, the Soviet government informed the citizens of Pripyat that they had two hours to gather their essential belongings and board a bus for mandatory evacuation. They were told that their evacuation was only temporary, for perhaps three days at the most, and so the residents left most of their clothing, photographs, toys, and family pets behind. The 50,000 citizens departed Pripyat on a line of Kiev-bound buses that stretched for miles, all of them expecting to see their hometown again in just a few days. They would never return.

Today, the entrance to the town is guarded by an officer who sits in a run-down shack for hours, waiting for the occasional town visitor. After exchanging a few words with our guide, and checking papers, he waved us into the “ghost city.” We entered the city on the main road, Prospekt Lenina, now lined with crumbling apartment buildings and overgrown trees, and stopped in the center of the city. Our guide was content to let us wander around on our own, with the caveat that we stay out of the buildings (“for your own safety”) and away from the apparently highly radioactive moss. It was hard to avoid the latter, as the stuff was growing in huge swaths throughout the city, so you would often see us hopping from concrete patch to concrete patch, employing a variety of run-and-jump tactics. I’m surprised I didn’t come back from Pripyat with a sprained ankle.

main road in Pripyat
Prospekt Lenina

Pripyat apartment building
Apartment building in the city center

Pripyat May Day decorations
Decorations for the May Day parade that never was

Pripyat Cultural Palace
Cultural Palace “Energetik”

Pripyat steps

Pripyat restaurant
Restaurant

Pripyat theatre
Theatre

Pripyat doll
Some of the things they left behind

Pripyat graffiti
Not even a nuclear ghost town is immune from graffiti

old_pripyat_square.jpg
Apartment building and city center, pre-Chernobyl disaster (courtesy pripyat.com)

Pripyat apartment building
The same “All power to the Soviets” apartment building, now

old_pripyat_hotel_polissya.jpg
Hotel Polissya, pre-Chernobyl disaster (courtesy pripyat.com)

Pripyat Hotel Polissya
Hotel Polissya, now

Pripyat grocery store
No more fruits and vegetables, just rusting refrigerators and shopping carts

Pripyat radioactive moss
Stay off the moss

At one point the group started to head toward the amusement park. Ryan and I had no idea where Laura went, so we backtracked to the cultural center and started shouting her name. I ran into our guide, who was looking quite bored with his surroundings. After doing this several times a week, it probably does get monotonous. He grinned at me and warned, “Stay with the group. We don’t want wild boars to find you alone.” My fear of stepping on a patch of radioactive moss was now replaced with that of being impaled by the radiation-coated tusks of an angry wild boar.

We eventually ran into Laura and continued past the cultural center until we arrived at the amusement park. Small and desolate, it is probably the most depressing amusement park you will ever come across. The park was scheduled to open on May 1, 1986, but fate intervened and the brand new rides were left to rust away, never once touched by the children of Pripyat.

Pripyat bumper cars
Bumper cars

Pripyat bumper cars

Pripyat ferris wheel
Ferris wheel

Pripyat amusement park

Pripyat amusement park

Pripyat flowers

We probably spent an hour in Pripyat, wandering around this deserted city of 50,000. It was eerily silent, the only noises coming from the flies that constantly buzzed around, the sound of digital cameras taking hundreds of photos, and, at one point, a loud crash that reverberated across the empty buildings. I will admit that walking through Pripyat was, at times, both unsettling and voyeuristic. I felt that I really had no right to be there, but on the other hand, if given the chance, I would have stayed there for hours.

old_pripyat_pioneer_camp.jpg
Happier times – Pripyat Pioneer camp, 1985 (courtesy pripyat.com)



Read more about the tour:
1. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part I: Dude, where’s your Geiger counter?
2. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part II: Liquidators Memorial / Kopachi / Catfish / Reactor 4
4. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part IV: Chisto?

July 19, 2007

Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part II: Liquidators Memorial / Kopachi / Catfish / Reactor 4

Chernobyl liquidators monument


In the city of Chernobyl there stands a simple memorial to the liquidators who rushed to reactor number four in the immediate aftermath of the explosion.

Chernobyl liquidators monument
“To those who saved the world.”

Chernobyl liquidators monument

The firefighters who initially responded to the disaster on the morning of April 26, 1986 were unaware that they were entering a radioactive environment, and rushed to the plant without donning protective suits and respirators. While they labored to extinguish the fires, their bodies absorbed lethal doses of radiation, and many of them later died of Acute Radiation Sickness. Overall, some 600,000 workers, including scientists, miners, and Soviet military conscripts, participated in the Chernobyl cleanup efforts. To this day, many of them continue to experience a variety of health problems stemming from their time spent in the zone.

We passed another checkpoint and entered the 10km exclusion zone that surrounds the V.I. Lenin Memorial Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. Our driver stopped the bus and we soon found ourselves standing on the road staring at large mounds of dirt skewered with radiation signs. Our guide explained that this was the village of Kopachi. Shortly after the Chernobyl disaster, liquidators arrived with bulldozers and dismantled the town, burying the radioactive houses underneath tons of dirt.

Kopachi village

Kopachi village

Kopachi village

Chernobyl-2 radar station

Off in the distance is Chernobyl-2, a now abandoned radar station formerly used by the Soviet military.

Further down the road we had our first glimpse of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. Across a small canal stand reactors five and six, both abandoned in mid-construction after the explosion at reactor four.

Chernobyl nuclear power station
The power station

Chernobyl nuclear reactor four
Reactor four

Chernobyl nuclear reactor five
Reactor five

Chernobyl water cooling tower
Water cooling tower

As our bus entered the grounds of the nuclear power station, our guide warned us that photos were not permitted here for “security reasons.” He led us towards a disused railroad bridge that spanned one of the cooling pond’s adjacent canals and hopped onto a rail in order to avoid walking on the dirt. Recalling his previous warning to “stay off the dirt”, we followed his example, hopscotching from the road to the rails to the wood planks of the bridge. Looking into the canal directly below us, we could see hundreds of catfish swimming in the water. A loaf of bread was passed around (ah, so that’s what that was for) and we took turns throwing chunks into the water, watching as the pieces were devoured by the largest catfish I have ever seen in my life. If I were telling you this story in person, I would spread my arms as wide as I could – they were literally the size of sharks. We were soon joined by a group of plant workers who had brought along their own bread to feed the monsters. I guess there isn’t much to do on your lunch break at Chernobyl.

Bridge near Chernobyl nuclear power station
Workers feeding the fish (snuck this pic once we got back on the bus)

While feeding giant fish was entirely thrilling, we had more interesting places to go, namely closer to reactor four.

Chernobyl nuclear power station memorial
Memorial to the heroes who contained the disaster

Situated on the westernmost perimeter of the nuclear power station, reactor four is a massive structure surrounded by decrepit concrete walls lined with barbed wire. Following the 1986 disaster, a sarcophagus was hastily constructed over reactor four to contain the radioactive material that lay inside. Some twenty years later, the damn thing just looks like it could collapse at any moment. Sets of yellow “braces” were recently added to provide a bit of structural integrity, but the sarcophagus is plagued with holes of varying sizes that allow moisture to collect inside the structure, further weakening it. Fortunately, however, plans are currently underway for the construction of a so-called “New Safe Confinement” structure that will more effectively contain the radioactive material that remains in reactor four. From the material that has been released, it looks to be an impressive feat of engineering.

Chernobyl reactor four sarcophagus
The sarcophagus

Standing in that parking lot, with reactor four a mere 100 meters ahead, was intensely surreal. If you’ve read other accounts of Chernobyl visitors who stood in the same spot as we did, this is where you would see the sentence “Our dosimeter was registering 470+ microroentgens per hour!” But, as I previously mentioned, our guide apparently didn’t find it necessary to carry one of those around (instead taking a loaf of bread for the monster fishies), and so we hadn’t the slightest idea how much radiation we were exposed to at that moment. Brilliant, I know.

Chernobyl reactor four
Ryan and I, with reactor four in the background


Laura

We spent a few minutes here taking photos and then returned to the bus. Our next stop would be Pripyat, the model Soviet city of 50,000 that housed the Chernobyl plant workers and their families.
Read more about the tour:
1. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part I: Dude, where’s your Geiger counter?
3. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part III: The ghosts of Pripyat
4. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part IV: Chisto?


July 17, 2007

Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part I: Dude, where’s your Geiger counter?

chernobyl zone map


“Are you ready to go to the ghost city of Pripyat and die a painless death from radiation?”

These were, more or less, the first words that greeted us on a beautiful July 4th morning. Most Americans spend their Independence Day holiday grilling burgers and dogs, drinking beer, eating CostCo sheetcakes that resemble American flags, and watching massive fireworks displays. Ryan, Laura, and I spent ours in Chernobyl.

The man who asked us if we were prepared to die was Sergei of SoloEast, a Kiev-based company that organizes tours to Chernobyl. He directed us towards a purple-striped bus filled with ten or so other passengers of various nationalities and joked that the bus shouldn’t be allowed out of the exclusion zone due to all the time it has spent shuttling tourists to and from the most radioactive area on earth. Turning a bit more serious, he instructed us not to enter any of the buildings in Pripyat due to safety issues. “You do not bring back any souvenirs,” he warned us. “Really, there are no souvenirs from Chernobyl.” And with those parting words, we were headed to the exclusion zone, while Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” played over the radio.

chernobyl zone map

I was only 3 (almost 4) when the disaster at Chernobyl occurred on April 26, 1986. As such, I don’t remember any of it. In the years that followed, I flipped through the pages of National Geographic, with its heartbreaking photos of Ukrainian and Belorussian children who were affected by the disaster. In my college classes, the Chernobyl disaster was always cited in the context of its political fallout, as a true test of Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost. I was incredibly fascinated by this particular historical event and its impact on Soviet politics and the use of nuclear energy, but to seriously consider visiting the area? I didn’t even imagine that it was a possibility.

And then, in 2004, Elena Filatova published her sensational kiddofspeed website (as it turns out however, Elena didn’t actually ride her Kawasaki Ninja through the exclusion zone. Rather, she took the exact same tour as I did, but brought along a helmet and leather jacket as props for her photos. Since I don’t have quite the imagination as she does, I’ll merely relate the unvarnished, albeit slightly more boring, truth of touring Chernobyl as a tourist). Soon thereafter, journalists started making the trek to the exclusion zone, reporting on these insane tourists who voluntarily chose to visit the radioactive wasteland surrounding Chernobyl. It was the new destination in “extreme tourism”. I was hooked. I had to go. The only problem was, I had trouble finding someone to go with me, as my overtures of “Hey wanna go to Ukraine and visit Chernobyl?” were usually met with “Are you fucking crazy?” by even the most adventurous of my LSE friends. About a year ago, though, Ryan and I discussed flying out to Kiev for a visit to Chernobyl. He planned a month long trip to Eastern Europe this summer, and we agreed to meet in Kiev. Laura was interested in going as well, so the three of us booked a July 4th tour through SoloEast.
The drive to Checkpoint “Dytyatky”, the entrance to the 30km exclusion zone, took about two and a half hours. Once we arrived at the checkpoint, two soldiers in blue camouflage fatigues boarded the bus, scanned the passengers, and grunted “po-russki?” Everyone remained silent until the guy sitting in front of me volunteered that he spoke Russian. Saved!

We filed off the bus and handed our passports to the guard, who checked them against a printed list of authorized visitors. After waiting for 5-10 minutes we got back on the bus and sped down a pothole filled road to the city of Chernobyl.

Checkpoint Dytyakty near Chernobyl
Passports checked, and on our way to Chernobyl

The city of Chernobyl, which the power plant takes its name from, was evacuated shortly after the 1986 disaster. These days, it’s mainly a collection of abandoned buildings, but some people still live and work there, including the zone’s administrative personnel and a handful of evacuated residents that insisted on returning to their native soil. The foliage is extremely dense, and many buildings still bear CCCP insignia. Workers in various states of military dress (the fatigues/tennis shoes combination was a popular choice) walked alongside Lenin Street, past the aboveground pipes and decaying structures.

Our first stop was Chornobylinterinform, a yellow sheetmetal building housing offices of the “Ministry of Ukraine of Emergencies and Affairs of Population Protection from the Consequences of Chornobyl Catastrophe.” We were directed into a dimly lit room decorated with various maps of radiation fallout and photographs of the Chernobyl cleanup efforts.

Chornobylinterinform

It was here that we met our guide, an aloof young fellow sporting aviator sunglasses and dressed in an army fatigue jacket with a film badge dosimeter clipped to the front pocket. He never introduced himself (or if he did, I didn’t catch it), and during the five hours we spent with him, the only information he volunteered was that he had been working at his present job for a year and a half. He also lit a cigarette every time we stepped off the bus.

He proceeded to pick up a long stick and point to the maps and photographs on the walls, mumbling something about radiation, fallout, and evacuations. I suppose this was our “briefing”, although, to be quite honest I had spent so many hours reading about the place that I wasn’t sure there was really anything he could say that I hadn’t heard before. Except maybe a safety briefing, that is.

Chornobylinterinform briefing
“Radiation here.”

In the past year and a half, I’ve toured several industrial type facilities while on work-related trips. On these visits you always sit through a thorough safety briefing, and are usually issued a hardhat and eye protection. Apparently, the Chernobyl equivalent of a safety briefing includes the following:

1. Briefly scanning everyone’s feet to make they had left their flip flops back in Kiev and were wearing proper footwear.
2. “Stay on the asphalt. Do not go on the dirt. It is for your own safety.”
3. Getting on the bus with a loaf of bread, but no sort of Geiger counter or dosimeter tool to measure radiation (Maybe he forgot to charge it?)
4. Uh, that’s it.

By OSHA standards, we were about to embark on the equivalent of a health and safety nightmare.

Read more about the tour:
2. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part II: Liquidators Memorial / Kopachi / Catfish / Reactor 4
3. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part III: The ghosts of Pripyat
4. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part IV: Chisto?


July 14, 2007

Ukraine Photos: Touring the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone


I’ve uploaded all 220 of my photos from our “ecological tour” of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, including reactor no. 4 and the “ghost city” of Pripyat:





I’ll post more about the tour later.

Read more about the tour:
1. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part I: Dude, where’s your Geiger counter?
2. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part II: Liquidators Memorial / Kopachi / Catfish / Reactor 4
3. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part III: The ghosts of Pripyat
4. Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part IV: Chisto?