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.
“To those who saved the world.”
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.
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.
The power station
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ryan and I, with reactor four in the background
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?