Tag Archives: nuclear
December 15, 2010

FAQ: I want to tour Chernobyl. How do I get there?

Chernobyl nuclear power plant

Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, July 2007

Since the Ukrainian government recently announced that the exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl disaster site will be open for tours beginning in 2011, interest in touring the region has exploded (along with traffic to my blog). Media reports have been rather erroneous, however, as private companies have actually been leading tours of the exclusion zone for many years. I traveled there in 2007 and since then I have received a substantial number of emails from people who are interested in making the trip themselves. I’ve been meaning to put together a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page to address most of the common questions but have kept putting it off. Well, no longer…here is the list of frequently asked questions posed to me by readers, and my answers.

How did you get there?
As strange as it sounds, a Chernobyl tour was actually quite easy to arrange. We booked our tour through the travel agency SoloEast. You have to let them know ahead of time so that they can submit your details (i.e., passport number) to the Ukrainian government for clearance. Also, if you do this far enough ahead of time there is an opportunity for others interested in touring on that day to sign up for your tour, which will lower the cost. SoloEast will pick you up in Kiev and take you to Chernobyl, and then bring you back to Kiev. Yes, it’s really that easy.

Another option you might want to consider is taking one of the tours that is led by former Pripyat residents. I’d really like to visit Chernobyl again, and if I were to return to Ukraine, I would definitely look into doing this. You can find out tour dates and more info at chernobylzone.com.


Amusement park in Pripyat, a city of 50,000 abandoned shortly after the Chernobyl disaster

How much was the tour?
At the time we went, our tour cost approximately $115 per person. Prices have risen over the years, however. A solo tour will cost you $490, but if you round up a few others the price drops to $100-205 depending on the number of participants.


Soviet crest atop a Pripyat apartment building

Where do you go? What do you see?
Everywhere. A lot. You’ll visit the Memorial to the Liquidators who literally saved the world. You’ll visit Kopachi, a village so contaminated with radiation that the government bulldozed it and buried its remains. All that remains of it are mounds of dirt skewered by the occasional radiation sign. You’ll stand 100 meters from the infamous reactor #4, where the explosion occurred, and feed the giant catfish in the nearby cooling pond. The highlight of the tour is Pripyat, a city that 50,000 residents called home until they were evacuated following the explosion at reactor #4. Today, Pripyat remains as a Soviet city frozen in time, visited by curious tour groups, vandals, and looters. You’ll visit the graveyard of ships and a collection of vehicles that were used in the cleanup of Chernobyl. And then you will be provided with a hearty lunch back at the Chornobylinterinform office.

chernobyl ship graveyard

Where do you fly to?
Boryspil International Airport (KBP) in Kiev. If you go in the summer (I went in July 2007), like I did, roundtrip to Kiev from the USA will run about $1000+. If you’re coming from Europe, or going to Kiev in the winter, it will be substantially cheaper.

Where do you stay?
SoloEast now gives you the option of spending a night at a hotel within the exclusion zone area itself (it is primarily for visiting scientists and researchers) so you can ask them about that. But in general since tours are only for a day you will stay in Kiev, which is 2.5 hours from the zone. As for accommodation in Kiev, skip the overpriced hotels and rent an apartment. We used KievApts.com and rented a place in the city center near Independence Square. Can’t beat that location. KievApts will also arrange to pick you up at the airport if you’d like.

kiev apartment bedspread
You know you want to stay in an apartment that features this bedspread!

Is it safe to visit Chernobyl? Were there any protective measures?
Is it safe? Well, they say it is, and obviously it wasn’t a huge concern of mine, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone. One of my friends used to work in the nuclear industry and thought I was nuts for going there, though. There are a lot of rules you have to follow there and they go over them once you get to the zone (i.e, stick to the asphalt and don’t step on the radioactive moss). When you book your tour, SoloEast will advise you of the proper clothing and shoes to wear, but other than that, you won’t be walking around the zone in white suits. At the end of the tour, you’ll pass through a checkpoint that will scan you for any stray radioactive particles you might have picked up. Our group cleared the checkpoint with no problems, but if you don’t then you might be subject to a chemical shower.

radiation checkpoint near chernobyl
All clear

Was the tour in English?
Yep.

Do they speak English in Ukraine?
From my own experience, many of the younger Ukrainians spoke English. I speak horrible Russian and managed quite well over there, but I think you will be fine if you don’t speak Russian or Ukrainian. Just think of it as an adventure. I would recommend learning the Cyrillic alphabet if you are not already familiar with it because all street/metro signs in Kiev are in Cyrillic. It’s not that hard and will only take a few hours to master it. Trust me.

If you have any further questions that haven’t been addressed here, shoot me an e-mail or leave them in the comments section and I will answer them.

pin it button FAQ: I want to tour Chernobyl. How do I get there?
November 19, 2010

POTD: Soviet decorations in Pripyat

These decorations were hung on the lampposts in Pripyat in preparation for the 1986 May Day parade that never occurred due to the explosion at the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

pin it button POTD: Soviet decorations in Pripyat
November 2, 2010

POTD: Abandoned apartment building in Pripyat, Ukraine

pripyat apartment building

pripyat apartment building

An abandoned apartment building in Pripyat, Ukraine, a deserted city located 3km from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The city’s 50,000 residents were evacuated shortly after the Chernobyl disaster, and the city has been uninhabited since.

pin it button POTD: Abandoned apartment building in Pripyat, Ukraine
October 1, 2010

POTD: Monument to the Chernobyl Liquidators

Monument to the Chernobyl Liquidators

Monument to the Chernobyl Liquidators

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. 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. The plaque on the monument is inscribed “To those who saved the world.”

pin it button POTD: Monument to the Chernobyl Liquidators
September 3, 2010

POTD: Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Chernobyl nuclear power plant

Chernobyl nuclear power plant

View of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant from a bridge leading into the deserted city of Pripyat. Taken during our July 2007 excursion to the exclusion zone.

pin it button POTD: Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
November 21, 2008

POTD: Nuclear test dummies, 1955

nevada_nuclear_test_dummies_1955.jpg


Atomic Bomb Test In Nevada
Scorched & disheveled male mannequin clad in dark business suit standing in the desert w. lady mannequin in bkgrd., 7000 ft. from the 44th nuclear test explosion, a day after the blast, indicating that humans could be burnt but still alive.

Well, that’s comforting. The tie on the dummy is a nice touch as well.

nevada nuclear test dummies 1955 POTD: Nuclear test dummies, 1955
(Loomis Dean, May 1955)


pin it button POTD: Nuclear test dummies, 1955
October 16, 2007

Saint Seraphim: Patron Saint of the Russian nuclear forces

saint_serafim.jpg

Saint Seraphim’s most popular quote was “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.” Fitting for a guy who was recently declared the patron saint of Russia’s nuclear forces:

This month the secretive, nuclear 12th Main Directorate of the Defense Ministry celebrated its 60th birthday…Today Russian nukes are produced by the Rosatom Federal Nuclear Energy Agency and then handed over to the 12th Directorate, which is in charge of delivery, security, maintenance, and testing of nuclear weapons, both strategic

To mark the anniversary in the new Russian official style, top officials from the Defense Ministry and Russian Orthodox Church attended a special service held in Russia’s newly rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. An official meeting (torzestvennoye sobranye) followed the service in the Hall of Church Assemblies, which is part of the Cathedral complex. The meeting was reminiscent of Communist anniversary celebrations, but still distinctly different given that the top generals presided alongside black-robed Orthodox clergy (Itar-Tass, September 4). As nationalism has replaced the Communist ideology in Russia, the Orthodox hierarchy has been endorsing official events instead of Communist Party chiefs.

The rank-and-file of the 12th Directorate were formally blessed. The favorite Orthodox saint of the last Russian tsar, Nicholas II — St. Seraphim of Sarov — was officially declared the spiritual patron-protector of all Russian nukes, strategic and tactical. An Orthodox Church flag with the icon of St. Seraphim was bestowed on the 12th Directorate.

saint serafim Saint Seraphim: Patron Saint of the Russian nuclear forces

And General Vladimir Verkhovtsev, the current commander of the 12th Directorate, had this to say about security at American nuclear installations:

Verkhovtsev says that the Americans are too shy to allow Russians to visit their nuclear storage facilities in return, because the security there is comparatively flimsy. Verkhovtsev told me: “The Americans have a wire net fence with a sign that trespassers may be shot, a camera, and some movement detectors. In Russia such a security fence would have been torn down and stolen before long by citizens to use at dachas.”

You know, he has a point there…that wire fence would make a lovely dacha accessory.

pin it button Saint Seraphim: Patron Saint of the Russian nuclear forces
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


pin it button Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part IV: Chisto?
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 Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part III: The ghosts of Pripyat
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 Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part III: The ghosts of Pripyat
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 Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part III: The ghosts of Pripyat
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?

pin it button Dispatches from Chernobyl, Part III: The ghosts of Pripyat
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?


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