Chernobyl remains one of the largest nuclear disasters in history with hundreds of thousand people impacted and about 4500 sq. km of land laid waste for a few thousand years. Included in this area are several villages and the Soviet model city of Pripyat which was created to showcase how man could fight against nature and win. It was a well planned propaganda for the power of atomic energy being used for peaceful purposes. – an ‘Atomgrad’ as they called it. In the end, it is the biggest example of why there is only one loser in the Man vs. Nature battle. The silver lining in the cloud is that this area is now an increasingly popular adventure tourism destination.
There are 2 security fences around the sarcophagus of the nuclear reactor – a 10 km ring and a 30 km ring. The inner ring covers some of the most radio active areas while the outer ring has some hotspots but mainly includes some empty villages and unusable land. The entry to the 30km ring is about a 2 hour drive from Kiev and you need to enter with a guided tour where they give you Geiger counters as a toy to measure local radioactivity. There are many tours to choose from but I would recommend a long tour, so you get a good feel of the place and one which gets you lunch in the local canteen.
We had advanced booked ourself onto a tour that ended up being a 12 hour journey from the point of boarding the bus. The drive was smooth and just outside of the 30km ring there is a small snack-shop and a passport check. From there starts the radioactive journey. A stop at several small villages or what remains of the villages where the radioactive dust fell on the fateful night and days in 1986. These are empty houses torn apart and decayed. They were washed using water to clean up the dust and anything that could absorb the dust – rugs, clothes were buried somewhere in the vicinity. These burial sites make for radio active hotspots where you can point your Geiger counters and measure the levels – a cute game. The houses tell lates of destruction and how nature has taken over.
Getting deeper into the territory gets you to some amazing installations – the most awesome being the Duga radar station which was supposed to detect incoming missiles. What takes small truck mounted radars now, took this monstrous 750 meter long 150 meter high metal structure. It looks alien to start with and as you get closer it just gets weirder. To make the experience more real we stop at the children’s dormitories where the dolls and their books were planted years ago – to give a feel of a city that was alive one day. Those stories of evacuations and children playing in radioactive sand did send a chill down the spine.
As we approached the sarcophagus of the reactor 4 of the nuclear power plant, there was an eerie feeling – not like radioactivity, just the excitement of seeing something I have wanted to, for so long. Technically the power plant still works. It doesn’t generate any power but the nuclear reaction cannot be shut down quickly. It can take a hundred years. So a small batch of workers still works there to keep it going. They works a few days and then get a week off – to balance the radioactivity. The nuclear reaction isnt very spectacular to see but the stories are amazing and its even more amazing how close you can get to it – very close. The reactor is covered well but some of the surrounding areas are severely contaminated, so more dangerous.
One of the surrounding areas got so much for the radioactive dust on the night of the explosion, the trees turned red and they had to be buried deep in earth. New trees were planed on that land and now those tree roots are reaching the buried ones and they are sucking up the radioactive material. Its so bad that that you cant stop there, just drive through with the Geiger counters going crazy.
The meal at the same canteen the workers ate at was a highlight. It wasn’t great food or anything. Not even served with a smile, but it was the most local experience you can get. Other cool part of that lunch was a body radioactivity scan you have to go through before you enter the canteen to ensure that u didn’t pick up a particle.
Post lunch we talked into the town of Pripyat – the ghost town taken over by nature. Words can’t describe how it feels to see a glorious city just being consumed by nature. They have a lot of past pictures to show and compare to what it looks like today. The amusement park is of course the highlight – the one that never opened. The most famous ferris wheel that never worked. One of its lower cars was the point of highest radioactivity we detected – over 150 micro sievert.
As the tour ended, we went through 2 more body scans to ensure no particles stuck on and then drove through the Chernobyl village. It was a long tiring day and most people slept on the ride back after they gave use the certificates mentioning the amount of radiation dosage we got in the day – a little more than a couple of x-rays worth. We all slept in peace knowing that nature can undo even the biggest mistakes of men.