Sunday, June 9, 2013

Chernobyl Tour: June 9, 2013

The Notorious Reactor #4

Tours of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone have been allowed only since 2011.  The Exclusion Zone is 30km (18.6 miles) in radius around the power plant.  The tours seem to be very popular.  We saw several tour buses in addition to ours.  Some people (Russians) wore costumes: haz-mat suits or black leather with gloves.  Our guide, Nikolai, who works for the Ukrainian government said he's even seen people show up with their own gas mask--like that would help.  Nikolai works 15 days on and 15 days off.  During the 15 days off, he must be outside the Exclusion Zone.  When he's working, he lives in the town of Chernobyl with other government and contract workers involved in cleanup or construction.  In addition to housing these workers, Chernobyl has a small store that mostly stocks alcohol which can only be purchased after 7:00 pm, a canteen, and a small museum.  The town of Chernobyl, about 7 kilometers east of the power plant, was not directly in the path of the nuclear devastation.  Nikolai kept emphasizing that the present level of radiation in Chernobyl town is half or less than that presently in Kyiv.  The level of radiation in Kyiv is higher because the under layer of granite is closer to the surface in Kyiv than it is in Chernobyl.  Another bit of information given out is that more radiation is absorbed in a transatlantic flight than we will absorb on this tour.  Nicolai warned us not to walk on the grass as the bare ground had a higher level of radiation and other contamination.

Russian Tourists - some in costume

The town of Pripyat, sitting just west of the power plant, was directly in the path of the radiation.  Pripyat was a Soviet town founded in 1970.  It was designed to be a model town offering every convenience to workers and their families connected with the power plant.  Pripyat had a "Culture Palace" with a bowling alley, swimming pool, and theaters.  The town had a hotel, schools, apartment blocks, and an amusement park.  When the disaster occurred, the population of the town was about 40,000.

 The Culture Palace & Amusement Park

Polissya Hotel

Thirty-six hours after the disaster at the power plant, residents of Pripyat were notified that they had to evacuate and take nothing.  They were told that they would be gone for three days.

The residents were not allowed to return.  Pripyat was looted when the Soviet Union disintegrated and their possessions left behind so suddenly have ended up in other hands.  Every time I see a stack of photo albums or soviet memorabilia at flea markets here in Kyiv, I wonder if those items once belonged to residents of Pripyat.  Do these stolen possessions still have the power to slowly kill?

Mother Nature is diligent in her effort to reclaim the land.  Even the "red forest" so named because it was charred red by the radiation cloud, shows little visible evidence from the perimeter that this disaster ever happened.  In the 27 years since the disaster, new trees have replaced the red-charred skeletons.  Wildflowers are blooming and the scent of linden trees perfumes the air.  The model city is crumbling and nature is recycling what has been left behind.

The Sports Stadium at Pripyat

Kopachi Village is located within the 10 km (6.2 miles) zone around the power plant.  It was a village of mostly wooden structures.  A few days after the disaster, it rained and these wooden structures absorbed the radiation that that fell from the sky in the rain.  The Soviets decided the best plan was to demolish the structures and cover the rubble with dirt.  Later, they realized that as rainwater seeped through the soil, it became highly radioactive, creating radioactive groundwater.  The groundwater further contaminated the streams and spread the range of contamination. Our tour took us into the kindergarten school at Kopachi Village.

 A suspiciously poignant vignette--probably set up

The brick kindergarten school at Kopachi Village

At each location, a geiger reading was taken.  On the paved surfaces, the radiation reading was low, but on bare ground, it was many times higher.  At this spot outside the kindergarden school at Kopachi Village the reading at over 9.0. was dangerously high and a reason not to linger.  On the paved areas the background radiation is a low .02.

Leaving the 10 kilometer zone checkpoint, we were scanned for our level of radiation exposure.  We were scanned a second time as we left the 30 kilometer exclusion zone checkpoint.  Green lights both times.

Radiation level scanner 

This is a monument commemorating the construction of the first sarcophagus over reactor #4.  That first sarcophagus is crumbling and well beyond it's life expectancy.  Nearby, another sarcophagus is under construction.  The funding comes from the US as well as several European countries.  Russia is not a funder of this project.  Once completed the sarcophagus will be slid over the existing sarcophagus and reactor 4.  When in place, the first sarcophagus will be demolished.

The nuclear disaster began on April 26, 1986, at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.  Initially, about 40 people died from the disaster.  They were mostly the first responders like the inadequately dressed firemen who had no idea what they were confronting.  Even though these brave men prevented a more wide-spread disaster by putting out the fire on the roof of reactor #4, the only monument to these firemen was funded by their surviving fellow firefighters.  Subsequently, thousands have died and will die as a result of the radiation cloud that spread over Western Ukraine and Belarus.  There are 96 towns and villages within the zone of contamination in Ukraine that no longer exist.  A monument to these dead villages was installed in Chernobyl town.  Signs for the names, in alphabetical order, of these missing villages line the path of this memorial stretching as far as the eye can see.

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