Visit to Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (CHNPP4) and Pripyat, Ukraine, June 2018
A wish I held for years which suddenly materialised
From one extreme to the other. From the pristine wetlands and Baltic coast to wild Kyiv in the Ukraine. A world of difference.
After a stay of almost four weeks in Estonia, departing around midnight, I flew from Tallinn to Kyiv in a few hours.
Arriving at Igor Sikorsky Kyiv International Airport I was picked up early on Friday, June 15th, by my friend Igor Molodan, major and survival instructor in the Ukrainian army. He lives in a rural house with a large, communal vegetable garden, about twenty kilometres outside of the Kyiv metropolis.
The programme included visits to Kyiv, Chernobyl and the ghost town of Pripyat; a wish I had cherished for years and that suddenly came true.
In November 2017, I was in touch with a fire brigade officer within the VRR, who had been there with a working group from the Institute of Physical Safety (IFV) at the beginning of 2017, and he assured me it was relatively safe to visit that area.
Wherever you travel, it is important to immediately adapt to the local customs, no matter how incomprehensible the Cyrillic letters and the language may be for me. Travel to a bus station on the outskirts of the city was by way of hitchhiking; in civilian cars, taxis or minibuses, costing between thirteen and fifty cents per ride. From there, Igor and I travelled through an underground labyrinth of metro stations, we were crammed in crowded buses and walked through dusty and extremely hot streets. After more than an hour and a half we reached the office of Chernobyl Adventure.
What I did not realise is that the nuclear disaster area is a welcome source of income for the tourist industry today.
For a payment of € 80, - I would be picked up the next morning by a van with driver and guide. Chernobyl is located on the border with Belarus, 135 km north of Kyiv and is directly connected to this metropolis via the Dnipro and Pripyat rivers.
Unit 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP) exploded on August 26, 1986. Since then this name has acquired a sinister meaning in our collective consciousness.
I remember discussing this disastrous news with a number of fellow students in Delft as if it were yesterday instead of thirty-two years ago.
In Chernobyl NPP4, the on-duty technicians had made a series of errors during a test that set in motion a cascade of unfortunate events which proved irreversible. The reactor vessel exploded, destroying the plant, and a huge radioactive cloud spread across NW Europe.
The Swedish authorities were the first to sound the alarm when the high radiation values were noticed.
A week after the disaster took place, the Central Committee of the CCP in Moscow reported via the Soviet media in veiled and understated terms that something had gone horribly wrong.
In the meantime, attempts were made to extinguish the burning nuclear power plant. Helicopters flew in and out dumping tons of lead, concrete and steel to cover the exposed plutonium bars in the destroyed reactor.
The chance of survival of the pilots and other rescue workers, the so-called “liquidators", was practically non-existent, some volunteered, but many conscripts were forced to sacrifice themselves and died of acute radiation sickness. All for the greater good.
Only after three days did the evacuation of the more than 49,000 residents of the Soviet-communist model city Pripyat start up. All the while the population was exposed to high radiation doses.
A total of 300,000 people were evacuated from the area.
The majority of the evacuees were housed in Kiev and afterwards transferred to the specially built model town of Slavutich, in fact a copy of Pripyat, 20 km from the disaster area.
The next morning I got up early and stood along the main road to Chernobyl where I was picked up. Two students, one from Latvia and one from France, were my fellow passengers. Igor, the guide, handed me a plastic bag with a dust mask, a bottle of water and a pack of wet wipes. In the meantime, a documentary about the Chernobyl disaster was shown.
Our driver overtook several trucks with a certain contempt for death and air of nonchalance while driving on a road full of potholes and bumps.
The sun-drenched landscape showed endless grain fields interspersed with groups of farmers busy harvesting.
Once at the checkpoint on the outer periphery, the "Exclusion zone", there appeared to be several buses with tourists, most of whom were English and Spanish. The place looked rather shabby; a guardhouse, a few barriers and three lightly armed soldiers. After we had shown our passports and the data had been checked, we were allowed to continue.
Time seemed frozen. Here and there I saw relics of the Communist era including a statue of Lenin and a mailbox embellished with a hammer and scythe.
Two heavily outdated vehicles were parked on the square in front of the fire station. It soon became clear that there were insufficient modern fire extinguishers and that there were no fire fighting helicopters. Only three hundred firefighters are available for this vast area.
The road passed the demolished village community of Zalissya. The road, consisting of concrete slabs led over the Pripyat River to the second checkpoint "Leliv". Two bored looking soldiers checked our papers. Then we went west on a forest path that led to the former military base Chernobyl-2 with the OTH-B radar "Duga-1". This 150-high and 700-metre-wide radar system consisting of steel pillars, masts, pipes and cables was one of the most important components of the nuclear war defence strategy during the Cold War. The complex was erected to track any missiles that would be launched from the USA.
To my great surprise, I saw a large group of Chinese tourists, who were taking selfies, while meekly following their tour guide.
I had ditched my guide and two traveling companions as quickly as possible. I wandered through the forested area with derelict buildings, past broken fences with rusty barbed wire and saw dismantled vehicles, half-decayed road signs and murals full of peeling heroic soldier propaganda.
After this lightning visit we drove within the "Exclusion zone" along the remains of an abandoned village with a day-care centre. The brick building contained rooms with cots for children, peeling walls, broken plumbing, broken windows, plastic toys, battered dolls without arms and legs, all covered with a thick layer of dust. Outside, near a tree, the needle of the guide's Geiger counter shot up and an ominous and terrifying squeak sounded. I won't forget that anymore. Radiation is not visible, tangible, audible, can’t be tasted or smelled, but it’s there.
I felt a cramp in my stomach.
The journey continued past ChNPP4; since the autumn of 2016 it is surrounded by a huge concrete and steel constructed sarcophagus of 110 metres high, 260 metres long, 165 metres wide and weighing 36 million kilos. The direct construction costs amounted to more than one and a half billion euros.
I looked at the colossus from a distance.
The first sarcophagus was provisionally built in 1986 and had serious construction errors. The kilos of plutonium melted by the fire there, threatening to seep through the concrete floor, could have caused a second, even greater explosion if it had come into contact with the water reservoir under the reactor vessel.
It was only prevented by pumping it out just in time. The job was done under the most extreme and dangerous conditions. The radiation was so high that exposure for more than two minutes was equivalent to a death sentence.
A gripping report is Sergii Mirnyi’s publication of: "Worse than radiation and 7 odd Chernobyl stories".¹
The author, a physics and chemical scientist and platoon commander of a military reconnaissance unit was active in the nuclear contaminated area shortly after the disaster. He talks about the nerve-racking and exhausting missions to measure radiation values from a hermetically sealed armoured vehicle.
(...) "Our ARPV's - Armoured Reconnaissance Patrol Vehicle, or 'armic' in local Chernobyl slang, - from the side they look like flat-bottomed boats on wheels, with a little conning tower on top" (...)
" The ARPV grinds forward - Kolya engages four wheel drive - and looms over the three metre drop - why the hell did we come this way?! - and at this moment the clay under the left rear wheel crumbles, breaks away, the armic tilts, Kolya gives it more throttle, the armic's four wheels churn feverishly, the armic starts slewing round, tipping then sliding slowly down backwards...
I tear of my respirator: 'Stop! Sto-op!! Stooop!!!', the roar of the engine dies, and the armic comes to rest like an injured dog - belly to the ground, one rear wheel hanging over the drop... We look at each other - a few hundred metres away, over there, where the trench runs from, we can see the blackened wreck of 4 reactor. We 're in a real mess." (...)
The half-life of plutonium-239 is approximately 25,000 years.
In comparison, the Chinese culture is over five thousand years old, the ancient Egyptian and Sumerian civilisations lasted thousands of years and the Roman empire reached its peak more than two thousand years ago.
What are we talking about?
In this sarcophagus, which costs one and a half billion euros, lies a mega-time bomb, its casing is temporary, lasting a hundred years at most. The international atomic society assumes that by that time better insights and techniques will be available to effectively reduce the radiation hazard.
But who knows what the geo-political world will look like in a century?
WWI ended a hundred years ago and the Austrian-Hungarian double monarchy, the German empire and Russian Tsarism came to a bloody end.
Everything is perishable, cultures, empires, civilisations come and go, it is a constant in human development. Every civilisation goes through a natural cycle of rise, consolidation and decline.
Do administrators, politicians and technocrats think and look beyond the issues of the day and ponder the long-term effects of their actions? Asking the question is answering it.
Meanwhile, several buses with tourists stopped at the monument in front of the main entrance of reactor 4. As if it were a fun day out, joking and laughing while taking photos with each other.
Near ChNPP4, a simple afternoon meal was served in the vast concrete dining room of an old Soviet building. At the entrance everyone was checked for radiation before entering.
Via the control post "Semihody" we continued our journey to the ghost town of Pripyat. Before the nuclear industry was developed there was nothing here but forest and swamp.
Founded as a model city for the party's elite in the 1960s, it housed mostly technicians with their families working in the nuclear industry. A city with wide avenues, modern buildings, it was spacious and boasted the best facilities. It is comparable to the Bijlmermeer in Amsterdam and the Rotterdam neighbourhood of Ommoord.
Soviet communism solidified in this place and time. The acclaimed scientifically oriented belief in progress seemed to secure an eternally bright future, with the help of the nuclear industry.
Pripyat turned out to be a post-apocalyptic, surreal hell, sinister, dismal and confronting.
The memories of the communist ideology were still fully visible, but the decay was all-encompassing. Trees, shrubs and grass grew between the broken and weathered concrete. Streets, squares, flats, houses, all abandoned and overgrown by vegetation.
A cuckoo could be heard in the distance.
There was dust everywhere and the heat was intolerable.
The blowing dust contains radioactive particles and is potentially life-threatening upon inhalation. That is why I wore a mask with an FFP3 NRD classification, which I purchased specially for this tour.
The moment I lost sight of my guide and two fellow travellers was ominous and frightening. There was radiation everywhere, but I could not perceive the intensity and value. How can you use your survival skills in a nuclear contaminated area?
In the former cafe-restaurant on the river there were stained-glass windows in socialist-realistic style with the images of workers in the frames.
In the distance lay a half sunken boat in the water, still further I saw the silhouettes of motionless cranes, sharply silhouetted against the blue sky. On the other side there was a dump site of highly radioactive material that was used to extinguish the fire.
The river at that location turned out to be heavily contaminated. Numerous dump sites had never been marked, a lot of junk seeped into the ground and the water.
On the way back we drove west of ChNPP4 past "The Red Forest". The name was derived from the red-brown colour of the pine trees that appeared after the explosion and the emission of high radiation levels.
Because of the extreme heat and drought there were continuous forest fires. The charred tree trunks were clearly visible.
While we drove past at about fifty or sixty kilometres per hour, the radiation meter continued to crackle.
An uncomfortable realisation as there is no such thing as a safe dose of radiation.
In the event of a fire, radioactive particles are carried to the higher air layers and can thus contaminate an even larger area.
There are almost no funds available for proper forest management, if it is even possible to enter that area without too much damage. Undergrowth accumulates and in the event of prolonged drought it easily ignites.
Fighting forest fires requires capacity, expertise and sufficient financial opportunities, all of which are lacking here.
Terrorism is another risk. It took me little effort to imagine that a group of heavily armed Caucasus jihadis could invade the security zone unseen, launch an attack on ChNPP4 with the aim of blowing up the sarcophagus.
The small number of soldiers that I saw walking around there, demotivated by the low pay, and visibly bored, seem to me hardly a match for a select group of terrorists on a mission.
When the proxy war around Luhansk and Donetsk in the southeast escalates unexpectedly into a large-scale conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it is conceivable that the security situation in the ChNPP is endangered as a result of the destruction of large parts of the critical infrastructure and the failure of utilities.
The area is a place of horror, where, with a thunderous bang, the belief in progress has been recalled for reflection.
Things haven’t substantially changed since then. For the time being it seems that we are still plunging head first into the sea as lemmings off a cliff, both collectively and globally. Apparently a huge and unstoppable motion that cannot be averted.
How this will develop? I have no idea.
To conclude this investigation, I visited the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev on Monday June 18, where the permanent exhibition is partially devoted to the Fukushima disaster.
I was struck by some of the calligraphic pen drawings of Japanese origin, in which the shared fate of the people of Fukushima and Chernobyl was emphasized.
The Japanese "liquidators" were depicted in quite controversial context. A samurai warrior on the right, in the middle the liquidator of Japanese origin depicted as a modern hero, flanked on the left by a Shinto-inspired kamikaze pilot from WWII. It shows how Japanese heroism is experienced within a collective historical context.
There are hardly any words to describe it.
Scientists in the nuclear industry are comparable to sorcerer's apprentices, playing with fire and evoking cosmic powers that they cannot control.
¹ Mirnyi, Sergii
Worse than radiation and 7 odd Chernobyl stories