I don’t know when I first thought about visiting Chernobyl – I think it’s been on my mind for years, probably from the first time I saw photos of the abandoned buildings in Pripyat. I remember when the accident was first announced to the world – although Reactor 4 blew in the early hours of April 26th, it wasn’t until the evening of the 28th that a short announcement was read over Soviet news:
There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up. –Vermya, 28 April 1986
However, my birthday is on the 29th, and I do remember sitting at the table eating cake and watching the news of about this nuclear accident. I don’t remember much about that, other than being a little scared, but I do know it dominated the news cycle for quite a while. Here’s a throwback video of when the Western world first started reporting the accident, not knowing exactly what had happened:
I’ve read a great book about the accident, Chernobyl 01:23:40 by Andrew Leatherbarrow, which explains the accident in great detail, but here’s a summary:
- In the early morning hours of April 26th, 1986, a safety test which was simulating a power blackout was scheduled. However, due to some poor decisions by the staff (mainly the chief and the main operator) running the test, as well as flaws in the design of the power plant itself, and the lack of safety features (like a containment building, or emergency protocols), led to a “perfect storm” of catastrophic events which resulted in Reactor 4 exploding.
- Initially, it was thought that the explosion heard and felt must have been the cooling tanks, no one even thought it was the reactor. The chief sent two young engineers to go check it out (without protective gear) and when they came back a minute later, saying the reactor was gone, no one believed them. At this point they had already received a lethal dose of radiation (the core was at 30,000 Roentgens per hour – 300 is a lethal dose for humans) and must have exhibited signs of radiation sickness, but these symptoms were ignored. My guide at the plant (see this post) told me that these young engineers had raised their hands to protect their faces from the burning fires, afterwards, their hands were stuck in those positions – they were not able to move them afterwards at all. Despite graphite and other nuclear fuel lying on the ground in that area, again, people did not believe the accident had been a nuclear explosion. There weren’t proper densitometers that could read the accurate levels of radiation – none of them went high enough.
- In any event, many more bad decisions were made – firefighters were sent to the roof to put out the fires raging there, as the roofs had been covered with the very flammable bitumen, against safety regulations. Those first responders who went up that night did not survive. However, the fires needed to be put out, as they were burning over the active Reactor 3 next door, which was told to keep operating (it was finally shut down at 5 a.m.). More men were sent to the cooling tanks and other areas of the nuclear plant looking for survivors, putting them all at risk for lethal doses of radiation (again, none knew the truth of what had happened). In fact, it would take 2 weeks to put out the fires entirely, by that point they were using helicopters to drop sand, lead, clay, and boron into the exploded core. Those helicopter pilots and the personnel used to drop those bags? They also received very high doses of radiation. A photographer who was in the helicopters taking photos for documentation had a lot of his film irradiated and the negatives all showed damage from those flights. Many of the helicopters pilots were fresh from the war in Afghanistan, most of them would say that the days flying around Chernobyl were worse than any war zone, because they didn’t know exactly where the enemy was, which made it more dangerous for them.
- Remember, this happened in the very early morning hours of the 26th. But that day, it was business as usual. Kids went to school, people went to work, there were no evacuations declared, even though a lot of people showed signs of radiation sickness (the taste of metal in their mouths, headaches, vomiting, coughing, etc.). Two nuclear specialists flew in that night, and the fact that hundreds of people were in hospital and 2 people already dead, along with their readings, meant that an evacuation order was issued about 36 hours after the accident.
- At the time of the accident, 47,000 people were living in Pripyat, a purpose made town (1970) built for the workers of the power plant. It was a pretty young town, the average age was 26, and it was full of children (over 1000 born every year). To expedite the evacuation, everyone was told it would only last for 3 days and to only bring important documents, money, some clothes, and some food. Everyone thought they would go back after 3 days, but of course, they never returned. Everything they left behind was left behind for good. In any event, by 3 p.m. the town was evacuated. The next day the evacuation order spread to a 10km radius, and then to a 30km radius. Although the shape and dimensions of this exclusion zone have changed over time, it is still there over 30 years after the accident occurred. Most people were evacuated within the larger Kiev region, but in later years some had to be re-evacuated to other towns due to the fact that radiation levels were higher than first thought.
- Once reality had set in, other than fighting the fires, another issue was picking up and disposing of the radioactive debris, which was lying everywhere. Initially robots/small machines were sent in to do the job, but they quickly failed due to the the high levels of radioactivity. So instead, “bio-robots” (i.e. humans) were sent in to do the job instead. These men (most of them young soldiers) were clad in lead stripped from buildings – to layer under their shoes, cover their chest cavity (and for a few, to protect their “private” regions – seriously – this is one area in men that is particularly sensitive to radiation exposure). These suits could weigh up to 40kg, and were usable just once. They had to run in, climb to the roof, shovel off some debris, and go back down, all in the space of a minute (their total lifetime radiation dose). In reality, it often took them a bit longer. As you can imagine, this required an incredible number of people. These men, and other people involved in the clean up around the exclusion zone – spraying the ground to prevent dust from getting airborne, removing topsoil, getting rid of spoiled food in buildings, shooting stray pets (so they wouldn’t track radiation across unpolluted areas), razing the red forest and burying it, etc. – were known as “liquidators”, and although the numbers vary, it’s estimated between 300,000 and 600,000 were involved this cleanup over the years.
- Soon after, a decision was made to cover the exploded reactor with a protective covering, which later became known as the Sarcophogus. It wasn’t built to last long – only 30 years (in fact, it would start to break down much earlier than that), but it needed to be done quickly. Working day and night for 6 months, it was finally completed in late November of 1986. Of course, by then, it was clear that no one would ever be returning here.
But some people did return. They are now called self-settlers (samosely), people who disobeyed the evacuation orders (they went, but then returned back to Chernobyl), often more than once. A lot of these were people who lived in the outer villages of the greater Chernobyl area (in what would become the 30km exclusion zone) – they had a life of living and farming the land, fishing in the rivers, and gathering food from the forests. Being told to live in a town or city that shunned them for bringing radioactivity with them (of course they didn’t, but this story is common in places of nuclear disasters, including Hiroshima and Fukushima), they suffered in silence and hated their new living quarters, in apartments far from the land. So a small but determined minority made their way back to the exclusion zone to live in their family homes, radiation be damned. Many of these people were already middle-aged or older when they returned, now 33 years later, not many are left (about 100, out of over 1000). They continue living off the land, drinking water from wells, eating food that they grow in gardens or collect from the forests, and relying on the good will of visitors who bring them extra provisions. The forestry department is a major employer in this area (the need to keep forest fires at bay is really important here), and as a result many of them help these old residents by providing them with firewood cut from the local forests and sometimes helping them with heavier chores (if needed).
I vaguely knew about these self-settlers when I first booked my private tour several months ago, and asked my guide if I could meet some. I didn’t know then that a documentary had been made about them – which I only found out about a week before my trip to Ukraine. I ended up watching it the night before my tour started, and was pleased to find out that I would be meeting some of the ladies who were featured in it. Here’s the trailer for the movie, if you’ve never heard of it (The Babushkas of Chernobyl):
So…here’s where my story begins (finally!). I was picked up by my guide (who I’ll call “M”) early in the morning in Kiev, and we began our drive out to Chernobyl, which is about 90 minutes north of the city. We stopped in a local town to pick up some supplies for the self-settlers, and before I knew it we were at the checkpoint to enter the 30km exclusion zone. Everyone here has to stop and show their passports and documentation allowing them in – during the high season with lots of tour buses these lines can be long leading to some serious delays, but as I was there in March, which is decidedly low season, we got through fairly quickly. Afterwards, while the tour buses continued on towards Pripyat, we made a right turn down some very run down rural roads, past many abandoned houses, until we came to one that was in fairly good condition.
This was the home of Hanna and her disabled sister Sonia. They returned (with other members of their family) not long after the evacuation order and have lived here ever since. Now, only Hanna and her sister remain, although their cousin lives just up the road from them (whom we later visited). We were immediately welcomed in and presented with many dishes to eat. As I come from a small Canadian town that is about half Ukrainian, many of these dishes were familiar to me, including the cut up fried potatoes and onions, which is exactly the way my dad likes to make them. Various salads and other foods were on offer too (including “chernobyl sushi”, a bread made from rice), and I had to drink the obligatory 3 shots of homemade vodka (which was strong, but good). We chatted (with M translating) about life in the zone, the food, tattoos (Hanna did not like one of the guides who visited her, as she had too many tattoos), married/single life, and more. Then M and I went with Hanna to check out her garden, which had some strawberry plants coming up, but we were there to remove the straw covering her budding garlic plants. Afterwards, we went to visit the cemetery where most of Hanna’s family is buried (as well as many of the villagers who used to live here). Even though it’s illegal to buried in the zone, that is where many of the villagers choose to be after they pass away (this is also featured in the documentary I mentioned above). I also saw my first WWII memorial there – they are scattered all over this area (and I imagine were common all over the USSR) – statues and monuments dedicated to the people who gave their lives during that conflict. They are not only in cemeteries, but in front of schools and other locations.
Over my visits to the ladies here, I received lots of kisses, the same as how they greet each other every day. I also saw some partially built structures that were never completed, like some sort of community hall (palace of culture the babushkas called it). Many of the homes that were collapsing on themselves belonged to family members who had since passed. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, we took some photos, received more kisses, and said goodbye.
Afterwards, M and I head to an abandoned village where we visited the town hall, an elementary school, and some abandoned homes. This was my first taste of what was to come over the next four days. It became clear to me, early on, why there are strict rules about what to wear when visiting the zone (closed shoes, like boots or trainers, long pants, and long sleeved shirts – no exceptions). These places have been abandoned for decades, the ground (topsoil) dug up, and looters/the elements have all destroyed what’s been left behind. The vegetation is overgrown, so not only will it catch on your arms as you scramble through it, but it covers the uneven ground, the broken glass, and the rusty bits of metal that are everywhere. But that abandoned look, or ruin porn, or a kind of ruin wabi-sabi, is everywhere, and it’s easy to see the appeal of places stopped in time, and slowly fading away.
By this point it was late afternoon and the light was really fading, so we headed into Pripyat to see the most iconic symbol of the town – the Ferris Wheel which was newly constructed, but never used (it was meant to open May 1 for May Day celebrations but of course never did). Every tour group stops here, but we were lucky, as by this time of day we had the place to ourselves.
Chernobyl Town (which the Chernobyl reactor was named after) where I would spend the next three nights. Inside the town there is a strict curfew. Visitors have to be inside by 8 p.m., locals by 10 p.m. Visitors like me can also not explore on their own, they must be accompanied at all times. This frustrated me a little, but as I didn’t want to get M into trouble, I just worked on my photos in the evening, and tried to catch up on emails when the wi-fi was working. I was excited for the next day, when we would spend the entire day exploring the abandoned city of Pripyat.
To be continued in Part 2…