My final day in Chernobyl (and Ukraine) started grey and drizzly. M had scheduled a tour for me inside the Chernobyl Power Plant, but it didn’t start until mid-morning, so we went exploring Chernobyl Town (for which the power plant was named). The town is about 14.5km south of the power plant, and before the explosion had a population of 14,000 (Pripyat was close to 40,000). This town, like so many others in the zone, was evacuated after the disaster, but in the years since has been cleaned up somewhat and there is a small population of people who live and work here now. Most of those are connected to the power plant or other jobs within the zone. Depending on the nature of the job, they either work a few weeks (or days) on, and then have the same amount of time off. A few buildings have been made safe to work and live in, including the hotel where I stayed, the local store, and government labs and other offices. However, as a tourist, you are not allowed to wander the town by yourself, you should always be with your guide (EDIT: with the recent announcement [July 2019] from the government that Chernobyl will now be an official tourist destination, I wonder if this may change a bit).

Chernobyl has a long history, but has had its fair share of troubles, especially in the last century. It was founded in 1193 and by the end of the 19th century had 10,800 people, 7200 of those being Jewish. Then it was occupied in WWI, saw fighting during the Polish-Soviet War (being taken by the Poles and recaptured by the Red Army), and by 1921 was part of the USSR. Then between 1929 and 1933 the town’s population was the victim of Stalin’s collectivization campaign, and many people died during the mass killings and the famine that followed. The Polish population was deported to Kazakstan in the 1930s and the Nazi occupation during WWII saw the Jewish community decimated. In the 1960s it was determined that Chernobyl would be the location of the first nuclear power plant in the USSR, and two decades later would see the worst nuclear accident in human history.

And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter. -Revelation 8:10-11

Chernobyl (Chornobyl) is often thought to be the Ukrainian word for wormwood, but the plant it is really named for (mugwort) is different. Either way, the biblical quotation about the third angel/fallen star known as Wormwood, seems prophetic given the contamination that followed the explosion on April 26, 1986. As such, there is a memorial park in the middle of town, and at the edge of it is a large metal statue of the Wormwood angel. A path starts from there, going through the length of the park, with the road signs of all the towns that were evacuated/abandoned after the disaster. It’s a simple, yet moving memorial. Nearby is a smaller park with the small robotic machines that were used to clear the debris in the immediate aftermath of the explosion. Unfortunately, their circuits were fried by the radiation, and in the end “bio-robots” (i.e. humans) were sent in to do the clean-up instead. Afterwards, we went to see the church that now has a resident priest to serve the needs of the locals (both workers and self-setters) in the zone. We spent a little time down by the old pier as well, but by then the rain was really starting to come down and it was getting close to my start time for my tour.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, home to the world’s worst nuclear disaster, still continued functioning into the 1990s, until the other remaining reactors were finally shut down in 2000. However, even if a NPP is shut down, it doesn’t mean it remains unstaffed. The decontamination cleanup is expected to continue until 2065. So, when I entered the power plant, it was one that was full of activity. My guide met me at the entrance and I was encouraged to leave everything behind, but I was allowed to bring my phone. After getting a little background information, we started with a tour of the underground emergency bunker. This space is meant to accommodate all the workers in the event of another disaster – there are radiation scanners, bunk beds, a control room with plenty of old phones and densitometers, and a very old school backup generator, which apparently is maintained by two young women.

Then it was time to suit up. It wasn’t just a lab coat and hat, I also had gaiters on my lower legs and booties over my shoes. I was given a mask to wear later in the tour. This get-up wasn’t just for me as a tourist, everyone who works or passes through the reactor section of the plant is similarly clad. We then started down a long hall known as the “Golden Corridor”. This hallway runs about a kilometre past all four of the nuclear reactors and control rooms. We stopped in to see the control room for Reactor 1 (or 2), which is still staffed with workers needed to monitor and maintain the equipment. Since the staff here work long hours, they are allowed to smoke here, so it was not an overly pleasant experience with all the smoke in the air.

Eventually we made it to the control room for Reactor 3 – identical in every aspect to the one for Reactor 4. This one is not staffed, although someone did have to accompany us here. It was a bit chilling being here. I was the only one on the tour, so there were just 3 of us in this large room filled with 70s-era consoles with colourful knobs and switches everywhere. I was told not to touch anything, especially anything red (!). Here I got a summary of what happened on the night of the explosion. Of course, I already knew a lot about it having read a few books and seen a few documentaries about the accident before I came here. But still, being there, where it happened, being able to really see where everyone was stationed and how the decision making process played itself out, was a bit overwhelming. I’ve already talked about the disaster in my first post, so I won’t go over it again here.

In any event, seeing the red shutdown button that was meant to control the reactor, but ended up causing the explosion at 01:23:40 was a bit anti-climatic. It’s interesting how something so small caused such a catastrophic event. Of course, it didn’t, it was just the final step in a series of missteps that occurred throughout the day, which included the reactor being overused during the day and thus was underpowered for the test, the fact that the test kept getting pushed back that it ended up being conducted by the night shift who was unprepared for it, to a chain of command that meant the superiors did not listen to their experienced subordinates when things started to go wrong.

After taking a few obligatory photos in the control room, we moved on to the area surrounding Reactor 4. For this, we had to put on our face masks and gloves. We visited the memorial to Valery Khodemchuk, the only worker whose body was never found, and assumed to be buried under all the nuclear debris in Reactor 4. This memorial is the only place that his family has to remember him. His memorial lies directly in front of what used to be the reactor, which is now separated from the rest of the power plant by several metres of concrete. Still, the readings here were high, around 7-8 mSV per hour. Nearby lies the cooling tanks for Reactor 3, again similar to the tanks that they thought initially were the cause of the explosion. It was very dark in here and my Geiger counter was going crazy – we were up to 17 mSV per hour here. I was allowed to take off my gloves to get a photo or two, but we didn’t stay here long, as you can imagine.

This was the last part of the tour inside the Chernobyl NPP. We then went back to the changing room to de-robe from our labcoats and booties and get scanned for any radiation (none of course). From there we were transported around the plant to another building. This building is, in fact, the one next to the memorial that most people take their photos at. This place is a bit of an interpretive centre that has a fantastic model that opens up where you can see exactly what happened to the Reactor when it exploded. There were videos here as well, focusing on the construction of the massive sarcophagus that now encases Reactor 4. This was built to replace the deteriorating structure that had been hastily built in 1986 to cover the reactor. That original building was scheduled to last 30 years, but in less than half that time it started to break down. Then, with the financial help from many countries (mostly European, but many others as well), they were able to build the sarcophagus which is meant to last another 100 years. This will allow them to continue to clean up and decontaminate what’s left of Reactor 4.

Liquidators Memorial
Memorial to the firefighters who were the first responders to the Chernobyl nuclear explosion

As you can imagine, after the catastrophic events of March 11, 2011 in Japan, many nuclear engineers from Japan have been working closely with the researchers and engineers from Chernobyl, as they have been able to draw from the 30+ years of experience of dealing with the fallout of a nuclear explosion (which was equal to 400 Hiroshimas). My guide was curious about my experiences in Fukushima, but as tourists are not allowed anywhere near the plant, I didn’t have much to tell her. I wonder if Fukushima will eventually draw the same number of people as Chernobyl currently does. Either way, these are sobering and education places to visit, and I hope that any and all the visit are able to contemplate not only the folly and hubris of man (a nuclear explosion will never happen, Titanic is unsinkable, etc.), but also the extreme heroism of those who needed (and still need) to do what needs to be done in these situations.