Kiev 2018: Sat 3rd (day 4)

Today I went to При́п’ять, Pripyat. It was a new city, built in the 1970s, with an average age of 26 and all the amenities you could want. Today it’s a ghost town, totally abandoned. Why? Because the town was built to house the workers in & around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Short story: unnecessary safety test about 1am in April 1986 resulted in a fire which resulted in a steam explosion which resulted in the worst nuclear disaster in history. I read about it a lot. Today I visited it.

We met at 7.30. This was the bit of this whole trip I’d been nervous about – finding a single bus in a strange city and having my passport checked against the details I’d provided when I booked, even though I’d double and triple checked. Both went fine. In fact, I was the first there and it wasn’t a single bus, it was five buses. I was on the last one, one of at least two English-speaking buses, with guides Олександра and Oльга – Alexandra & Olga.

Having arrived first I sat and watched everyone else arrive. Every single other person, once it was established which bus they were on, asked “Is there time to go to the toilet/ATM/McDonalds/food shop before we go?” as if those weren’t things you were supposed to do before you got to the bus. I also noticed that almost all the tour guides smoke. Well, if your job is to expose yourself to radiation…

We drove an hour and a half to the first checkpoint where Special Group Permission was eventually granted and our passports were checked by military officials. While we waited for the bus to cross, we were advised to use the last “civilised restrooms” of the day – not so civilised, really, but better than the “radioactive – but not because of the radiation” ones we might encounter later on. Now we were in the 30km exclusion zone.

It was at this point that we were given our Geiger counters. They’re yellow and look like big GPS units except that they click incessantly and beep frantically if radiation levels get higher than national average of 0.3 µSv/h. At the checkpoint it was 0.16.

We drove to Zalissya, an abandoned village. It’s in the woods now – they’ve grown up around everything in the last 32 years. Here we went in a small hospital, a mini supermarket and the house of a girl called Yulya. These buildings are in worse condition than they should be for mere abandonment – the walls and floors have been torn apart by looters looking for copper wiring and valuables.

We drove straight past Chernobyl city and to the checkpoint at Leliv, entrance to the 10km zone where we didn’t have our passports checked. Not far along the road we got our first glimpse of reactor 4 under its new dome. We stopped at Kopachi, another abandoned village. This is where you see the photos of dolls – the only building still standing is the kindergarten and it’s surrounded by hotspots, which is where radioactive residue was literally washed off with soap and water which then soaked into the soil. Geiger counter says 2-3 around here but you can get it up to 13 at the roots of some trees.

Next: Pripyat, the town built to house the workers. Soviet Paradise. Best city for best people. Average age: 26. Definitely has something in common with Disney’s Discoveryland. It’s a ghost town now. You can’t live here. Well, you probably could. Radiation here mostly averaged 1 µSv/h except in hotspots, the hottest of which was on the bottom of one of the Ferris wheel cages, which got up to 270 and which Alexandra has seen at 350. We walked through the abandoned overgrown streets. It’s hard to get a sense of scale. Old photos says this is a wide road and those blocks right over there are on the other side of the road. But we were looking at them half an hour ago.

We had lunch at the canteen at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. Reactor 3 was still producing electricity until 2000 and now reactors 1, 2 & 3 are in the process of being decommissioned so there are still workers here. The canteen is both very Soviet and very Discoveryland. We had to go through radiation control before we were allowed in – a frame that measures how radioactive you are, that is, how much dust you’ve picked up. We passed with flying colours.

After lunch was reactor 4 itself. You’re only allowed to take photos of the New Safe Confinement from one angle, no photos of the facility or the protection. It’s a big fence with razor wire on top, exactly what you’d expect and the new NSC control building is a two-storey portacabin. Nuclear secrets revealed. What’s amazing is that exploded reactor is right there. Like right there, under the big steel cover. It’s due to keep it safe for 100 years and in the meantime they’re hoping to dismantle and clean up the wreckage underneath by 2065. Radiation here 1.01 µSv/h.

By now we were about done but there was more to see. There was Radar Duga-1, a secret Soviet military installation disguised as an abandoned Soviet kids’ summer camp, right down to the painted bus stop at the junction. It’s a pair of big antennae, like 150m high fences that were supposed to detect USA ballistic missile launches – except that it never worked. By the time the zone was evacuated it worked in test mode. Secret Soviet military installation is interesting but it was getting cold, the sun was setting and everyone was too tired to take much interest in it.

We left the 10k zone at Leliv, via another radiation control frame, made two stops in Chernobyl itself to see some of the clean-up robots and the monument to Those Who Saved the World and then a final radiation check back at Dytiatky before returning to the real world. Alexandra read my Geiger counter and declared I’d been exposed to 0.004 mSv today – higher than the other two people with them on the bus at 0.003 and 0.002, although Conrad left his on the bus most of the day. Olga managed 0.003 as well but Alexandra, who had hunted down the hotspots, had managed 0.006.

An hour and a half later, on Ukrainian roads in the dark and we were home.

I have a lot of reading to do about radiation and nuclear power.

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