"Landie" or Harry
To help keep this long report concise:
Black= In the Zone
Green= Out of the Zone/"The Social Moments"
At 1:33 am on the April 26th 1986, a routine emergency drill conducted under unsafe circumstances, possibly due to strict management and cost cutting, Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant overheated and went into meltdown.
Fire-fighters were fast to act, but were not aware of the severity of the situation and treated it as if it was a normal fire. 31 workers and fire-fighters died in the weeks after the incident. The final death toll is in its thousands as many cancer deaths are believed to be linked.
3 of the plant workers displayed bravery on unimaginable levels. This blog is dedicated to those people, not just to the liquidators and fire fighters whom I will explain later, but to Engineers Alexi Ananenko, Valeri Bezpalov and Boris Baranov.
The 1200 Celsius Corium was burning through the floors at such a rate that if it hit the cooling reservoir, it would cause a steam explosion so severe it could have made Europe uninhabitable and killed millions. The only way to drain this was manually, so Ananenko and Bezpalov; kitted with just diving suits dived into the highly contaminated water, taking in radiation at extremely high doses, to open the sluice gates and prevent the explosion, with Baranov holding a faulty torch.
As the torch flickered the two engineers successfully drained the reservoir, but the damage was already done. They sacrificed their lives for you and me several days later.
The next day the entire population of Pripyat was evacuated; residents believed that they would return in 3 days. That was in 1986 and they will never return to their homes.
The government put in a 30km exclusion zone which makes up for 1,100 square miles; an estimated 200,000 people made homeless. Many people forced their way back to their former abodes against government order, and still live there today.
Some 600,000 “Liquidators” were called upon, or volunteered to try and reduce the level of radiation on the grounds of the exclusion zone between 86 and 92.
The Plant continued operating till 2000, despite radiation, with some amenities in Pripyat such as the pool staying open till as late as 1996.
We arrived on the evening of my 23rd Birthday at Kiev Airport to a nice hot and sunny evening, after a fairly uneventful flight of three hours on an extreme budget, no frills airline. We were excited about our adventure in part of the ex-Soviet Union.
After being collected from the airport, we walked what seemed like a fair way to our driver’s car. He didn’t speak any English, and we didn’t speak any Ukrainian. On the short journey to our hostel in the centre of Kiev we got to see many Soviet cars, to mine and Scott’s delight, and also some pretty defensive driving!
So the driver dropped us off outside an old apartment building, and helped us with our bags. He put us into a rickety old lift, clad with Formica which couldn’t have been more than 5 foot by 6 foot, and claimed to take 6 people. He pressed one of the huge buttons on the aluminium plated control bar with the number “6” written next to it in permanent marker.
We went up in two groups as there were people already waiting to go up in the lift which bumped its way up the floors, which you could clearly see whizzing past between the middle of the two doors. It was excellent!
So, we finally find our way to our hostel. This apartment block was old, pre Soviet Union, and was made up of several hostels and apartment rooms. We knock on the door and the owner answers. He has no idea of our booking, and insists he has no rooms available. 3 hours and 1,500 miles from home, we are without a room! So we phone back our tour firm owner on his emergency number, and we relay messages; deciding we should go down two floors and try the hostel down there. We have already been paid the money for the hostel at this point, so we do have the available funds
We are approached by about three people, none of whom speak English. By this point I wish I had bought a phrase book with me! We kick about outside the hostel for a bit, throw some ideas about, and we decide that we should one at a time withdraw our Hirviniya; a currency unavailable outside the Ukraine.
I was a little nervous after hearing the stories of ex Soviet countries, as an English boy with sterling in my pocket, and withdrawing money with my Barclays Bank Card. Finally with several hundred UAH; barely Â£50, I start walking back to the hostel and receive a phone call. The proprietor we have been waiting for has found us a room!
The girl is young, our age, and speaks perfect English. She supplies us with a map marked with the best Ukrainian restaurants and bars in the local area.
After a bit of walking, we have our best meal on the whole trip in a Ukrainian eatery, and then decided to explore the streets. We grab 3 good quality lagers from a street vendor; Â£2.90 for the entire round, and walk down the pedestrian strip. We are surprised to see packets of cigarettes for about 75p a pack on similar street stalls to the one we bought the beer from.
Kiev has lots of really pretty buildings, but the Soviet Union was still apparent in places, one minute a brand new G-Wagon would pass by, the next a beaten Lada, Moskvich, Volga, UAZ, VAZ or Zaporozhet would chug past, which wasn’t a bad thing for me and Scott, the two car buffs. Soviet concrete also reared its head between historic buildings.
After Tom and Scott proceeded to stock up on booze (a bottle of vodka is normally no more than Â£3 for a litre), we decided to go back to our hotel rooms. By the time we got to sleep it was 2am, (midnight at home), setting our alarms for 6 as we want to get some daytime photos of Kiev.
The sun and heat are pretty impressive compared to the cloudy, grey weather we left behind in the UK.
After this we eat a breakfast a buffet type cafÃ©, which cost us tuppance, and walk back to the Hostel. After check out we wait in anticipation for our guide to arrive. I am looking forward to driving the old Lada from our holiday cottage to the zone, but when we are picked up in Kiev, the guide has no idea of this arrangement, and we would be using his car over the two days.
During a phone call between our guide and someone in the office, I hear the words ”Pripyat” and Lada be thrown around several times, and eventually it is agreed I drive the Lada after we arrive at the cottage for a few hours as an experience of Ukrainian roads. I was happy with this arrangement as not only did I pay for an International Driving Permit; I also wanted to use the Lada as promised! This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as I did not know the roads, and valuable touring time would have been lost in driving to the zone in a 32 year old VAZ-2101.
On the way to the first checkpoint; our knowledgeable guide points out various things by the roadside, such as the largest battery chicken farm in Europe, and old Soviet Era vehicle inspection ramps dotted about…
After the long drive from Kiev and checkpoints, we arrive in Chernobyl. There are a lot of survivors live here, and people who work at the plant today, as scientists, government agents etc. The plant isn’t actually located in Chernobyl and shares only the name.
There are memorials here, both for Fukishima and the Chernobyl disaster. In the memorial park are signs to remember villagers who have died, but not in the Chernobyl Disaster, they have died of old age. The average age of death here is high, around 96.
The Fukishima Memorial is made of two metal origami swans, remembering the 2011 meltdown.
From here, we drove down to the area of abandoned boats. These boats, like everything else were abandoned here in 1986, but are not believed to be dangerously radioactive.
Kopachi was evacuated by the 3trd of May, all 1,114 inhabitants. It was the only part of the Chernobyl exclusion zone to have all of its buildings demolished and buried as part of an experiment of cleaning up radiation leaving only this nursery behind.
This nursery is one of the touristy hotspots. When we arrived, our guide showed us the two Geiger counters, one for Beta, one for Gamma. Beta was almost non existent, and Gamma was low, except in the soil round the nursery.
Take some time to look at these pictures and realise what was left behind. Believe me, this is the tip of the iceberg…
We take the old road to the power plant, and stop of next to the cooling ponds to take in the scenery. From here we can see almost everything, the destroyed reactor, the three remaining reactors which operated till 2000, and reactor 5 and 6, due for completion in 1988.
Chernobyl was intended to be the largest Nuclear Plant in the world with 12 reactors. It was in the top five largest in the 1986 disaster. Huge Catfish swim these ponds, but are only huge due to having no people to fish them. They are not mutated.
Unfinished Cooling Tower
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
Reactor Cooling Ponds
Another View of the Unfinished Reactor
The Radiation Level Here is very Low
Next we arrive at the plant, where the new “sarcophagus” lies and the fated Reactor 4. The Reactor was covered over by a massive concrete construction containing hundreds of tons of radioactive materials.
Construction started as early as June 1986 and was completed by November. It was only given a life of 20-30 years, so construction of an enormous replacement cover, named “The New Safe Confinement” began. It is expected to be in place by 2015, replacing by then, the 29 year old Sarcophagus.
The 2000 ton metal arch will cover Reactor 4 entirely, covering up the iconic chimney; the internationally recognised symbol of Chernobyl. It is expected to last 100 years; construction costing an estimated Â£700,000,000.
So before we look at the reactor, let’s please take a moment to remember the 30+ fire fighters, and plant workers; not forgetting many liquidators who lost their lives or changed them forever while trying to save Europe from becoming a wasteland.