Coming to the Ukraine was never part of our original plan, but after the uprising all over the Middle East, we decided to head here because of one thing: Chernobyl. It was on Travis’ list of top places to see, and so coming here made sense.
One can only visit Chernobyl on a tour, and there are only four companies in the Ukraine authorized to do such a tour. The tours are expensive, but they do last the full day and include all transportation, food and guide. It was probably the most expensive thing we’ve done on our trip yet, but it was really, really worth it.
+ Warning: It was a long day, and was saw many, many things. I am splitting the day into two posts, but they will be long posts!
The day started at 8 AM, where we met up with our tour. We were each given an insurance policy, and our paperwork (passport) was checked. Travis and I were number 77 and 78 out of our group of 79 – we were really lucky to have been able to join this tour at the last minute. While we normally don’t like tours, especially not big ones, they did at least split us into groups so it never was too bad.
Chernobyl is known for one thing: the world’s worse nuclear power plant disaster. While I didn’t know much about it before going there, our tour was very educational. In a clever use of time, a documentary about Chernobyl was played on our bus ride to Chernobyl. It was a really, really good documentary. I watched in awe and silent anger as we learned more and more facts. I wont bore you with too many details, but here is a quick overview:
The Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26, 1986 after a planned experiment gone wrong. The reactor #4 was shut down and overheated, creating a steam explosion that sent a cloud of radioactivity into the sky. A second explosion ensued, and numerous fires. A fire started on the roof of reactor #3, and it was imperative to stop the fires. Reactor #3 was saved, but reactor #4 continued to burn until May.
As it turns out, the reactor #4’s fire was very close to setting off a second nuclear explosion, which forced the USSR to spend around 18 billion US dollars and the health and lives of around 500,000 men to prevent Europe from being completely destroyed. Very little was known about how much radiation there was or the effects (and at times, it felt that people were purposely not told of the dangers), and so people were put at risk in ways that now feel ridiculous. While a greater disaster was avoided, it seems that the heroes were soon forgotten.
Just outside of Chernobyl was the town of Prypiat, where the workers and their family lived. The city was only evacuated 1.5 days after the reactor’s explosion – residents were told that they would only be gone for three days. This explains all of the community and educational buildings, and all that was left behind.
Unlike with Japan’s nuclear bombing, no tracking system was put in place to monitor the health of those exposed to the radiation. There is no way to use the data of the disaster to track how radiation spreads and remains, nor how many it affected or killed. For example, Kiev was strongly exposed to radiation (being just a few hours away), but even the citizens of Kiev were (and are still) mostly kept in the dark.
If anyone is interested in finding out about what really happened at Chernobyl, and what could have happened had they not sealed the reactor, I strongly recommend that you watch The Battle of Chernobyl. It’s available to view online for free!
When you arrive in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, everyone must get off the bus to have their paperwork checked. Once okay-ed and past the turning gate, you’re back on the bus towards the area’s current hub of activity to pick up the guide.
Our first stop on our tour was at an area that had army tanks and other such vehicles. While the guide was busy showing people the radiation levels on the Geiger counter, I set off to check out a pocket of abandoned homes and buildings. I couldn’t stay long, so I was a little frustrated. Would we get to really explore the sights? Would I get my fill of pictures? I soon learned that I had nothing to worry about.
The next stop was the eerily creepy kindergarten.
We drove next to the fish farm. The Chernobyl plants (there were 4, with two more planned) are surrounded by water, and apparently a special type of fish was kept in the lakes that could handle radiation. I didn’t understand most of what was being said, but it was a weird place. We got to go into the warehouse where they raised fish and into the office building.
We took a stop along the road to get a view of all of the reactors. It was a good place to spot the infamous reactor #4, cooling towers and reactor #5, whose construction was only abandoned in 2000. Did you know that Chernobyl continued to operate until 2000, and that people still work there until the reactor’s decommission are complete?
Our final stop before lunch was reactor #4. Of course you can’t go inside, but you can get pretty close to the security gate outside of the building. From there, one can get a pretty good view of the building and the sarcophagus that was built around it to limit the radioactive emissions. While there, we were told to not step on the grass but to remain on the concrete the whole time. The place is still highly radioactive, and the Geiger counter was beeping especially alarmingly while we were there.
Lunch was served in the cafeteria where all of the workers eat, about 1 KM from the reactors. Before entering the cafeteria, we had to go through a detector to check that we hadn’t gone over our daily allowance of radioactivity. It was a surprisingly good lunch, but we couldn’t help but feel that we were eating especially radioactive food.