Everything started with a new low-cost destination to go to Kiev. The plan initially was to visit the Ukranian capital during a weekend. However, Chernobyl was an improvised plan, which I organized on the edge, 10 days before to start the trip.
I figured out that there are tours that organize visits to the inside of the Exclusion Zone, stopping along the way in several places. But I couldn’t avoid having a combination of concern and curiosity about it. The tickets were close to sold-out and Kiev is not a destination I could repeat easily again, so I decided to go on a one-day trip without thinking much.
Is it safe?
What about radiation?
Visiting the Exclusion Zone you will receive a Geiger Counter, which is an instrument that measures ionizing radiation in the environment. When this instrument begins to detect radiation, it emits a sound indicating on the screen how much radiation there is in the area.
The radiation unit is in Sieverts (abbreviated Sv). 1 Sv represents a very large dose of radiation, that although is not fatal, could cause radiation sickness, including nausea and reducing the white blood cell count. But don’t worry, the dose received visiting Chernobyl today it’s almost 1 million times less. It’s less than the radiation you are exposed in a transatlantic flight (0.08 mSv).
A more in-depth explanation about radiation numbers and units
Going to Chernobyl it’s impossible not wondeting about our health.
The dosimeter is the instrument used to measure the radiation in the Chernobyl tour I had the chance to go. The values were given in Microsieverts (µSv). Since 1 Sv represents a large dose of radiation, in these kind of instrument are used smaller units, being commonly displayed in Millisieverts (abbreviated mSv) and Microsievers (abbreviated µSv).
- 1 mSv is the thousandth part of a 1 Sv. In other words, 1.000 mSv is equal to 1 Sv.
- 1 µSv is the millionth part of 1 Sv. It means, 1.000.000 µSv is equal to 1 Sv.
In the trip to Chernobyl was very interesting to learn that the global average exposure of humans to ionizing radiation in a year is between 2.4mSv to 3mSv. I wasn’t aware that constantly we are exposed to radiation. 80% of this radiation comes from nature, and the rest, from human-made radiation sources.
Then, how much radiation we can receive is a day visiting Chernobyl? it’s between 0,002mSv and 0,003mSv, almost 1 thousand times less of the average dose humans receive in a year.
As a curiosity: If you watched the HBO mini-series of Chernobyl and paid attention to the units, you might remember they are given in Roentgen (abbreviated R). 1R is today equal to 0,00877 Sv or 8,77 mSv. On the TV show, the first value reported after the accident is 3.6R, the maximum that could read a low-limit dosimeter. That was the value used for the first hand involved people to “justify” that the accident in Chernobyl “wasn’t that bad”.
The Trip To Chernobyl
I landed to Kiev on a late Friday night. The next day, got up early to arrive at the meeting point at the time, it was to be a long day. We departed in a bus at about 8:00 AM. the tour guides give the welcome to the tour and lent us Geiger Counters to measure the radiation during the tour. The dosimeters provided radiation values in Microsieverts (µSv), which I will add as a reference through this post.
The Exclusion Zone border
A little over 2 hours on the bus, we reached the Exclusion Zone border, where is the passport control. Just 30 km away from the catastrophe point. The border is it’s strictly guarded by the military. At first, you might think that it’s only you and your group visiting Chernobyl, but the reality is that there are many, many people that are coming too. So, at the passport control, you need to wait for a while until the moment they check your information.
When I booked the tour, the tour operators asked to provide my passport number. They need to send this information to the controlling authorities up to 10 days in advance. When the day comes, the authorities check if this information is right. Otherwise, it’s not possible to access. Once everyone is verified and approved, it’s the moment to enter to the Exclusion Zone.
One thing that surprised me is that in the passport control area prior to access to thr Exclusion Zone, it can be found some souvenirs stores with merchansing about Chernobyl…
The abandoned village of Zalissya
After passing passport control, a few kilometres inside of the Exclusion Zone, the first stop was Zalissya. It was one of the most distant villages from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. It was the first village to be abandoned after the accident in May 1986.
Zalissya village is the first contact with the feeling of emptiness and abandonment. All you can hear is the dispute between the silence and the deafening sound of the wind hitting the trees’ leaves. The forest is advancing slowly and engulfing what finds on its way. Abandoned homes in the area can feel the pass of time and nature, while belongings are littered chaotically around, waiting for a return that never will happen.
Second stop. The remains of the village of Kopachi are located about 7Km kilometres at the South of the Chernobyl reactor. As a result of its proximity to the disaster area, it was seriously contaminated. The area of Kopachi was used as a decontamination area in the months after the disaster. When all inhabitants were evacuated, wooden houses were torn down and the remains of the buildings, with the contaminated topsoil, were buried.
The Kindergarten and other building are the only architectural structures that remain standing. The soil in the area is highly contaminated and it’s prohibited stepping out of the indicated. The Geiger Counter starts detecting radiation and emitting a sound more and more persistently. Walking in direction to the Kindergarten building, the dosimeter was showing a value of 0,92 µSv. If the device is put closer to the contaminated soil, it displayed values close to 30 µSv.
The Kindergarten is like a scenario of a horror movie. Dusty, dark and silent. I covered my face with a scarf just in case, to avoid breathing directly particles that might be in the air. Walking through the rooms, you transport yourself to the past and can imagine how it was on a normal day, with scattered toys, drawings and children playing around. Then, you transport back to the desolate and cold feeling of the abandoned place.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
To stand in front of this place was quite impacting. As you might know, at 1:23 AM on 26th April 1986, in right here exploded the reactor 4. The explosion left the core of the reactor exposed and releasing radioactive contaminants. Today the reactor 4 is covered by the New Safe Confinement (NSC), an enormous metallic arch-shaped structure to confine the radioactive contaminants with a durability of 100 years.
The Ukranian government held an international competition for proposals to find a solution. The NSC was the winning proposal, a new structure that replaced the sarcophagus (the old previous structure). The amount of engineering behind it is incredible. It was chosen because the assembly process was advantageous and the distance between the reactor and workers, minimized their exposure to radiation, therefore greater safety.
Today in front of the Chernobyl Power Plant there is a monument that commemorates all those who lost their lives as a result of the disaster.
The red forest
On the way to Pripyat, the bus stopped in the “Red Forest”. The name comes from the reddish-brown colour that the pine trees got after absorbing high levels of radiation. In the post-disaster clean up the red forest was bulldozed and buried. The area today remains one of the most contaminated in the world.
At the moment of getting off the bus, the Geiger Counter started to detect radiation in the environment. When bringing the instrument closer to the soil, the sound intensified and the radiation number increased up to 2.900 µSv (0,0029 mSv), the highest detected during the tour. Measuring the contaminated soil at the Red Forest area, value given at that moment was 2.944 µSv.
At this point, it can be read “Припятв 1970” the name of Pripyat in Russian, and the year of its foundation, 1970.
It was one of the most expected places to see in the Exclusion Zone. The bus moved slowly in the very poor condition of the main street. The trees’ roots have cracked it, making somewhat difficult to access to the town. The road looks narrower of what actually is, being suffocated by a leafy and wild forest. Suddenly we arrived at Pripyat’s city centre and in that moment I was travelled to the past: The Soviet Union’s hammer and sickles still can be seen frozen in time.
Pripyat was the most affected town after the nuclear accident, since it’s the closest from the Power Plant. The scenery is dismal, wildness and be seen how nature claims its posetion against man-made things. Roots coming underground breaking the concrete paths, trees flourishing inside of the buildings and nature covering everything.
The silence is almost uncomfortable, interrupted by some broken glass I didn’t want to step in. The lack of soul product of abandonment provokes an obscure feeling.
Our group walked around the area, like if it was an adventure in the jungle, spotting little by little some buildings like a supermarket, a The Hotel Polissya, the Pripyat city hall building and the amusement park.
The amusement park is probably the most famous spot of Pripyat. However, it was never inaugurated. The whole city was preparing for the celebrations for Labor’s day on the 1st of May, but these plans were cancelled on 26th April 1986. Still can be seen around the town some Soviet propaganda posters.
Once we finished our excursion in Pripyat, it was time to come back to Kiev, but not yet without stopping for a moment in the town of Chernobyl. Although we didn’t have enough time to walk around the town, it was quite an interesting visit.
Here it’s interesting to see some of the robots used in the cleaning work post accident. One of them is featured in the Chernobyl mini-series, called STR-1 the “lunar robot” (in the picture below, at the right side, the white robot is it). On the other hand, the frustrated “Joker” robot that was sent by Germans to clean the roof of the reactor 4’s building is not here.
Also here it’s the Monument to the heroes of Chernobyl, erected in front of the fire station at Chernobyl town. It’s a homage to all those who collaborated to control the catastrophe and highlighting the tragic victims of the accident: the firemen and the brave men that volunteered to dive under the reactor and release a critical pressure valve that could cause a second catastrophic explosion.
And if you thought that the Chernobyl town is deserted, that’s not true. There is a hotel, a bar, a post office, a supermarket and even a museum, which is never open. There are people that work in the Exclusion Zone and have a strict rotation of 15 days in the zone and 15 days out, to keep the radiation levels at the minimum. In this place also there is a strict curfew at 8 PM.
There are radiation controls in every checkpoint. I remember I passed for these controls at the moment of going to have lunch in a canteen and at the time of leaving the Exclusion Zone. We had to step in front of the screening sensors and check if the radiation levels are ok. If the levels are too high, clothes and boots might need to be left behind. Never someone has resulted contaminated by radiation visiting Chernobyl, even some ‘special’ one that once lied down on the ground… but just had to dispose of his clothes and shoes.
Bonus Track: The Duga-3 Radar
If the Kindergarten in Kopachi, or the town of Pripyat are creepy, the Duga-3 Radar is not far behind. I left it for the end because it was one of the most impressive things. This massive engineering structure was one of the most secretive things of the Soviet Union.
In times of the Cold War, the 150m high x 500m long structure was pointing in the direction of the United States, detecting any incoming ballistic missiles or planes. The system was called “over-the-horizon (OTH) radar system” since it could detect ballistic missile launched from the other side of the world.
Recommendations before to go to
- Make sure of providing the right information at the moment of booking the tour, otherwise, it won’t be possible to enter to the Exclusion Zone (all personal data and passport number)
- Don’t forget your passport the day of the tour.
- Take the right clothes, long sleeves shirts, trousers and closed shoes.
- Make sure to take a scarf with you to cover your face when visiting closed spaces.
- Take mosquito repellent if you go between May and October.
- Take an umbrella if weather conditions predict rain.
- Follow safety instructions. Don’t touch anything in the Exclusion Zone and don’t sit either in not indicated areas.
- Avoid taking silly pictures in places where occurred the accident. Show respect.
Chernobyl is a visit totally recommended. It goes away from the usual and seeing it with your own eyes makes the difference. I went there at the end of the summer and got a shiny day. Most of the scenery was covered by leafy trees that don’t let to see further away. Chernobyl shows a different face depending on the season of the year. But now the question is, would you dare to visit it? and in what season of the year would you go?
See you in the next one!