Good question. Not easy to answer. Couldn’t resist the title though.
Seriously though…Although the main reason for going to Kiev was the SF convention Chernobyl was close. About as far from Kiev as London is from Portsmouth. Within easy reach. I’m not only into science fiction but have a lust for adventure. The adventure is fueled partially by natural curiosity and by my inability to lead a ‘normal’ life, so having a ‘regimental history’ of adventures I might as well make the most of the adventurous side of my nature and experiences while I’m still able. Chernobyl poses an obvious adventure; but it’s also a unique environment appealing to those into science fiction. Another reason for going. In 1986 I’d just began working on an atlas where all the maps were the same scale, when there was a science fiction doomsday scenario for real at Chernobyl. The maps helped me understand the scale of what was happening there: had it happened in England half the country would have been rendered uninhabitable! Russia or the Ukraine had more of the kind of space needed to cope with that kind of event; though those living there could hardly have thought so.
Despite all that it was now feasible to go there if still dangerous: people in organised groups had been going for some time.
So Chernobyl was what our trip today was all about. Getting to the rendevous point went flawlessly. Up early with an early breakfast. A trouble free journey into the city centre and arrival ahead of schedule thanks to the subway short cut I’d found last night and the rest of the route being well reconnoitred. One advantage of old age is that although one’s not so physically able one’s experience can lead to better organisational skills.
So we’d done all we could and were sporting the notice with my name on it sitting on a bench by the defunct tourist information kiosk. Now was it going to be a no show?
A girl approached. We had the link up! She was the girl I’d been corresponding with by email and had noticed my name on our notice. Our transport was waiting up a back street. Jocelyn asked why was tourist information closed? The answer was that all tourist information points in Kiev were closed and not because it was a public holiday. A strange situation brought about probably by budget related reasons or maybe because it was that time of year.
I was expecting a minibus or 4 wheel drive but transport to my surprise turned out to be a private car, because our party was small. Jocelyn and I sat in the back while the only other participant sat with the young driver. He was a young Canadian, had a Korean girlfriend and had turned up at the last moment from Moscow.
We drove north through outlying muddy villages and into open country with more forest the further one went. The skies were cloudy with an occasional lighter patch allowing weak sunlight; in contrast to yesterday. The weather seemed to catch the mood of each day’s adventure. It looked more like November than Spring. The car had to avoid the odd flood from melting snow and occasional potholes in the road. Moscow was worse apparently.
I was adventurous enough to get into hazardous places but took what precautions I could while there, following the advice about wearing substantial clothing by donning not just my boots, parka and woolly hat but even mittens which I wasn’t going to remove even for photography. Airborne radiation wasn’t a problem, there being less of it where we were going than there is at 30,000 feet in an aircraft, unless one was sticking around for much longer than a day in some parts. No the danger came from ground particles. For that reason it was not a good idea to walk through vegetation or put anything on the ground and pick it up again. “This is a hazardous operation” I’d told Jocelyn. Maybe it really was and anyway it sounded good! It hadn’t put her off though and she was fatalistic about it saying that when her number was up it was up. She was the average between my caution and the Canadian who would be the group nutter. He would be taking needless risks in the zone and after jabbering away to the driver on the journey up there he wouldn’t listen to the driver’s warning about flourishing his camera at a checkpoint. I’d learned as long ago as Africa that to do that with anything official outside western Europe was courting trouble and became afraid he was about to f**k up the expedition before it got properly going!
Luckily none of the army or police here took offence and we met the guide: a bald headed guy with earings and camouflaged trousers.
The danger zone has been or is known as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation, or the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the 30 Kilometre Zone and just ‘The Zone.’ The most reliable guide is a map I found on the internet which looks like the same one used in the University Lecture I attended on the subject.
It’s a map of radioactivity mirroring the fallout I saw at the University lecture. It displays the distribution of the most deadly particles – Cesium-137 – in 4 zones: red patches on the map being closed or lethal zones, dark pink permanent control zones, light pink the periodic control zone, and light brown the ‘unnamed zone,’ which extended a broad tongue south down the Dneiper River to just 10 miles north of Kiev.
It taught me how important wind direction and rain can be in any sort of nuclear disaster. The country at Chernobyl Power Station and to the north was uninhabitable but further north was a semi habitable zone. Then there was another dumping ground of radioactive contamination in the Gomel region further north still, rendering country north of that town uninhabitable again.
Kiev in fact was very lucky for it’s slightly closer to Chernobyl power station than Gomel. So had weather conditions been different what was the Soviet Union’s third city might have been rendered a citywide version of Pripyat, the closest town to the power station. A dead abandoned ghost town to this day!
A white brick erection with a bas relief of the power station and blue Cyrillic lettering topped by an atom announced Chernobyl itself. The thing to remember about the geography of the Chernobyl region is that the town or large village of Chernobyl is south of the southern end of a man made lake whereas the power station of Chernobyl is about 10 miles away at the northern end, along with Pripyat a few miles further. I have my doubts about the habitability of Chernobyl town because the map showed radiation seriously increasing here, marked by checkpoints in and around the town where roads crossed into the zones mentioned. There were some people around though so although it was evacuated when the disaster occurred it seemed to be just about habitable for those who chose to be here now.
Chernobyl looked a little strange with pipes here and there constructed gantry fashion up and over the road. That was because ground radiation was already serious enough to make laying them underground or drinking water from them there a dodgy proposition. The place was predictably quiet and unkempt too, with plenty of bare trees showing little evidence of spring around detached buildings, residential and otherwise, spacious but none of the more substantial sort usually forming town centres. At least where we went. It turned out there was plenty to see here.
A building with a symbolic mural on two adjoining walls: an exploding view of red reactor cores, fuel rods and – surprisingly – birds. A favourite spot to have ones photo taken.
A graveyard of crosses bearing names of villages abandoned in the nuclear disaster. More a field of them actually.
A memorial where I promptly removed my hat when I learned what it and the sculpted statues in the throes of action below were about: those emergency firemen and workers who sacrificed their lives through lethal doses of radiation while bringing the catastrophe under control. Had they not done so places like Kiev might have suffered the same fate as Pripyat. Life over much of Europe might have become more problematical too. The thought of firemen being involved made me think of 9/11. Totally different circumstances: same result for the firemen.
A vehicle park of irradiated armoured personnel carriers and remote control vehicles. Safe enough to view at a distance. The remote control vehicles sported red and yellow colouring that reminded me of Tonka Toys. Even the remote control robotic vehicles though were affected by radiation where it was high enough; their electronics were fried by it.
A dog wandering around aimlessly without any apparent control. Notable because we saw various solitary dogs doing likewise throughout the day. It was a clue as to the state of the wildlife in this region. Animals seemed to flourish here. Radioactive dogs or otherwise. What a damming indictment of mankind! Despite the nuclear disaster affecting animals as much as us it was of benefit to them compared to country under the control of homo sapiens.
We were scanned at Chernobyl town in a large bare room with a contraption that looked like several metallic phone booths lined end to end without doors. You stepped up into one of them, put your hands on pads and readings were taken.
Just before this adventure I’d come across a book in Gosport listing places in the world one would never visit. Chernobyl and its ‘zone’ was one and now we were heading into ‘The Zone’ up a broad empty road straight into dangerous pine forest and wilderness. There’s a Russian SF novel called ‘Roadside Picnic’ in which there’s an abandoned ‘zone’ of dereliction and unseen dangers created by aliens leaving artifacts: some beneficial, some deadly, but all incomprehensible. It captured imagination to the extent that a film called ‘Stalker’ was derived from it, computer games too. This was the closest we would get on this planet to that fantasy: a derelict zone of unseen dangers left by something awesome and not always easy to understand.
Now we were playing the part of the adventurers, guides and outlaws in Roadside Picnic who entered the zone at their own risk. The guide tried to point out an abandoned village. We were hard put to it to make out the shapes of what had been small buildings, peoples former homes amidst deciduous thickets by the road. Must be one of those graveyard villages at Chernobyl town. Completely overgrown. There were tales of criminals chosing The Zone as a refuge and probably living in places like that since few if any would dare follow them in.
Not far from Chernobyl Power Station was a kindergarten. The building itself wasn’t overgrown and although colours had become close to monotone with the bare vegetation and grey skies the kindergarten could be made out clearly from the road. There was a statue at its roadside entrance of a young man with helmet in hand. A memorial to World War 2 in Russia it could have been one to the disaster that had ended the purpose of this place half a century later.
The guide took a reading of ground radiation with a handheld dosimeter about the size of a smallish torch. Airborne it was something like .14 microsieverts. On the ground it was 24. A lot of snow still lay around under the trees – which were growing in most places – and the guide demonstrated by further readings what an effective shield snow was against ground radiation. Let’s test this I thought, managing to get the guide to take further readings of snow with brown spots of dirt. No increase at all. Then I picked the filthiest pile of slush I could see that could still barely be called ice. Must be real radioactivity there but there was only a small increase! Effective shield indeed and a valuable lesson in a place like this. It determined where I would walk through much of this adventure.
A radioactive sign was in front of the kindergarten. To venture inside was to do so at ones risk, the Canadian did anyway.
Not much further we came to Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station itself. Pylons proliferated like a weird stark forest over the trees. Water stretched in a wide moat down the right hand side of the road, between us and 2 cooling towers, an icon of power stations; but one was only partially built. Another partially built structure beyond the moat were number 5 and 6 Reactors; still bristling with cranes but abandoned since the 1986 disaster. The reddish rusty hues of the central blocks suggested radiation scarred surfaces and unseen dangers made visible.
There was a curve in the moat and number 4 reactor was before us, instead of on the news footage everyone had so often seen. The double steel latticed ventilation chimney, the hump of the building with its concrete sarcophagus. That word gave a sinister religious feel to the place. Cathedral of doom might be one way of describing it.
The closest point we could get to the reactor was round the other side. On our way there was a sight no less amazing and more bizarre. A line of old people – women I think – sweeping the road in front of us free of dust. Maybe it was loess but I couldn’t imagine a more dangerous thing to do here! This never ending job looked absurd but there was some logic linked in with the age of these people. Life expectancy is shorter here and older people had stayed in affected villages when others had fled, not only because it was what they were used to but because there was not much of life left for them anyway.
Number 4 reactor was half of the whole lengthy building. Number 3 was the other half; a mirror design of number 4. At 1.23 am. on April 16th 1986 an experiment led to a catastrophic power increase, explosions and fires of a ‘Roman Candle’ fashion according to one account! The result was the release of radioactive fuel and core materials such as caesium-137, iodine-131 and strontium-90 into the atmosphere.
Now it had spawned 2 new things in its interior; where radiation levels were estimated to be as high as 10,000 rontgens per hour. 500 over 5 hours is a fatal dose.
The core material had melted into a glassy crystalline lava breaking through concrete in formations such as ‘The Elephants Foot.’ Highly radioactive with uranium and fission products and previously unknown it had become known as ‘Chernobylite.’
A melanin rich ‘radiotropic’ fungi had been observed too. How it had come about and what those with imagination might think it would evolve into were the stuff of science fiction.
The viewing point was 300 metres from the reactor, marked by a stark sculpture of hands cupping the reactor and a lightning bolt. Now it was closer to us than my neighbourhood community centre. Airborne radiation was higher here – 9.574 microseiverts – though much less than that shown on the ground at the kindergarten. We could only point our cameras at this and the reactor, not at the new sarcophagus or ‘safe confinement’ under construction nearby. Like a colossal broad steel arch it was nearly 350 feet high, over 800 feet across and 492 feet from side to side. It was necessary to slide this over no. 4 reactor on parallel railway tracks then wall it up because in 2013 some of the sarcophagus already erected had collapsed. There could be more of this – along with radioactive dust being released – at any time. Such as when we were there.
We had our photos taken. Jocelyn in a playful mood pointed at my head and I did likewise. I felt she had our SF group in mind. At some point we discussed ways of freaking out the guy who ran it. Behaving in a strange diseased fashion was one idea. Another I had was buying a packet of Ukrainian crisps as a gift and trying to con him I’d bought it at Chernobyl. I think the person we annoyed though was a fellow who claimed we were mad, probably because he would always pooh pooh or gainsay any adventure or achievement. He had to resort to sour grapes this time because once he was up against the worlds worst nuclear accident he had ‘absolutely no chance.’
While all this was going on workers strolled past, just as though this was any ordinary power station. Like the ladies sweeping dust on the road the juxtaposition in this zone of lack of concern with the horrific need for that was surreal.
Another example of that was the railway nearby that was still operational. The workers used it.
And again at a crossroads between the power station and Pripyat where an anvil shaped monument flattened into a half arrow gave the name and pointed the way to that town. Along with ‘1970’ and flowers underneath, laid as they are on a grave. In the distance was a pole shaped construction down a road through heath and forest. It looked like a warning for the guide told me one could pick up as much radiation there in an hour as one would normally in a year. Must be one of those red lethal zones in that direction anyway. Just after I was told this a car happily sped across the crossroads and down that road!
Whether what I’d been told was true or whether it was heading into death or not radiation levels in the Red Forest can be as high as one Roentgen per hour; or 10,000 microseiverts per hour. The Red Forest was down that road. So named because it had taken so much radiation when the disaster happened that the trees turned red! It was a place I’d been interested in. Most SF tales of radiation mutations concentrate on giant dangerous animals but a few described plants as well. I’d heard rumours of dandelion leaves a metre long at 3 Mile Island and ‘The Forest of Miracles’ at Chernobyl; where conifers grew weird branching patterns and oak leaves grew to eighteen inches across! All rumours and nothing more though it seemed. My research has come up with nothing on that since. The closest I’ve seen to that is a picture of a sunflower on Google where the dark circular centre is elongated so it looks like a huge furry caterpillar.
Never mind. Maybe there were no 2 headed monsters or monsters period. There were plenty of wild boar, wolves and sizeable wildlife in these parts, some with deformities. Maybe there were no vegetable monstrosities but there were many random areas of forest and deserted landscape where the radiation could still kill one.
Pripyat was about a mile across which is the length of the estate I live in. It was a modern town built in 1970 for the power station workers. Self contained to the point of having its own amusement park. In 1986 the population there was 49,000.
Within a few hours of the explosion, dozens of people fell ill. Later, they reported severe headaches and metallic tastes in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting.
At 2pm April 17th the evacuation of Pripyat began with the following announcement:
For the attention of the residents of Pripyat!
The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.
‘Short term’ proved to be for however long the radioactive particles there would last for. Pripyat has been abandoned since and became an uncontrolled experiment showing what one possible future of mankind would look like; if nuclear radiation or fatal disease crashed the population of mankind so that most if not all of the planet would be abandoned. It was like time travelling to a post holocaust world.
Or to where 2 parallel worlds had met in the same place: a forest with a city. In 26 years deciduous trees had had the time to grow from seedlings to saplings verging on mature woodland. Pripyat’s broad boulevards flanked by modern apartment blocks had become tracks through gloomy woodland thickets flanked by the grey shells of those apartment blocks. That was our entrance to the town. Spooky.
A ground radiation reading here showed 68.54 microseiverts. It seemed unwise to stay here for longer than a day. There was plenty of snow lying around which I made use of while exploring Pripyat, hoping there were no hidden holes where I was walking and watching my step. This wasn’t a good place to fall over.
It was supposed to be unsafe to venture into buildings here because they’d been abandoned long enough to become structurally unstable. There were also also spattering waterfalls in and off the buildings here and there caused by melting snow, perhaps picking up dangerous particles on the way down.
That didn’t stop the Canadian inspecting what remained of a supermarket. Easy to enter because the glass front had gone. Later he did the same with part of a theatre exposed to the outside, where there were big paintings of Soviet leaders including a stylised one of Lenin, strangely well preserved. Could have been stage managed for tourists we concluded.
He also had his photo taken sitting in one of the carousel rides at the amusement park. Metal can hold radiation quite well apparently since there’s more than one vehicle park around Chernobyl of ‘hot’ vehicles. Elsewhere the dodgem cars retained much of their colour, as did the orange yellow carriages on the big wheel; standing out from sombre hues of woodland and sky in much the same way as that child in red in Schindlers List contrasted starkly with the black and white and often brutal surroundings of the film.
The guide took us to the football field. Not recognisable as such because of the wood growing there. The give away was on the far side. Seating structures and a stadium which could be made out between the tree trunks and their bare branches. In summer that would be hidden.
After the stadium was a school, then a leisure centre. We learned that one bizarre example of cold war paranoia was within the school: a floor full of abandoned gas masks issued to the children. When one’s in that paranoia the state of fear on the other side is the first thing that’s overlooked. The manifestation of this within the school reminds me of one of ‘Sting’s’ tracks called ‘Russians’ which put this sort of thing exceptionally well.
“We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology
Believe me when I say to you
I hope the Russians love their children too.”
Seems they did, enough to provide each child here with this evidence of misguided protection.
Back where we started a tower block topped by a metal rosette design overlooked the natural reclamation of man’s desolation, despite it being nuclear. It had been neon lit when this town was young with a ‘glowing’ future and centred on a blue circle indicating our world, which featured the hammer and sickle icon of what was now the old Soviet Union. So potent politically when I was young. It was history now. Now it looked like ideological folly; up there on top of a block darkened by the sun failing to break through an unhealthy looking post holocaust sky of mottled clouds.
Words are inadequate to describe everything I found here so I’m ending our experience of Pripyat with a comment from the guide. He preferred this place to Kiev. I felt it was stretching a rural idyll opposed to a big city too far. But then I don’t live in this land.
Back out of this holocaust town, past the crossroads to catastrophe, past the gantries near the railway station towering over us like the giant insects of science fiction mutant monsters, past no. 4 reactor, cathedral of doom with its everyday workers, past where the sweeping women were engaged in what must be the most hopeless tidying up job ever! Back along the moat past the relics of unfinished reactors and forest of pylons and then back down the road through ‘The Zone’ to Chernobyl town. Where the telephone booths awaited one with their verdict, like a scientific judgement.
That brought it home to me. What would happen if the alarm sounded and would I live a normal life from then on?…………..
Then there was a meal inside a workers cafeteria. One was advised against eating anything outside.
It was mostly salad. I hoped it hadn’t been grown locally.
Aisles of dark forest, huge plain sized fields and dodging potholes. That was the journey back to Kiev. Nothing else to report. Apart from one young lady waiting at what might have been a bus stop in the middle of nowhere on a mobile phone in a shiny designer brown suit who looked very cheerful. Jocelyn and I wondered what the story there was? ‘Professional’ perhaps?
To lighten the tedium of the rest of the journey here are a few Chernobyl jokes:
An old woman stands in the market with a “Chernobyl mushrooms for sale” sign. A man goes up to her and asks, “Hey, what are you doing? Who’s going to buy Chernobyl mushrooms?” And she tells him, “Why, lots of people. Some for their boss, others for their mother-in-law…”
A grandson asks his grandfather: “Grandpa, is it true that in 1986 there was an accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant?” “Yes, there was.” — answered the Grandpa and patted the grandson’s head. “Grandpa, is it true that it had absolutely no consequences?” “Yes, absolutely” — answered the Grandpa and patted the grandson’s second head. (Often added “And they strolled off together, wagging their tails”).
A Soviet newspaper reports: “Last night the Chernobyl Nuclear Powerstation fulfilled the Five Year Plan of heat energy generation in 4 microseconds.”
“Is it true, that you may eat meat from Chernobyl?” – “Yes, you may. But your feces would need to be buried in concrete 5 ft deep in the earth.”
In a village just north of Kiev we caught up with civilisation and rush hour traffic while cats eyed us from the top of a wall.
One aspect of civilisation in Kiev itself was cars being allowed to drive on the pavement, although slowly. We did this and then the driver left for awhile with the Canadian while Jocelyn and I waited in the car, despite our destination being just down the street.
Eventually it was goodbye to the driver too and back to the hotel.
Where I carried out my own decontamination procedure. Off and into bags with everything including the parka, a thorough shower for myself, put boots in shower clear of mat with soles facing other way from me, detach shower head and holding it close put it on maximum pressure to spray blast the boot soles while avoiding spray, do likewise with anything that comes off the soles washing anything that does down the hole, then lastly take bags and boots down to hotel washing and get the lot done! Yes, even and especially the boots.
It’s the only way to be sure. It made me feel better anyway.
© D. Angus 06 13
ILDING BLUES: Chernobyl in the Springtime.