Chernobyl – visiting Ground Zero
April 26th, 1986 at 1:23am the worst nuclear accident in history happened. After the execution of a routine test of the reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (Чорнобильська атомна електростанція) exploded. Located just 110 km north of the Ukrainian (which belonged to the USSR at the time) capital Kiev it consists of 6 blocks. Most workers lived in the nearby city of Prypjat.
The accident was caused by different main reasons. A flaw in the design of the reactor lead to the operators unknowingly putting it into an unstable state. On top of this the person in charge did apparently breach the regulations and operated the reactor outside of the specification. With the strong hierarchy kept in the control room, no one dared to interfere. This lead to a chain of events in which the reactor exploded and released significant amounts of radiation into the environment.
I was not even four years old when this happened. Yet, my parents made me aware of the situation. As to the extent possible to explain to a almost four year old what a nuclear power plant is, how it works and what radiation is. For me I concluded that atoms are the size of tiny holes in the newspaper my parents were reading and that the raw milk powder we had to use was delicious. As the fields were also contaminated because of the radioactive cloud that spread over Europe no fresh milk was consumed for some time after the disaster.
During the next years I did not care too much anymore about it, however in one of the famous German TV broadcasts for children “Die Sendung mit der Maus” nuclear power plants and the Chernobyl accidents were explained in a fashion that children could understand. It was until I had regular trips for project work to the Ukrainian capital Kiev and blog posts of people that travelled there, that slightly made me want to see that place as well.
For sure I was little scared and unclear about how this would be. Also I was not clear how dangerous it really is. For sure I learned that there is still a 30km exclusive zone around the power plant which is closed off. At the same time the levels and types of radiation differ. In general there are three types of radiation.
- alpha rays
- beta rays
- gamma rays
They can be put into two groups. Alpha and beta rays are so called particle rays. They consist of actual particles that are sent out during radioactive decay. They can be easily blocked by clothes. But can cause a bad damage if these particles belong into your body, for example when dust is swallowed. Gamma rays are ionizing radiation which cannot be blocked so easily as it passes through most materials and can only be blocked by thick layers of lead.
But to put things into perspective we are exposed to all kinds of radiation on a day to day basis. What matters is the equivalent dose that is absorbed by the body. This is measured in Sieverts. On the ground we typically receive a dose 0.1 micro Sieverts. But already in an airplane at 30.000 feet we received 40 times that dose. I measured this when I was on my way to Ukraine. Looking at this, the main danger comes from the alpha and beta particles. Especially dust. Obviously its forbidden to eat or drink anything found within the zone. So I concluded that a short trip should be fairly safe.
On September 6th, 2013 I sat in my plane to Kiev. On Sunday I had the trip scheduled. In the early morning I met the group near the now famous Maidan. We had a minibus with about 6 people in it and drove north. We were watching a film about the disaster while driving. After about 2 hours we came closer and passed the first checkpoint. There are actually two zones defined. A 30km zone in which still today people live. Mainly workers that are busy with the clean-up, shutdown activities as well as the workers that are building the new sarcophagus. Within the 30km zone people are allowed to live maximum 15 days. This is to limit the amount radiation they are exposed to.
Our guide explained the rationales for living there in his personal way. He said “Living in Chernobyl allows you to think about yourself and your life”. After passing the primary control zone the atmosphere in our group became suddenly a mix of excitement, fear and shudder. Everywhere signs or images painted on houses reminded us of the accident.
Only a bit later we entered the 5km zone. Here we entered a scary place, like from horror movies. When disaster struck, the kindergarten we visited was suddenly left. Still today you find the beds, the toys and other stuff lying around.
Outside the kindergarden is one of the many hotspots. A hotspot is a particular active source of radiation. With our geiger counters we could measure it. This is the reason why no one can live in the zone for longer. Everything around you is hazardous. Plants, moss, water – everything is or can be a source of extreme radiation.
After this first scary stop, we drove on. I was looking outside the window and got a glance on what was next. I have seen this chimney countless times in documentaries and pictures. Now I started to realize that I am now close to ground zero. To the place of the worst nuclear accident in history. We did two stops, one at a distance and another one just straight in front of the building. Maybe around 200m from the crippled reactor.
While the camera was recording I took a look at my geiger counter. It showed 10 micro Sieverts per hour. You don’t feel anything. But you know its there and its all around you. Close to the reactor there is a huge structure being built. A new sarcophagus is needed to cover the reactor. Its called NSC – new safe confinement. The current one is not safe enough. Built in a rush after the disaster by workers that were scarified for this job its condition has worsened over the years. Its being said that the NSC is the largest movable structure that has ever been built. In order to not expose the workers to the radiation of the reactor its built in a relatively safe distance. Once completed it will be moved on rails ove the reactor building. Its been funded not only by Ukraine, but also by other countries and the EU.
We were urged to leave. While we were driving away, the levels of radiation on our geiger counters significantly dropped. Next we were about to enter the city of Prypiat. In fact I missed the exact moment in which we entered the city. We were driving through a dense forest. Only after closely looking I realized that behind the trees there were the first houses of the city. Left in a rush after the accident, the city is a ghost town. Trees growing everywhere through the concrete. Windows smashed, doors broken. We were walking around in downtown. Memories of old times. A supermarket with the carts left in chaos and rubble.
One of the famous landmarks we reached after a short walk is the ferris wheel. All was set for a happy celebration. Until disaster came of the city. For me the city was one of the most exciting places to visit. At the same time it was hard to catch up with the group. Filmers just need time.
Our last stop was an old swimming pool in Prypiat. Signs of almost 40 years of decay were everywhere. Before we were able to leave the inner zone, we had to go through a radiation check point. It has to be ensured that no contaminated material is brought outside. Obviously I had concerns that I might have to leave my camera or tripod behind. Worst case would have been the memory card. A bit anxious I entered the device. However luckily I was able to go through without an issue.
After this place we went to a dinner outside the 5km zone. We were told that the food was brought from outside.
What followed was the long drive back to Kiev. It was a great trip and an exotic place to visit, to film and photograph.
Watch below my film I shot:
The tour was arranged through SoloEast.