Time-warp : A visit to Chernobyl

A little over a month removed from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster’s 30-year anniversary, here is a post giving a bit of information on the infamous Chernobyl nuclear reactor #4 accident, the massive radiation exposure that ensued (with some remaining to this day), and how to go about visiting this very special town that seems to have been frozen in time.

Cherno sign

The accident

For those interested in learning about the accident, I invite you to consult the World Nuclear Association’s account of the tragedy. I also encourage you to watch this short documentary that sheds light on the often-overlooked aspect of cleaning and decontaminating the most dangerous areas of the power plant’s roof after the explosion. All in all, more than a quarter of a million ‘liquidators’ (this word originating from the Russian  word  ‘likvidator’, meaning ‘to eliminate the consequences of an accident’) from all over the USSR worked on reducing the effects of the accident, often exposing themselves to extremely high or even lethal doses of radiation.

An interesting thing about the Chernobyl accident is that it played a role in the fall of the Soviet empire. Indeed, the flawed design of the reactor at Chernobyl emanating from years of Cold-War isolation, inadequately trained and demobilized personnel at the power plant, and subsequent horrendous crisis management by then-president Gorbachev (it took him a full three weeks to address the public officially), really highlighted the flaws of the regime. Ensued a significant move towards ‘glasnost’ (transparency) by the media, which opened the floodgates to political activism and dissent.

Nowadays, the two main towns near the power plant, Chernobyl and Pripyat, are mostly uninhabited. However, a French consortium is building at the reactor site a ‘New Safe Confinement’ (pictured below), a structure intended to prevent the nuclear complex from leaking radioactive material. That will also allow for partial demolition of the old structure that was built in haste in 1986 following the accident.

How radioactive is Chernobyl nowadays ?

Alright, before calling me crazy for visiting Chernobyl and Pripyat, let me give you a little information on radioactivity, its measure, and on what constitutes a dangerous and/or potentially lethal dose.

First, radioactivity is everywhere: naturally in the environment, in the food we eat, in airplanes, CT scans, etc. That in itself is not problematic; it’s repeated or severe exposure to radiation that can have hazardous repercussions on one’s health. The way to measure the dose of radiation received is with the Sievert scale. The lowest annual dose at which higher probabilities of cancer are clearly evident is around 100 millisievert (1 mSv = 1 thousandth of a Sievert), whereas the recommended maximal annual dose is around 200 mSv. A potentially lethal dose would be roughly 5 Sieverts, or 5,000 mSV. To show the magnitude of the danger after the reactor explosion, the dosage of radiation near the reactor core was around 300 Sieverts per hour!

The severity of radiation near the Chernobyl power plant is however generally very low nowadays. The radiation measurement device we had with us at all times varied between 0.1 millionth of a Sievert per hour to rare occurrences of up to 30 millionths of a Sievert. The natural radiation we are exposed to annually, for example, stands at about 2 thousandths of a Sievert. That means we would need to stay more than 66 hours at the most radioactive locations to get the same exposure.

The little 6 hour trip inside the exclusion zone should therefore not worry you at all.

Logistics of getting there

Now that you are convinced that it is safe and worth it to visit Pripyat and Chernobyl, let’s go through the logistics.

First of all, you cannot go there by your own means – you must go through a tour operator. Expect to pay about 100$ US for the day, with a (non-radioactive!) lunch included. The day tours typical depart from Kiev (near Independence square) in the early morning and return at around 6 PM. The drive time is about 2 hours each way, with a couple of stops: one at the 30 km checkpoint, and another at the 10 km line.

It’s important to note that they require you to wear long sleeves and long pants, so make sure to dress accordingly!

Tour highlights

You can see a detailed itinerary of a Chernobyl and Pripyat tour here. Solo East, the company we booked with, was an overall decent tour operator. However, do not expect luxury! The bus was extremely old with reeeally limited leg room (the bus made a RyanAir flight seat look spacious!), and the food below average at best.

But the sights are quite spectacular and are worth the visit; you really have the impression that these two towns (Chernobyl and Pripyat) have been frozen in time, with completely deserted schools, houses, buildings and parks all being reclaimed by nature.

Cherno bumper cars

I had the feeling, however, that certain aspects of the tour were manufactured for tourists. For example, the tour of the school had seemingly well-placed oxygen masks, dolls missing an arm and a leg, a pair of child shoes with one of them missing, etc. They made for great pictures, but I seriously question their authenticity (see here-under the only one I halfheartedly took!).

Cherno doll

Conclusion

So all in all, I recommend this tour for anyone that wants to learn more about the Chernobyl accident and the profound impact it had on the world. You’ll also get to see firsthand how two seemingly bustling 1980s Ukrainian towns became virtually uninhabitable overnight due to man-made decisions and errors.

Do not hesitate to share your comments or questions !

Adventurously yours,

Jason

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