Visit to Chernobyl

The new academic year, and my last of studying Engineering in Cambridge, is now in full swing. I am starting to work on my master´s project in the Whittle Laboratory, one of the most renowned labs in the world for turbomachinery. Along this, I still have a number of lectures and subjects, with their own related projects. This will be a very action-packed year, and I will definitely concentrate on all its ongoings in my future articles. In this one, however, I decided to reflect on a very strong experience from my summer – visiting the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine. In fact, I got a grant from my university to undertake this trip – the colleges support travel that is somehow related with the students degree.

I have been interested in the events of Chernobyl nuclear disaster for many years – watching documents and reading books not only about the technical, but also social aspects. As a person from a former communist country, I could imagine all the cover-ups that followed, and also the horrendous conditions that the “liquidators” must have faced. It was both my curiosity and the will to pay respect to these people, that made me want to visit the place – especially as it would be almost unimaginable after the accident that anyone could ever visit the proximity of the powerplant again in a safe manner. Finally, this summer I got the time and opportunity to realise this trip.

As I mentioned in my last article before summer, I also spent a couple of weeks in a local Ukrainian school, helping kids with their English, Maths and organising some summer activities as a volunteer. I lived with a local family, which was a great experience, and I am still in deep contact with them. After this, I moved to Kiev, and was lucky to come there on the day of the Ukrainian Independence and catch most of the parade on the Chreshchatyk prospect.

The next day in the early morning, my Chernobyl “expedition” began. We drove by bus from Kiev to the first checkpoint of the exclusion zone, called Dytiatky. Some of us, including myself, received Geiger counters, and we were checked for our identity. We then proceded to visit the abandoned Zalissya village. This is one of the few places in the exclusion zone where people are allowed to walk inside buildings, and thus we could see the house interiors “frozen” in the Soviet era, with Soviet newspapers and pictures everywhere. At this point, the dosimeter was still showing quite normal values of radiation. Afterwards, we drove on past another, inner checkpoint called Leliv into Kopachi village, from which the only building that remains is the kindergarden. Other builddings here were demolished by the Soviet authorities in an attempt to judge whether destroying buildings helps or worsens the radiation situation. Of course it was the latter, as the dust, which was released into the air during this procedure, contained huge amounts of radioactivity.

The kindergarden was kept open for some 10 days after the reactor explosion, as at first it was only the city of Pripyat that was evacuated (and even that took 2 days after the explosion) – the Soviets were trying to protect their reputation by “playing down” the incident. This meant that many of the children, who visited the highly contaminated kindergarden after the accident, have developed various forms of cancer in the oncoming years and many of them died as a result. The radiation nowadays inside is still much higher than usual background, but not alarming, either. However, there are certain locations, called hotspots, which contain some radioactive particles, and it is possible to measure the presence of these on the Geiger counters, as the numbers indicated rocket upward.

After the visit to the kindergarden, we continued past a so-called Red forest, which was directly downwind of the power plant at the time of the incident, and remains highly contaminated even these days. There was a natural fire in the Red forest the year before, and this was a severe health concern as lots of radioactive dust and particles were released to the air as a result and blown away from the exclusion zone.

Then we arrived at the Pripyat town. This had about 50 000 of inhabitants before the disaster, and many of them were employees of the power plant. This city is definitely frozen in time, with the prefabricated apartment blocks being decorated by red stars, hammers and sickels etc. We visited all the famous sights, including the playground, the swimming pool, the supermarket, or the hotel where Valery Legasov, the main hero of the Chernobyl HBO series, was accomodated during the investigation. The most stunning sight for me was the ferris wheel, which was supposed to be opened on the 1st May holiday of 1986 (the accidennt happened on 26th April of that year). It was temporarily set running after the accident to gather the concentration of people and get their attention off the nuclear power plant uncertainty. It is not braked in any way, so if the wind blows into it, one can see the truly apocalyptic view of a ferris wheel spinning on its own with a scary grinding noise.

Afterwards, we moved on to see the actual power plant. The reactor 4, which exploded, is now completely covered under a steel arch, which prevents radiation and also radioactive material from escaping. This is the largest movable arch in the world – it was constructed next to the reactor and then moved on rails onto the top of it. Since it was built, the background radiation in the Chernobyl area has decreased by about 3 times. We could also see clearly reactor 3, of the same construction, and then reactors 1 and 2 of slightly different construction. Furthermore, we learnt about the ways how the nuclear waste is handled and how the current infrastructure around the power plant serves to help further diminish the consequences of the meltdown.

After enjoying a lunch at the local workers canteen with borsch and other traditional Ukrainian food, we passed the half-built reactors 5 and 6 and their cooling towers, also not finished and surrounded by the original cranes from the time of the disaster. The next location we visited was the huge radar Duga-1, which was supposed to warn the Soviet Union about rockets targeted on them from the United States. This was placed close to the power plant due to its high energy demand. However, it never served its desired purpose. When the Soviets discovered that a low-frequency construction, 700m long and 150m tall, does not work as they expected, they added a 300m long section of high-frequency transmitter, but as it was, that did not work either.

The last place we visited was the town of Chernobyl, which is actually much further away from the power plant than Pripyat. The Chernobyl town is still inhabited by people who work on 15-day shifts around the power plant to help with further removal of the nuclear waste and engineering solutions to the problems it brings. There is also a large memorial for the incredibly brave fire fighters and other so-called liquidators, who helped to prevent the meltdown from becoming a much larger ecological catastrophy. This was the symbolical place to end the tour by paying tribute to them.

These days, the Chernobyl area is actually quite crowded with tourists. Unfortunately, not so many of them come from genuine interest, for many of them it is just a place for a cool selfie. Thus, the area no longer resembles that “ghost place”, as it appeared to be in various films and documentaries. Nevertheless, the feeling that it gives you to stand so close to the location of one of the most crucial events of the modern European history, and to see the abandoned houses and places frozen in time, is still very strong.

Návštěva Černobylu
Návštěva Černobylu
Návštěva Černobylu

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