Visit to Chernobyl

According to the media, the environmental organizations and the general public the area around the power plant of Chernobyl that burned down in 1986, will be impossible to live in for many hundreds of years. Nuclear experts are a lot less pessimistic. The Polish professor Zbigniew Jaworowski (1927-2011) calls the evacuation of 300.000 people even ‘nonsensical’ and the Ukrainian government has decided to make the larger part of the Forbidden Zone freely accessible in the near future because the radiation levels there are so low (more on that later). The fact that the Zone was already accessible for tourists since 2011 was an earlier indication of the fact that a visit to this area is harmless. For our video ‘Radiation in Hell and Radiation in Paradise’ we went there ourselves in april 2012, armed with professional radiation monitors.

When we arrive at the airport in Kiev we are welcomed by a nervously smoking young man who hastily tries to press us into a small van. He speaks hardly any English. We do not even have time to get some local currency, the ‘ Hryvna’ to pay for the guide and the hotel, which is annoying since we were supposed to pay on arrival. But the van stops a few kilometers away at a gas station on the highway. From another car appears another smoking person who says that he would like to be paid now. Here? Yes. The whole thing gives the impression of some mafia transaction, but the man has a portable ATM and shows some official papers so we fork over the Euros. Now the trip to the Forbidden Zone can begin.

We had booked for an excursion of 4 days to locations of our own choosing- including food and shelter. But during our long ride through the vast but thin Ukrainian forests we were told over the  phone that there would be no dinner this evening and that they also had no idea where we would sleep. We were too late. The Forbidden Zone, where our hotel is, closes at 7 PM and we wouldn’t be able to make that.

After some protesting a solution is apparently found. We are brought to what we perceive as a typical Ukrainian/Russian village where someone is building a small hotel. It isn’t ready by far and it has only 4 beds. We are 5 people, so 2 men will have to share a double bed. It is also our first taste of Ukrainian cuisine which isn’t exactly encouraging. The rest of our stay doesnt change this impression, most of what is served in the restaurants we visit goes back untouched. There is nothing wrong with breaded meat but we prefer it cooked in fat, not in water.

The rest of the trip there are no more unpleasant experiences. The next day we are driven to the little town called Chornobyl, which indeed is Ukrainian for Chernobyl. The town is located in the Zone and evacuated, although some army people and scientists live there. The town looks reasonably well maintained considering the fact that hardly anyone lives there, and this is in stark contrast to Pripyat that we visit later. Tourists to the power plant are usually (always?) brought to the Interinform Chernobyl Hotel, a collection of sea containers welded together into a building. It’s spacy, each guest has two containers, one as a living room and the other as bedroom, shower etc. It’s very ugly but clean. We are not allowed to leave the hotel on our own or we will be arrested, one of the two guides will have to accompany us.

The eastern block formally doesn’t exist anymore, but the Forbidden Zone still breaths that atmosphere. For instance when we crossed the checkpoint at the entry of the Zone. As we approach this cameraman RoelfJan starts to shoot, but he is immediately made clear by an angry face under one of those giant military caps that this is not allowed. We wonder what this means for the rest of the trip, but the next few days we can film whatever we want – as long as there are no military people recorded. We are supposed to sign a paper that we will not take anything with us from the Forbidden Zone. And though our guides work for a private company, they behave as if the government looks constantly over their shoulders. They are very afraid of losing their license should we misbehave. That said we felt relatively free and we could freely ask anything pertaining to the area or to radiation levels. They didn’t steer us towards some opinion. We could go wherever we wanted.

We’ve visited all sorts of places during our trip, but we’ve not been inside the dysfunctional power plant. Visiting the plant was not on our program because we mainly wanted to check  whether the evacuated area would be fit for repopulation. So we stayed at about 200 meters from the plant and its new sarcophagus. Radiation here is clearly higher than at home, but it doesnt reach dangerous levels. People are working normally here, some working on the new sarcophagus, some military and other people. The site doesn’t look like a nuclear catastrophe has taken place here. Far from that, it is clean, the grass is mowed, the buildings look freshly painted and there are some large sculptures to be seen. Large fish jump in the canal that feeds the power plant.  

Further away from the power plant the radiation levels drop, some exceptions set aside, and the area changes in large grassy fields with some birches and othet trees that thrive on poor soil. The Ukraine may be the breadbasket of the former Sovjet Russia, but that is clearly another part of the country.

Some large rivers flow here, of which the Pripyat serves as the supplier of cooling water of the power plants and is also the name giver of the town that was evacuated 25 years ago. The visit to Pripyat is a dramatic experience.

Pripyat is specially built to house the plm 50.000 workers of the six power plants nearby. Despite our constant realization of the communist hardship, we conclude that this must have been a pleasant place to live. Lots of space, lots of light, open. And how different is that from what we see now: a sad collection of ruins, everything overgrown by trees and weed. Every window is broken. This is clearly a ghost town. In the week before we came here, the government had just prohibited the visits of the buildings or what is left of it. The falling debris are apparently more threatening than the radiation. The fear of radiation, or rather the fear of spreading radioactive dust withholds the government from  demolishing the town.

We had promised some donators for the video to try to bring back some samples of the possibly radioactive plastic shoe covers that people are supposed to wear in contaminated areas, this as a souvenir of the radiation. But we haven’t seen any of these. We decided than to take some moss with us from the Central Square of Pripyat. Compared to other greens and other materials on the site, this moss showed some increase in radioactivity. Not much but nevertheless, probably as a result of the accumulation of RadioCesium.

There was enough of it, but our guides were not expected to notice us collecting it. Finally we got back to the hotel with our pockets filled with moss. Now what, put it in our suitcases? Some experimenting showed that a geiger counter that was sensitive enough would discover the tiny increase of radiation at two meter distance from a suitcase. We were told that we would be put in prison if we were caught taking some stuff from the Zone. So we decided not to do it, and get rit of the moss. But how? We were not allowed to go outside on our own to the little park that surrounded the hotel and the windows were constructed so that we couldn’t throw it out. We ended up flushing it through the toilet. (Which wasn’t easy)

We considered ourselves a bit silly for all this, but when we left the zone our cars were turned inside out with geiger counters, among which some that were mounted on sticks (like the former East-German police checked the bottom of cars with mirrors on sticks); we knew that we had done the right thing.

The radiation levels that we measured during this trip confirm what we had heard and read from scientists. In the video we will go into more detail. Someone who would live in Pripyat would not receive more that about 10 milliSievert per year, about 4 times what is experienced at sea level in most parts of the world. Sometimes it was a little bit more, sometimes less, but dangerous levels we never encountered, also not when extrapolated to yearly exposures. Close to the plant the radiation  was higher and in the middle of Pripyat we found a left over part from a dragline that would produce 20 microSievert per hour. This amounts to a yearly dose of about 175 milliSievert per year. This is a high value of low level radiation – although still within the range what one encounters in nature elsewhere on the planet.

Was the evacuation ‘nonsensical’? Maybe not in the first period shortly after the disaster, but it certainly didn’t have to take 25 years. Apart from the fact that the town is largely in ruins, radiation is not a reason to stay away from there. Chornobyl is still intact and the radiation levels there are even lower. By the way: some 300 mostly older people have already returned to the Zone, and have lived there for years. We visited one of those ‘resettlers’ in a part of the zone where there was no increase in radiation whatsoever, and neither was there in the mushrooms he collects from the woods.

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Groene Rekenkamer-site
Theo Richel