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  • Day41


    September 5, 2018 in Ukraine ⋅ ☁️ 23 °C

    In the early hours of Saturday 26th April 1986, a routine experiment at Reactor Four of the Chernobyl power station went seriously wrong – leading to a radiation breach equivalent to 400 Hiroshimas. The experiment was designed to establish how long support systems would last after mains power had been removed; but a combination of poor design and insufficient training led to a fatal error. Automatic shutdown mechanisms were disabled as part of the test, so that when the insertion of fuel rods into the core caused an unexpected power surge, there was no way of venting the resultant steam. Internal pressure loosened the reactor’s cover plate, rupturing the fuel channels and causing a steam explosion in the reactor core.

    The first emergency teams to arrive were firefighters, many of whom had been given little or no briefing as to the nature of the accident. One of those firefighters, interviewed on the scene, described a feeling as of pins and needles, accompanied by a metallic taste in his mouth. He died soon after of acute radiation sickness. Within a week all 28 firefighters were dead.

    As authorities began to realise the scale of the disaster, radio-controlled bulldozers were deployed to clear the rubble. These robotic carts and diggers were sent in to find and remove radioactive debris; but their electronics were soon scrambled by the radiation, rendering them largely immobile. In the end, it had to be human hands that cleared the bulk of the waste. These ‘bio-robots’ as they were called were only able to endure 40 seconds of exposure at a time, as they shovelled the radioactive waste back inside the reactor so that it might be contained.

    In the city of Pripyat, a model Soviet city of 50,000 people just 3km from Reactor Four, residents were told nothing and life went on as radioactive fallout steadily fell on the city. Initially, the accident was heavily downplayed by Soviet state media, Pripyat’s brand new ferries wheel was even opened earlier than planned to encourage people to stay and go outdoors. It wasn’t until nuclear physicists raised the alarm in Sweden, 1000km away, that the USSR was forced into a public statement. Establishing a special commission to investigate the scale of the disaster, Soviet scientists soon found evidence of widespread radiation sickness; and at 14:00 on 27th April, an announcement called for the immediate evacuation of Pripyat.

    Underground, there was concern that the plasma would breach the concrete foundations and reach the ground table, the consequences of this eventuality were kept secret until 1991 when it emerged that this would have resulted in an nuclear explosion so large that it would have wiped out half of Europe and made Europe, and half of Russia uninhabitable for 500,000 years. Soviet miners were brought in to dig under the reactor to shore up the foundations as Soviet pilots were brought back from Afghanistan to dump more than 5,000 metric tons of sand, lead, clay and neutron-absorbing boric acid, dropped onto the power station from helicopters above. The reactor core burned for 5 months, when it was eventually sealed using and later, a concrete and iron sarcophagus would be installed over the core in order to contain the worst of the radiation. To deal with the clean up, the Soviet Union mobilised between 500,000 and 1 million reservists who were tasked with decontaminating the exclusion zone as best as possible. The political and economic costs are often cited as being a major contributing factor to the break up of the Soviet Union only a few years later.

    No one knows how many people died, either directly or indirectly, but the story is a testament to extreme human folly and cruelty, offset by astounding individual bravery and sacrifice. Chernobyl today is a permanent and indelible snapshot of this extraordinary story, and I’m extremely grateful I have had the opportunity to go.

    While a large draw card of a tour into the zone is definitely the photographic opportunities provided by the zone, with its modern day Pompeii feel of a ruined civilisation frozen in time, it’s often forgotten that the zone is a living breathing place. 700 people have moved back into the zone, illegally living amongst the ruins, while around 2000 people work in the zone, in shifts to manage radiation. Chernobyl should not be seen as as a fixed point in time, but rather as a region that is slowly building towards recovery while simultaneously remembering its past.

    Progress can also been observed at the site of Reactor Four. The old sarcophagus built to contain the radiation back in 1986, having been erected in haste, and under extremely hostile conditions has, of 2016, been replaced with a new shell weighing over 20,000 tons and rises to a height of more than 100 metres, making it the largest movable structure in the world (it was built on tracks for safety reasons and moved into place). Standing in the shadow of the colossal structure, I had to keep reminding myself where I was. One imagines a malevolent, industrial hell-gate, a radioactive Mount Doom; but in reality these neatly mown lawns, the modernist sculptures and – perhaps most of all – the sight and sound of ongoing work, makes this place feel just like any other industrial park.

    It was hard to imagine that beneath the steel and concrete, in the basement of Reactor Four, lurks perhaps the most dangerous single object on the planet. The solidified black lava formation known as the ‘Elephant’s Foot‘, a product of the melting core, an object of incredible mass and density, emitting as many as 10,000 roentgens per hour – that’s the equivalent of more than four-and-a-half million chest x-rays, and enough to kill someone in a matter of minutes.

    While the incredible story and sense of history you get art Chernobyl is palpable, as the holy grail of urban exploration it can be found wanting. The fact that it is so tightly controlled (for good reason) and relatively popular nowadays does diminish somewhat from the sense of discovery. Then again, this was hardly my first Soviet ‘ghost town’ experience. From an adventure/exploration perspective, I found more of value while exploring abandoned villages and monuments in the Balkans and the Caucasus, and we got lucky. Officially people have been banned from going inside buildings since 2015, but our guide was only too happy to break the rules to allow us time to explore abandoned apartment buildings, where we could reach the roof to get fantastic birds eye view of the zone, the sports hall, supermarket, theatre, as well as the famous school and kindergarten. It doesn’t take long in Pripyat to realise how advanced and modern this city was for it’s time, a model Soviet city with a population that had an average income 5 times the national average, this was the most advanced and luxurious city in Ukraine. The loss of the city must have been a huge psychological and economic blow for the state and the communist system.

    The final stop for the day was the top secret Durga radar array that was built close to the power plant due to its immense energy needs. This is a huge lattice mega-structure, 150 meters wide, 90 meters high, and 750 meters long. To man the radar system, a small secret city was built, in which 1,000 people lived. It broadcast a sharp tapping sound which earned it the nickname “Woodpecker” in the West due to its propensity to disrupt legitimate radio broadcasts and telephone communications all over the world. While many people worldwide had theories as to what was causing the noises, the source wasn’t confirmed until after the fall of the Soviet Union.
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