…if you’ve read last years story of my trip to the Chernobyl nuclear exclusion zone, you’ll probably remember me saying that “the Zone was calling me” and that I’d be back. I didn’t quite expect to be back that quickly though.
So, what happened? If you know me, you know that I talk about the trip quite a lot – some people might even say I hardly ever shut up about it. One of my friends, Alan, was fascinated by my story and, when I saw him again a couple of weeks later, he told me that he had caught the bug properly and wanted to go experience the Zone for himself. I thought “Hey, why not?” and offered to go along and organise the trip. Alan managed to drum up a couple of his friends to join us, so a private tour became a possibility – and while we were at it, we decided to go for a two day tour instead of only the one day. We chose SoloEast as our tour operator – I was very impressed with them last year.
I also wanted to offer my co-travellers and myself something special, so I enquired whether there was a possibility to visit the actual power plant, instead of just seeing it from the outside.
Before the accident in 1986, the power plant was called «Чернобыльская АЭС им. В.И.Ленина», the “V.I.Lenin Nuclear Power Station Chernobyl”. Lenin’s name was rarely mentioned after 1986 and completely dropped after the breakup of the Soviet Union, nowadays it’s the Державне спеціалізоване підприємство «Чорнобильська АЕС», State Specialized Enterprise «Chornobyl NPP». In official parlance, most people seem to use the acronym ЧАЕС - roughly pronounced “Tcha-Ess”. You’ll see two varieties of the spelling in the photos: «ЧАЕС» and «ЧАЭС», which are the Ukrainian and the Russian spellings respectively.
We entered the Zone on September 11th, 2018 and drove straight here without stopping at any of the places familiar to me from the last trip. I took this photo surreptitiously with my phone, as we were strictly instructed not to even think about pointing any cameras in the direction of the power plant on the last trip. I could just as well have set up a tripod, some studio lighting and a make up artist for the sign. taking pictures of the station is apparently allowed now. Not only that, we did get to enter the door…
…where, after a few introductory words by our ЧАЕС-contact Yuliya, we were led right down into the basement to inspect “Protective Structure No. 1”, the local personnel shelter – just in case anything should happen while we were visiting.
The emergency shelter is very well equipped, it can function autonomously for more than a month. This is the table where the heads of departments gather for crisis management meetings…
…and of course I couldn’t resist taking a seat at the head of the table, labeled as the seat of the General Director and Head of Emergency Work at the Industrial Sites of Chernobyl NPP.
The display on the wall shows current outside radiation levels in microRoentgen per hour. The current reading of 12 μR/h is equivalent to 0.12 microSievert per hour, which is less than the standard background radiation in Kiev (around 0.2 μSv/h), due to the abundance of marble and granite in Kiev. This corresponds to a BED (Banana-equivalent dose, the dose one is exposed to by eating one average-sized banana) of just over one banana per hour.
If you think I made that last bit up – I didn’t.
There are, of course, also more modern means of keeping tabs on the situation outside. This screen does show an awful lot of red – which, as in most cases, means “emergency” – but I found out that at the time I took the photo, the screen displayed historical data from June 8th 2018, three days after a forest fire broke out in the area.
Whoever says that Chernobyl no longer generates power has forgotten about this little gem. This is the diesel generator which keeps the emergency shelter powered. The plaque pictured here proclaims proudly that the generator was “Made in the USSR” in 1977. It is powered up once a year for test purposes – according to our guide to the shelter “by two very good looking young women”, and for one brief moment Chernobyl NPP generates 24 kilowatts of power again.
After the emergency shelter tour, it was time to get suited up to get into the power plant itself. We were equipped with gowns, caps, protective covers for our shoes, gloves and dust masks, basically to avoid getting any irradiated dust on ourselves. Here’s the “visiting delegation of four foreign gentlemen”, as we were announced via intercom at any checkpoint we wanted to pass. We decided we liked that name and have adopted it with variations for the rest of our trip. We’re still not sure if “the delegation of four visiting dignitaries would like to order some beers” got us quicker service at Шато Robert Doms, but we assume it didn’t hurt.
The «Центральный Щит Управления» (Central Control Panel) Number 1 – as with most active parts of the plant, we had our visit announced and cleared before we could enter here. I noticed that several doors off the «golden corridor» are locked and sealed with what look like police evidence paper seals – evidence that the plant has shut down.
If the plant has indeed shut down, what does it still need an active control room for – staffed by two people, no less? Well, while the plant (mostly) isn’t generating electricity anymore, it still serves as an important distribution station in the Ukrainian and Belorussian power grid. This is what this control room is monitoring. The overcoat is labelled «Project SIP» in Russian, which stands for «Shelter Implementation Plan».
On closer inspection, some of the impressive looking switches – like some on this pump control panel – have plaques that read «выведено из эксплуатации» – Decommissioned.
БЩУ 3, Reactor Control 3, was our next stop. This is more or less identical to control room 4, but the latter has been stripped of most of its instruments, either as spares or souvenirs, over the years. This control room was active until 2000, you can see the switching off of the reactor here – a sad moment for all involved:
This section contains the control rod servo indicators. The indicators with blue bezels display control rods inserted from the bottom of the core, all other control rods descend from the top. If you look closely, you’ll notice that one indicator is different from all the others…
Control rod number 24-47 is different – instead of the servo indicator, it just shows a hand painted sign labelled «Si». I saw this, read up on it later and found out that not only was ChNPP a nuclear power station, its reactors were also used for neutron transmutation of silicon. This process takes place when undoped (high purity) silicon is irradiated in a thermal neutron flux – like, oh, for example in a nuclear reactor. This turns the silicon atoms that collide with the neutrons into phosphorus, creating doped silicon for use in high power electronic semiconductors. A 1984 paper «Properties of Silcon Doped in the RBMK-1000 Reactor of Chernobyl’sk Atomic Energy Power Plant» by V.M. Volle, V.B. Voronkov et al. shows that the process «[…]makes it possible to obtain a high number of large ingots [of silicon with improved parameters and increased breakdown voltages] without detriment to energy production.»
This starts to make even more sense if you consider that the “Jupiter”-factory on the outskirts of Pripyat didn’t manufacture cassette tape recorders (according to the official designation), but rather semiconductor components for the Soviet military.
One thing I only noticed when I looked at this picture later is that all the instruments are only held in by one screw each. I take this as another indicator that the plant is slowly being dismantled.
Next to the control rod servo indicators is the core channel cartogram display of the reactor. This shows all the elements of the reactor: Green lights for control rod channels, white for fuel channels and yellow for fuel channels with power density probes.
The display can map various functions controlled by the «SKALA» process control computer, which was – in my opinion – quite an advanced piece of hardware for its time. It dates back to the 1960s; the machine uses magnetic core memory, magnetic tape data storage, and even punched tape, yet at the same time the software was already developed based on the concept of virtual machines.
The servo control panel at operator station 4A mirrors the control rod servo dispay. This has been modified post-accident with the addition of the red buttons for fast scram rods. At this station (although of course in control room four) is where – according to most accounts – the accident was ultimately caused. If you look at the top left of the button array, there’s several controls protected by metal enclosures, tied down with string and sealed to the desk with sealing wax. These are the emergency reactor controls…
…shown closer here. The uncovered switch is АЗ-5 (Short for «Аварийная защита ядерного реактора № 5», Emergency Reactor Shutdown, fifth stage). If you watched the video a couple of pages ago, this is the exact switch that was used to turn off reactor three in 2000. The corresponding switch (or in that case: button) in control room four is what – according to most sources – ultimately triggered the explosion. Here’s the relevant excerpt from DTIC ADA335076: JPRS Report, Soviet Union: Economic Affairs (“Chernobyl Notebook” By G. Medvedev, Published in Novy Mir, June 1989)
Let us explain once again for the general reader: When the emergency safety system (AZ) is activated, all 211 control rods fall downward, cooling water shoots in, emergency pumps are turned on, and the diesel generators providing reliable electric power are started up. Emergency pumps supplying water from the clean condensate tanks and pumps supplying water from the bubbler pond to the reactor are also activated. That is, the safety systems are more than adequate if they are activated at the right time.
Medvedev then writes in “The Truth About Chernobyl”:
At 1:23:40, [Akimov] pressed the level-5 emergency power reduction button, sending a signal that lowered into the reactor core all the control rods then in the fully withdrawn position, as well as the emergency protection rods themselves. However, the first thing to enter the core was those fateful rod tips, which, as we have seen, caused a 0.5 fi increase in reactivity. And they entered the reactor at the precise moment when a sharp jump in reactivity was being caused by the extensive steam formation which had already begun. The increase in core temperature produced the same effect. So three factors inimical to the reactor core all came together at the same time.
The reactivity of the reactor is show on the gauge above AZ-5, now only showing a sticker saying “decommissioned”.
This is the deaerator building corridor (better known as the “golden corridor”). It is the main walkway throughout the plant, connecting all four reactor buildings and control rooms, as well as the dosimetry control rooms, main electrical control room, fire suppression system control room, and spaces for the massive V-3M process control computers at the heart of the “SKALA” automation system for the reactors.
Towards the end of the corridor, the walls started to turn more derelict, culminating in bare concrete and a plain metal door at the end. This is the one door we didn’t want to go through without more effective radiation protection gear – right behind it is reactor block number four.
Here, just outside reactor three and not far from the scene of the accident (reactor four is right behind me, now separated by a lead-lined wall), it was time to put our breathing masks and gloves on. The dosimeter I had with me started chirping a bit more quickly, radiation was at about 5 μSv/h – about 25 bananas an hour (the utility of the banana-equivalent dose breaks down once radiation goes up). We didn’t get to see reactor 3 itself, but the water pumps and control corridors around it were very impressive and slightly eerie in their now non-functional state. The person turned slightly towards the others is Yuliya, who was – affectionately, i suppose, but with an ever-so-slightly nervous undertone – referred to as “KGB lady” by Igor, our guide.
One of the last stops in the power plant was the New Safe Containment surveillance and monitoring station run by the “Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine”.
These screens show the measurements and the locations of various probes inserted into reactor 4, measuring temperature, alpha-, beta- and gamma-radiation as well as “Neutron Flux”, which was mentioned in the same tone that one normally mentions rain outside. If that in itself wasn’t weird enough, the fact that the sensor status “green” means “still enough radiation to kill you in a short time” definitely was.
Yuliya told us at the beginning of the trip that photography of monitoring systems wasn’t allowed, but I honestly forgot about it and nobody even batted an eyelid, so I don’t feel too bad about my transgression.
On the way to Pripyat, Igor stopped the car in the middle of the road and told us to count how many streetlights we could see. We were slightly puzzled by his request…
…until he pulled out a photo from around 1980. The amount of streetlights is the same. This is, hardly believably, the exact same spot that the last photo was taken at. Thirty-eight years of tree growth have changed the view completely.
A bit further along, I managed to capture the road sign for Pripyat that I only got out of the bus last year. The apples on the tree looked rather inviting, although eating, drinking and smoking is strictly forbidden outside of designated spaces in the zone.
We got off the bus at “Energetik” cultulral centre (or “cultural palace” as these buildings were called in the Soviet Union). The neon tubes of the big sign have started disappearing. About a year ago, a group of artists powered them up with a generator and found that they still work – after having been switched off for more than 30 years!
In a backstage area of the cultural palace, a seating chart lists seat categories – most of the seats themselves have long been removed or broken.
The first floor of Energetik shows what happens to a hardwood floor if it’s left exposed to the elements for some years
The upstairs cinema in the cultural palace now only has seating space for three. However, as the projectors have gone too, that isn’t too big an inconvenience, I suppose.
The usual tour to Pripyat stops at the fairground to see the now iconic ferris wheel. We did as well, of course, but our first sight of it was from a corridor in the cultural palace. Upon processing my photos, I found out that I had inadvertently set my camera to use 25600 ISO, so a load of pictures from around that time are grainy to the point of being unsuitable for public consumption. The few pictures from that series that I liked enough, I post-processed extensively to get them to look at least halfway decent. This is one of them.
This is what I had to work with… That will teach me to check the settings every single time I press the shutter button.
The “Polissya” hotel, one of the highest buildings in town, is no longer accepting guests.
In Pripyat, it is important to follow your guide, or at least to be on the lookout for dangers constantly. While radiation isn’t usually much of an issue anymore, falling down several meters into the sewer system without an obvious way out is. The manhole covers, like all the radiators in the buildings, have obviously been sold for scrap by unscrupulous looters.
To everybody who complained that they hadn’t received my postcards from Ukraine – I did post them. Right here.
Even if we had wanted to, we couldn’t. First of all, the border between lawn and not-lawn was no longer visible, and where I assumed the lawn to have been previously, brambles and other bushes made the terrain pretty much impassable. We would have another problem wallking on something, but more of that later.
This is a picture a lot of people bring home from Chernobyl, and many use it to generate shock. “Look at all the gas masks! In a school!” - well, there are several stories of why they’re there – most are wrong.
The explanation Igor gave us was that the gas masks were packed in heavy duty wooden crates, which were simply emptied on the floot and then used to transport other stuff out of the zone. That, at least, seem to make sense.
The cash register in the school cafeteria. From photos taken by previous visitors, it becomes clear that there are more buttons missing than last year. Either some unscrupulous tourists seem to want to bring unusual souvenirs home or it’s plain vandalism. I don’t know which is worse.
In keeping with the time-capsule-ness of the zone, all schoolbooks still begin with either quotes by or stories about Lenin, and how the children should aspire to become like him. While the state religion of the Soviet Union was atheism, they seem to have had trouble getting rid of the veneration of their saints.
Remember when I talked about not walking on the lawn? Never mind that – here, we had to walk over books. As hard as I tried, it was not possible to make my way past the old school library without doing so. The books were literally in layers up to about 20cm deep! Even though they will never again be read, and even while my rational self ridiculed me, my heart wept as I made my way over the pile.
The “Soviet Patriot (Organ of the Central Committee of the CPSU)” in the school announcement display window is from three days before the accident. I’m not quite sure why it wasn’t replaced, but I’m sure it won’t be for a long time, if ever.
The block of flats west of the centre still hat it’s list of occupants in the entrance hall. I was excited at first to find Medvedev on it, thinking to have found the author of “The Truth about Chernobyl”, but the initials were wrong. And no, it’s not the former Russian president either.
After exploring the roof of the building, Igor conspiratorially led us through the basement into another building, and then into one specific flat, where he stored something he had found when on tour with a German nuclear researcher some weeks earlier. Reportedly, they brought some highly sensitive measuring equipment into the Red Forest and found the small black speck of dust which is now in the middle of the bag. To cut a long story short, I assume that is actually a speck of graphite that was blown out of reactor no. 4 on that night…
…because when we put our dosimeter on it, it went absolutely berserk. If we hold the detector right on the speck, readings go up to more than 6’600 uSv - 6 mSv! That’s about 66’000 times normal background radiation!
While the radiation drops dramatically as soon as you gain some distance, that left me with an uneasy feeling – it would be only too easy to breathe something like that in, and having that in your system permanently would most definitely wreak havoc. It would also certainly show up on the dosimetric scans when you leave the zone.
After a comfortable night at the hotel “Десятка” (“The Ten”) in Chernobyl Town – made slightly surreal by the serving of Beer strictly only between 7pm and 9pm and the locked cast iron cage around the entrance to prevent people going walkabout at night – we went to see the small exhibition set up in town that shows the different types of robots used to attempt to clean the roof of reactor number 3. None of them could withstand the radiation for any length of time, so “Biorobots” – humans – were used instead.
The story of those heroes is absolutely incredible: They’d spend up to 45 minutes getting geared up for the task, run out of the building, shovel radioactive graphite over the edge of the roof back into the reactor building, and run back inside after only 90 seconds, because even with protective gear, that was as long as they could work there without picking up a lethal dose of radiation.
Of the several robots there, I found this one most worthy of mention. To the space afficionado, it’s immediately recognizable as a “Lunokhod” – Moonwalker – that was adapted to the purpose of cleaning roofs instead of exploring the moon. As we know, it too failed.
This video shows the height of the cooling tower that was under construction in 1986, and will stay under construction forever. To get an idea of scale, look closely at the struts the tower is standing on before moving to the next picture.
…there’s me, standing next to one of those struts – at slightly over 1.8m, I don’t even reach the top of the base they’re standing on. What you see in this picture is only about 1/4 of the actual strut, so you can try to imagine the sheer scale of that tower. It was, I’d say, literally the biggest enclosed space I’ve ever stood in. Of course, there was a lot of shouting going on – the acoustics of the place are insane!
This is the whole extent of the struts with me for scale:
…now go back to the video and look at the struts again.
Everywhere you look, there’s machinery, circuit boards and other bits strewn on the ground, all “made in the USSR”. I found out by the part number of this thing that it’s an “Autosaturator ASBK-4”. I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you what that does. Erm.
(Actually, if somebody does know, drop me a line)
One of the advantages of a private tour is that you can just say “We’d like some more information about reactor building five” – and the tour guide effortlessly reorganizes the tour to actually go see it. This is not number five, this is number six next to it – or at least its foundations.
This is reactor number five. It was under construction in 1986, and stayed under construction. The red cladding on the outside is not part of the original design, but was quickly rigged up after the accident to prevent too much radioactive dust from entering the building – there were plans to finish building it after the accident had been taken care of. As we now know, this never happened.
Inside, the old placards “Machine Room, Stage 3, Reactor Block 5” and “Section 10” with the names of people responsible and the beginning and end dates of construction are still hanging on the railings. While we were inside, we heard shouts and sounds of metal being cut with heavy machinery from another part of the building – so we either came across ghosts, looters or planned deconstruction works on the site. We didn’t stick around to find out.
Back in Pripyat, we visited the post office. One of the murals there is still in surprisingly good condition. Inside, we had to wade through inches deep postal forms, “Happy 1st of May”-cards and preprinted envelopes. In one of the back rooms, we found a safe, which was rusty but still locked. I wonder if somebody still has the key and what, if anything, could be found inside…
The café “Pripyat” was another stop on our tour. The stained glass windows are still mostly in place…
Except, of course, where they’re not. I examined the shards and thought it was a bit weird that they all were almost the same size…
…then I took a closer look at the windows again. Turns out they’re actually all composed of vertical glass strips embedded in some sort of metal, probably lead. This made me appreciate the fact that the windows are still mostly still intact even more.
I’ve already covered the hospital in the previous slideshow – but I like this shot of an operating table somewhere on – I think – the third floor. Apparently, the basement – the most polluted room in Pripyat due to the dumped firemen’s uniforms – has now been blocked off by pouring a large amount of sand into the access shaft as some idiots started riding bycicles through the contaminated rooms. I found out you could probably still access it by climbing through the empty lift shaft, but I didn’t follow up that thought.
In the car workshop outside Duga (also covered in the last slideshow), I thought “Propaganda! Everywhere! Even on the pipes on the ceiling!” – Well, this propaganda says “Warning! High Carbon Monoxide Concentrations are deadly!” or something to that effect.
I’m not repeating any pictures of the large antenna array here – it still looks pretty much the same as it did the year before. As we had more time, we explored the 70s era server rooms though. Don’t be fooled by the bright illumination in this shot – I used the flash for that one, we had to navigate the cavernous server room, including underfloor cable channels, in pitch darkness.
…and this is the control room for the “Krug” ionosphere probing system. I expressed interest in seeing that antenna system, which is about a kilometer outside the big one, but apparently, there’s not much visible there anymore and the area is swarming with ticks.
Our last stop on this tour required preparation. We drove back into Chernobyl town and went shopping at the “Roadside Picnic” shop and grill bar. It’s funny how the Strugatsky-Brothers short story has given the name to the shop via a Tarkovsky film and a video game, even if the first two predate the accident and have nothing to do with the latter except the name. Yep – it’s complicated. We didn’t try to read anything into it but went in and bought a good quantity of sausages, cheese and tinned food.
On the way to our final stop on the tour. Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!
Coming out of the wilderness, we were suddenly stopped by a gate with the symbol of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. They look a bit worse for wear and I promised to bring paint on my next trip to freshen them up…
…because these gates are not part of the derelict zone. They open to reveal a very well kept field with sweetcorn…
…freshly dug potatoes…
…and even a couple of chickens.
It almost looks like somebody lives there. And somebody does! Meet Evgeniya (called by her short name “Tunya”), who has returned after the evacuation and has made the old village her home again. This isn’t her original house, she was offered it by the original owner who doesn’t expect to come back. We brought her the supplies from “Roadside Picnic”, as the “supermarket van” only visits her village once or twice a month and she has no possibility to contact the outside world – no telephone, no mobile, and her next neighbour (one of three people living in the whole village) is about three kilometers away. Igor regularly visits her with his tour groups, and she was happy to chat to us about her life and remind me how rusty my Russian has become.
I asked her if she was OK with her picture being in my story. She seemed amused by that, but agreed.
The question she probably hears most often is “How safe is your produce?” – it’s a question she can answer easily, as the government send an inspector every two years to measure everything. Apparently, in 2016, her tomatoes were just at the upper limit for Strontium 90, but still edible. Her cabbage, potatoes and drinking water are all far below all thresholds for Caesium 135 and Strontium 90 – food one can comfortably grow old with. Even though she hadn’t had her sweetcorn measured yet, I’d eat it without second thoughts.
Before we leave this story – this one of my favourite shots. As you probably noticed from the video of the cooling tower, I brought my drone. This picture is a mosaic of more than 20 individual shots, and the original is so detailed you can see the “Энэргетик” sign on the cultural palace. The long building on the right corner has large letters on the roof spelling “Хай буде атом робітником, а не солдатом” – “Let the Atom be a worker, but not a soldier”.
And on that note – it was time to leave the zone again. Even after two days, I looked back in sadness, vowing to return. There are so many more corners to discover…
Thanks go to SoloEast tours, once more providing us with excellent transport and a knowledgeable guide, Igor – as well to my three new Chernobyl buddies, some of whom I had known before. Travelling the Zone together isn’t something one easily forgets…
…for this time