In April of 1986, the world experienced the worst nuclear accident in history at Chernobyl. As families of the nearby town of Pripyat (population 49,360) slept peacefully, an experiment was being conducted at the Chernobyl nuclear station.
This test required several key safety systems to be disabled. As the test proceeded, things went terribly wrong and with the safety systems disabled, the reactor went out of control leading to a massive explosion. What followed was a radio active volcano, spewing its deadly waste into the atmosphere. Fires raged out of control for weeks and emergency responders paid the ultimate price with loss of life from severe radiation exposure.
In nearby Pripyat, residents had no awareness of the dangers they faced. Lethal radiation was raining down on them as children played in the parks and school yards. Authorities delayed evacuation for two days. Only a little further away, the city of Chernobyl was not evacuated until six days had passed.
The world knew nothing of this terrible accident until three days later when Swedish authorities measured high levels of atmospheric radiation. Using wind data, they determined and subsequently announced that a nuclear accident must have occurred within the Soviet Union, and only then did the Soviets finally acknowledge the accident. Even the people of the Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were unaware of the dangers they were being exposed to.
Much has been written and told about the accident and the resulting tragedies. My friends in Minsk lived this and share with me stories of their experience; how their loved ones became sick with thyroid cancer from exposure to radioactive Iodine 131. I sense the anger over the disregard for human life and lack of concern for fellow countryman. They remained in the dark; information trickling in from from friends and neighbours instead of announcements from official channels.
Today, a 30km radius around the plant is designated as a containment zone and access is restricted. 350,000 people had previously lived within this zone and had been evacuated after the accident. What remains is a haunting graveyard of human existence and in December of 2013, I had the opportunity to visit this zone and see first-hand the devastating effects of Chernobyl.
After arriving in Minsk and having a short overnight “catch my breath” rest, I joined my friends for a 10 hr drive through the night from Minsk, Belarus to Kiev, Ukraine where we would meet our official guide. Travel into the containment zone is restricted and requires permits and an official guide.
The first experience at Chernobyl was a stop at the security gate. The zone is guarded; access both in and out is controlled. There are multiple security checkpoints and we were told that on exiting, we will be required to pass through radiation control where we will be measured for contamination.
We showed our passports as our guide spoke in Russian to the officials and after a short wait our entrance was approved. We were cautioned that photographs of personnel were not permitted. Though I would have loved to photograph the military style uniformed men, I decided against provoking the soviet-style authorities.
We continued on to the city of Chernobyl where we got our first glimpse of the abandoned buildings. It’s haunting as you imagine the lives that were here and the sudden catastrophe that they incurred.
Our tour continued and we moved closer to the nuclear plant. In the distance I could see the cooling towers that are so iconically associated with a nuclear power plant and soon we entering into one of the towers.
Photo Credit: Alexei Belous
Our guide was wearing a geiger counter that warns of radiation and as we passed a chunk of debris on the ground, the counter started ticking. He warned us to stay clear of this “hot” spot. Seeing a geiger counter on TV and having one beside you ticking away, are quite different and I realized that I had put myself into a potentially dangerous situation.
The cooling tower is a massive structure that is awe inspiring to stand within.
Scaffolding circles the top of tower and puts scale to the size. A massive water pipe passes through the centre of the tower.
This structure is used to cool super-heated water after it has been used to spin the power generating turbine of the reactor where the electricity is made.
Water is sprayed out against the inner sides of the tower. The water then cools as it flows to the bottom where it is then recollected to be recirculate once again through the heating process. What I observed was the remnants of a once active tower.
Our journey continued to reactor four, where the accident occurred. After the explosion, a concrete sarcophagus was created to seal in the radiation. This is now 30 years old and badly decaying.
As a result, in cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and through world funding, a new sarcophagus is being constructed. Though difficult to imagine, when completed (2016) this structure will be “slid” into place over the reactor. All at a cost of just over $1 billion. This will ensure continued containment of the radioactive core.
The nearby town of Pripyat was home to most of the workers of Chernobyl. Images seen here capture the devastating results of the abandonment of this community. A city frozen in time; decaying with age.
It was news to me that Chernobyl could have been a much bigger disaster if not for the sacrifice of many workers that gave their lives to contain it. Shortly after the initial containment, it was discovered that the super-heated core was at risk of coming into contact with ground water beneath it. The result would have been an explosion that would have made the initial disaster seem minor. Some have estimated that all of Europe might have become uninhabitable. To contain this, many workers lost their lives, and even more suffer from long term radiation sickness, even into this century. It is unknown what the long term effects will be on future generations.
In the end, nobody knows exactly how many were affected. In simplest terms, the radiation release was estimated to be equivalent to 400 ‘Fat Boy’ atomic bombs, similar to the one that was released on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. As for fatalities, only the immediate deaths were ever counted. Estimates are nearly impossible to quantify with any accuracy but is is well known that over 8 million people were exposed and 52,000 sq. Kms of land was contaminated.
The visit to Chernobyl was a sobering reality check. Nuclear power offers amazing power production, but as can be seen from this example, and from the example in Fukushima, Japan, if the devastating results were measured in costs per Kilowatt hour, the economy of nuclear energy might not look so favourable.
Our tour concluded with a successful pass through two radiation control checkpoints. I stood in a device that slightly resembled an airport security metal detector. I placed my hands and feet in the designated markers. The machine clunked and then a green light appeared. Phew!
As a conclusion to the trip, I learned that much to the dismay of the Belarus people, in 2013 their government announced that a new nuclear power station is being planned for Northern Belarus.
Special thanks to Alexei Belous and SimpITy for booking and coordinating this very special trip. Your vodka, snacks and good company made the many hours of rough roads a fun experience. This trip will live long in my memories. Good friends and great adventures.