Saturday, 30 June 2018

CHERNOBYL. PART 1

2nd - 4th June 2018


Chernobyl nuclear facility and cooling water canal.
Hope you've read the previous blog which explains the background to all that follows.

Our little group of eight met our new guide, Nicholai, at the hotel at 8.00am and set off on the 2 hour drive north to Chernobyl. Nicholai, a young man of about 35, has been conducting these tours for 8 years and is something of an authority on the place. He had great sense of humour and spoke faultless English. He carried a small pocket sized geiger-counter and explained in detail all about radiation levels.
To put things into perspective, he told us that you would be subjected to more gamma ray radiation on a high level transatlantic flight than you would in 2 days around the Chernobyl nuclear site. Heavens, he has been visiting the site almost non-stop for eight years and still looks perfectly normal! I suspect if there was any danger he would have given up long ago, or grown a second head.

The geiger-counter measures alpha, beta and gamma (ionising) radiation dose per hour, but is normally kept on the longer range gamma readout. Measured in Sieverts (Sv), there are 1000 Micro Sv (µSv) to a Milli Sv (mSv) and 1000 mSv to a full Sv. The normal reading in most places, as in Kiev, is about 0.9 µSv per hour. Most people accumulate about 2 mSv in year. An airline pilot flying long-haul will collect about 9 mSv per year. Damage to the human body is likely when accumulated radiation reaches 100 mSv per year. The 28 firemen who died within a month after the explosion had been subjected to a dose of  6,000 mSv. I hope my info is correct, but I'm sure you can look it up if that interested. I'm also sure some smart-arse pedant will correct me! (Bernie?)

We were warned that there are fierce mosquitos in the woods up there. So we made a pit-stop at a service station en-route to buy some repellant. I'm not sure that this brand of service station (left) would go down terribly well in the UK.

Anyway, they didn't have any repellant so I stocked up with tins of beer instead.

We stopped at the Dytyatky checkpoint, at the southern entry to the 30km exclusion zone (there are five others around the zone) manned by rather bolshy looking soldiers (bored more likely,; it is probably a punishment posting). Our names and passports were checked against a pre-registered list. There is a souvenir shop here selling T shirts, mugs, key-rings etc. and ice-cream, but not insect repellant. Then on to the 10km stricter zone check-point where we had to enter a scanner to check our radiation levels. All very formal.



Then on another 3km to the mostly deserted town of Chernobyl.
Several posed against the entry sign (right). I did too but I'm bored of looking at my photo.
It used to be the regional capital with a population, significantly Jewish, of 50,000. It still contains offices to administer the ex-nuclear site, and tourists, where, as I mentioned earlier, there are about 2000 people still working. They have barrack like accomodation in the town. There is also a small supermarket and the original fully operational fire station...maybe now issued with proper protective clothing! 
There is also a small hotel called 'Number 10' (never did ask why) where we were due to spend the night. 

Right: The monument in what was the town square to commemorate the victims of the disaster.










Left: One of the few remaining statues of Lenin at the edge of the square. Not sure why this one still stands when most of the others have been pulled down. Sorry, me again, but its the only pic I've got.















Right: A long pathway between the name signs of all the villages which have been permanently evacuated within the 30 km zone. When I say permanently, there is a handful of old residents who have stubbornly returned.









Left: The monument outside the fire station to honour the 28 heroic firemen who perished after containing the fire following the explosion.













Also outside the fire station was a display (right) of some of the remotely controlled machines which were used to clear the site. Apparently they didn't work very well due, I think, to the effects of radiation or maybe something else. Anyway. they were not a great success and the clearnace was done mainly by human hand, mostly military. At the outset teams of soldiers were taken in and worked in relays for no longer than a minute at a time on the building itself. There were also tunnels to be dug under the wrecked structure to enable a protective layer of material to be laid under the building to stop contamination downwards and into watercourses. This work, as you can imagine, was incredibly labour-intensive, and dangerous. 

We visited some of these deserted villages. Their roads and streets were overgrown with trees and weeds, rusting old car chassis lay about and anything of any possible value had been looted long ago. The buildings will, one day, completely collapse and disappear into the undergrowth.
Left. What was the village shop in one such village.
....and yes, we discovered that the mosquitos were indeed plentiful and ravenous. They were a big irritation in the wooded areas. One of our group had the foresight to bring some repellant which she generously shared.

Right: Children's beds in the nursery school at the ex-village of Kopachi. Nicholai told us that over the years many photo-journalists had visited the area and re-arranged various items to obtain a better 'shot', vis the dolls and things on the beds. This was true in most of the villages and especially in Pripyat.

In this area there are several radiation 'hotspots'. They were mainly off the roads where rain had washed earth and dust to accumulate in puddles, and especially in moss which, we were told, absorbs radio activity. Nicholai used his trusty geiger-counter to demonstrate. The readings sometimes went up from an ambient  0.9 µSv to about 20 µSv. Not dangerous for short periods but significant. There were some metal items which, for some reason, were much more radio active, and some areas deeper into the forest were much more 'active'. We were told, and witnessed, that the local flora and fauna was unaffected. Deer, wild boar, horses and other wildlife existed quiet happily and normally in the area. There were lots of birds, big fish in the river and, especially, feral dogs. I suspect these were the descendants of the pets left behind by the evacuees. The dogs do actually present a problem if they gang up in packs and efforts are being made to reduce numbers by 'sterilisation'. Can't think why they don't just shoot them (they probably do) but this idea does not go down well with tourists. One of our number bought dog food with her to feed the mangy mutts. Not a good idea in my opinion. Actually most of these mongrels of indeterminate breed seemed to be of larger size and very healthy and tend to follow you round in, perhaps, an expectation of getting food.


Onwards to the power station itself. Left: A general view to the right of the destroyed reactor #4. The sculpture on the wall is supposedly of a dove.











Right: The monument outside the covered #4 reactor. It is devoted to those 'liquidators' who risked a lot clearing the place up. The shiny steel carapace which incorporates much ventilation technology was actualy built about 500 yds away and slid on rails over the reactor. It is a magnificent feat of engineering and cost a few billion Euros. Donations to help finance this were provided by many international sources. They have a vested interest to contain future contamination. This construction is planned to last 100 years.




Lunch was taken in the workers' canteen on site. Not a memorable meal of rather stodgy noodles and some unidentifiable meat. Before going up the stairs to the canteen we all had to pass through another scanner.

Left: Nicholai demonstrating the correct method of being self-scanned. You couldn't get out until you got it right. A bit like Tesco's impossible to work self-help scanners. These scanners were the same as used at the zone check-points.




Right: The site canteen. Not exactly the Ritz but clean and functional. The workers work a period of 2 weeks followed by a month away from the zone. The radiation levels are not particularly high, but higher in some places than normal and, as explained earlier, prolonged exposure to increased levels accumulates.  


After lunch we went to a railway bridge over the river where, we were told, enormous catfish lived. We had been told to take bread from the canteen to feed them. There were indeed large shoals of some sort of trout-like fish which greedily fought over our bready offerings. Sadly no sign of the enormous catfish. It's not surprising that these fish get big considering that they are probably fed every day with copious amounts of bread and perhaps 'unidentifiable meat' by passing tourists. 


Left: Another monument at the site. I was told what it represented but failed to make a note. A naked man juggling fish? Not a clue. My loyal Corrector-in Chief, Bernie, will undoubtedly let me know.

He has done! Apparently it is of the legendary Greek figure Prometheus who was subjected to an eagle plucking out his liver on a regular basis. Look hm up if you are that interested.
Thanks Bernie.










We visited a large unfinished cooling tower  for reactor #5 which was to be part of the expansion programme. As mentioned earlier, the site was eventually to contain another six reactors. 











Inside the cooling tower there was lots of moss on the floor which gave off much stronger radiation. We were advised not to stand on it. Incidentally, the routine before getting back on our mini-bus was to stamp your feet on the ground to remove any possible radio active material you might have stood on.


The cooling tower has a fascinating echo inside. A shout or bang reverberated around and around in impressive fashion. Yes, we all had to have a go.


On a wall inside (right) there is a mural of a doctor. This was painted by Australian artist Guido van Helton to mark the 30th Anniversary of the disaster and as a reminder of nuclear dangers. It is also to commemorate the work of the photo-journalist Igor Kostyn (he who flew over the #4 reactor the morning after the explosion) and his single-handed campaign to investigate the truth of what happened and its aftermath.

We set off for an initial look around the ghost town of Pripyat. I will leave all that for the next edition, because we also spent most of the next day there.


Then back to Chernobyl town to the Number 10 Hotel, via the shop where I at last managed to buy some insect repellant. By the cringe there are some vicious mosquitos around this area.


Left: A social supper amongst other tourists in the Number 10 Hotel that evening. It was a comfortable enough place with a decent bar which opens between 7.00pm and 10.00pm. If you're interested and happen to be passing.






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