Home-Baltia-Chernobyl-Auschwitz-Home: Part IV

Chernobyl plant

Here we are already a two and a half thousand words into the story of a trip to Chernobyl and still there's been no radioactive zones yet - but fear not, for on the fourth day we did indeed depart Kiev for a day trip to the Exclusion Zone.

The trip was ordered through a booking agency which in turn delegated the responsibility to the government's Chernobylinterinform Agency which is responsible for the Chernobyl disaster area. We had obtained a special permit to enter the Exclusion zone which is nowadays rather easy.

After some formalities at the border we drove into the almost-deserted city of Chernobyl, passing the city's sign on our way. Chernobyl is today used as office housing for some of the agencies and construction operations working in the area. All inhabitants of this city as well as those of Pripryat, where the nuclear plant operators lived, where evacuated within a day of the accident, never to return back.

At the Agency we were introduced to the staff and the plans for the day. We had a guide for the day, Rimma, and could decide ourselves what we wanted to see. In addition to the famous Pripryat city and the reactor itself I had the wish to see people living in the Exclusion zone - some hundred persons still illegally live in the contaminated areas of Chernobyl.

A map on the wall showed the radioactivity levels of different areas as well as allowed us to plan the day. Color marks the different levels of radiation inside the 30 kilometer Exclusion zone. The prevailing winds and shape of the terrain determined which areas got the worst dosage. Unfortunately for us Finns, the radioactive substances were carried as far as Finland and still are a minor problem - berries and mushrooms in some areas are still radioactive from the accident.

The city of Chernobyl is about a 10 minute drive from the reactor site. We stop by a statue hounouring the workers and firemen, called "liquidators", who both risked and gave their lives in order to contain the damage. We also see an area that was once a small village but is now just bush - the small contaminated villages surrounding the reactor were completely destroyed by the government.

The first stop withing the nuclear plant is next to reactors five and six. These units were under construction when the accident happened and have stood unfinished since then. Even though the other three original reactors were kept running after the accident, it was evident that the contaminated area was not a suitable place to build more units as the radiation levels demanded extra precautions to be taken with the staff of the plants.

It was surprising to hear that even now three thousand people work with the plant. They are responsible for decommissioning the reactors, building a permanent fuel storage and maintaining the area. Seven hundred workers work with the exploded reactor, reinforcing its sarcophagus and studying it. There is a strict 50-50 rule governing working time - the people must spend two weeks outside the area for each two weeks they work.

Other countries are supporting the work done in Chernobyl, but all the dirty work in the radioactive areas is done by Ukrainian people. The salary of a worker working inside the reactor, where radiation is so high that a protective suit thick enough would not allow movement fast enough, is only 300 dollars a month.

We were led into the monitoring center of the reactor. There a watch is kept over the reactor to ensure that the radiation stays controlled. The place also had a detailed scale model of the reactor showing how the place looked after the explosion.

The rest of the plant is under tight security measures and photography is not permitted. The concrete sarcophagus covering reactor four, however, can be freely photographed. The feeling of standing close to this site of disaster was weird - even though the building had unleased clouds of terror into the air everything seemed perfectly calm right now. Sometimes the feeling of standing close to a functioning and polluting factory is much worse.

Of course I couldn't, with all my artictic aspirations, just take a picture of the reactor alone. Luckily close to the spot where we were allowed to take pictures there was a area filled with small statues. I do not know why or when these statues - resembling radioactive mushrooms to me - were erected but they seemed to be a bit of a bad joke, or then nobody else thought them special.

The reactor is now under a temporary sarcofagus. The construction started a couple of months after the accident and has continued ever since with repairs and reinforcements done to critical spots. The building is considered to be too risky as to be left as the only protection and that is why they are now planning a large concrete shield to be erected on top of the existing sarcophagus.

I asked our guide for the long-term plan of this area, but she just replied with and desperate shrug. The radiation in the area will remain too high for the next 3 000 000 years because the half-life of some of the substances is 300 000 years and it will take another 10 half-lives before the level drops low enough. Some have suggested using the area as a site for nuclear waste, but the problem is that the area does not have solid enough rock.

I realized during the trip that I did not have a clear picture of what caused the accident. Our guide gave a vivid description of the chain of mistakes and bad luck that led to the fatal moment where the pressure inside the reactor grew too large during a scientific test. Rather than describing the different theories about the details of the accident, I refer the curious reader to the Wikipedia article of the Chernobyl accident.

Part five