In the early morning hours of April 26th 1986 disaster struck the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP). Official accounts are subjective but it has been widely reported that a scheduled test of the reactor led to a catastrophic failure and explosion that blew the roof off of reactor 4. The explosion ejected parts of the burning nuclear core into the surrounding area and high into the atmosphere. The disaster led to heroic efforts of 500,000 civil and military personnel called ‘liquidators’ who were tasked with cleaning up the contamination site and hastily constructing a shell dubbed ‘the sarcophagus’ to contain the radiation of reactor 4. As a result of the explosion, dozens died instantly; thousands have/will die from radiation-linked cancer and over 600,000 were exposed to high levels of radiation.
31 years later I left the US headed to Kiev, a country made famous in for the world’s worst nuclear disaster. I spent 15-hours confined to the pressurized cabin of an aircraft zooming across the Atlantic Ocean, wondering what the Ukraine had in store for me?
I had done my homework, or so I thought
This disaster has always piqued my interest; It left a void that could only be filled by exploring it. I wanted to see the devastation, I wanted to document everything about it. I live a relatively normal life with no crazy death wish which left me concerned about exposure to radiation levels while in the exclusion zone, so I opted to bring a dosimeter which logged my accumulated exposure while there.
I sought a local company to safely guide me into the exclusion zones and to handle the paperwork required for entry. I began my tour at 07:00 with a 2.5 hour drive to the exclusion zone.
30km exclusion zone
The first sign of this disaster starts 30km from the ChNPP – It’s a plain building with military personnel who control access to the area. Inside the 30km zone, radiation levels are low, however there are pockets of medium-high levels of radiation that will awaken your dosimeter. Moderate (sensible) protective measures were recommend. Public access to permitted by applying for access through the zone administration department.
Visit: Duga Radar (Duga-1 array)
10km exclusion zone
There is where stuff gets real. Once inside the 10km zone, radiation levels CAN be extremely high, expect your dosimeter to chirp loudly and regularly. It’s required to wear long sleeves and pants to minimize exposure to alpha and beta ionizing radiation particles. Exposure to Gamma radiation is inevitable in this zone as only lead will block it. The best way to minimize your exposure to Gamma radiation is time and distance (get as far away as quickly as possible). Public access is approved (again) through the zone administration department and enforced by military check point.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
On the way back from a long day exploring the exclusion zone with lots of chirping from my dosimeter, our tour guide give us one small factoid that left me speechless.
She said “the average person on this tour was exposed to 0.003 mSv – 0.004 mSv of radioactivity.”
I grabbed by dosimeter and saw 0.0032 mSv of accumulated exposure for the day.
She proceeded to say “any of you traveling from overseas received more radiation from the plane ride here”
Naturally, I [instantly] called bullshit. I hopped on google and found this site. I plugged in my flight to Kiev and it read 0.07256 mSv – HOLY SHIT! She was right!
A generation later
The scars of April 23, 1986 are slowly healing with the help of the people who created them. The New Safe Containment structure is in place to secure and protect the the world’s worst man-made disaster. Mother nature is reclaiming the uninhabited portions of the exclusion zone. Structures in Pripyat are slowly decaying, collapsing and returning back to the landscape it once was. With each passing year the radiation decay makes long lasting effects less and the healing from our mistakes more prevalent. Forests are growing back and wild life is slowly making a return.
If you’re at all interested in visiting the exclusion zone, I would highly recommend it. It is not glamorous, but a sobering history lesson in how man-made mistakes can affect humanity so drastically.