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Chernobyl: Inside the Exclusion Zone

"Get off the moss - please, don't stand on the moss!" my heavily-accented Russian guide beckons me forward. I look down at the moss that has eaten over the asphalt and I jump forward, having forgotten myself. Yep. Radioactive moss. You are not supposed to stand on it - it's highly contaminated, and spending too much time dawdling off the paved surfaces in Chernobyl might cause the radiation scanners at the checkpoints to sound the alarm, and then you are at the mercy of the Ukrainian military police, and that does not sound like a pleasant place to be. So when they say "get off the moss," you get off the damn moss.

The Moss

Radiation scanners. You have to pass through several of these, especially when leaving at the end, and that one is extremely sensitive.

{Apologies for typos; I am using my travel keyboard which is quite temperamental}. I really think I need a t-shirt that says, "I was bitten by radioactive mosquitoes in Chernobyl," because I was. Those buggers are everywhere! I'm told it's not a problem. I remain skeptical.

My guides took me on a journey through the Chernobyl area that took two days, and included a stay in a little hotel that had a warning sign in the room about what to do should the other Reactors fail. I was most touched by our exploration of Pripyat, the city. Talk about a ghost town; this was a ghost CITY. Overgrown with radioactive woods that grow quickly and have all but taken the entire city.

The city of Pripyat pictured, with the new containment done (the new sarcophagus they finished in 2016) atop the Reactor in the distance. I explored apartment buildings, the amusement park, the hospital, the woods, elementary schools and many apartments. Oh, did I mention it was highly illegal to enter any of the buildings? Yes, my guides did mention that fact. There are military police who keep a lookout to keep people out of these highly contaminated areas. When I asked my escort about the repercussions of our highly obvious law breaking, they just shrugged. "If ze police catch us, we bribe them. Is okay." Oh, I'm sure that's okay. Thank you for making me a Ukrainian felon, guys! Honestly, though, it was worth the risk. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, entering those buildings. (You don't get to do that in larger groups - too risky)! We had to keep our voices down and walk quietly. We did not get caught.

Inside the hospital.

Inside a school.

Inside an apartment's kitchen.

Pripyat fire station - first responders There was a lot of outdoor stuff that was amazing to see also, though nothing compared to the energy and silence inside those buildings. Overall it was highly hazardous - manhole covers missing, and materials were stripped from virtually everything during mass looting after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This leaves jagged metal and glass everywhere you step. I paid special attention as to where I put my feet, and often contemplated the date of my last tetanus shot.

Some debris we had to pick through. It was like this everywhere - even buildings I explored in near-darkness.

Amusement park

We even happened upon a herd of radioactive horses, who forage on the abandoned streets.

I have a link to more photos with more information about my experience below. Please enjoy! Here is more information about the event:

The Exclusion Zone of the Chernobyl distaster covers 1,000 square miles, and includes nearly 200 abandoned cities, towns and villages. (If any of my figures are off, it is only because it was information lost in translation). On April 26, 1986, Nuclear Reactor Number 4 of the Chernobyl power plant was undergoing routine maintenance, when staff members decided to run a test to see if enough electricity remained to power the cooling systems while the power was off, so they turned off the emergency cooling system that was running. Pressure built, resulting in a steam explosion, followed by a nuclear explosion. At 1:26AM it blew 500 tonnes of radioactive material over Belarus and Ukraine. Some of the material was windblown as far as Sweden, whose scientists were the first to announce the disaster.

Photos of the disaster are few and far between - the radiation killed the inner workings of many cameras and even today, some visitors' cameras die. The government at the time did not say a word to the public. No public health announcements were made and life carried on as usual for the next 24 hours. They even insisted that the May Day celebration parade in nearby Kiev carry on as usual - so instead of people sealing themselves up inside their homes to avoid contamination, citizens partied in the streets and open air as planned, exposing thousands and thousands of people unnecessarily to severe radiation. In Pripyat, the city closest to the power plant, they said they had had a fire, but there was no concern and it was under control. Their aim was to avoid starting a panic, and they even opened the amusement park that morning as if nothing was wrong. They were sending in military and scientists and citizens could not help but notice the increased activity near the plant. The readings grew higher and higher, then they made the decision - they would evacuate the city of Pripyat, a population of some 50,000 people. They brought in a thousand busses from Kiev and the city was emptied within three hours. The people were told they would return in a few days, and could only take their money and some food to eat in transit. Night shift workers, asleep at home during the day were roused and removed in nothing but their underwear. People could not bring their pets, and within days the military went through and ran some tests on their fur - they were highly contaminated. They systematically swept through both the cities and the countryside and shot every animal on sight. Despite giving everything up, the citizens of Pripyat were still exposed to harmful - and lethal - doses of radiation. Over the next few weeks they evacuated all the small towns and villages around Pripyat, maybe 188 settlements. The older generation, recalling the German occupation, did not believe the government's claims and refused to leave. There were around 4,000 who chose to stay. Most have died, but there are still 150 of them left, who still live out their lives as elder pensioners in the Exclusion Zone.

Meanwhile, the battle for containment raged. The fire was out of control and quickly spreading to the Reactor next door. If the next Reactor also blew, it would have taken out half the population of Europe. Trains and busses came into the major cities in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, ready to evacuate entire portions of those countries. Firemen came in and hosed down the fire until it stopped. But the water pooled underneath the Reactor and the floor began to cave underneath it. This was a distasterous scenario; the entire water supply for the city of Kiev sat right underneath. It was a race against time. They called in miners from Russia, not telling them the dangers. They dug a tunnel underneath the Reactor to line with concrete and stop the spread of radioactivity to the water supply. It worked. Thousands upon thousands of miners, firemen and military personnel died in the fight to prevent the spread of contamination, never even knowing the danger. They even took off their protective coats and masks during the work, due to the intense heat. Over the next few months they brought in Liquidators from the Soviet army, giving them a choice - they could serve two months in Afghanistan, or two minutes shoveling radioactive waste in cleanup efforts. Many chose their two minutes of shoveling and died.

They built a containment sarcophagus around Reactor Number 4 and sat back to catch their breath. Then followed a massive government cover-up. The records of what truly happened here were not released until the 1990's, and even today we don't have an accurate account of the number of people who suffered, sickened and died. Even today there are millions in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia who are born into and live with severe radiation defects, missing arms and legs and having other deformities. It was luck of the draw, carried on the wind. Where it landed it has caused hot spots of contamination that will take hundreds of thousands of years to clear up.

  • Picture of me standing next to the Chernobyl Reactor that blew (under it's shiny new containment dome!) and aside the memorial that was built for those who sacrificed themselves to save the world. Or as I see it, those who were sacrificed by their government to do so, as they were uniformed as to the fact that they were, indeed, sacrificing themselves. The man in power who made the judgement call on withholding this information later committed suicide. His colleagues insist they do not regret it, and that it was done to save the world. They had no choice. I understand both.

I believe we need to curb all dependency on Nuclear power - as well as weaponry. After Fukushima, the people of Ukraine relived an intense amount of grief. They have been trying to warn the world this whole time, and the message has not been heeded. They have been slowly shutting down the remaining Reactors - a process that will take decades. A crew of 4,000 people live and work in the Exclusion Zone in two-week shifts to accomplish this. They encourage the rest of the world to do the same. It was truly like seeing an unwanted glimpse of the future, if we continue down a path that maintains the threat of Nuclear arms. For the people of that region, it WAS the Apocalypse.

Painting: artist depiction of the Apocalypse at Chernobyl

Memorial to Fukushima, in Chernobyl I can only imagine the celebration that would be held in Chernobyl if the world were to begin the process of dismantling Nuclear arms and power sources. I find I can imagine it very well. Photo album of my time in Chernobyl: (You will have to copy and paste and open it to a separate browser window).

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