Touring Chernobyl and Pripyat (inside buildings)

Touring Chernobyl and Pripyat (inside buildings)

On the 24th, I finally made my trip to tour Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone, the highlight of my trip to Ukraine.
Background:
The Chernobyl disaster occurred on 26 April 1986 and was the worst nuclear disaster at its time, responsible for approximately 4,000 cancer related deaths according to the Chernobyl Forum, and international organization studying the effects of the incident. The Soviet government waited two days after the accident to notify the general population (using in a 20 second announcement on a TV news program). While the Soviet government initially tried to cover it up, it was brought to international attention when Sweden, 650 miles away, detected increased radiation levels. Only then did the Soviet government acknowledge a problem with the rest of the world.
The nearby town of Pripyat was not immediately evacuated and the people who finally left were told the evacuation would only last three days. As a result, the town of Pripyat is just as it was in 1986 – with almost everything left behind.  Meals were left half eaten in dining rooms and kids toys were left behind on the ground.
For more reading, see the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster
My experience:

We met in front of a hotel at 9:00am near the center of Kiev. From there, we got into a Mercedes van with a Russian speaking driver. He couldn’t speak any English and watched the show Prison Break on a TV mounted to his dashboard while he drove. We eventually got to the border of the exclusion zone, and we all got out of the car and had to show our passports. There was a warning sign and a map outside the gates showing the different levels of radiation.

The radiation warning at the entrance

The radiation warning at the entrance

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Our van we toured around in

After we passed through the first gate, we entered the town of Chernobyl. Some people still live here, either working for the nuclear power plant or just wanted to move back after the accident. We entered a building where we met our guide, Yuri, decked out in military fatigues.

Building where we met our guide

Building where we met our guide

Long sleeves and pants were required once we started getting closer to the nuclear plant

He briefly explained the history of Chernobyl and the 17 mile exclusion zone. After he finished his introduction, he asked me to read the waiver (because I was one of the only native English speakers), stating that we were going in at our own risk, and would not seek any legal action for any medical problems related to our visit. I took a picture of the form. Everyone printed and signed our names on the back, and then we took off in the van.

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Our first stop was at the site of an old stadium. Other than the seating near the trees, it just looks like a big field. Now it is the holding site of some tanks left over from 1986. Yuri reminded us that, yes, those radiation signs are real. The Geiger counter started beeping slowly and got to a constant beep as we got close to the tanks.

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Next we saw the abandoned ships (seems to be the general theme here). They were used to bring building materials for the Sarcophagus.

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We then made our way to the memorial for the firefighters. The fire was extinguished nearly 4 hours after the explosion, at 5:00am. The firefighters received fatal doses of radiation while extinguishing the fire. A firefighter later reported that he tasted metal in his mouth before dying of acute radiation sickness.

Memorial for the firefighters who died responding to the fire

Memorial for the firefighters who died responding to the fire

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We passed another checkpoint, and then saw the cooling towers for the power plant. At this point, Yuri insisted on everyone wearing long sleeves due to the radiation. I brought a light jacket and luckily it wasn’t too hot. Interestingly, he also mentioned that he thinks its healthier working in Chernobyl than Kiev because the air quality and pollution are so bad in Kiev. According to Alik, this isn’t too far from the truth.

We hardly saw anyone else was on the roads. We saw a few people who lived there, and we would pass a car every 10 minutes or so, but we were the only tour group.

Right next to the power plant was a canal (used to feed a lake for cooling) that had a bunch of fish in it, including a couple massive catfish. Yuri mentioned that their size wasn’t due to the radiation, but rather a lack of predators.

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We got right next to the 4th reactor, and the Geiger counter was going crazy. A guy in our group placed his hand on the ground to balance himself while taking a picture and got a pretty stern warning. If you get test for too much radiation, you get a nice chemical shower before leaving. It is estimated that it will be 20,000 years before the land here will be fully safe.

We then passed by the famous Pripyat sign marking the entrance to the abandoned city. Seeing Pripyat was by far the most interesting part of the tour.

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When we entered Pripyat, we passed an old hotel and the communism ministry.

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The sports and recreation center:

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Mural in the sports and recreation center.

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The library on the second floor had communist-era books like, “Protecting our Fatherland”.

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The indoor soccer and basketball court:

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You could still see the imprints of the soccer balls on the wall.

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Bumper car track. The town was getting ready for a May Day celebration on May 1st, less than a week away at the time the accident occurred. The Ferris Wheel has become an important landmark in the city.

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The second sports center, with the swimming pool that was seen in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Video of gameplay: http://youtu.be/jAZa1x6Wl9E?t=27m23s

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We got to explore by ourselves the inside of a school.

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Looks like the communist kids learned quadratic functions too.

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It looks like finding the area of a circle cut by chords:

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It was pretty erie seeing children’s books opened, practicing their hand writing.

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And finally, a gas mask sitting on a child’s desk:

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After the school, we left Pripyat and went back to Chernobyl to get some lunch/dinner around 4:30pm. It was typical Ukrainian food, nothing too exciting. Also, in typical Ukrainian fashion, there was plenty of dill on our plate. I swear, with the exception of McDonald’s, there has been dill in every dish I’ve had here. Don’t think I’m going to have that again for awhile. We then left Chernobyl and went through radiation testing at the edge of the exclusion zone. We walked through a machine, and then a security officer on the other side waved us through. They didn’t test our bags though (or look through them). I didn’t take anything, but it would have been cool to snag a communist book from Pripyat.

We then took the hour and thirty minute drive back to Kiev. We didn’t get to see that many of the housing complexes, but it was a good tour overall. I could have spent days there taking pictures, and maybe if I ever return, I’ll do a private tour instead. I got back to the apartment around 8:00pm and did my best to wash any radiation off of me.