Inside a Nuclear Reactor – The OMFG Chernobyl Tour
Chernobyl isn’t abandoned. Indeed, compared to most modern-day post-Soviet towns of this size, Chernobyl is downright tidy, and for this part of the world everything seems maybe a little too orderly. There’s a strangely noticeable lack of advertising in the city streets. Cars drive around much slower than in other Ukrainian cities. And at night, you don’t really see anybody walking around – aside from the odd packaged Chernobyl tour escapee.
On the main street, which Google Maps calls Unnamed Road, there’s one of the last remaining statues of Lenin in de-communised Ukraine, located prominently inside a neat park. Around Lenin there’s a few markets, at least two hotels, a police station, the city hall, schools, houses, apartments, and a post office. You’ll even find a local bar – situated behind an old curtain inside the market on Unnamed Road.
Midway through the evening, the bar is usually empty. The working-class folks that live in Chernobyl mostly get to bed early. The point is, despite the popular misconception – Chernobyl in 2018 certainly is a real town, with real residents, and it’s been like this for a surprisingly long time.
Over eight hundred years ago, Chernobyl first appeared in a charter document of the Kievan Rus’ federation. Born in the heartland of the shared cultural descendants of modern-day Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine, Chernobyl remained a small part of an influential empire that went on to shape the world.
As time unfolded, like all other empires Kievan Rus’ ultimately vanished, or more correctly, evolved into something else. Over the centuries Chernobyl was passed through the hands of Lithuania, Poland, Russia, the Soviet Union, and Ukraine – always outlasting the various Kings, Queens, Dictators, and Presidents that ruled over these ancient lands.
The enduring legend of Chernobyl may have been only formed recently – by cataclysmal accident – but on most days over the last eight hundred years, nothing much happened here. Mostly, life was pretty normal. However, when collected century to century, the horrors of this town mirrors the history of the entire world. War. Famine. Ethnic cleansing. Catastrophe. Chernobyl is perhaps the smallest perfect example of all humanity.
Founded in 1970 just down the road from Chernobyl, Pripyat would become a model example of contemporary Soviet city planning and modern living. Pripyat was a type of “closed city”, and the ninth “nuclear city” of the Soviet Union. The city attracted a skilled workforce who assembled the first nuclear power plant on Ukrainian soil, and soon became one of the most desirable places to live in all of the USSR.
Although many Soviet-era closed-cities were guarded and off-limits to outsiders, visiting Pripyat wasn’t as restricted. The Soviet’s viewed nuclear power stations as much safer than other types of power plants, scientific marvels of Soviet engineering and progress, and the source of energy for peaceful projects. By 1977, Chernobyl nuclear reactor number one was up and running – located just three kilometers from Pripyat city, and clearly visible from the windows of many apartments.
A stroll to the plant (work-site for much of the population) would take you through neighbourhoods clad with neon lights and Soviet-modernist architecture. Pripyat itself is larger than most people realise – educational facilities alone included seventy-five primary schools, nineteen secondary schools, and seven professional schools. Ten gymnasiums were built, along with a couple of stadiums, several theatres, department stores, restaurants, cinemas, and the theme park. People lived inside one of over thirteen thousand apartments, all surrounded by lush forest and pristine lakes filled with wildlife.
By 1978, a year after nuclear reactor number one, Chernobyl reactor number two was commissioned. In 1981, reactor number three, and by 1983, there were four nuclear reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. All four were located side-by-side, just outside the Pripyat city limits.
Construction began on Chernobyl reactor five and six – they’ll never be finished.
I remember the Chernobyl disaster. At the time, I was a teenager on the other side of the planet. Viewed through the fog of Soviet inaccessibility and Western media reporting, a strangely nostalgic set of apocalyptic images were etched deep into my mind. I knew little about nuclear melt-downs, the Soviet Union, Communism or “the” Ukraine as it was known back then.
Certainly, I never expected to be organising Chernobyl tours through this wasteland.
Of course, in 2018 Pripyat city is well and truly abandoned. In winter, Pripyat looks even more dystopian, if such a thing is possible at the worlds largest abandoned city. Snow is thick on the ground, ice clings to rusted metal in strange needle formations. There are no leaves on the trees, and without overgrown forest to block the ground-level view, it’s easy to see the enormity of what happened here. At this time of year, everything visually matches what your imagination tells you an abandoned radioactive fallout-zone should actually look like.
Recently, I ventured into “the Zone” for the fifth time. With three full days to lead our group, this time we really wanted to see more than the usual Chernobyl tour. Fortunately, for myself and Darmon (my collaborator on these Chernobyl tours), it worked out that way. With more time than usual, we explored beyond Pripyat, to see the more remote corners of the Zone.
After gaining special permission, and confirming that the snow-laden roads were somewhat passable, we drove for several hours to within meters of the Belarus Border. Along the way, we stopped at the remains of a Soviet-era collective farming depot, various office blocks, and warehouses. Compared to the more tourist-devoured schools in Pripyat, the schools out here remained plastered with posters and paintings, adorning the halls and classrooms. Projectors, films, vinyl records, and other educational aids were still present, and I noticed the equipment levels of these Communist-era classrooms compared favourably to my own high-school experience in the “West”.
In another village, we enjoyed a candle-lit picnic lunch inside and unexpectedly well-kept Orthodox church. The paintings on the domed ceiling were vibrant, donation boxes were full of cash, and clearly (inside an off-limits radioactive exclusion zone) the church was still in occasional use. This may be a secret place for Chernobyl tourists, but it’s just the local church to the many people that once lived around here.
Although Chernobyl tourism is increasing, the Zone isn’t exactly a hot-bed of camera-slinging tourists. Annually, many estimates put the number of visitors at ten-thousand – an average of twenty-seven per day. Almost all Chernobyl tours are groups of day-trippers being herded quickly through the same locations, the Exclusion Zone covers a very large area that’s more popular in the warmer seasons, and not surprisingly – during our three days in the Zone we seemed to be alone. Just like last winter.
We had arranged to stay just outside of Chernobyl town in a nearby village, rather than using one of the hotels normally booked by “other” Chernobyl tour groups. Our home for three days became a loose collection of three houses in a small village on the edge of the Exclusion Zone. We had two homes for us to sleep in, and a third house where we would communally eat.
I stayed at one small house, along with our guide. He’s been navigating people through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for many years on hundreds (perhaps thousands) of occasions. After spending much time within Chernobyl together, we’ve become friends. Late one night, he didn’t seem as relaxed as normal.
“Nate, I’ve never been inside the reactor, and I’m a little scared of the radiation tomorrow.”
We received special permission to tour through Chernobyl reactor number two, just meters away from the most dangerous piece of human waste on the entire planet. In the morning, we would be heading inside, and the man who spends half of his life in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was truly nervous.
Reactor two is not the site of the original disaster – that would be reactor four. Apparently, they’re looking for “volunteers” to enter reactor four to take some measurements and readings. However, more than 95% of the radioactive material remains inside, so it’s definitely a one-way journey.
People continue to work inside the other once-nuclear-power-producing reactors at Chernobyl. Although the Soviet’s knew how to quickly build a nuclear power station, dismantling the remaining Chernobyl reactors is not scheduled to be completed for another sixty-five years.
“This is Ukraine, we have no money, and the sixty-five-year plan was the cheapest option.” He laughed.
Anton was an affable employee of the power station, our guide throughout the Chernobyl reactor tour. The entry process involved removing our clothes and putting on the supplied “uniforms”. From hard-hats to cloth footwear, no clothing would be leaving the controlled area we were about to enter. Demonstrably, Anton’s English was perfect.
“Fucking shit it’s cold in here!”.
It was below zero inside the reactor building – incredibly cold – like being inside a refrigerator set a little colder than it should be. We would be inside for a couple of hours, and our thin jacket-less uniforms were more appropriate for spring break in Florida.
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough money in Chernobyl to buy warm jackets. Not for tourists, not for Anton, and not for many of the other workers inside the reactor. With more than a little irony, the site of four nuclear power stations now can’t obtain enough electricity to provide for room heaters. Many rooms were not only cold but also dark. In general, lighting is a little sparse throughout the decaying nuclear-reactor. Many internal walls of the station are crumbling. In places, the floors seem to be melting.
Joining the four reactors, the main thoroughfare is a straight passage hundreds of meters long known as the “Golden Corridor”. Endless slabs of golden aluminum-clad walls, the space is decorated intermittently with security cameras, over-sized warning lights, and Bakelite telephones. Even the doors along the corridor are clad with the same fluted golden aluminum, so not to interrupt the architect’s original concept. A nice touch is the floor – laid with linoleum that wouldn’t be out of place in the kitchen of any Ukrainian grandmother.
When one door along the corridor opened, a mustached older man exited and passed by. Before the door closed, inside the room I caught a glimpse of five other men. They were all sitting around a table, in the semi-darkness, staring at each other, completely silent, flanked by an enormous bank of 1980’s control panels full of blinking light bulbs and gauges. They were wearing the same uniforms as us – but some of them even had company-issued jackets. On the back of the jackets, the nuclear power station name is hand-written – there’s no money for patches, nor embroidery, at Chernobyl.
We spent time in the control room of reactor two, and listened to stories of the fateful night when it all went wrong. Another man with a mustache stood in a dark corner, away from the group, and quietly watched us. Continuing through the reactor, we stopped occasionally and waited as Anton negotiated security checkpoints, submitted paperwork, and gained permission for us to journey even deeper.
Reality slowly slipped away. By this point, my mind had turned this entire experience into the coldest, saddest, most perfect movie I’ve ever seen.
The holy-fucking-mother-of-god moment was entering ground zero of Reactor Two. An enormous space, with the focal point being a huge grid laid out on the floor, the array where uranium dioxide rods were once inserted to generate nuclear power. We gingerly walked onto the structure. Behind the array there’s a pile of, something, loosely covered with a transparent plastic sheet, haphazardly stacked behind a couple of small, crooked, warning signs joined together by a single piece of flimsy barrier tape. From memory, Anton described this pile of something as “something something blah blah it’s really radioactive, don’t go over there”.
Radiation has no colour. No smell. You can’t see radiation, it merely has a voice, brought to life by the beeping and screeching of the Geiger-counter that Anton was carrying. We all had personal dosimeters attached to our thin white coats, to be checked for our accumulated dosage at the end of our unique tour. The fact is, radiation may be an invisible killer, but detecting radiation is easy – even with equipment that sometimes looks like it’s from 1986 (and mostly, is).
There’s also an assumption that other human beings have a primal instinct to protect their own health, their jobs, and therefore, to protect visiting tourists. We were given the all clear at the numerous checks.
After our tour of the reactor core, an invitation was extended to watch some movies about power generation in Ukraine. But, given our limited time in the Exclusion Zone we respectfully declined – instead choosing to get much warmer by heading back outside into the freezing snow.
Currently, we’re in a golden-age for Chernobyl tourism. Things are under control. The short-lived more dangerous radioactive isotopes have decayed. This may sound like armchair science, but the fact is – a Chernobyl visitor receives a lower radiation dosage than a tourist flying across the Atlantic.
Pripyat now has the same level of background radiation as many other cities on our planet. Undergoing a CT scan will expose you to significantly more radiation than you would receive as a tourist in Chernobyl. Although there are some radioactive “hot-spots” to avoid, if you follow the instructions of an experienced, professional, Chernobyl tour guide, radiation is not something a well-behaved visitor needs to be concerned about.
Recently, the New Safe Containment sarcophagus was slid into place around reactor number four. However, by early next century and the lifespan of the shield will be over, and we’ll need another way to contain the very deadly “Elephant’s Foot”.
Located at ground-zero of reactor four, the Elephants Foot is a twisted melted mass of the most dangerous debris humans could possibly create. Here, every second of close exposure provides the same radioactive dosage as one-thousand chest x-rays. Within a few seconds, anyone near to this spot will experience dizziness and fatigue. A minute later – vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and your cells will begin to hemorrhage. For centuries to come, spending five minutes near the Elephant’s Foot will result in certain death.
Deep within Chernobyl reactor four, the lethal radiation will remain far into the future. It’s going to be extremely difficult – perhaps even unlikely – to leave future generations with understandable and comprehensible warnings of the dangers that lie within. People of the year 21,986 AD may have nothing more than scribbles and fables, passed down through the generations, about an ancient and obscure sect of people that lived around here.
Slowly, the Elephant’s Foot continues to melt through the floor. Were it to come in contact with the pools of groundwater below the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, another explosion will occur at the reactor, sending dangerous radioactive particles into the sky, falling over Ukraine, Europe, and all around the world.
On the bright side (assuming nothing else goes wrong), in twenty-thousand years from now, the land around the historical town of Chernobyl will once again be considered safe enough for human habitation.
This is the best possible way I can imagine spending my winter.
PS, Darmon and I have decided to run our Winter Kiev and Chernobyl Tour one last time, and we would love you to join us for this adventure in 2019. For all the information on our only 2019 tour through this fascinating part of the world, click —> Kiev and Chernobyl Tour : Winter 2019.