Springtime in Chernobyl Part II

When the Easter break comes round some people like to holiday in Spain or Italy. Not so Portsmouth-based writer and planetary modeller David Angus. He plumped for Chernobyl and here’s the conclusion of his extraordinary tour of the post-disaster zone.

Not far from Chernobyl power station was a kindergarten.  The building’s colours were close to monotone and there was a statue at its roadside entrance of a young man with helmet in hand.  Originally intended as a memorial to those who died in World War II, it could also have been one to the disaster that had destroyed this place half a century later.

The guide took a reading of ground radiation with a handheld dosimeter about the size of a smallish torch. Airborne it was something like .14 microieverts. On the ground it was 24.  A lot of snow still lay around under the trees – most of which were still growing in most places – and the guide demonstrated by further readings what an effective shield snow was against ground radiation.  Let’s test this, I thought, and persuaded the guide to take further readings of areas of snow with brown spots of dirt on them. No increase at all. Then I picked the filthiest pile of slush I could see that you could still barely be called ice. I thought there must be real radioactivity there but the dosimeter only showed a small increase. Effective shield indeed and a valuable lesson in a place like this. It was to determine where I would be walking for the rest of this sojourn.

A radioactivity sign stood in front of the kindergarten. To venture inside was to do so at one’s own risk. The crazed Canadian did it anyway.

Not much further was the infamous power station itself.  Pylons proliferated like a weird stark forest over the trees. Water stretched in a wide moat down the right-hand side of the road, between us and two cooling towers, the iconic parts of power stations. But one was only partially built.

Other incomplete structures beyond the moat were the number five and six reactors, still bristling with cranes but abandoned since the 1986 disaster.  The reddish rusty hues of the central blocks suggested radiation scarred surfaces and unseen dangers made visible.

There was a curve in the moat and number four reactor was before us. It had a double steel-latticed ventilation chimney which formed the hump of the building with its concrete sarcophagus. That word gave a sinister religious feel to the place. ‘Cathedral of doom’ might be another way of describing it.

The closest point we could get to the reactor was round the other side. On our way there was a sight no less amazing and even more bizarre.  A line of old people – women I think – sweeping the road in front of us free of dust. I couldn’t imagine a more dangerous thing to do here! This never-ending job looked absurd but there was some logic linked in with the age of these people. Life expectancy is shorter here and older people had stayed in affected villages when others had fled, not only because it was what they were used to but because there was not much of life left for them anyway.

Number four reactor took up half of the whole lengthy building. Number three formed the other half; a mirror design of number four.  At 1.23 am on April 16th 1986, an experiment led to a catastrophic power increase, explosions and fires of a ‘roman candle’ fashion, according to one account. The result was the release into the atmosphere of radioactive fuel and core materials such as caesium-137, iodine-131 and strontium-90.

Its interior suffered radiation levels estimated to be as high as 10,000 rontgens per hour.  500 over 5 hours is a fatal dose. The core material melted into a glassy crystalline lava which broke through the concrete to create formations such as ‘The Elephant’s Foot.’ Highly radioactive with uranium and fission products and previously unknown, this new material came to be dubbed ‘Chernobylite.’ A brand new melanin-rich radiotropic fungi was observed too. How it had come about was the stuff of science fiction.

The viewing point was 300 metres from the reactor, marked by a stark sculpture of hands cupping the reactor and a lightning bolt. Airborne radiation was higher here – 9.574 microseiverts – though much less than that on the ground at the kindergarten. We could only point our cameras at this and the reactor, not at the new sarcophagus or ‘safe confinement’ under construction nearby.  Like a colossal broad steel arch it was nearly 350 feet high, over 800 feet across and 492 feet from side to side. It was necessary to slide this over number four reactor on parallel railway tracks then wall it up because in 2013 some of the sarcophagus already erected had collapsed. There could be more of this – along with radioactive dust being released – at any time. Such as when we were there!

We had our photos taken. Jocelyn, in a playful mood, pointed at my head and I did likewise. I felt she had our SF group in mind. At some point we discussed ways of freaking out the guy who ran it.  Behaving in a strange diseased fashion was one idea. Another I had was buying a packet of Ukrainian crisps as a gift and trying to con him I’d bought it at Chernobyl.

Workers strolled past, just as though this was any ordinary power station. As with the ladies sweeping dust on the road, the juxtaposition was surreal. Even weirder was the still-operational railway nearby that the workers used every day.

At a crossroads between the power station and Pripyat, an anvil-shaped monument flattened into a half arrow gave the name and pointed the way to that town. Flowers lay underneath it, as they might do over a grave. In the distance was a pole-shaped construction down a road through heath and the Red Forest, so-called because it had taken so much radiation when the disaster happened that the trees turned red. It looked like a warning for the guide told me one could pick up as much radiation there in an hour as one could normally pick up in a year anywhere else in the world. Just after I was told this, a car happily sped down that road!

Whether what I’d been told was true the radiation levels in the Red Forest can be as high as one Roentgen per hour; or 10,000 microseiverts per hour. Most science fiction tales of radiation mutations concentrate on giant dangerous animals but a few describe plants as well. I’d heard rumours of dandelion leaves a metre long at Three Mile Island and the Forest of Miracles at Chernobyl where conifers developed weird branching patterns and oak leaves grew to eighteen inches across. All rumours and nothing more though, it seemed. My research has come up with nothing on that since. The closest I’ve seen to it is a picture of a sunflower on Google whose dark circular centre is elongated so it looks like a huge furry caterpillar.

Never mind. Maybe there were no two-headed monsters or monsters period. There were plenty of wild boar, wolves and sizeable wildlife in these parts, some with deformities. Maybe there were no vegetable monstrosities but there were many random areas of forest and deserted landscape where the radiation could still kill a human being.

Pripyat was about a mile across, which is the length of the estate I live in. It was a modern town built in 1970 for the power station workers. Self-contained to the point of having its own amusement park. In 1986 the population there was 49,000.

Within a few hours of the explosion, dozens of people fell ill. Later, they reported severe headaches and metallic tastes in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting.

At 2pm on April 17th the evacuation of Pripyat began with the following announcement:

For the attention of the residents of Pripyat!

The city council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keeping people as safe and healthy as possible – the children being top priority – we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev and Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 at 2pm each apartment block will have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take with you your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case. The senior executives of the public and industrial facilities of the city have decided on the list of employees required to stay in Pripyat to maintain these amenities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, before leaving your residences please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water, and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.

‘Short term’ proved to be for however long the radioactive particles would last. Pripyat has been abandoned since and became an uncontrolled experiment showing what one possible future of mankind would look like. It was like time travelling to a post-holocaust world. Or to where two parallel worlds had met in the same place: a forest with a city.  In 26 years deciduous trees had had the time to grow from seedlings to saplings verging on mature woodland.  Pripyat’s broad boulevards flanked by modern apartment blocks had become tracks through gloomy woodland thickets flanked by the grey shells of those apartment blocks. That was our entrance to the town.

A ground radiation reading here showed 68.54 microseiverts. It seemed unwise to stay here for longer than a day. There was plenty of snow lying around which I made use of while exploring Pripyat, hoping there were no hidden holes where I was walking and watching my step. This wasn’t a good place to fall over.

It was supposed to be unsafe to venture into buildings here because they’d been abandoned long enough to become structurally unstable. There were also spattering waterfalls in and off the buildings here and there caused by melting snow, perhaps picking up dangerous particles on the way down.

That didn’t stop the Canadian inspecting what remained of a supermarket. Easy to enter because the glass front had gone. Later he did the same with part of a theatre exposed to the outside. Inside were big paintings of Soviet leaders including a stylised one of Lenin, strangely well-preserved. Could have been stage-managed for tourists, we concluded.

The Canadian also had his photo taken sitting in one of the carousel rides at the amusement park.  Metal can hold radiation quite well apparently since there’s more than one vehicle park around Chernobyl of ‘hot’ vehicles.  Elsewhere the dodgem cars retained much of their colour, as did the orange yellow carriages on the big wheel; standing out from sombre hues of woodland and sky in much the same way as that child in red in Schindler’s List contrasted starkly with the black and white and often brutal surroundings of the film.

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The guide took us to the football field. Not recognisable as such because of the wood growing there. The giveaway was on the far side. Seating structures and a stadium which could be made out between the tree trunks and their bare branches. In summer the man-made objects would be hidden by leaves.

After the stadium was a school, then a leisure centre. We saw a floor full of abandoned gas masks that had been issued to the children; a bizarre example of Cold War paranoia. When one is trapped in that paranoia, the state of fear existing on the other side is the first thing that’s overlooked. The manifestation of this within the school reminds me of one of Sting’s tracks called ‘Russians’ which put this sort of

thing exceptionally well:

            We share the same biology

            Regardless of ideology

            Believe me when I say to you

            I hope the Russians love their children too.

 Seems they did, or at least enough to provide each child here with misguided protection.

Back where we started, a tower block topped by a metal rosette design overlooked the natural reclamation of man-caused desolation. When this town was young with a ‘glowing’ future and centred on a blue circle indicating our world, which featured the hammer and sickle icon of what was now the old Soviet Union. So potent politically when I was young. But it was history now.  Now it looked like ideological folly; up there on top of a block darkened by the sun failing to break through an unhealthy looking sky of mottled clouds.

Words are inadequate to describe everything I found here so I’m ending our experience of Pripyat with a comment from the guide. He preferred this place to Kiev, said it was a rural idyll opposed to a big city too. I thought that was a stretch too far, but then I don’t live in this land.

Back out of this holocaust town; past the crossroads to catastrophe; past the gantries near the railway station towering over us like the giant insects of science fiction; past number four reactor, the cathedral of doom with its everyday workers; past where the sweeping women were engaged in the most hopeless tidying up job in history. Back along the moat, past the relics of unfinished reactors and forest of pylons

and then back down the road through ‘The Zone’ to Chernobyl town.  Where the telephone booths awaited one with their verdict, like a scientific judgement.

That brought it home to me. What would happen if the alarm sounded and would I live a normal life from then on?


Then there was a meal inside a workers’ cafeteria.  One was advised against eating anything outside. It was mostly salad. I hoped it hadn’t been grown locally.

Aisles of dark forest, huge plain-sized fields and dodging potholes. That was the journey back to Kiev. We saw one young lady waiting at what might have been a bus stop in the middle of nowhere on a mobile phone in a shiny designer brown suit. She looked very cheerful. Jocelyn and I wondered what the story there was?  ‘Professional’ perhaps?

To lighten the tedium of the rest of the journey here are a few Chernobyl jokes:

  • An old woman stands in the market with a “Chernobyl mushrooms for sale” sign. A man goes up to her and asks, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Who’s going to buy Chernobyl mushrooms?’ And she tells him, ‘Why, lots of people. Some for their boss, others for their mother-in-law…’
  • A grandson asks his grandfather ‘is it true that in 1986 there was an accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant?’ ‘Yes, there was,’ answered the Grandpa, patting the grandson’s head. ‘Grandpa, is it true that it had absolutely no negative consequences?’ ‘Yes, absolutely,’ answered the Grandpa, patting the grandson’s second head. (Often added ‘And they strolled off together, wagging their tails’).
  • A Soviet newspaper reports ‘last night the Chernobyl Nuclear Powerstation fulfilled the Five Year Plan for heat energy generation in four microseconds.’
  • Is it true that you can eat meat from Chernobyl? Yes, you may. But your feces would need to be buried in concrete five feet deep in the earth.

In a village just north of Kiev we caught up with civilisation and rush hour traffic while cats eyed us from the top of a wall. In Kiev cars are allowed to drive on the pavement, though slowly. We did this and then the driver left for a while with the Canadian while Jocelyn and I waited in the car, despite our destination being just down the street.

Eventually it was goodbye to the driver too and back to the hotel where I carried out my own decontamination procedure. Off and into bags with everything including the parka, a thorough shower for myself, put boots in shower clear of mat with soles facing other way from me, detach shower head and holding it close put it on maximum pressure to spray blast the boot soles while avoiding spray, do likewise with anything that comes off the soles washing anything that does down the hole, then lastly take bags and boots down to hotel washing and get the lot done! Yes, even and especially the boots.

It made me feel better anyway.

Photography by David Angus.