We went to Chernobyl.
“wow, I’d love to go there”
is the typical response when we say that. Those excited about it need no explanation, for the “why” crowd, read on.
If you grew up in the 70s and 80s you knew of the nuclear stand off between America and the USSR. That there were nuclear weapons was a point of fact, as much as there were enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the earth 10 times, 50 times, 100 times, or whatever the latest scare story was. So whilst you were aware of it, it was such a part of the nature of life it faded into the background and you got on with life.
Then in 1986 news stories broke that something that had happened in Russia. Atlases were pulled off shelves to see where Ukraine was, experts were found and bought before the cameras to be quizzed on television, articles published, all with the underlying theme that something had happened but no one knew what.
Then word started to come out that a nuclear power plant had exploded. Again, in the vacuum of any real information, the rumours began to fly. As more information came to light it appeared that there had been a release of nuclear material and now, potentially, a deadly cloud was drifting over Europe toward these shores.
We were told not to go out in the rain if we could avoid it, there were TV shots of cows being analysed with a radiation detector as they ate grass! We know the French meteorological service told the French people that the prevailing winds meant the cloud would miss France completely, but of course we know now it didn't.
So for people of a certain age it's an event locked in the collective memory, a point where it could have all gone wrong. And, it can be argued, it led to a place that saw the end of the arms race.
Over time what happened has faded into the background until it came up in conversation that herself had always wanted to visit. A throwaway remark.
Fast forward and we're talking about a trip away, the usual game of “What about…” that we all play, trying to factor in so many things needed to make a trip work. During this I was reminded of Chernobyl and a quick Google showed there were tours from Kyiv. Another quick Google showed we could get flights and hotel (including time in Kyiv) for £500, which we booked lest it was a mistake!!!
Then we found you could do two days tours, where you stayed in the zone overnight so you could explore late on day one and start early on day two. That led us to chernobylwel.com, great reviews online, a website that details every bit of info you could want. So we booked that too.
So that was it.
We went to Chernobyl.
Whilst I thought I knew what to expect it was amazing beyond expectation. It’s definitely something I would recommend people do, especially if you are of our peer group, more so if you are not since it gives you an insight into what it takes to deal with a massive disaster.
There was some soul searching. There is talk about how nuclear can provide a bedrock of clean power when renewables are not viable, yet we see what happens when nuclear goes wrong. For me though the shock of the disaster only hit on the flight home.
Because of the Russian obsession with secrecy the death toll from the disaster was kept as low as possible so as to make people believe it wasn’t bad. We didn’t tour the power plant so perhaps this would have occurred sooner but the control room to reactor 4 is a no go zone since its part of the incident. And I’ve worked in critical control rooms. I know what happens when it all goes wrong. There are a number of factors that led to the Chernobyl disaster but the following is my take on one aspect of it from a personal viewpoint. From someone who has been there when it went wrong albeit without the consequences they faced, stand for a moment in their shoes.
Silence. A moment frozen in time. And you stare. Trying to take it all in. The only thing in that moment is the beat of your heart, so loud, insistent, fast. And then, with a whoosh, all the noise returns. The alarms chirping, clanging, ringing, the klaxon shouting to tell you it's gone wrong. Horribly wrong. Not that you need the sounds and flashing lights to tell you, you're there and you've watched it unfold and everything you've tried, your colleagues, your friends, your brothers and sisters in arms, has been for nought or made it worse. You've had the training, you've read the processes written long ago and in a faraway place of peace and quiet, where the theoretical scenarios were discussed, mapped out, thought through and dissected until they had all the angles covered. Except they didn't cover everything. How do you know? You're stood there in front of a panel telling you it's all going horribly wrong, that's it's going from bad to worse. You say a silent prayer that it's an instrument error, a mistake, a fault somewhere that someone will find and the silence will return. Military men say there is no atheist in a fox hole. Well I can tell you that it doesn't matter your religion, or lack thereof, right there and then you'll ask for divine intervention. Anything that could help.
Early in the morning on 29th April 1986 reactor 4 at Chernobyl Lenin power station suffered a catastrophic failure. The result of this is now known across the world. We've learnt much from what happened at Chernobyl, my thoughts and prayers (allow me the cliché ) are with those who gave their lives, and those who continue to suffer the after effects of what happened. Especially those in the control room of reactor 4 who died trying to avert disaster, I've stood in those shoes, and I’ll admit luck played its part that meant I walked away, so I’m here to tell the tale but I've known the fear. To them I say, thank you for trying. I hope you are at peace knowing you tried against all the odds.
Visiting the Exclusion Zone is a sobering experience. It is something that brings home the fragility of life and also the role Government plays in deciding what is important for the citizens of a country to know about.
Anyone who is thinking about going should make the trip. It isn’t all about power stations and radiation. It is an insight into the lives of normal Ukrainian citizens working and living in the shadow of a potentially lethal environment and how in one night their lives changed forever.
Today Reactor 4 is covered in a large sarcophagus, a shield to contain the radiation that is present within the burnt out shell. It is a feat of engineering and dominant on the skyline from the whole of the City of Pripyat. A city that no-one will ever live in again.
Radiation is present, some areas more than others, but rules are strict and monitoring continuous. You will not find yourself in a dangerous area and if you follow your guide you will receive less radiation during your time in the zone than you would on a trans-Atlantic flight.