Chernobyl: life on the ashes
Chernobyl: life on the ashes

The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant occurred on the night of April 26, 1986. After the explosion, the fire in the reactor was covered with water, a mixture of sand, lead, clay and boron. There are 120 kilometers from the Chernobyl NPP to Kiev, and only 11 to the border with Belarus. The radiation spread over 200,000 square kilometers. The USSR government tried to hide the catastrophe in the first hours. As a result, the evacuation of people began only two days later. More than 115,000 people left their homes. Most of them were resettled to neighboring districts of the Kiev region. A new city of Slavutich was built for the workers of the station.

About 600,000 liquidators have overcome the consequences of the accident. Greenpeace claims the total death toll from the Chernobyl disaster is a quarter of a million. However, the station continued to produce atomic energy until December 2000. Now, the ChNPP does not produce electricity and is in the stage of conservation.

Going by minibus from Kiev takes 1.5 hours. Then, we get the control point of entry-exit to the Exclusion Zone. The security of the Chernobyl Zone controls it. You can enter only by presenting your passport and ticket. A barrier blocks the passage. Cameras record the movement. The Zone is fenced by barbed wire. The guide warns that you cannot take pictures of the checkpoint. There are several buses at the entrance to the Zone.

Why do tourists go to the Exclusion Zone?

A girl from the Czech Republic has always dreamed of seeing the scene of the accident.

“I first heard about Chernobyl when I was still a child. I knew that one day I would come here. And I really wanted to come. That’s why I’m here. All my friends are delighted, they want to know more and then come. I will share my impressions with them. And I really hope that they will come too”.

A Spaniard from the city of Zaragoza first says that he traveled around Ukraine, and drove to Chernobyl on the way.

“I came to Ukraine and saw what a big country it is. Everything is changing here very quickly now. Parts of the old authentic world create a unique combination with modernity. I went to Chernobyl because it is a unique place. There is no such thing anywhere else. The disaster changed this area forever.”

A couple from Denmark came because they heard positive reviews:

“I have considered this story interesting and informative all my life. When tourist routes opened in the Zone, my friend came here immediately. He said it was an incredible experience for him. And he believes that this place will have a huge tourism boom. Therefore, we arrived before tourists overrun it.”

The first tourists could officially and legally see the station in 2011. The Ministry of Emergency Situations of Ukraine gave the permission to visit the Exclusion Zone. And the Association of Chernobyl Tour Operators says that the number of tourists has grown by 30% over the past year. The State Agency of Ukraine for the Management of the Exclusion Zone does not confirm the growth in the number of tourists. However, they note that most of the visitors are foreigners.

Three guys came from London to look at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which everyone has heard:

“The Chernobyl disaster happened even before we were born. After the release of the HBO series, all my friends talk about it. We got to Ukraine by accident. And while we are here, it would be a crime not to come here. We came just to see and to learn about the place where life stood still 34 years ago. This trip was a little strange, but really exciting and very interesting.”

What’s wrong with the HBO series?

The world saw the series, which the British are talking about, last year. They talk about the events of April 26, when the reactor exploded. Besides, there is information about the evacuation and the fight against the consequences. There is a fragment in one of the episodes where Ukraine and Belarus will turn into a desert. 50,000,000 inhabitants will die out in these territories. And this zone will be uninhabitable for 100 years.

Obviously, eyewitnesses of the 1986 events do not agree with this interpretation of the issue. They believe that the timing of events is shown correctly, but the main characters are revealed inaccurately. However, the filmmakers delicately avoid discussions without getting into an argument. A film genre is a feature film.

The former head of the radiation reconnaissance platoon, Sergei Mirny, knows every trail of the Chernobyl Zone. He is not an easy liquidator of the Chernobyl accident. The Zone has become his second home. He says that the film is the best that has been made about Chernobyl. However, he also adheres to the idea that people, their relationships in the team, are showed unreliable.

For example, he cites the history of his radiation reconnaissance detachment. His detachment daily bypassed the territory around the ChNPP along and across. They walked dozens of kilometers every day with the special equipment on the shoulders. The heat was not less than 35-37C. The scouts recorded the level of radiation pollution with dosimeters. We know that it fell out in spots after the explosion. Weather conditions formed the western trail through the coniferous forest, and the northern trail through the lakes and swamps.

Information on the contamination of the territory in the 30-kilometer zone was collected manually. All coordinates and measurement data were drawn on maps. Then the same indicators were combined with lines. Thus, maps of radiological contamination were created taking into account the terrain. These maps still exist. It is unbelievable to imagine this amount of work. However, there is no information about radiation reconnaissance in the HBO film.

What about radioactive waste?

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant does not produce energy today. To take it out of service, you need to drain the nuclear fuel from the reactors. There is a lot of uranium, left at the ChNPP, for 12 reactor loads. And one load is 200 tons. That is, in general, the station has more than 2,400 tons of uranium now. The management will store this fuel until they find a way to modify it. But this is the task of future generations.

A plant for processing liquid radioactive waste has already been built in the 10-kilometer zone. The State Architectural and Construction Inspectorate has confirmed that the plant complies with the current building codes and requirements. Over the next 10 years, the plant has to process the radioactive waste accumulated as a result of the operation of the ChNPP. Also, there is the first solar power plant in the 10-kilometer zone. Besides, the government plans to build a wind farm.

Reprocessing of nuclear fuel and radioactive waste is only one of the challenges for Ukrainians. Only 9 years have passed since the explosion at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima. And the Japanese already want to return the affected lands into operation. Japan is not Ukraine: the territory is small; every square meter of land is worth its weight in gold. The contaminated soil is removed there and packed in bags, then disposed of in special cemeteries. Ukraine could have followed this path. But they did not – there is a lot of land here.

What does Chernobyl sound like today?

It is quiet here. The Chernobyl nuclear power plant is no longer buzzing. Seagulls, swallows and storks fly in the sky. Ecologists of the Chernobyl Radiation-Ecological Biosphere Reserve believe that the Exclusion Zone is the best scientific laboratory in the open air. The official opening of the reserve took place a few years ago. However, work on studies of the effect of radiation on nature began just a couple of years after the accident.

About a third of the exclusion zone is open landscapes that formed on the site of former agricultural land. They have become analogs of steppes and meadows. They need animals that consume vegetation for a more efficient functioning of the ecosystem. For this purpose, Przewalski’s horses were brought to the Zone 20 years ago.

The abandoned houses and hangars no longer frighten animals. They use them to wait out the bad weather. Horses do not approach people, but they do not run away either. They roam both in the steppe part and in the forest. Several individuals have moved to live on the Belarusian territory. Bears and wolves come from Belarus to Ukraine from time to time. And foxes have learned to be friends with humans in the Exclusion Zone.

Environmentalists regret that Pripyat has very poor fauna. The concrete city does not attract animals. Those of them who prefer rocky terrain live in it. Kestrels settle on the balconies. Vipers and snakes warm on the asphalt. Spiders hide in the basements. Moose sometimes come into the town to eat apples and apricots from the trees.

A new red forest is gradually renewing near the ChNPP. The old one turned yellow from radiation immediately after the explosion. It was cut down and covered with earth. A new one, but also radioactive, has grown in its place. However, the fire in the spring of 2020 destroyed a significant part of the red forest. Once again, nature will have to revive from the ashes.

Nature will be reborn

Pripyat is empty. Houses are collapsing. Things from apartments are in the burial grounds. Stalkers took out the rest. The dose of radiation in the city and on tourist routes is within the normal range. It is 0.3 microsievert. But as soon as you approach the vegetation or the bridge, the level of pollution increases significantly. It will take at least 24,000 years to half clear the area of radioactive transuranic elements. According to the Ministry of Ecology of Ukraine, this is exactly how long the half-life of these elements lasts.

Iodine-131, cesium-137, strontium-90 and plutonium isotopes got into the air during the accident. The greatest danger to people was radioactive iodine in the first weeks after the accident. Its half-life is eight days. The number of isotopes of strontium and cesium has halved after 30 years. However, it will take a few more half-life cycles to disintegrate.

Cesium-137 accumulates in the surface layer of the soil, from where it gets into plants and fungi. Insects and animals eat these foods and receive their dose of radiation. Doctors and radiologists say that we should not underestimate the impact of radiation on humans through contaminated food.

The State Agency warns that berries and mushrooms from contaminated areas may still contain cesium-137. If you collect mushrooms in the forest, you must clean them of sand, needles and leaves. They contain radiation. Before cooking, they should be boiled three times in salt water. So you can almost completely deactivate the mushrooms. Cesium is still sometimes recorded in milk in the Rivne region. Radiation can also accumulate in fish and meat. To reduce the concentration of radionuclides, you have to soak meat and fish in salt water before cooking.

However, it will never be possible to carry out a full cycle of destruction of microorganisms in order to ensure infectious safety. Decontamination, that is, disinfection is not a panacea for man-made disasters and all sorts of natural disasters. Of course, humanity needs to learn to overcome their consequences. But it is much more important to prevent them.