Chernobyl will never be free from the legacy of April 1986. But Ukraine’s president believes that it can be turned into a positive. Caroline O’Doherty took a guided tour to see for herself
It’s lunchtime in the canteen block beside Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and a line of diners forms for plates of cabbage salad, fried pork and potatoes.
From 12.30pm to 1.30pm the spartan facility, with sinks for mandatory hand-washing and full-body radiation scanners downstairs and food service upstairs, is reserved for the workers, and any who come late must share it with the tourists who clamber out of a small fleet of minibuses to take over for the following hour.
It’s not hard to tell who’s who — the workers in their grey overalls with yellow or orange trim depending on their department; the tourists in hiking gear, baseball caps emblazoned with radiation symbols from the souvenir kiosk and the occasional white plastic hazmat suit, rented from tour companies whose own personnel never wear them.
The tourists are the ones delightedly holding up paper napkins left by the dominant company that say: Hey! I’m eating in Chernobyl! The workers choose the plain ones but if they have any comment to make on the giggling gaggle at the next table, they keep it to themselves.
The scene is a mix of the banal, the absurd and the deadly serious.
Just a few hundred yards away is reactor no. 4, scene of the worst nuclear accident in history, a site that remains a ticking time-bomb although that clock has recently received a 100-year extension by the addition of a new containment structure that is designed to last a century.
Even if there’s a tornado? Yes. An earthquake? Yes. A plane crashes into it? Yes. Our guide answers with patience built up over 16 years of chaperoning scientists, officials, media and, latterly, tourists, around Chernobyl. There is one last mischievous query. Even if there’s an atomic bomb? “I don’t think it will matter very much then,” he replies.
The new structure, officially called the ‘new safe confinement’, was financed through a fund created by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development which describes it as a “miracle of modern engineering”.
Big enough to house Notre Dame Cathedral (before the fire), tall enough to protect the Statue of Liberty, the biggest movable object on earth — take your pick of the superlatives — it was built in sections, assembled beside reactor no. 4, and then rolled on wheels into place over the reactor’s old cover.
After the final screws were tightened and testing completed, the keys were officially handed over to Ukraine in early July.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian and TV star elected to office in April this year, used the occasion to declare it the start of the transformation of Chernobyl and its surrounding 30km exclusion zone into a major tourist attraction.
Time to end the negative association Chernobyl brings to Ukraine, he said. Time to cash in on the phenomenal success of the multi-Emmy nominated HBO series, a cynic might suggest.
Zelensky’s vision is for wider access to sites within the zone, opening up the waterways, speeding up the checkpoints, providing decent mobile phone cover and other essential amenities, and generally talking up the ghost town intrigue of the place and the wonder of nature’s revival after a man-made disaster.
The plant will soon have a giant new mural painted on its side, depicting a hand holding a stylised atom while reaching out to windswept plains where wild horses gallop. ‘Looking to the future’ the design is called.
It might not quite steal the limelight from the sculpture of cupped hands holding the power plant, erected in 2006 to remember the heroic actions of plant workers and emergency crew who prevented what came perilously close to a global catastrophe, or indeed the nearby sombre memorial to the 31 who were the first to die, but it will certainly look lively.
In fact, Zelensky’s enthusiasm, expressed against the backdrop of the shiny new safe confinement, might be convincing were it not for the fact that to the left of that super-structure sits a dilapidated building that visitors are warned repeatedly they must not photograph.
Like a giant concrete cereal box with small rusted windows down the narrow side, its main section is mottled with patches of concrete flaking off and irregular smears of cement between panels that in places appear to meet at odd angles. This is ISF1, where thousands of spent nuclear fuel rods are stored, sitting in pools of water as was the technology of the 1980s. Construction of its replacement, ISF2, was begun in the 1990s as it was clear even then than the older model had a limited life expectancy.
It is licenced to operate until 2025 although Europe was nervous about it continuing in use even to 2016. But there was a problem with ‘regulatory conformity’. “They made it too small,” our guide succinctly explains.
Size was a problem, but the design team also underestimated how wet the rods’ existing casing would be and how much drying would be needed before transfer to storage in the new dry facility.
Another company took over in 2007, construction is now complete, testing is underway and operation is meant to begin next year.
But the fuel has to be transported there first and that has required reclamation work on the old railway lines that served the various different installations within the sprawling Chernobyl complex.
One line has been mostly cleared of vegetation and sections of damaged track have been replaced, but just yards away in the forest lie the toppled over train carriages that were used in the evacuation of the region.
They were shoved on to their sides and had their wheels cut off and dumped with other radioactive material in one of several vehicle graveyards to ensure they were never used again.
Even with the clearance work completed so far, it’s still hard to imagine TK-700, the specially designed railcar that has been in development along with ISF2, trundling along this way with its delicate load.
More than 21,000 individual fuel rods are stored in ISF1 where they placed after use in reactors 1, 2 and 3 which, remarkably, continued in use until 1996, 1991 and 2000 respectively.
They all have to be moved to ISF2 where robotics will be used to cut up and separately seal about 2,500 of them a year — a rate that will take ISF1 past its 2025 licence expiration. And that’s when it is working at full capacity.
“I don’t know when it will be, “ shrugs our guide. “The new safe confinement was supposed to be ready in 2005.” That was indeed the hope back in 1997 when the international community came together to form a plan to make Chernobyl safe. More than two decades later, there is a sense that the grand plan is only at the beginning.
Beneath the new safe confinement’s chunky metal structure is the original ‘temporary’ concrete sarcophagus that dates back to late 1986 and has been much patched up since.
It must be dismantled by robot and also transported to a waste containment facility, along with the several hundred tonnes of nuclear fuel that lies beneath it. They won’t go to ISF2 but to the Vektor complex, a general purpose radioactive waste facility a few kilometres away where construction on a major new extension has just begun. That too will take many years.
Then there is the problem of radioactive wastewater which is being dealt with by yet another recently completed facility with yet another massive task ahead. Officially, 2065 is the hoped-for completion date for the
full clean-up operation in Chernobyl. The costs, already in the billions, are going nowhere but up.
Compared to all of that, President Zelenksy’s plan for clearing paths, erecting signposts and putting a few passenger boats to water appears modest but even this presents a significant challenge.
The only time a dent appears in our guide’s unflappable demeanour is when he begins the tour of the ghost town of Pripyat and stops to allow some time at the Palace of Culture which was a fine auditorium and performance space but now, like much of Pripyat, is derelict and forlorn.
We regroup after a while to discover we’ve lost a quarter of our little party — two Italians and a German. A little light stereotyping is engaged in as the joke goes around that we could only have lost our hyper-organised German if the Italians led him astray but our guide is in no mood for jocularity. It’s not just the radiation he’s worried about — although there are ‘hot spots’ — isolated spots of inexplicably high radioactivity— in odd places. He’s more concerned about the crumbling concrete, rotten timbers, rusting pipes protruding through broken walls, exposed electrics, sagging ceilings, sinking staircases, gaping holes in the ground and smashed glass everywhere.
Government rules for visiting the ‘exclusion zone and absolute (mandatory) resettlement zone’ as the area is called, officially prohibit entry to any building but a blind eye is turned once tourists don’t cause trouble.
With growing numbers of visitors, spurred by the HBO series, however, the police are warning guides they will be clamping down and losing three of your group doesn’t put any guide in a good position to argue.
We are marched back to the minibus like naughty children before our guide goes to find the strays. Three prodigal sons and a lecture later, we’re off again to see what else the remains of Pripyat can reveal.
Construction of Pripyat began in 1970 to house the workers employed at the Chernobyl plant which would begin supplying power seven years later. Some 50,000 plant workers, teachers, medical professionals, shop assistants, swim instructors, cafe staff, cinema ushers, travel agents, TV repair shop technicians and their families called the town home.
Early photos show an austere design with little to soften the angular apartment blocks and amenity buildings. But the view from the top of the 16-storey block at No 52 Lesya Ukrainka Street, Pripyat’s longest boulevard, named after the Ukrainian poet and dramatist, gives an idea of what it might have become.
Forest now envelopes the town and every patch of open ground, play area and recreation space within it is thick with sycamore, maple, chestnut and lime. They would not have spread so prolifically had Pripyat remained occupied but even in smaller numbers, they would have grown with the town to provide scent, shade and colour.
Inside the apartment block at No 52, the destruction is severe. Time and weather alone did not break the windows, rip pipes and wires from walls and empty cupboards of all belongings.
Despite warnings not to return after the ‘temporary’ evacuation that became permanent, some residents sneaked back to retrieve possessions while much of the rest were looted.
Metal components, copper wire, pipes, cooker fans, fridge motors, electrical switches, circuit boards — anything that could be stripped out of appliances and installations was also taken.
In an 11th floor apartment, a teddy bear that once talked or perhaps lit up, has had its plastic battery container pulled from its belly and the batteries removed.
During the 1990s, people who got their thrills from illegally roaming the ghost town and camping out in its eerie ruins did their share of damage too, as did the newer breed, attracted by the ghoulish 2007 video game, STALKER, that uses Pripyat as its setting.
Since 2011, official tourism has also brought many to the town, with guides learning quickly that arranging children’s schoolbooks on a desk, heaping their store of gas masks in a pile on the floor or perching a legless doll on a chair appealed to a visitor’s camera lens. As if Pripyat needed any manufactured poignancy.
Some contents were saved. Liquidators — the 600,000 firefighters, soldiers and civilian personnel drafted in over five years to clean up the Chernobyl mess — sometimes rescued personal effects such as the family photographs that appear on display in the deeply moving Chernobyl Museum two hours’ drive away in Kiev.
Other reminders of daily life in the town received no such respect. In the hospital, where empty cribs once greeted 1000 newborns a year, patient records are scattered on the floors and coils of x-ray film hang from shelves.
Radiation-soaked uniforms worn by the firefighters who were the first responders to the explosion at Chernobyl remain heaped in the out-of-bounds basement where medical staff hurriedly dumped them as they tended to the injured. Our brave German declares it would be cool to see them but one stern look from our guide kills the thought.
At School No 5, the most accessible of Pripyat’s five schools, lesson boards hang on the walls, illustrating the four seasons for the little ones or explaining complex physics equations to the older children.
Textbooks and copybooks cover the floors, the exceptionally neat writing begging praise that never came. The children learned some German, French and English too it seems. A handwritten copy of Rose Fyleman’s ‘Mousie, mousie, where is your housie’ rhyme lies fading in a shaft of sunlight.
Upstairs, the older pupils were being taught military formations, infantry manoeuvres and, ironically, how to shelter in case of a nuclear bomb.
Pripyat’s residents had fun times too though. The Palace of Culture was an impressive facility as was the indoor swimming pool which is deep enough at one end for high-diving.
Outdoor activities were also encouraged and a small pier was installed so residents could go boating and fishing, or people-watch from the riverside cafe which stands out from the predominantly grey buildings with its still lovely stained glass windows.
After the accident — guides always call it ‘the accident’ — rain and melting snows washed radioactive particles from the buildings and streets into the river, helping to clean Pripyat at its own expense. Small fish jump for insects now and dragonflies dart over the reeds but the still waters are a lonely place.
For many, the funfair represents the iconic image of Pripyat, its centrepiece, the ferris wheel, probably the most photographed of all its features. It was meant to open officially for the May Day celebrations five days after the disaster but by then the population was scattered all over Ukraine, never to return.
One carriage has a hot spot where our guide’s handheld geiger counter clicks with increasing intensity before erupting in a warning siren. The reading is 66.5 times higher than what is considered a normal, safe radiation level.
No one seems able to explain why radionuclides should linger so long at this particular spot, nor indeed at the dodgem cars that sit motionless in their rusting enclosure, or at a point on the tarmac a few metres away where the geiger counter also finds its falsetto.
Our guide grimaces and we follow his stare to see a tourist from another group first squat, then sit, then lie flat on the ground nearby to get a better shot of the ferris wheel. We’ve been told if we drop something, to leave it there; to avoid moss like the plague, and not to place any valuables on the ground.
In pursuit of a good photograph, the tourist has placed his backside full square on the tarmac and wiggled around to adjust his position. We can’t help but collectively wince.
Sometimes, the residents had a little too much fun. The town also had a prison, its couple of dozen cells usually occupied by men who’d emptied a vodka bottle.
A model city by design and propaganda, Pripyat nevertheless had problems with alcohol like many other Soviet cities. On the floor of the apartment in No 52, a scrap of newspaper dated February 15 1986 reports Communist Party exhortations to the working population at large to avoid alcohol, increase productivity and generally strive for good citizenship.
Gorbachev was trying to curb the consumption of spirits at the time, encouraging people to stick to beer instead, our guide explains. “People drank a lot more vodka after the accident,” he says.
Pripyat also had other secrets. The Jupiter electronics factory was officially making consumer goods such as tape recorders but in reality it manufactured components for one of the Soviet Union’s great follies — the Duga radar.
A few kilometres from Pripyat are the remains of a much smaller town that once was home to 1,000-2,000 people but which officially didn’t exist. On maps, it was denoted by a mark stating ‘non-functioning summer camp’.
It was named Chernobyl 2. “Soviet creativity,” explains our guide, enjoying his little jibe. It was in fact a military base, complete with a mechanics training centre and a driving school for young soldiers. The main lecture room is painted with road signs like an alphabet snaking its way around nursery walls.
Something shadier was going on here, however. The base was the site of a radar system that had been in the works since the end of the second world war when the Soviet Union pledged to build an over-the-horizon radar that would detect US missile activity long before anything had the chance to enter Soviet airspace.
Construction began in earnest in the 1970s and the Duga’s giant web of pylons and antennae grew to 150m high and 700m long. It never worked properly. Its own transmissions were so powerful, it succeeded chiefly in interfering in radio broadcasts and shortwave communications over large parts of the globe while simultaneously earning itself the nickname, the Russian Woodpecker, because of its incessant tapping noise.
“14,000 tonnes of scrap metal,” says our guide. Thought has been given to recovering the metal but the structure is feared to be in a more precarious state than is evident to the visitors gaping up at it and dismantling it could cost more than the materials are worth.
In the adjacent control station where signals detected by the radar were deciphered, there are instruction rooms with teaching materials, one board explaining the network of US overseas military bases, while others provide lengthy reminders of how to be a good young communist.
Even for the Ukrainians in our group — mum, dad and student daughter — this feels like another world. They would never have thought of coming here if it weren’t for the energetic pleading of their daughter’s visiting Dutch boyfriend.
“We didn’t think much about Chernobyl,” mum explains. “What is memory only the people who carry it in their minds? The people from here were moved all over Ukraine so the memory was scattered.
“And there have been so many other problems in Ukraine,” she adds, referring to the break-up with the Soviet Union in 1991 and the tensions that lingered long after, culminating in Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, the ongoing war with separatists in the east of the country and grinding economic hardship.
Her daughter is more direct. “This is not my idea of a vacation,” she says. “I like to see beautiful things. This is sad.”
But they are intrigued by the endless curiosities the zone produces. At the remote end of the giant cooling pond, 26 square kilometres in all, the village of Nagortsy once stood.
It was deliberately flooded after the accident but its old fish and fur farms remain, their hatcheries and cages still arranged in neat rows. They became research centres for study of the effects of radiation on animal life for a time before being abandoned.
The pond, though artificial, is quite wild at this end and it was a popular place for winter fishing, the warm waters staying ice-free and yielding fine specimens of carp, sturgeon and catfish even when snow lay thick around it.
Up to 2013, the authorities maintained the water levels but since then it has been slowly drying out. Around the edges, the pond bed is showing and water is lying in isolated pools separated by ridges of green.
The sediment in the pond is still too radioactive to return the pond to amenity use and the soil, as it will be when the pond dries out, will also be too contaminated to build on so the plan is to simply rewild the area.
“In ten years, this will be forest,” says our guide with an air of melancholy. When probed, it emerges he is pondering the parallels between the creation of this natural safe confinement and the metal version over the power plant.
There is still a need to contain what happened here and it will never be free from the legacy of the events of April 26 1986. Whether that can be turned into a positive, as President Zelensky believes, or whether it will simply drain the resources and strain the patience of Ukrainians and the international community alike remains to be seen. Our guide surfaces from the depths of his thoughts. “The fish will not be happy when the pond dries out. It will smell very bad.” He allows himself a wry smile: “We will need gas masks again.”
Geiger counters are unexpectedly quiet in the vicinity of reactor no 4 at Chernobyl but the tour guides are used to visitors’ quizzical expressions.
‘There’s less radiation here than in Kiev,” is the mantra they use as reassurance that this spot is safer than even the Ukrainian capital.
It’s probably true. The area was the first to be cleaned after the explosion on April 26 1986. Roads and paths were scrubbed and layers of topsoil were removed and replaced with clean earth almost a metre deep.
This approach was essential, not only to protect those who worked to make the reactor safe, but also those who had to get reactors 1, 2 and 3 back up and running to keep the lights on in northern Ukraine.
But the deep-clean only extended so far and today, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, stretching over a region the size of Luxembourg. has varying safety levels throughout.
A 10km zone surrounds the power plant and no-one is meant to stay within it for longer than their working day. It was for that reason that a brand new commuter city, Slavutych, was built 45km away to replace the evacuated workers’ town of Pripyat.
The bigger part of the zone stretches to 30km and includes the old town of Chernobyl, home to headquarters of the fire service and police and also to research stations.
Personnel based here can only stay over four days a week or 15 days in a month.
Some people have been breaking the rules for decades — generally older people from the villages who quietly returned to take their chances with the radiation.
While there are monitoring points all over the zone recording radiation levels daily, the forests are harder to survey and there are dangers for those living, rearing animals and growing crops in their clearings.
The trees themselves can release radiation when felled and used as firewood.
Forest fires are frequent in the hot summers and they too release radioactive particles. Mushrooms and berries, popular additions to the local diet, and well water can also be contaminated.
But the problems extend far beyond the official exclusion zone. The plight of the children of Belarus, Ukraine’s northerly neighbour which was worst affected by the radiation cloud that spread over Europe, has been well documented.
Less well known is that, within Ukraine, a region stretching 150km to the west of Chernobyl, also remains contaminated and parts of Russia too.
Many villages are exposed to unsafe levels of radiation, agricultural produce doesn’t meet international safety standards and children are given free school lunch to ensure that at least once a day they get a good ‘clean’ meal — a programme the government tried to scrap a few years ago.
Professor Valery Kashparov, director of the Ukranian Institute of Agricultural Radiology, has been researching the impact of Chernobyl since 1987 and was one of those who spoke out against the cost-cutting plan.
He produced a sobering report for the 30th anniversary of the disaster, writing: “In Ukraine as a result of lack of financing of the measures provided for the social protection of the affected population, the legislative social rights and guarantees of the population who have suffered from the Chernobyl accident are not fully supported.”
He concluded: “In spite of the improvement of the radiation situation 30 years after the Chernobyl accident, a whole complex of problems connected with the protection of the population and rehabilitation of the lands still needs to be solved.”
Officially, just 31 people died as a direct result of the explosion although estimates of the numbers who succumbed to cancers and cardiovascular diseases over the following years, or who continue to suffer low level or chronic illness or disability, vary from the thousands to hundreds of thousands.
But while Chernobyl made a ghost town of Pripyat, nuclear power is no spectre industry in Ukraine. The country has 15 reactors, is extending the operation of a few that have come to the of their planned life and is even toying with the idea of building new plants.
Jan Havercamp, an expert on nuclear energy with Greenpeace, says Ukraine’s relationship with nuclear power is complex.
Anger over Chernobyl fuelled the Ukrainian nationalist movement and became a leading factor in the independence movement in the late 1980s. Gorbachev himself would later say Chernobyl triggered the break-up of the Soviet Union.
But practicalities matter too. Tensions with Russia have seen Ukraine’s gas supply cut off several times, leaving the population freezing in the sub-zero winters, and the coal deposits on which the country relied heavily are mainly in the separatist east where five years of war have put the mines out of reach. In any case, the climate crisis means coal is not a long-term option.
There is good potential for wind and solar but the early investments were also in the east and the energy oligarchs behind them have lost money.
Incredibly, new reactors 5 and 6 at Chernobyl, which were half-built at the time of the explosion and still stand with rusting cranes around them are being eyed up as potential solutions.
“It’s hard to imagine,” says Havercamp.
“First of all, the design is from the 1970s, and the quality of what is standing there is abominable. I don’t think this project makes a lot of sense but one never knows.”
What Havercamp does know is that the costs of dealing with the legacy of Chernobyl weigh extremely heavily on Ukraine.
“It is bleeding the Ukrainian budget since independence and that’s an important issue because the problems aren’t over.
“Somebody needs to pay for the long-term safety of Chernobyl in the same way the new safe confinement just revealed was paid for.
“The Ukrainian economy is not big enough to carry that on its own so there needs to be an international effort again and those negotiations have really only just started. It’s a problem for all of us.”