As the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was managed by Soviet authorities in Moscow, the government of Ukraine did not receive prompt information on the accident, and hence, on the morning of the 26 April, the fifty-thousand inhabitants of the City of Pripyat went about their business as normal, unaware of the catastrophic events taking place just five kilometres away. Within a few hours of the explosion, dozens of people fell ill, later reporting severe headaches, a metallic taste in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting. It was not until the morning of 27 April, some thirty-six hours after the initial explosion, that the decision was made by a joint Ukrainian/Soviet commission to evacuate the city. Residents were initially informed by the authorities that the evacuation would be temporary and to take only essential items. On 28 April the area of evacuation was extended to a ten kilometre radius of the Chernobyl plant. Ten days later this area was extended to a radius of thirty kilometres and has remained in place ever since. As a result the inhabitants of Pripyat never returned to their homes, leaving many personal belongings behind.
Palace of Culture
The people carriers parked opposite the Palace of Culture, the former civic centre of the city and after further briefing on safety precautions (it’s best to avoid moss as this holds radioactive particles like a sponge and can emit a radioactive dose of 25,000 µSv/h) we were allowed to wander around the immediate vicinity, including the elementary and high schools, the now famous Azure swimming, the equally famous Pripyat amusement park, and the Palace of Culture itself. Out-of-bounds areas were indicated with red flags.
Wandering around the central precinct of Pripyat, a post-apocalyptic relic of the twentieth century’s most notorious industrial accident, was an emotional experience. Excitement and awe at being physically in an area which for so many years had been closed off to human access combined with a deep sense of tragedy, and what I imagined was an echo of the fear felt by the thousands of souls that had fled in what I can only imagine were horrific circumstances. At around 14:00 on 27 April the evacuation of the city began but took several hours to complete as the citizens of Pripyat had to be mustered at various locations around the city, forming orderly queues for buses that would take them away from immediate danger.
Strikingly, within the assembly hall of the elementary school, several hundred gas masks still lay in a pile upon the floor, their lifeless eyes opened wide as though in shock at the unfolding disaster. Part of me suspected that this disturbing scene had been staged for the benefit of tourists like myself, but it felt genuine, the masks dusty and colourless, untouched for decades. They would have offered little protection against radionuclide from the burning reactor, and perhaps in the rush to evacuate the children from the school a decision was made to leave them behind.
The Pripyat Amusement Park, comprising four rides: a twenty-six meter ferris wheel, bumper cars, swing boats and a paratrooper ride, was scheduled to open on 1 May 1986 as part of the Soviet May Day celebrations. Some accounts claim that the park was briefly opened during the day on 27 April, possibly in an attempt to distract the residents of the city from the rumours that were wildly circulating about just what was happening five kilometres away at the Chernobyl reactor, but images I have seen claiming to be of the ferris wheel in operation show a different supporting structure to the Pripyat wheel. The park has become a cultural icon of the Chernobyl disaster and has appeared in the video game Call of Duty 4 and the film Chernobyl Diaries. A significant part of the plot of the 2013 Bruce Willis film A Good Day to Die Hard is set in Pripyat.
After an hour or so of exploring amongst the ruins of Pripyat, seemingly more concerned about keeping to the timing of the tour than of any risk of exposure to radiation, our tour guides ushered us into the people carriers and we were ferried away to the main reactor complex. After a relaxed lunch at the Dining Chernobyl Nbr 19, a former canteen for the power plant workers we were invited to visit the statue of Prometheus, which stands be a memorial to the power plant workers who were killed in the disaster.
The final stop on the tour was the Sarkofag Chornobylʹsʹkoyi Aes, a viewing point approximately three hundred metres from the sarcophagus covering the remains of reactor 4. This was as close as we were permitted, and certainly as close as we wished, to get to the sight of the 1986 explosion. Construction of the first sarcophagus began in May 1986 and took two hundred days to complete. The sarcophagus locked in 200 tonnes of radioactive corium, 30 tonnes of highly contaminated dust and 16 tonnes of uranium and plutonium left behind after the explosion. In 1996 concerns about the structural integrity of the sarcophagus were raised, specifically corrosion of the supporting steel structure by contaminated rain water, and a decision was taken to replace it with a New Safe Confinement structure. With the help of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a conservation programme was completed in 1998, which included securing the roof beams from collapse. The New Safe Confinement structure was completed and moved into place in 2016.
On the drive back to Kiev we stopped at an iron frame road bridge spanning a water channel into the cooling pond where we fed enormous cat fish with hunks of bread. These remarkable fish are Wels Catfish (Silurus glanis). Despite much speculation their gigantic size is not a result of radioactive mutation, rather they have taken advantage of the sparsity of the human population to fully take advantage of their environment. The BBC reported in 2016 that wildlife in the Chernobyl exclusion zone is thriving. This is not to say that the effects of high levels of radiation immediately following the explosion were not devastating. During the first two years following the reactor fire many trees within an area of coniferous forest covering between 4 and 5 sq km died. The dying needles turned rusty red, earning the region the name Red Forest. During this period, in the most contaminated areas many soil invertebrates were killed, and the small mammal population plummeted. Thirty years on radiation levels within many areas of the exclusion zone have dropped significantly. Although, like the Wels Catfish, many species have exploited the absence of the natural world’s most devastating predator, homo sapiens, a study undertaken in 2009 by Anders Møller and Timothy Mousseau suggested there was a serious impact on insect abundance even in areas of the exclusion zone where radiation levels are now extremely low. Research into the long term effects of the Chernobyl disaster continues.
The Future of Nuclear Power
The UK currently has 15 nuclear reactors with a total generating capacity of 10 gigawatts of electricity (GWe), operated by EDF Energy. These stations generate around a fifth of the UK’s electricity, yet all but one is scheduled to be retired by 2030. With the exception of the Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) at Sizewell B, the UK power plants are second generation Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors, considered to be considerably safer than the RBMK graphite-moderated reactors of the Chernobyl plant. Although many modifications were made to the RBMK reactor design following the Chernobyl accident, as of December 2017 there were still eleven RBMK reactors, and four small EGP-6 graphite moderated light water reactors operating in Russia.
The current UK government has expressed a desire to expand nuclear power generation over the next ten years, however, these aspirations were thrown into doubt in November 2018 following the decision by Toshiba to withdraw from the proposed NuGen PWR construction project in Cumbria. In January 2019 the Hitachi owned subsidiary Horizon Nuclear Power announced its decision to halt production of the Wylfa Newydd Advanced Boiling Water Reactor power station located on the island of Anglesey, North Wales. Both companies sited an inability to attract investors as the primary reasons for withdrawal from the projects. The only new nuclear power station project currently underway in the UK is the EDF Hinkley Point C PWR plant, scheduled for completion by 2025 at a cost of £20.5 Billion.
The HBO miniseries Chernobyl has awakened interest in the twentieth century’s most notorious industrial accident and also my memories of the final decade of the Cold War, and my visit to the Chernobyl Power Plant in 2011. In two parts I tell my story of this fearful place.
Politics of Fear
The death of Soviet Leader Yuri Andropov in February 1984, quickly followed by the death of his successor Konstantin Chernenko in March 1985, lead to a period of political instability within the Soviet Union that was matched by an increase in Soviet paranoia in Western nations, specifically within the Republican Reagan administration of the United States. Following his landslide election victory in 1981, Ronald Reagan was keen to reject the containment and détente strategies of the preceding Democratic Carter administration and to put into practice the concept that the Soviet Union could be defeated rather than simply negotiated with. It was Reagan who had labelled the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire” in his 1983 speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida. It was Reagan who in 1983 had announced the development of a Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), a missile defence system intended to protect the United States from attack by ballistic strategic nuclear weapons, a political game play that Mikhail Gorbachev’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Gennadi Gerasimov described as “very successful blackmail.” This hard line rhetoric was, in the eyes of the Reagan administration, designed to “write the final pages of the history of the Soviet Union”.
In 1983 the incumbent Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher, had allowed the installation of American Cruise Missile units at the Greenham Common airbase in Berkshire, a decision that was described by historian and peace campaigner E P Thompson as “a manifest symbol of subjection.” For many the cruise missile program was seen as part of a strategy by the Americans to fight a ‘limited’ nuclear war in the European ‘theatre’. It certainly made the United Kingdom a legitimate target for the SS-20 intermediate-range ballistic missiles that the Soviet Union had positioned in various locations within Eastern Europe. This was cold-war high stakes poker at its worst, and no one was sure who would blink first.
The growing political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, and fear that Britain would be caught in the crossfire, took root in the popular culture of the time. The US television film The Day After, which first aired on ABC in November 1983, was followed in 1984 by the UK production Threads. Both films depicted the escalation of conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries, ultimately resulting in all out nuclear war. That my parents forbade me to watch either of these films on their first release only added to the fascination I had with all things nuclear.
In 1984 the Liverpool band Frankie Goes to Hollywood had their second number one hit with the song Two Tribes, a thumping funk/R&B anti-war song that became the longest-running number-one single in the UK of the 1980s. I bought the twelve inch re-mix version, played it constantly and painted a copy of the mural of Lenin that daubed the record’s sleeve as part of my O level art project.
There I was, a cold war kid immersed in the nuclear zeitgeist of the mid 1980s, when a friend informed me about a student exchange scheme being organised by my six form college. The destination was Kiev, a city behind the ‘iron curtain’ of the Soviet Union. I couldn’t wait to sign on the dotted line.
The Nightmare Begins
The first news reports spoke of a fire at a nuclear power plant in the Soviet Union. The Soviet news agency would only conceded that a minor accident had occurred. At 21:02 on the evening of 28 April 1986, a 20-second announcement was read out on Soviet television. “There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up.”
What had actually occurred on the night of 26 April was a catastrophic nuclear accident. During a late-night safety test designed to simulate an electrical power outage, during which both emergency safety and power-regulating systems were intentionally disabled, a combination of inherent reactor design flaws and an unstable arrangement of fuel and control rods within the core resulted in uncontrolled reaction conditions. Superheated water was instantly turned into steam, causing a destructive steam explosion that took the roof off the reactor building and a subsequent open-air graphite fire that burned for nine days with the reactor core exposed to the atmosphere before it was finally contained on 4 May. When the full magnitude of the situation became clear, the South Manchester College student exchange trip to Kiev was cancelled.
Twenty-five years passed before I eventually got to visit Kiev, by then the capital of an independent Ukraine. As per the agreement with the Chernobyl Tour Company we were collected in people carriers from Independence Square early on a wet Wednesday morning for the 150km drive to the edge of the exclusion zone. Officially known as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation, the exclusion zone was established by the Soviet Armed Forces soon after the 1986 disaster, initially at a radius of 30km from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It has since been extended (yes extended) by the Ukrainian authorities to cover approximately 2,600 sq km where radioactive contamination from nuclear fallout is highest and public access and inhabitation are restricted.
How much Radiation is too much Radiation?
The dose of radiation received by the human body is measured in sieverts, abbreviated as Sv. As natural background radiation levels are generally low most dosimeters measure the received dose in Millisieverts, one thousandth of a sievert and abbreviated as mSv(1000mSv = 1Sv), or more often than not in Microsieverts, one millionth of a sievert and abbreviated as μSv (1,000,000μSv = 1Sv). The global average exposure of humans to ionizing radiation is about 2.4 – 3 mSv per year, 80% of which occurs naturally. The radiation levels in the area of the reactor building in the first 48 hours after the explosion at Chernobyl have been estimated at 300Sv/hr, (300,000mSv/hr) providing a fatal dose in just over a minute. 22 years after the explosion radiation levels inside the reactor hall were approximately 34 Sv/hr, providing a lethal dose in 10-20 minutes.
Radiation levels within the exclusion zone vary considerably, dependent on a number of factors including the original distribution pattern of fallout from the reactor fire, vegetation cover, terrain, weather conditions, etc. Average background radiation levels within the exclusion zone, and specifically in the abandoned city of Pripyat, vary from 0.3 to 300 μSv/hour.
At Dytyatky, still thirty kilometres from Cherbobyl, we reached the check point at the perimeter of the exclusion zone. Here our passports were taken and we registered as having entered the exclusion zone. Dytyatky is also a dosimetry control checkpoint and visitors are required to have their radiation dose levels checked whenever entering and leaving the exclusion zone. Once cleared through the check point we continued north for a further thirty kilometres to the town of Chernobyl, the administrative centre for the management of the decommissioned nuclear reactor complex. Here we were provided with a talk covering many aspects of the history of the Chernobyl incident including management of nuclear energy, ecological and environmental impact, radiation dosimetry, medicine, psychology, ethnography, and disaster management.
On Kirova Street we paused at the memorial to Those Who Saved the World, constructed in memory of the firefighters who gave their lives during the initial containment of the fire at reactor 4. At the ten kilometre boundary we passed through the Lelyov checkpoint, again being required to pass a dosimetry check, and proceeded along an eerily empty highway, our people carriers the only visible vehicles, hemmed in on all sides by dense coniferous forest through which, every so often, came glimpses of abandoned buildings.
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant complex is located ten kilometres north of the town of Chernobyl, where the waters of the Pripyat River were diverted to create an enormous cooling pond for the reactor complex. Some five kilometres to the northwest of the reactor complex is the abandoned city of Pripyat, designated at its foundation in 1970 as the ninth nuclear city of the Soviet Union, constructed for the habitation of power plant workers and their families.
To be continued in part two, Pripyat: City of Ghosts.