Chernobyl

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The flight to Kiev from Dublin lasted 3.5 hours, and was a typical Ryanair experience. When you are trapped in the air for that length of time they can try the hard sell at their leisure. We were greeted at the airport by Vladimir – the representative of the letting agent whose apartment in city centre Kiev we were residing for the weekend. He drove us to our abode. It was 11pm. We needed a cocktail and headed to N::B Cocktail Bar (thanks to Google maps) which has to be the loveliest bar I have ever visited. It is just off the Maidan Nezalezhjnosti (Independence Square) and is a cosy yet luxurious and refined placed with the best signature cocktails on the planet.

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The next morning I rose early and headed out to the Billa supermarket in the 3-level Globus shopping mall which is located entirely underground. Breakfast provisions were acquired. The day was spent wandering the vast city by foot. We only scratched the surface – it’s a city of three million people, and the third largest of the former Soviet Union. The architecture is imposing, grand, and very beautiful. Our evening meal was eaten in a Georgian restaurant where the stew and dumplings were consumed with gusto.

Saturday was the main event – the day trip to nuclear exclusion zone of Chernobyl. When I booked the trip back in March, this had not been on the agenda. My knowledge of Ukraine was pitifully small, and my flight to Kyiv had been booked spontaneously on the day that Ryanair announced the opening of the new route. Upon doing some research I discovered that Kyiv was located only 130 kilometres south of Chernobyl – the town that remains internationally famous for the explosion of nuclear reactor number 4, on the night of April 26th, 1986.

The exclusion zone now covers an area of 2600 square kilometres. Originally it covered an area of about a 30km radius from the site of the explosion, and is guarded by the emergency services of Ukraine and policed by the army. After a two hour drive (our guided tour began at 7.30am) we arrived at the first checkpoint; had to produce our passports for a police check and were handed a radar.

The nuclear power plant was named after the 12th century town of Chernobyl, even though it is located fifteen kilometres away. The plant was built in 1970 and at the time Chernobyl was the nearest town. In 2019 it is largely abandoned but not quite a ghost town. Evacuated nine days after the disaster, today it slightly repopulated but only by hardy people who refused to be resettled, and by people servicing the decommissioned plant. They work fifteen days on, and then leave the area for another fifteen days. The radiation levels in this town are not dangerously high because of the physical distance from the exploded reactor. Within a century it is hoped that the town will be fully decontaminated. We took a walk in the memorial park in the centre of the town which is lined with the names of communities evacuated after the disaster. Also on display are replicas of the robots used to clear the radioactive debris during the clean-up (the originals are buried deep underground as they are highly toxic).

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Onward to Chernobyl 2 – the secret military town which was only opened to the public in recent years. This place was the home of a monstrously huge Duga radar which was built to detect incoming US missiles during the Cold War. It is a vast wire metal structure stretching half a kilometre long with a height of 150 metres. It was the strangest, most sinister construction I had ever seen up until that point. Little did I know that within hours it would beaten into second place in terms of weirdness.

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We stopped briefly at an abandoned kindergarten which was unsettling. It was designed to be that way though. The manner in which the broken dolls were laid out on the bed and the children’s shoes positioned the floor looked staged. It was eerie nevertheless.

Outside the kindergarten we were told that we were standing on a radioactive hotspot. The entire area is contaminated but is not uniformly radioactive – that is dependent on where precisely the nuclear dust landed after the explosion

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Our next stop was a canteen lunch at a military base about a kilometre from the explosion site. We were deep inside the 10km exclusion zone by this point – right beside the site itself in fact. We passed the still-standing reactors 1 and 2 (which were undamaged during the disaster, and in fact continued to produce nuclear energy after 1986 – the plant only closed in 2000 and full decommissioning began in 2015. We passed through our first radiation scan of the day. I pictured myself as Meryl Streep in the film ‘Silkwood’, although the alarms didn’t start ringing as I was scanned. This was simultaneously a relief and a disappointment. Lunch was a beef stew and buckwheat, with a side of red cabbage soup and a salad.

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After lunch we went to the viewing point for the entombed reactor number 4. At 1.23am on the morning of April 26th an electrical power surge caused a catastrophic explosion in nuclear reactor 4, resulting in radioactive materials being dispersed into the atmosphere and surrounding exclusion zone. The scale of the disaster was not immediately known and in fact it was the regular fire service who initially went in to quench the flames with water. In the days and weeks that followed the full horror became known; resulting in mass evacuations of the region. Plans to build reactor 5 and 6 were abandoned. It is unknown how many people have died as a direct result of the disaster but the official figure of 5,700 people is a huge understatement. To this day the impact is being felt – with the country of Belarus suffering particularly badly – the winds were blowing in that direction on the night.

The exploded reactor number 4 is now encased in a gigantic steel sarcophagus called New Safe Confinement – the largest moveable structure on earth. It immediately leapfrogged the Duga radar as the weirdest thing I had ever seen. Vast in scale, what it encases is sheer horror – the half-life of the radioactive waste it houses is a quarter of a million years. We were allowed to take pictures of the coffin only and were warned that under no circumstance were we to take snaps of anything else immediately surrounding it, as were on camera, being observed by the secret police.

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After this we headed to the ghost city of Pripyat – located two kilometres from the plant. It is a city that was built in 1970 to house the employees of the plant. Chernobyl was meant to eventually house twelve reactors and Pripyat was meant to have a population of 200,000. In 1986 the town was home to 50,000 people. They were evacuated two days after the disaster – never to return (save for 1 trip months later to collect personal belongings).

It is a chilling place. Trees have sprouted up between the abandoned buildings, yet it is utterly silent. No birds live in the trees here, as their inner sensors seem to warn them that the place is toxic. At the abandoned pier by the lake our guide told us that fish are plentiful in the water but inedible because of how radioactive they are. The abandoned funfair was the stuff of nightmares – grey, empty and threatening. The perfect location for a horror film – which apparently has already been made.

After an hour wandering the deserted town we bade our farewells. We passed through radiation scans at the 10km barrier and again at the 30km barrier. I was impressed to see the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their stand just outside the 30km exclusion zone. Those are hardy people.

That evening we ate, drank and were merry at the French restaurant ‘Tres Francais’ followed by a cocktail at N::B Cocktails. We felt we had earned it.

The next morning was our farewell to Kyiv. It may have been a flying weekend visit, but it was completely unforgettable.

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