RUM Explorer travel blog

The Chernobyl tour bus and first check point

The grown over main street of the village of Kopachi, the community...

Scenes in Kopachi: grocery store; one of the wild dogs; inside grocery...

More scenes from Kopachi: inside a house, car and an old ice...

The Wormwood angel in Chernobyl town

The signs of the 187 villages/towns lost with the explosion.

The memorial at Chernobyl town: The higher part is the 10K exclusion...

Lunch at the Chernobyl cafe: soup, chicken & potatoes

The entrance to Chernobyl village

Top: the 4 nuclear reactors. Bottom: reactor 5 that was never finished

The megatomb cover of reactor 4

Entrance to the village of Pripyat.

Before and today pics of an apartment building in Pripyat

The new supermarket; dosimeter reading of 72.01

The famous ferris wheel before and today.

Dosimeter showing 241.3 when touching the ferris wheel; other rides at the...

The Polissya hotel before and today.

The Energetic Palace of culture before and today

Duga 3 (Russian Woodpecker); abandoned sentry point and security building

The radiation detector we had to go thru to exit the exclusion...

Us before our visit and afterwards :-)

Maidan Square and our hotel at night

Entrance to Ostannya Barykada, the secret restaurant

Some of the revolution artifacts in Ostannya Barykada

Pulled pork; chicken kiev; Jef's birthday cake; Jef with cake

Jef and the special Roshen tort he shared with our group at...


Happy birthday Jef & Lisa!

Another early morning so we could have breakfast and be ready to leave on the tour at 8am.

Jef was serenaded with Happy Birthday by the group as we gathered in the lobby! A nice way to begin his birthday tour.

Dris was staying behind on this one; he waved good-bye (a little too cheerily) as we boarded the 16 passenger bus with Tania (our guide) and Pasha (the driver). The drive to Chernobyl (or as the Ukrainians spell it: Chornobyl) was about 2 hours. Along the way, we watched a fascinating video documentary on the making and installing of the Megatomb--also known as the The New Safe Confinement (NSC or New Shelter)--the newest cover for reactor #4.

Here are a couple of links for videos about it:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/chernobyls-megatomb.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sX-DCIyDeLo

Just a quick review on Chernobyl: 110 km (68 miles) north of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station provided the most energy from one single power station in the Soviet Union in 1986.  During this period, four reactors provided energy around the clock and reactors five and six were already in the construction process. On 26 April 1986, as a result of a poorly thought-out experiment, Reactor #4 suffered an uncontrolled power surge. The pressure tubes of the reactor exploded, exposing to the air the melting fuel and the graphite moderator, which caught fire. Both the initial explosion and the consequent fire released 50 tons of radioactive particles into the atmosphere that eventually spread outside of the USSR, releasing 400 times more radiation than the Hiroshima Bomb. Over the next six months 200 tonnes of radioactive material were sealed inside a 300,000-tonne shelter made from steel and concrete called the sarcophagus resulting in the deaths of 30 workers. News of the explosion did not spread – in fact the first reports of high levels of radiation appeared in Sweden and Sweden notified the USSR.  Days after the explosion, the Soviet Union announced what had occurred but covered the truth about radiation exposure.  All of the first responders to the explosion died within two weeks from complications of radiation exposure.  Forced evacuation of Pripyat and other villages around the power plant left a ghost city and radiation filled zone. 70 Belarusian villages had to be buried under the ground

Our first stop on reaching the Chernobyl area was the Dytyatky checkpoint, an official entrance to the Exclusion zone. Tania took our passports and the waivers we'd signed to the guards to get clearance for us to proceed. While she did that, we had an opportunity to buy a few souvenirs at the kiosk there. Jef got a t-shirt & a patch, I bought a mug and a couple of pens. Gotta have something from Chernobyl!

After getting our clearance, we drove into the 30 km exclusion zone. Established by the USSR military soon after the 1986 disaster, it initially existed as an area of 30 km (19 mi) radius from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant designated for evacuation and placed under military control. Its borders have since been altered to cover a larger area of Ukraine. The Exclusion Zone covers an area of approximately 2,600 km2 (1,000 sq mi)in Ukraine immediately surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant where radioactive contamination from nuclear fallout is highest and public access and inhabitation are restricted. The Exclusion Zone's purpose is to restrict access to hazardous areas, reduce the spread of radiological contamination, and conduct radiological and ecological monitoring activities. Today, the Exclusion Zone is one of the most radioactively contaminated areas in the world. The 30 km Zone was initially divided into three subzones: the area immediately adjacent to Reactor 4, an area of approximately 10 km (6 mi) radius from the reactor, and the remaining 30 km zone.

This predominantly rural woodland and marshland area was once home to 120,000 people living in the cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat as well as 187 smaller communities, but is now mostly uninhabited.

Our first stop was the almost fully buried village of Kopachi with a remaining kindergarten and community center. As we got out of the bus, several dogs approached. There are around 250 stray dogs in the Chernobyl area—these dogs are the descendants of pets left behind during the hasty evacuation in 1986. There are international veterinary groups that come in to care for them and neuter them. Tania told us that a couple of months ago, a US team had been there and, after taking care of the dogs, took 200 puppies out to try and find homes for them.

The dogs are used to people as they depend on the tourists and workers for food.

There's a group that is trying to help the dogs: https://cleanfutures.org/projects/dogs-of-chernobyl/.

We walked down an overgrown path that used to be the main street of Kopachi. We encountered the grocery store shell and looked inside to see what was left of the counters. It's being taken over by the vegetation but also the buildings are in disrepair because of vandalism through the years. When people were first evacuated, they were told they'd be gone for 3 days only so they left a lot behind. Starting in the late 80's, vandals ripped out the contents of switchboards, mailboxes, pulled iron stained-glass windows and windows, dropped the elevators, the cut cables (some elevators can still be found stuck between the floors), etc... looking for valuables or metals to sell. Windows were also broken during decontamination efforts to prevent build up of radiation in enclosed spaces. Plus the buildings made of cement have just started to crumble with age and lack of maintenance.

Anyway, from the pictures you can see the condition of the buildings.

Tania had a dosimeter which measures in microsieverts. All throughout the tour she would show us measurements of various areas. There are known (and lots of unknown) hotspots. As an example, sitting in the bus, the dosimeter read 0.16 while the metal bottom of one of the ferris wheel cars read 241.3.

Our next stop was the sign for the city of Chernobyl, where we all took pictures. The city was the administrative center of Chernobyl Raion (district) from 1923 until it was disestablished in 1988. Before its evacuation, the city had about 14,000 residents. The city was evacuated on 27 April 1986, 30 hours after the Chernobyl disaster . Workers on watch and administrative personnel of the Zone of Alienation are stationed in the city on a long-term basis. There are two general stores and a hotel for tourists. And the Chernobyl cafe, where we were having lunch. We had a choice of roasted chicken or pork loin as an entree; I had the chicken and Jef had the pork. Chicken soup was also served as was bread and a slaw salad. We were assured that the food came from outside the exclusion zone!

Near the cafe is a memorial called "The Wormwood Star" that commemorates all lost villages in consequence of the nuclear disaster 1986. This is an angel made of rebar and a line of signs with the name of each village. It's called Wormwood because there's a verse from Revelations in the bible: "The third angel sounded, and a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of waters.

The name of the star is called Wormwood; and a third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the waters, because they were made bitter."- Revelation 8:10

Some people believe that the Chernobyl disaster on April 26, 1986 was the fulfilment of the wormwood prophecy. Apparently, the Ukrainian "Чорнобиль" (Chornobyl) translates to "mugwort", Artemisia vulgaris - also called "common wormwood" but this is a mis-translation as it's a plant different from wormwood both in appearance and symbolism. You can see the angel and the line of of signs in the pics.

Also there is a large, flat concrete memorial in the shape of the exclusion zone with silver candle holders representing each village lost. The higher part, that you can see in the pic, is the 10 km zone while the lower part is the 30 km zone.

Now it was time to visit the reactors themselves. Here we had to go thru another checkpoint because we were going into the 10km zone.

As I mentioned above, there were 4 active reactors and 5 & 6 were in the process of being built. I already told how the accident happened. Initially, the USSR tried to stop the fire and radiation by dropping bags of sand, and then lead, out of helicopters but once they realized the true severity of the situation, knew they had to cover it. The sarcophagus was constructed between May and November 1986. It was an emergency measure to confine the radioactive materials. The shelter was constructed under extreme conditions, with very high levels of radiation, and under extreme time constraints. The sarcophagus was moderately successful in confining radioactive contamination and providing for post-accident monitoring of the destroyed nuclear reactor unit; it has been estimated that up to 95% of the original radioactive inventory of reactor 4 remains inside the ruins of the reactor building. But it was never intended to be a permanent containment structure; it was meant for 30 years. So as it aged, a new cover was planned.

In 1992, Ukraine's government held an international competition for proposals to replace the sarcophagus. There were 394 entries. On September 17, 2007 it was announced that a French consortium named Novarka won the contract. The project has involved workers and specialists from at least 24 countries in addition to Ukraine. Construction costs were estimated at $1.4bn with a project time of five years.The estimated time for completion was given as 53 months, including 18 months of planning and design studies, with a projected completion in mid-2012 but the project has suffered lengthy delays. The “megatomb” or the “New Safe Confinement” (NSC) was pushed into the design position at the end of 2016, the project is scheduled for completion on November 30, 2020.

The NSC was designed with the primary goal of constructing an enclosure capable of confining the radioactive remains of reactor 4 for the next 100 years. It also aims to allow for a partial demolition of the original sarcophagus.

The NSC design is an arch-shaped steel structure with an internal height of 303.5 ft and a 39.4 ftdistance between the centers of the upper and lower arch chords.The arches are constructed of tubular steel members and are externally clad with three-layer sandwich panels. These external panels are also used on the end walls of the structure. Internally, polycarbonate panels cover each arch to prevent the accumulation of radioactive particles on the frame members. I guess that's a lot of detailed information but it's just so interesting to see how it was built and installed. I hope you can see the videos from the links above or just google it—there's tons of information out there!

Moving on from the reactors, we drove to the village of Pripyat...probably the most well-known views of the Chernobyl area. Named after the nearby Pripyat River, Pripyat was founded on 4 February, 1970, as the ninth nuclear city (a type of closed city) in the Soviet Union, to serve the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. It was officially proclaimed a city in 1979, and had grown to a population of 49,360 by the time it was evacuated. It was a new, model city, just 7 years old. One of the pictures shows the “supermarket”--the first one built in the Soviet Union that was about a month old when explosion happened.

Maybe you’ve seen the picture of the infamous Pripyat Ferris wheel.  What you probably did not know is that no one has officially used it.  It is part of a small amusement park that was set to open on May 1, 1986 (five days after the explosion) in a big communist propaganda ceremony.  In addition to the Ferris wheel, there are rusted bumper cars and a merry-go-round that is breaking into pieces. Radiation levels around the park vary. The liquidators washed radiation into the soil after the helicopters carrying radioactive materials used the grounds as a landing strip, so concreted areas are relatively safe. However, areas where moss has built can emit up to 25000 µSv/h, among the highest level of radiation in the whole of Pripyat.

For Worker’s Day celebrations, the Soviet government planned to display communist propaganda posters.  Our group walked to the shed where the government stored posters for such occasions and today resembles a time-vault for Soviet propaganda of the 80s.

I think some of the most interesting pictures are the ones showing what a building looked like before the explosion held up next to how it looked the day we were there. I have lots more pictures that I couldn't post (there's a limit on the website) but it was all very amazing.

We left Pripyat and drove around the perimeter of the 10km exclusion zone to our next stop: the Duga radar system.

The Duga over-the-horizon radar array, several miles outside of Chernobyl, was the origin of the Russian Woodpecker; it was designed as part of an anti-ballistic missile early warning radar network.

Duga was a Soviet over-the-horizon (OTH) radar system used as part of the Soviet ABM early-warning network. The system operated from July 1976 to December 1989. Two operational Duga radars were deployed, one near Chernobyl and Chernihiv in the Ukraine, the other in eastern Siberia.

The Duga systems were extremely powerful, over 10 MW in some cases, and broadcast in the shortwave radio bands. They appeared without warning, sounding like a sharp, repetitive tapping noise at 10 Hz, which led to it being nicknamed by shortwave listeners the Russian Woodpecker. The random frequency hops disrupted legitimate broadcast, amateur radio, commercial aviation communications, utility transmissions, and resulted in thousands of complaints by many countries worldwide.

The unclaimed signal was a source for much speculation, giving rise to theories such as Soviet mind control and weather control experiments. Residents in the area were told that it was a radio station and in those days, it didn't pay to question the story no matter how obvious it was that it wasn't true!

Many experts and amateur radio hobbyists quickly realized it to be an over-the-horizon radar system. NATO military intelligence had already photographed the system and given it the NATO reporting name Steel Yard. This theory was publicly confirmed after the fall of the Soviet Union. It's immense—the pictures don't convey that.

That pretty much completed our tour. We drove around the perimeter to the 10km zone checkpoint where we had to leave the bus , go into a building and individually stand in a “radiation detection” units to check the radiation on our clothes and hands. I think they were a little hokey—maybe just to make the tourists feel good because, amazingly, everyone who went thru them was “clean and clear”. Hmm...

Then we drove to the 30 km checkpoint exit and went thru the same exercise.

And from there we drove back to Kiev. There had been a lot of walking during the day plus it had been warm and sunny so we were all fairly tired; I think we all napped the 2 hours back!

We arrived back at the hotel around 7:30pm; barely enough time to shower and get cleaned up before going out for our farewell dinner at 8.

Meeting in the lobby at 8, Dris told us he had a special place for our farewell dinner. We had to know the password to get in: boritesya poborete (boar-i-tay-sa po-boar-ray-ta). We had to practice it a couple of times!

He led us (walking of course) across Maidan square, down thru the subway and then back up again at the far side of Maidan square. We all got in an elevator and pushed the mysterious “OB” button. The elevator rises to a hidden third floor under the glass dome that tops the center. The elevator doors open to a coffee shop with a long bar, and large windows overlooking the shopping mall. It looks like an average café, but it has its secret. At the far end of the coffee bar there's a chalkboard that says “Do you know the password?”. Well, yes we did! So another door was opened for us. Once inside the antechamber, you have to find another hidden doorway. It is in the wall to the right, which is covered with sculpted metal hands (which symbolize the years Ukraine spend under Russian rule). Push open the hidden door, and you will enter a fancy restaurant.

A young lady asked if this was our first time here and since it was, gave us a tour. The restaurant is Ostannya Barykada (The Last Barricade). It's also museum of three modern Ukrainian revolutions: Student Revolution on the Granite 1990, Orange Revolution 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity (Euromaidan) 2014. There are artifacts from each of the revolutions on the walls. It's also 100% Ukrainian food and the first 100% Ukrainian bar. It has 3 dining rooms each with different décor. To get to our dining room, we sat on stools (5 at a time) at the end of the bar, the bartender pushes a button, a door next to the bar opens and the stools slide into the next room!

You can see a 360° view of it and read more about it at http://borysov.com.ua/en/ostannya-barykada.

The restaurant is located directly under the Liadsky Gate – one of the entrances to the ancient Kiev—and you can see parts of the ancient stone gate in the restaurant.

The menu is extensive but very reasonably priced. All the food has been this trip. We've had full course dinners with beer & wine that cost us $15 for everything. Tonight, we both had the pulled pork sandwich with fries, Jef had 2 large beers and I had a fruit juice—the total was $18 with tip! The portions are small but plenty filling. There's an open kitchen where you can watch the prepare the food. The whole thing is really amazing.

At the end of our meal, Dris had arranged for a small birthday cake to come out with singing wait staff for Jef! I wasn't fast enough with the phone camera to get pictures though. It was a very cool experience and a perfect last dinner together.

Around 10:30pm, we all walked back to the hotel for one final dessert. Dris had purchased a special Kiev cake made by Roshen. It's been made in Kiev since December 6, 1956 by the Karl Marx Confectionery Factory (now a subsidiary of the Roshen corp).

The cake has become one of the symbols of Kiev city, particularly by its brand name and package, depicting the horse chestnut leaf (the informal coat of arms of Kiev which you can see in the pictures). The cake has two airy layers of meringue with cashew, chocolate glaze, and a buttercream-like filling. Jef sliced it up and served it to everyone (except Guermo and Patty who had gone off somewhere else). It was a very nice gesture on Dris's part and we were all happy to have the chance to try the famous cake too. It was a great evening!

But we had to get to bed as our taxi to the airport was picking us up at 3:30am!

By the way, the password “Boritesya – poborete!” means “Fight and win!” 

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