It doesn’t get much more crazy than heading on a backpacking journey to “Reactor Number 4”. Indeed, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone attracts less tourists per year than Antarctica, North Korea and Iraq. Here there are 13,000 tourists per year. That’s only 35 people per day on average! And I mentioned in parts 1 and 2 of this report that there is much more exposure to radiation and risk from getting a dental X-ray or getting a 2 hour flight. So bear that in mind next time you head to the dentists!
Just before we visit the zone of the actual Nuclear Power Stations, we had visited the town of Chernobyl itself, the secret Soviet Duga Radar system and the abandoned and buried town of Kopachi. As we enter the zone where the notoriously infamous “Reactor Number 4” sits, we are told that Radiation levels are higher here, we can’t linger too long outside the actual reactor and that for the most part photographs are not permitted. This was the only part of the tour where we couldn’t take photographs.
The Geiger Counter levels increased as well and on the drive to Nuclear Power Station Reactor Number 4, we pass numbers 1, 2 and 3. All of the Reactors were built in numerical order obviously, so the first four were complete and fully operation in 1986. A further 2 reactors, Reactor Number 5 and Reactor Number 6 were in construction but neither were completely finished when the disaster happened at Reactor Number 4 in 1986.
On the drive we take, some reactors are to our left and some to our right, there is a custom built river running through the site. It all looks grim, like a Soviet built power station site doomed for failure and now a complete eyesore. This is no pleasure cruise or backpacker’s dream. Yeah it’s a cool tour to do and see, but it’s as dark as a horse not expected to win.
Of course once the disaster happened at Reactor Number 4, none of the reactors or any of the Nuclear Power station were ever used again to create power. The area had to be abandoned, sealed off and to this day, 30 years on, the area still has radiation risks. You knew all that, and so did I, but the real point of doing this tour is to see it with your own eyes and get a grasp of the horrific events that went wrong here.
After a drive in this area for about 6-7 minutes we arrive at the car park. The sky is grey and smells of doom. The clouds don’t even want to rain on this parade. We park the car in an empty car park (above).
On one side are train lines, buildings, trees and some huts, on the other side, we can clearly see the scene of the crime. Cranes tower over the exposed Reactor Number 4.
There is a gate we can go up to, at this point we are a few hundred metres from Reactor Number 4. This is a sad moment. This is where the damage was done. The Reactor is still there, still huge and looks like it wouldn’t even make the set for Ghostbusters of a Jamesy Bond film.
We stare straight at the culprit. Yes, it’s huge. To the right of it, an even more gigantic hangar type construction is being finalised. This is basically a massive cover for the Reactor Number 4. When finished, this cover will be put over the top of Reactor Number 4 and sealed off.
We do wonder why they didn’t just smash the thing and import loads of mud and rocks and cover it up with natural earth. But then again, I’m not a scientist and it’s not my gig. So finally, 30 years on, the culprit of the disaster will be covered up, when they roll this large beast over the mass murderer.
There is also a large chimney on the actual reactor, which remains from before the disaster. However, the casing around it, Misha tells us is called a Sarcophagus. It was designed to limit radioactive contamination of the environment following the disaster, by encasing the most dangerous area and protecting it from climate exposure. It was built from May to November 1986 and remains to this day.
The main object of the cover up process is to prevent the reactor complex from leaking any more radioactive material into the environment and the secondary goal is to allow a future partial demolition of the old structure. The process of these constructions seem to have been built in two separate parts, with two names used for it:
At the entrance to Reactor Number 4 there is a memorial dedicated to the victims and those that helped limit the death toll caused by the disaster.
I was extremely surprised (but then maybe not as it’s the Soviet Union) to hear that only 31 people died in the explosion. Realistically, thousands more died and were affected by it, bear in mind that Kopachi and Pripyat were totally evacuates – cities amounting to over 50,000 people.
The Geiger counter reading is very high on one side of the memorial, it gets up to 2.9 uSv/h, on the other side, it’s lower. We don’t spend long here and it’s best not to dwell. Our next stop may be even more grim than seeing the culprit. Believe it or not.
We are heading to the city of Pripyat next. A city once thriving and once the cool, rich, up and coming USSR city to live in. With its neat town square, its dance hall, amusement park, well designed leafy boulevards and Soviet architecture, Pripyat is where some well-off Soviets lived. But one day in 1986, all its residents were evacuated and it has been a spooky ghost town ever since. I flew my flag and off we went.
Here are my videos from driving inside the area where the Power Plants are and the visit to the culprit himself – Reactor Number 4: