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Up at the Kiev Ibis, packratting supplies and truffle tea from the all-you-can-eat buffet and piling onto the bus, almost getting killed by a man who felt reversing a 4×4 in a tight space was a great accompaniment to having a heated argument on his mobile. Ukraine, health and safety, etc. We were issued our little yellow Geiger counters (I immediately christened mine H.R.). It was a rainy morning, huge blocks of flats with great big multicoloured socialist-surrealist murals silhouetted against the aluminium-grey sky; most of the vegetation was overgrown, but nothing was particularly run down. The roads were broad but busy, and the drains were having trouble, with cars struggling through flooded areas or driving over verges to get around them. We forded an underpass which had easily eight inches of water gathered at the bottom.
A broad, well-made road out of Kiev – “it’s one of the best in the country, because it goes to Yanukovich’s old house”. Lots of villages, each with the same war memorial starring the same glum greatcoated soldier with a Mosin-Nagant on his shoulder, and curious signs above the shops – a girl tooth and a boy tooth holding hands. Thin iron grave markers with intricately wrought ornamentation in the churchyards. A very flat, very green landscape, with bigger individual fields than anywhere I’ve seen since Australia. Good tank country. Finally, we came to the 30km perimeter at the edge of the Zone of Alienation: a big well-manned checkpoint, where uniformed militsiya checked our passports and those of passengers from a couple of much larger coaches. There was already a curious stillness in the air.
The town of Chernobyl (not to be confused with the city of Pripyat, built in the 1970s for reactor workers), is ancient, dating to at least the 12th century. Nowadays it’s mostly abandoned, but parts live on to accommodate temporary cleanup workers (who obey very strict exposure rules). It’s an odd place: almost all the buildings are in ruins, with a handful – especially the fire station – in really good nick. All the plumbing is above-ground to avoid anything leaching in, and pairs of insulated pipes line every road and arch over every junction. Past the town, and down another long, straight road, a second checkpoint marked the 10km exclusion zone; a posse of military types with a huge vehicle-scanning Geiger counter, an AK-74 sitting on a table. We saw the roofs of wooden cottages sticking up from the earth; our guide told us how the contaminated soil had been dug up across the entire zone and used to bury the irradiated villages, creating a few extremely hot spots. H.R. chirruped as they went by.
The approach towards the NPP is breathtaking, as a vast complex of decayed or unfinished mega-architecture comes into view. Across an artificial cooling canal, perfectly straight and easily fifty metres wide between its concrete levees, stand two incomplete cooling towers built in the ribbed, truncated-cone Soviet style, one nearly finished, one just a stub.** Then the enormous incomplete Reactor V complex, a mix of rusty red and pale concrete; it’s possible, if you like, to read it as the carcass of some immense animal, being scavenged by the skeletal cranes that surround it (as if the carcass of a nuclear power plant wasn’t hellishly impressive enough). And finally, the main ChNPP, a monolithic concrete monster which fills the horizon, almost a kilometre of blocky grey with red-and-white-striped stacks at each end. The silver arch of the New Safe Confinement shone beyond the far end.
Seen up close, the main power plant offices could be anywhere in Ukraine (or even in England); just a car park and a busy Seventies office building, with people coming and going. We were security-checked by earnest, attentive Ukrainians, and taken to a changing room. Safety procedures were serious: lab coats and hats, shoe covers, a little shiny metal dosimeter like a dog-tag. Then it was across a skywalk, and into the plant itself. An immensely long corridor, lined with ribbed golden panelling, runs almost the entire length of the power plant, dotted everywhere with old-fashioned instruments and doors to other rooms, many of both still in use. It was only partially lit, and there were occasional drips from the ceiling; plant workers in the same coat-and-cap outfits as us came and went.
Banks upon banks of dead consoles lined the gloomy Reactor II control room, a couple of men in white working at a well-lit table against one wall. One of them obligingly explained what the displays actually meant: the huge round-edged grid, a recurring theme in the displays, turned out to be a sort of top-down map of the whole atomic pile, with a dial or button corresponding to each rod (colour coded for the type of rod) displaying the height, or temperature, or serving to lift or raise them. The console showing the power control for the turbines was similarly lucid; he explained the layout of the control room when the plant was working, with a couple of consoles to each controller. Now, he monitors things to help with the decommissioning of the rest of the plant, which he said would take until at least 2064.
Next, we were shown through an unlit pump hall the size of a cathedral, with rails on the floor leading away under heavy metal doors, and the immense yellow cylinders of the pump structures looming in the dark; we climbed sharp ladders and a precarious metal balcony, using phone lights to see. I lost all sense of direction as the tour wound through room after room, switching from dark and gloomy to daylit and shabby and back again. The floors were overlaid with thick translucent plastic sheeting, the walls whitewashed, the heavier bits of equipment – cranes, motors, pumps – hpainted bright primary colours. In the crook of one corridor was a monument to a reactor worker whose body was never found, with blue and yellow plastic flowers; the wall behind it separated us from Reactor IV, and set all our Geiger counters singing. Along the walls of another room, reactor schematics and horribly ironic health and safety posters were pinned up. Someone had scrawled “Putin is a cock” in Ukrainian on one of the signs. H.R. periodically went crazy as we walked through pockets of radiation.
In another building, separate from the plant, a fantastically made model opened up to show the design of the entire ruined Reactor IV assembly. A plant guide named Stanislaw explained the gigantic New Safe Confinement being built just outside: the sarcophagus (basically, an improvised structure of lead and concrete covering the entire reactor pile with its molten core and uranium fuel rods) is falling apart, and rather than attempt to fill in the cracks and shore up the half-collapsed, incredibly radioactive plant building, they decided to build the huge new containment structure nearby, slide it on rails over the whole Reactor IV unit, and seal it, preventing the escape of any more radioactive material. “As to the fuel rods, we will not speak of this. We have a hundred-year guarantee with the NSC. Hopefully the scientists will figure it out.”
The NSC is a hollow semicircular prism which weighs thirty thousand tonnes and cost a billion and a half euros. You can look up the dimensions, if “it’s big enough to hide a nuclear power plant in” will not suffice. It was still a way from completion when we visited: the corrugated silver outer skin was essentially complete, the inner skin nearly so, but the various climate-control and monitoring units were mostly yet to be fitted, as were the internal cranes to help remove debris and continue the cleanup of Reactor 4. Despite the apocalyptic surroundings, the construction site, complete with portakabins and shiny new mobile cranes, feels a lot like any other modern building site. We stood at the truss bridge that carries a railway across the cooling canal and threw bread to the giant black catfish writhing in the dark green water – “we feed them Russian tourists, that’s how they get so big” – then trooped back to the minibus, past a statue of Prometheus, and drove back along the cooling canal.
We went inside one of the abandoned cooling towers. It was ridiculous, simply too big to be real; hawks were circling inside the tower, far above the unfinished cooling mechanism that was itself like a whole abandoned multi-storey building site. There was a ring of scaffolding at the inside lip of the tower, and an entire segment had come down and lay in pieces on the half-flooded floor of the tower. Rusty old bolts were strewn everywhere, and I couldn’t resist acting out the Stalker’s safety test.
There is a fish farm/maritime research station where the cooling canal reaches the lake, using the warm water for studies that would otherwise be difficult in northern Ukraine; the building, which was abandoned quite a while after the disaster, had some authentic-looking charts up but was mostly full of stupid tacky shit clearly deliberately planted to mock gullible tourists – a child’s gas mask, a creepy operating light. Much more interesting was the metal nursery pontoon, now half sunk in the lake, and some enormous fish corpses, curiously well-preserved and not as stinky as you’d expect.
We drove back past the NPP, past huge mobile-containment-unit-looking things on overgrown rails and a vast forest of pylons, transformers and other substation chicanery. The road turned to the northwest; low pine trees crowded behind radiation trefoil signs, and every Geiger counter in the bus started warbling excitedly at once. “This is the only road in Ukraine where it’s recommended you speed,” our guide observed drily. This was once the Wormwood Forest, which took the very worst of the contamination after the accident: the radiation killed the trees, killed the microbes that should have broken them down, and left a tract of discoloured corpses that gave the place its new name, the Red Forest. During the cleanup, liquidators bulldozed the forest, cut up the trees and buried them under tonnes of sand before planting new pines there; many of the new trees displayed weird gigantism or grew up stunted and bushlike. Contaminants have leached into the groundwater, poisoning it, and decades later the leaves there still rot more slowly than they should. But without the signs and the Geiger counters, there would be no way to tell; the trees now are green and alive, not visibly deformed, and the name is an artefact of history. I wonder if it will always be the Red Forest. Memory decays, too; slower than leaves, but faster than corium.
Soon we were out of the woods, and reached the big white concrete sign that welcomes travellers to the ghost town of Pripyat.
** The ChNPP originally had four reactors, cooled with water from the nearby Pripyat River that then flowed into a huge artificial cooling pond. The planned expansion to six reactors would exceed the pond’s capacity, requiring cooling towers to be built. At the time of the disaster, the Reactor V complex and its turbine assembly was half built, as were the towers.
Kiev & Chernobyl 2015
Kiev monasteries & Mother Motherland – Maidan, St. Michael’s & St Andrew’s – Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant – Palace of Culture –
Duga array & Pripyat Hospital – City of Pripyat & Chernobyl monuments