The Tour I took to the Chernobyl exclusion zone over the Christmas holiday was a very educational one, the people running it were very well informed and willing to share their knowledge.
Interesting Chernobyl facts I learned on this tour:
- When the accident took place in 1986, the Ukrainian authorities kept it secret for a couple of days, not only from other competing countries, but also inside the Soviet Union and even didn’t tell the people living in the area of the great risk they were being exposed to.
- The authorities finally admitted on the accident when they were confronted by the Swedish alarmed by the radiation measurements they registered which the Swedish officials Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant concluded had to have been transported in the form of radioactive clouds from over the Chernobyl area.
- This is how the explosion looked like:
- First thing after the accident, firemen were called in to set the fire down. They were unaware of the gravity of the situation and they were exposed to radiation levels so high on the night of the 26th of April 1986, that they all soon died because of the side effects this exposure had on them.
- The people from inside of what today is the exclusion zone were not informed of the accident for two days before they were finally rushed out and evacuated, allowed to carry out only cash and documents.
- Because of the clouds over the Chernobyl area at the time of the explosion, the damage caused by the radioactive rain was much more significant than what would have been in case of a clear sky.
- Due to the long time being exposed to the contaminated air, many people from inside the area were affected by radiation and suffered from radiation-related illnesses that affected them long term, if not deadly on a short term.
- In order to minimize the panic level among the population inside the Soviet Union, the legal radiation level that a person could have in their body was raised, right after the accident, 5 times the previous value. That way, when people went in for a check, they were considered to be inside legal levels and could walk away “healthy”.
- The radioactive cloud transported from the Ukrainian territory towards western Europe produced, through rain, much damage to some of the countries, like France and Germany, effects that were not recognized to the day and of which the population of these countries was never informed. Because no measurements were taken to clean these areas, nowadays there are parts of western Europe that have a higher radiation level than the ones registered inside the exclusion zone in Ukraine.
- Several villages were buried under ground after the disaster because their level of radiation was too high. New, clean soil was brought to the area for this purpose. Forests were planted all around, in order to speed up a complete cleaning process of the area.
- The whole area is going wild and it’s home to many wild species nowadays, including wild dogs, foxes, cats, fish etc. There are stories about a “mutant catfish” going around. The unusual dimensions that this species has reached are caused by the lack of predators rather than any mutations.
- There are around 500 re-settlers. These are the people who lived here before the disaster and were permitted to go back to their villages.
- When they went back to re-occupy the area, the re-settlers were allowed to pick any house they wanted to inhabit, not necessarily go back to their old ones. That’s why, going through the Chernobyl villages you’ll see every once in a while a renovated house with an inscription on it. The inscriptions hold the names of the new owners and their purpose is to announce others that that house is already taken, and other re-settlers should find another house.
- The re-settlers are the only people allowed to be here on a permanent basis. Other people working inside the exclusion zone are only permitted to stay inside the area for a maximum of 14 days, while rest of the month has to be spent outside.
- The exclusion zone in Ukraine is about 2600 square km. A good portion of Belarus was also strongly affected by the accident, but was never declared an exclusion zone and no measurements for cleaning the area were ever taken. The good thing is that this Belarusian area was uninhabited and is covered still with woods.
- There were 4 reactors in function at the time of the accident. The reactor that exploded was Reactor no 4. The exact cause of the accident is unknown, all that has been told to public was that the engineers were running an exercise at that time.
- Reactor no 3 was also affected by the accident and a second explosion, which would have been much bigger, probably whipping most of Europe off the map, was barely avoided, only thanks to the volunteers offering to help out and make the area safe once again.
- Despite this, the Reactor no 3 kept functioning until recently. The only reason the Ukrainian authorities ceased to use this reactor was the pressure the European Union put on it being closed down.
- After the explosion was put down, a sarcophagus was built around Reactor no 4 to protect the area from spreading radiation. This was only meant to last for 20 years. A second one is still under construction almost 30 years later. This is to be set over the old one.
- Nowadays, the area is safe to visit, but you can only go inside with a guide. It is an exclusion zone and it is bordered by authorities. When exiting, everybody has to run a scan determining whether their radiation level is within legal levels.
- Prypiat was the main city of the area. It was built in order to be inhabited by the reactor’s workers and it was one of the best places to live inside the Soviet Union. The people who worked at the reactors were carefully selected and the inhabitants of Prypiat had many advantages compared to other areas in the Union. Salaries were 3 times higher than anywhere else, the shops were better stocked, they had good quality apartment buildings and institutions.
- There was even an amusement park built in Prypiat. Unfortunately, it was never put in use. The whole city was preparing for the celebrations that were to happen on Labor’s day (1st of May). That was when the park was meant to be open to the public. Soviet propaganda posters they had prepared for the occasion can still be seen around town.
- Inside the main school, there are hundreds of gas masks. These were stocked here in case “the Americans” attacked. However, a nuclear disaster did not seem like an appropriate occasion to use them too.
- Shortly after the people left the area, so did the storks. Since they’re a symbol of life in many cultures, there are paintings and posters of storks around Chernobyl, representing the re-birth of the area.