My wife and I visited Chernobyl on Sunday. It was amazing. We took a small bus from Kiev and got to drive past many dachas, the weekend and summer homes for the wealthy. I think we should start calling our cabins in McGregor IA 'dachas' because it sounds cooler, and that's essentially what they are.

To get to Chernobyl you have to get past several layers of security and the guide that we paid took care of most of that for us. After getting past three sets of guards we finally met our local host. He had a Geiger counter, a device that clicks whenever it detects radiation. Initially it read between 1 and 5 ppm, and clicked once a minute, then when we got to the Chernobyl area it registered 20, then 30, then up to 100 and was clicking very frequently. As we pulled up close to the plant it got to 300 near hot spots such as vehicles that had been used to clean up the mess.

At the spot where you can take the best pictures, it was over 500, and we thought we'd better move along quickly. Then our host told us that inside, where people still work, it's 45,000 and workers can take only 20-minute shifts each day while wearing full protective gear. They assured us that our trip was safe and that we were actually exposed to more radioactivity on the trans-Atlantic flight than today. The workers are not at all concerned about the radiation, and the signs warning you about hotspots are ridiculously small and deliberately inconspicuous. I saw a six-inch yellow triangle and asked the host what it was. He walked over and his counter went crazy — over 1,000. He shrugged, "Hotspot".

The Chernobyl story is interesting. It was planned to be the electrical power generating station for 60% of the eastern USSR, with 12 reactors operating when fully developed. The accident happened in reactor 4 and they immediately stopped construction with reactors 5 and 6 nearly complete. You can see the half-built cooling towers with rebar still sticking out. Right now reactor 4 is covered with a 'sarcophagus', meaning they dumped concrete and absorbent material directly on the mess, and then welded metal structures around it. They are building a tremendous structure that will eventually be covered in more cement to lock in the radiation. It's an unbelievably huge project.

The complex housed over 50,000 people, with all the schools, banks, post offices, etc. needed for a small city. Now they have been totally vacant for over 20 years and it's eerily quiet with absolutely no insects or wildlife. The accident happened on April 26, 1986, and people weren't evacuated until the end of the May 1st parade, about a week later. There was a famous Ferris wheel that was unveiled at the parade, but people knew something was wrong and no one rode it, instead going to their homes to clear out what they could. The Ferris wheel stands to this day, never used. Officially 130,000 people died, but locals think the actual number is five to 10 times higher.

The contaminated zone, where no one is permitted to live, is 2,300 square kilometers. Some elderly folks returned after the accident because they had nowhere else to live and wanted to die where they had grown up. The site was designed to be a self-sustaining town and they encouraged young couples to live and work there. There are many parks and play areas for children, all abandoned. This fact was also somewhat responsible for the accident, because the plants hired mostly new engineers, fresh out of college, to work at Chernobyl.

Now about 3,500 people work at the site every day, mostly welders, forestry experts, and security people who ride the train in to work every day, about 200 kilometers away. The welders work to cover reactor 4 with metal to contain the radiation, which is still blazing hot 20 years later. The forestry people work every day planting trees to absorb radiation from the air and ground. There is also a special moss that absorbs radiation that we were warned not to step on.

The first workers on the scene were 31 firefighters, who fought the disaster for half a day before they were too weak. They all died six days later. The next batch worked for a couple of days and died three months later. Nearly everyone else who worked directly at the site after the initial disaster died soon after. Even journalists, who flew over the site in helicopters a month later, eventually died from exposure.

The site is laid out unusually because of the later modifications they had to make. There is a nearby village that was totally buried in concrete, which was then covered by sand a yard deep. Then they deposited soil and planted trees, so the whole area looks like a new forest that is just 15 feet higher than anywhere else on the site. Steam from the plants heated the entire area (about 400 square kilometers), so there are huge pipes everywhere. These are all rusty and leaking, obviously no longer usable.

There is a new power plant built by the US across the river from the site. It now provides power for the entire site, rather than reactors 1-3. They had to keep the old reactors running because they needed power for all the reclamation work, but the US was so concerned that there would be another disaster that it gave them a new power plant for free. There are massive electrical lines leading out from the plant, more and bigger than I've ever seen, and most now hang limp in the wind because they don't need to be maintained.

It was an amazing visit that made me question whether all the electricity we use is necessary, given the cost that this area is paying. It's even more incentive to work on biofuels, in my mind.


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