This morning we set off on our exciting explorations to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which is about two hours' drive from the city. We will spend the next two days exploring the site and we even stay overnight in a hotel here.
The accident at Chernobyl was the result of a flawed Soviet reactor that was being operated by inadequately trained staff. Ukraine's isolation during the Cold War meant that their safety culture was lacking and this was a major contributing factor in the accident. At the nuclear power plant there were four reactors and a further two being constructed when on the 26th April 1986 Reactor 4 exploded twice, killing two workers and releasing at least 5% of its radioactive core into the atmosphere. A further 28 people died of radiation poisoning following the accident. At the time this was the largest uncontrolled radioactive release recorded and large quantities of radioactive material were released into the air for about 10 days after. This caused grave social and economic disruption to Ukraine, but also neighbouring Belarus and Russia.
Chernobyl is about 130 kilometres north of Kiev and only 20 kilometres from the Belarusian border. The city of Pripyat was built 3 kilometres from the site to house the plant's workers and, at the time, it had 49000 inhabitants. The old town of Chornobyl had a smaller population and is further away. Within a 30 kilometre radius of the power plant, there was a population of up to 135000 people. Pripyat was evacuated the day after the accident and is now a ghost town.
About 200000 people, known as liquidators, from throughout the Soviet Union were involved in the clean up during the year after the disaster. They all received high doses of radiation. In the years that followed many more liquidators were onsite but the radiation levels were far lower. Surprisingly after the accident the other reactors at Chernobyl were restarted. Their safety was improved in the early 1990's but due to energy shortages the last of the remaining three reactors wasn't turned off until December 2000. Almost 6000 people worked at the plant every day up until then and their radiation dose has been within internationally accepted limits.
Reactor 4 was enclosed in a large concrete shelter which was erected quickly after the incident and contained around 200 tonnes of highly radioactive material. The old shelter only had a shelf life of around 30 years and at the end of 2016 a huge 'New Safe Confinement' structure was built on the site and moved into place over the old shelter. It is the world's largest movable structure and inside a team of robotic cranes are going to be taking the old shelter and radioactive core apart in an effort to make the area safe again.
In 2010 Belarus announced that it was to settle back thousands of people into the 'contaminated areas' and by 2011 Chernobyl was declared safe enough to be recognised as a tourist attraction. Interestingly in 2015 a major scientific study found that the mammal population in the Exclusion Zone was thriving, despite land contamination, which was contrary to what experts had believed would be the case. The Przewalski's horse was close to extinction, but in areas around Chernobyl their population is increasing. Moose, deer, beavers, owls, brown bear, lynx and wolves have also all been spotted and appear to be prospering.
On our first day of discovery we will most likely explore Pripyat including the fairground, hospital, hotel, bus station, fire station, football stadium, sports centre, elementary school, kindergarten, police station, Palace of Culture, church and the 'bridge of death'. We'll also see the Red Forest, Chernobyl Docks and the concrete casket around Reactor Number 4. The attractions seen in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone may vary depending on local conditions and restrictions, but we'll see the most possible during our two days spent here.
This evening we will have the unique experience of staying within the Exclusion Zone in a small hotel within the town of Chernobyl. The bedrooms are simply decorated and there are three bathrooms shared between every five bedrooms. There is a restaurant and bar where we will enjoy a traditional Ukrainian meal this evening.