Experiencing the Chernobyl nuclear power plant nearly 30 years after the disaster

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The following is the first installment of a new series of editorials which will communicate portions of my recent trip to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (Read the second installment herethe third installment here, the fourth installment here, and a bonus installment about the animals at Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl here.).  As we approach the 30th anniversary in 2016, each installment will focus around one area of the Chernobyl experience.  I will incorporate first-hand experience, on-site data, and a handful of the thousands of images I captured during my visit.  Sadly I won’t be able to fully communicate all of the details of the trip in these editorials, but it will be an intensive introduction into the Chernobyl experience and I hope to continue to put out other experiences in future commentary, presentations, and analysis that will help fully demonstrate what all I learned and experienced.

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An image of the memorial at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant with the Unit 4 Sarcophagus in the background.

In the beginning of September 2015, I had the rare opportunity to attend a first-of-its-kind vocational training program hosted by the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.  With eleven other participants, most from the United States, I departed Kiev on the 6th for Slavutich – the last Soviet town constructed which was designed for evacuees from Pripyat and workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and now boasts some 35,000 residents.

Sunset in Slavutich
Sunset in Slavutich

The site where Slavutich was constructed was selected because of its proximity to the nuclear power plant and the fact that it was less-affected by the radiation released from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster than other surrounding areas.  I carried a very sensitive CsI radiation detector through the beautiful cobblestone sidewalks which run through the city and never saw a radiation level above the same background levels that I would see back in the United States.

The entrance to the Hotel Slavutich where we stayed.
The entrance to the Hotel Slavutich where we stayed.

The city of Slavutich is beautiful – with plenty of parks and monuments (remembering both Chernobyl and World War II), the people are kind, the three main restaurants are open late, and the scenery can be breathtaking.

The memorial in Slavutich to remember those who died responding to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The memorial in Slavutich to remember those who died responding to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

The memorial for Chernobyl is in the heart of the city and is comprised of three main components, a large metal column with a bell suspended 20 feet or so in the air, coming off the sides of the column are two marble walls with the faces of 30 of the first victims of the disaster are beautifully engraved into the rock, and finally a plaque standing in front of the column.  People still leave flowers at the memorial throughout the year.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant training center in Slavutich.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant training center in Slavutich.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant hosts a training center in Slavutich, where on our first day we were briefed on topics ranging from on-site behavior, safety conscious activity, a briefing of the physics and processes behind the destruction of the Unit 4 reactor, and an overview of the design and structure of the sarcophagus and new containment structure currently under constructions.  At this training facility, workers at the nuclear power plant are trained on proper ways to store, put on, and operate different protective gear and detection equipment.  Workers preparing for critical tasks in high radiation zones will also train at the facility to become more familiar with the procedures and what risks are involved so that they can be more efficient and reduce stay-times in dangerous areas at the nuclear power plant.

We also visited the Chernobyl museum in Slavutich, a two-story structure which houses the Chernobyl museum on the first floor and a Slavutich museum on the second floor.  The Chernobyl museum houses many photographs documenting the construction, operation, and shutdown of Units 1, 2, and 3 — as well as the disaster at the Unit 4 reactor. They also have a memory room dedicated to the deaths of the initial responders.  In the middle of the room hang four ornate bells which are rung once a year, on April 26th, to remember the disaster and those who gave their lives.  Some of the other items at the museum are very somber.  Hanging on the wall in the corner is a copy of a daily report filed about a worker at Chernobyl who had been at home sleeping at the time of the explosion.  According to the log, the worker was notified of the disaster around 04:00 in the morning and had proceeded to the plant.  He had performed various duties for more than 12 hours and according to the documentation ended up in the hospital by the end of the day because of radiation sickness.

The breakfast cafeteria in the Hotel Slavutich.
The breakfast cafeteria in the Hotel Slavutich.

Every morning we would gather in the cafeteria in the basement of the Hotel Slavutich at 6:30 am local time, where we would be greeted by a plate with yogurt, crackers, and jelly on it and a communal plate of toast for the table.  As we would get seated the attendant would bring us our breakfast, which generally consisted of a meat and potato side dish or a pickled vegetable.  We could also request a cup of expresso, which while potent — does not go far in stemming the average American’s lust for a large mug of hot coffee.  After we had finished with breakfast we would grab our packs and equipment for the day, assemble in the lobby, and head off to the train station.

The train from Slavutich to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant crosses briefly through Belarus and arrives at its destination in 40-45 minutes.  It is not uncommon to see birds of prey and cranes in the wetland areas of the exclusion zone near the train tracks.  When the train crosses the bridge at the Pripyat River, one can also see fishermen in their boats.  When you exit the train, you walk along a long covered platform with metal walls and columns and pipes painted baby blue, similar to one you would see in any city train stop.  As soon as you step off of the train, people instantly come alive.  There are a many rules to follow when you are on-site at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant; don’t set things down on the ground just anywhere, only walk on paved areas (don’t go trudging through the grass and weeds), and only eat and drink in designated areas (at the canteen.).

To gain access to the site, one must first be cleared by security — who take their job very seriously, and who ensures that each traveler has proper authorization for entry.  After entering the site from the train station, the tip of the exhaust stack of the crippled Unit 4 and sarcophagus can barely be seen if you know where to look.  The iconic 150 meter red and white striped ventilation stack that once soared above the sarcophagus has been removed and replaced by a 125 meter yellow and white stack.  The old stack was cut into pieces, but are so contaminated that they could not be disposed of, so the pieces are currently stored on-site at an adjacent location.  Removing the ventilation stack was a hassle, however it was a bigger obstacle while it was still standing.  Radiation levels on the roof of the sarcophagus are still high and the stack was not only aging it was also not helping reduce the radiation levels for workers on the upper portions of the sarcophagus.

Workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant walking to the new containment structure.
Workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant walking to the new containment structure.

Around 3,500 workers are on-site at any given day working on a myriad of various projects including the construction of the new confinement structure, the preparation for the installation of the new confinement over the existing sarcophagus, the identification and collection of contaminated debris, the construction of a new interim spent fuel processing and storage facility, the laundering of contaminated worker clothes, and other critical programs taking place on-site.  They arrive on-site every day in their personal clothes, and after passing through security they proceed to changing rooms where they have lockers and change into their respective work clothes.

The workers on-site are wonderful people, who believe that their work is important, and form bonds like brothers – based on trusting each other to ensure that each of them go home safe.  There is a unity that is formed by groups of people when the rest of the world counts you out.  The workers do not fear going to work at Chernobyl every day, they enjoy each other’s company, and I found that they have each grown to appreciate the plant in some way or another.

A incredibly detailed model of the Unit 4 reactor and Sarcophagus at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
A incredibly detailed model of the Unit 4 reactor and Sarcophagus at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

After we passed through security and into the site we were taken to an administration building where we met our liaison from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, a bright and cheerful man named Stanislav.  In the lobby to Stanislav’s office is a window (some five feet wide and three feet tall) which looks directly at the Sarcophagus, which is only some 400-500 yards away.  In the middle of the room is an incredibly realistic model of the Unit 4 reactor building and sarcophagus which opens up to reveal all of internal structures and debris.

In many of the “industrial” areas of the plant, many projects have been taken to lower the levels of radioactivity that workers are exposed to.  In some cases topsoil has been removed, new clean fill has been trucked in, and concrete and asphalt have been laid down, all with the goal of reducing the on-site migration of radioactive particles – which have a tendency when present in an environment to be internalized or catch a ride out of the secured area on the clothes of workers and the tires on trucks.  The result of many of these on-site activities is to restrict as much as possible the exposure to workers and visitors to only gamma shine from the radioactive materials housed in the sarcophagus.  These mitigation actions also have helped to lower radiation fields in some indoor areas of the site to under 15 uR per hour, provided enough shielding is between you and the sarcophagus to overcome the gamma shine.  However, the on-site radiation levels still vary widely depending on the location and positioning, as illustrated below.

When living or working in areas with increased levels of radioactivity, one must remember the three basic principles of radiation protection; time, distance, and shielding.  Visiting a site like Chernobyl really allows a person to put these principles to work, with very interesting results.  For example, in the area of the site where Stanislav’s office is located, gamma shine from the Sarcophagus is the primary source of exposure.  When standing directly in front of the window and facing the sarcophagus with my detector I measured 731 uR per hour, if I turned around so my detector was facing into the room and away from the sarcophagus I would measure 61 uR per hour, and on the opposite side of the room from the window I measured 37 uR per hour.  This was a very good physical demonstration of gamma fields and the effects of distance and shielding from a known source of gamma shine.

After inspecting the model and viewing some videos on the construction of the sarcophagus for about twenty minutes, we were taking to a training room where we were briefed on the accident, post-accident mitigation efforts, and the continuing mitigation works including the construction of the new confinement structure which will be moved on top of the existing sarcophagus structure.  I will talk in more detail about the new confinement structure in future articles.

The new containment structure under construction.
The new confinement structure under construction.

After this final briefing, we were given a personal tour of the new confinement structure by the Novarka Construction Supervisor, who took us inside of the structure and pointed out key design features and how the structure would be moved in place over the sarcophagus.

Our liaison from the nuclear power plant, Stanislav, showing the hydraulic system which will move the new containment structure over the Unit 4 Sarcophagus.
Our liaison from the nuclear power plant, Stanislav, showing the hydraulic system which will move the new structure over the Unit 4 Sarcophagus.

Though the new confinement structure may not be the biggest project ever constructed, it is incredibly massive, large enough to allow enormous cranes and gantries to move freely under its steel roof.  The cover is being built on a large concrete pad, which is designed not only to carry the weight of the building, but also the supplies, hydraulics, and heavy industrial equipment moving in and out of it every day.  From under the new confinement structure we had our first up-close introduction with the Unit 4 sarcophagus.

Looking east out of the new containment structure we got our first glimpse of the Unit 4 reactor.
Looking east out of the confinement structure we got our first close-up introduction to the Unit 4 sarcophagus.

Looking east from the new confinement structure we faced the western wall of the sarcophagus, which barely peaks over enormous concrete walls used for reinforcing portions of the sarcophagus and shielding workers below.  Running over, in, and around these walls was a network of steel walkways, platforms, and stairs.  The roof of the sarcophagus was visible and the new ventilation stack.  At ground level we could see workers moving in and out of the base of the wall and an adjacent portion of the reactor building, where openings allowed them access.  The radiation levels in the new containment structure I measured were between 291-919 uR/hr depending on how close I was to – and whether or not I was facing the sarcophagus.

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The sarcophagus was a hastily built structure under extreme conditions and time constraints which was designed to stem the on-going release of radioactive materials into the environment.  (In Ukraine, they don’t call it the sarcophagus, it is called Объект “Укрытие” which means Object Shelter.)  Construction started within 3 weeks after the reactor exploded and was completed in a little over 200 days in November 1986.  The engineers who designed it said that the structure could be expected to stand for 20 years, it has been nearly 30 years and with some modifications and maintenance the structure is still standing.  Work has been done to deal with issues with the roofing and reinforcing portions of the structure.

The canteen (cafeteria) at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
The canteen (cafeteria) at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The canteen (cafeteria) at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant serves amazing food for the workers.  After grabbing a tray one only has to walk down the line and pick and choose from foods like vegetable and meat plates, a choice of soups, a choice of a fish or meat entrée with vegetables, an assortment of drinks, and bread.  By the time you pass through the line, your tray is so loaded up that you wonder if you will ever make it back to your table without spilling.

The Fire Chief of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant Fire Department.
The Fire Chief of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant Fire Department.  Note the dosimeter hanging from his shirt pocket.

That afternoon we visited the Chernobyl nuclear power plant Fire Department.  I will admit that I have always been amazed on the response time of the firefighters after the explosions at the Unit 4 reactor.  When reviewing the reports of those on duty that night we find the firefighters are on the roof of the turbine building fighting fires before the operators in the control room even realize that the reactor has been destroyed.

A view of the Unit 4 reactor building from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant Fire Department.
A view of the Unit 4 reactor building from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant Fire Department.

When I visited the power plant I realized why the fire fighters were so quick to respond – looking over the concrete wall that surrounds the fire department it is easy to see the top of the Sarcophagus and the ventilation stack rising above the other surrounding buildings.  Once a firetruck leaves the gates of the fire department, it would take less than 90 seconds to pull up near the Unit 4 reactor building.

The hand-made memorial at the Fire Department.
The hand-made memorial at the Fire Department.

There is a beautiful monument at the Fire Department for the firefighters that responded so bravely that night, which was built by hand by the fire fighters themselves.  Inside the front door of the fire station they have a roster of all of the firefighters who were a part of the fire department during the response to the disaster.

One of the fire trucks at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
One of the fire trucks at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

The firetrucks at the Fire Department are not the same that you might find at your local fire station, but they appear like workhorses, sturdy and reliable.  The workers are obviously proud of and love these vehicles and know them inside and out.

At the end of every day workers go back to their changing rooms where they have the ability to shower and change back into their personal clothes.  Before you can get back to the train platform, you have to pass through two contamination monitoring portals, which ensure that you aren’t carrying unknown external contamination off of the plant site.  If one of the portals alarms there is a dosimetrist on hand who will come over and re-inspect you and instruct you on follow up activities you may need to take.

The train ride back from Chernobyl to Slavutich has a much different atmosphere than the morning journey.  In the morning, many (if not most) of the passengers sleep or read the morning news.  They greet each other and talk a little amongst each other, but the mood is quieter and seemingly focused on what tasks will need to be completed that day.  The afternoon rides are much more jovial and relaxed.  Plenty of passengers can still be found sleeping on the trains, exhausted after a long day at work, but more passengers are grouped together playing games or regaling each other with stories.

Different groups tend to sit together in train cars.  The management tends to be found largely in the first few cars behind the engine, engineers are known to fill up the forward and middle cars, and contract workers and administrative workers are most likely found in the rear cars.  On the train ride home, the contract workers play a game called “Fool” which is similar to the Western game “Cheat”, the gameplay revolves around getting rid of the cards from your hand in a certain order and bluffing about what cards you are laying and keeping in your hand.  The engineers enjoy a game called “Preferans” which is a game of probability, and the best players tend to have a keen mind for mathematics and counting cards.

After arriving back in Slavutich each evening, we would briefly disperse to our rooms at Hotel Slavutich to change clothes, journal our experiences, back up our memory cards, or maybe just catch a quick nap before we would meet up again for dinner at one of the local restaurants.

Chernobyl Day 1
Locations visited in this report; 0 – Train station 1 – Administration building 2 – Training Room 3 – New Containment Structure 4 – Unit 4 Sarcophagus

Chernobyl Series

Part 1 – Experiencing the Chernobyl nuclear power plant

Part 2 – Visiting the Chernobyl site and the Unit 2 control room

Part 3 – Inside the Chernobyl Unit 4 control room

Part 4 – Pripyat: City for the Future, City of the Past

Bonus Coverage – The Animals at Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl

All images courtesy of Carl Willis, Heidi Baumgartner, Lucas Hixson, and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant


Stay tuned for additional reports which will focus in detail on other areas of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant including (but not limited to); the new containment structure, the Sarcophagus, the Unit 4 control room, the golden corridor, the Unit 5 reactor building, and more.

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