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Chernobyl

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Central Ukraine : Chernobyl
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Chernobyl nuclear power plant's reactor 4 encased in a sarcophagus. Currently, the sarcophagus is leaking radiation and plans to build a replacement are underway.

Chernobyl (Ukranian: Chornobyl) is located in Central Ukraine; the location is infamous because of the nuclear meltdown on April 26, 1986.

Understand

On April 26, 1986, the No. 4 nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant near the city of Prypiat suffered from a catastrophic nuclear accident during a systems test. The resultant explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, which then spread over much of Western USSR and Europe. It is considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, and is one of only two classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Radioactive iodine and other dangerous radioactive elements released from the explosion and subsequent venting from the damaged containment structure rose into the air and spread across millions of square miles, polluting many European nations. Potassium iodide was distributed in the immediate areas surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, including the Pripyat region where most of the workers lived. The distribution of the contamination was determined by the weather conditions at the time. The radioactive plume touched down many times in numerous populated areas as far out as 500 km (over 300 miles) from the plant site.

The disaster arose during a systems test of the No. 4 reactor. There was a sudden power output surge experienced during a procedure intended to determine how much power was needed to keep the reactor operating during a blackout. When an emergency shutdown was attempted a more extreme spike in power output occurred. It was this extreme spike incident that ultimately led to a reactor vessel rupture and a series of explosions. These catastrophic events were not correctly managed or contained and as a result the graphite moderator of the reactor was exposed to air, causing it to ignite. The damaged reactor vessel released contaminated material into the compromised containment structure, a plume of radioactive smoke and debris particulate then vented into the atmosphere and dispersed over an extensive geographical area, including Pripyat. The explosion and fire ejected hot particles of nuclear fuel and fission products, radioactive isotopes including caesium-137, iodine-131, strontium-90 and other radionuclides, into the air. The resultant plume arising from the damaged plant drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe. Data released in the post-Soviet era indicates that about 60% of the fallout landed in Belarus. Although analysis of the precipitating events remains controversial. Although there were contributing human errors the cause of the incident was essentially one of flawed reactor and operational systems design, flawed control rod tip design, and defective operational training.

Pripyat, the town closest to the reactor is only 3 km away and was home to 49,000 residents before the disaster, mostly the families of the plant workers. The city of Chernobyl is only 4 km to the south of the reactor. High radiation levels forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from the region surrounding Chernobyl, but although about 700 residents have since returned to live in the region, none have reoccupied the actual town of Pripyat.

Pripyat is a freeze-frame of 1980s Soviet life. Propaganda slogans still hang on walls, and children's toys and other items remain as they were. But buildings are rotting, paint is peeling and looters have taken away anything that might have been of value. Trees and grass are eerily reclaiming the land. Today, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a tourist destination. In 2002, it opened for tourism, and in 2004 there were 870 visitors.

The accident that destroyed the Chernobyl 4 reactor is understood to have directly led to the death of 31 reactor operating staff, emergency responders and firemen within three months of the incident. An undetermined number of further deaths arose from exposure to radiation during the initial crisis and the ongoing contamination of the plant and environs.

Over twenty years after the accident, debate still rages about the number of directly related deaths. Fearing bad PR, the U.S.S.R. for several years forbade medical examiners from listing radiation as a cause of death. Estimates of deaths related to the accident range from 56 to thousands. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests the final figure could reach 4,000 civilian deaths, a figure not including casualties amongst clean-up workers drawn from the Soviet military forces. The numbers presented for consequential death from radiation exposure induced illness and cancer vary considerably and range upward toward just short of 1,000,000 potential casualties. A Russian publication concluded that between 1986-2004 there were 985,000 premature cancer deaths worldwide as a result of radioactive contamination from Chernobyl.

Read

  • Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster offers personal insight into the lives of residents before and after meltdown. ISBN 0312425848.
  • UNSCEAR's assessments of the radiation effects [1].

Get in

Pripyat is located 110 km from Kiev and about 16 km from the border with Belarus.

To gain access to Pripyat, Chernobyl or any of the surrounding villages, you will need to enter the 30 km exclusion Zone - and to do that, you will need to arrange a day pass. The easiest way of obtaining one of these is through a tour operator, of which there are many based in Kiev.

In late 2011 the government ministry with jurisdiction over the site increased the limitations and restrictions applicable for visits to the site.
Bus tours were no longer to be permitted and regulation №1157 stipulates that as of 2 November 2011 a request for a Zone permit must be applied for at least 10 days prior to the planned visit

  • Chernobylwel.com, [2]. These tours provide opportunities to see places that usually stay unseen including cooling towers 5 and 6, meeting with local citizens and visiting the cemetery of technicians. They also offer 2 day trips for €200-250 for tours from Kiev.
  • Hamalia travel agency, [3]. Has a good reputation for ecological tours to Chernobyl. When you wish to book a tour please ensure that you book in advance.
  • Kiev lodging Hostel & Chernobyl Tours (kievlodging@yahoo.com), 5 Pushkinskaya str., +380 93 813 3959, [4]. The only hostel in Kiev that has tours to Chernobyl. The tour company has all legal documents required to conduct tours in a safe and correct wayand is cheap and backpacker friendly. The tour includes an English speaking guide, Kiev pick-up and drop-off, official Zone access pass, transportation and food/drinks are also included.
  • Lupine Travel, +44 19 4270 4525 (), [5]. A UK based firm offering 1, 2 and 4 day Chernobyl tours including optional airport transfers and apartment stays in Kiev. For overnight stays food requirements are brought in from outside the Zone. Cost to join a group tour is from €139/person.
  • Pripyat.com, [6]. Organised tours to the Chernobyl exclusion Zone and Pripyat City conducted by former residents. Includes formal tours with testimonials, stories and memories about days of accident from people who lived in the region. They do very interesting, informative tours and everything is officially legalised.
  • SoloEast Travel, office 105, #10 Proreznaya St. (down town), 380442793505, [7]. One of the best and the first tour providers to Chernobyl. 100.
  • Star Sky Travel, +380 68 364 1424, [8]. Star Sky Travel provides trip to Chernobyl zone for groups and individual tourists; airport and railway transfer; VIP service; tourist visa support, student invitation, business invitation.
  • Tour2chernobyl.com, Khreshatik St, 19a, Kiev, +380 63 747 6286 (), [9]. 7 days a week from 10AM-7PM. You can check the available dates for group tours to Chernobyl on their web site. Chernobyl tour including the Chernobyl Zone, Prypyat. Skype: tour2chernobyl.com $120-160 per person.
  • UkrainianWeb, [10]. A North America based firm offering all-inclusive, English speaking guided tours to the Chernobyl Zone. Tours include a Kiev pick-up and drop-off, Zone access pass, transportation and lunch. Friendly service, fast and convenient booking with various payment options.

See

Now a ghost town, Pripyat, in April of 1986 was home to 50,000. The ferris wheel in the foreground is a grimly ironic reminder of the normality of life before the reactor accident.
The central square of Pripyat. In 22 years vegetation has seeped through concrete.
This amusement park was scheduled to open only four days after the Chernobyl accident, but this never happened. The ferris wheel, swings, bumper cars and the merry-go-round were never used and are now rusting away.
The view from Hotel Polissya in Pripyat reveals that Chernobyl reactor number four is chillingly close to the town where its workers lived.
Travel Warning

NOTE: Visitors to the exclusion zone have normally previously come as part of a tour group. One-day packages which include transportation and food cost around US150-$200, or up to US$300 if there is only one of you.

The changes to access regulations i late 2011 may have significantly effected the operations and structuring of many of the tours previously offered.
Make careful enquiries concerning the new site access provisions if wishing to visit the Zone.


Chernobyl reactor 4

You'll not be able to get too close, but the nearest observation point is 200 m from the reactor sarcophagus. The only way to get into the reactor is if you are a scientist or a film maker that has had months of preparation in advance. Although radiation levels here will be much higher than elsewhere in the region, you will not be able to pick up a significant dose during your stay. Typical dose at the site seems to be about 5-9 microsieverts (0.5-0.9 mR/h) (winter), slightly higher in the summer. However, measurements done from the observation point in October 2008 only showed a value of 0.14 microsieverts (0.014 mR/h). There is a visitor's centre with a very interesting model of the damaged reactor, where the plans for improving the sarcophagus over the facility will be explained to you.

Vehicle scrap yard

"Rossokha" village, cemetery of military machineries - In April 2008 the government prohibited access to this site and it has remained closed to visitors. The scrap yard contains the irradiated emergency vehicles which tended the disaster. There are a number of fire tenders, ambulances, trucks and helicopters in the vehicle graveyard, although some of the vehicles are now being sold as scrap metal. You will no longer be able to gain entry there, but as some of the vehicles are still carrying lethal doses of radiation, this isn't a bad thing. Since the closing of that site tours since 2008 have taken visitors to a collection of abandoned ships on a lake by the city instead.

Pripyat

The famous abandoned city, which once housed 50,000 residents. Sights to see are the schools, kindergarten, public buildings and the amazing cultural palace which contains a swimming pool, cinema and gymnasium, and overlooks the famous ferris wheel. Hazards are the crumbling buildings, and decaying wooden floors in places - so be careful. As of July 2008, most tours will not let you enter the buildings due to their current structural stability.

The villages

There are a great number of abandoned villages in the exclusion zone, and all are extremely interesting to view. Visitors can see farmhouses, small cottages and plenty of vegetation. Be careful entering any of these areas, as vegetation always carries far higher levels of residual radioactivity than concreted areas. Guides will always tell you not to step on the moss, and the dust in dried-out puddles tends to concentrate radioactivity.

Buy

Your tour will probably include food, but you're advised to bring your own snacks and drinks. However, some tours let you visit the only shop in Chernobyl where you can buy a beer for your meal. By the end of the tour, you just might need it.

If you get access to the Chernobyl administration centre, you will be able to buy souvenirs, such as books detailing the disaster.

Eat

In Chernobyl town there is a canteen for the maintenance crews that work in the exclusion zone. If you are on a guided tour you can eat there. All day visitors to Chernobyl will likely dine at restaurants in the surrounding area.

If you bring meals and drinks with you, make sure to keep them well sealed, and avoid opening/consuming any food or drinks within the 10 km area around the power plant. Clean your hands thoroughly before touching any food.

Drink

Tap water in the area remains unsafe for drinking or washing because of the radiation that leaked into surrounding dams, lakes and rivers, so stick to bottled water or mineral water - which in Ukraine is predominantly sparkling.

Stay safe

If in Pripyat, exercise caution when entering buildings—the ground around entrances to, and inside buildings will generally be littered with broken glass, concrete and debris. Be sure to take care inside buildings as the flooring can be be somewhat uneven (and sometimes unstable). Watch your footing—a decent pair of shoes/boots would be a good idea.

The levels of radiation on guided tours are relatively small; radiation levels in most places are less than those of being in an aircraft flying at 30,000 ft. The main danger is not in the radiation itself, but in particles of radioactive materials that may remain on your clothes or items.

A lethal dose of radiation is in the range of 3-5 sieverts (300-500 roentgens) when administered within an hour. Levels on the tour reportedly range from 0.15 to several microsieverts per hour (15 to several hundred microroentgens an hour). A microsievert is one-millionth of a sievert.

Example: On a six-hour trip arranged in October 2008 the total dose was 4 microsieverts according to the meter (400 microroentgens). This was less than the total dose of the connecting two-hour flight, which was 6 microsieverts (600 microroentgens). Radiation levels by the power plant were 1.7 microsieverts per hour (170 microroentgens per hour) and they varied between 0.4 and 9.5 microsieverts per hour (40-950 microroentgens per hour) in the Pripyat amusement park. Thus, risks are pretty much non-existent as long as you don't get yourself contaminated.

Travel Warning

NOTE: Stay on roads, the radiation levels on areas covered by vegetation are significantly higher. Even more important, the risk for contamination when walking amongst vegetation is higher because it is more difficult to avoid touching or inhaling anything. Radiation ends when you leave the place, but you don't want radioactive elements inside your body.

Follow common sense if you are on your own; if you see an area marked with a radiation sign, the meaning is clear: DON'T GO THERE.


The International Council on Radiation Protection has a recommended annual limit of 50 millisieverts (5 rem) (uniform irradiation of the whole body) for nuclear plant workers.

Clinical effects are seen at 750-2,000 millisieverts (75-200 rem) when administered in a short time scale.

Since the levels are microsieverts (10^-6) the exposure level is very low. But it is still possible to be in contact with some very hot surfaces, so caution should be stressed. Note: One rem is equal to 1.07 R (roentgen), or 0.01 sieverts or 10 millisieverts.





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