Chernobyl Travel Diary

17th April 2011

On 17th April 2011, I had the privilege of visiting Chernobyl (Ukraine), the site of the infamous nuclear power plant explosion in 1986.  Although I was there for only one day (for legal and safety reasons), I found it to be a sobering and eerie experience, but also a fascinating one.  This one day diary is my record of that memorable visit.

At 1:23 am on 26th April, 1986, the Number 4 Reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded.  My visit was just a few days short of the 25th anniversary of what most people now recognise as one of the world’s worst human-induced environmental disasters.

The name “Chernobyl” remains a household word all these years after the explosion, and indeed more recent problems in Fukushima (Japan) have revived memories of the immeasurably worse (so far!) tragedy of Chernobyl.

Back in 1986, Chernobyl was part of the USSR.  More specifically, it was situated in the far north of  what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, just 16 kilometres south of the border with the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic (now Belarus).  Following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the city has been officially known by its Ukrainian name of Chornobyl (Чорнобиль).

Stories of the history, the heroism and the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster will no doubt be repeated at length during the coming week, and my aim in discussing Chernobyl here is not to repeat the far more encyclopaedic information that can be found elsewhere.

I remember the day when the Chernobyl explosion first occurred.  I heard about it in the form of news reports on my car radio saying that Swedish scientists had detected unusual amounts of atmospheric radiation heading towards Sweden from the south.  Given the wind direction at the time, they suspected that the radiation was indicative of some form of radiation leak in the Soviet Union.

At first, Soviet officials denied the accusations, and as “evidence” that everything was fine, the annual May Day parade went ahead as usual in the streets of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev (now Kyiv), just 130 kilometres to the south.  We now know that radiation levels in Kiev’s atmosphere posed a significant threat to the health of everyone involved, and all newsreel footage of the 1986 parade in Kiev has vanished from the State Archives.  Finally, on 2nd May, the scale of the disaster was acknowledged and the Chernobyl area was evacuated.

It is likely that thousands of people suffered unnecessarily as a result of the Party’s cover-up.  In a recent television interview, Mikhail Gorbachev (then General Secretary of the Communist Party) revealed that the seriousness of the disaster had even been kept from him for a week after the explosion; he was learning about what had happened through the foreign media!  Gorbachev used this tragic incident to add impetus to his programs of ‘glasnost’ (openness) and ‘perestroika’ (restructuring) in the face of the considerable opposition he faced at the time – perhaps one of the few positive outcomes of the Chernobyl disaster, although even that was too little, too late.

The nuclear power plant was named ‘Chernobyl’ because that was then the district’s name where the plant was located.  In fact, Chernobyl was at that time just a small town with approximately 15,000 people located about 18 kilometres south of the power plant.  The precise location of the plant was Pripyat, a relatively new “atomgrad” (nuclear city) of 50,000 people built just a couple of kilometres from the power plant specifically to provide labour for it.

Entry to and exit from the Exclusion Zone (20 photos)

the reactors (7 photos)

On Sunday 17th April 2011, I visited Chernobyl and Pripyat. 

It was not an easy exercise.  I needed to clear several security posts with my passport to enter, and I was tested for radiation contamination upon leaving.

I had spent all the previous day, Saturday, flying to Kyiv via Moscow in order to assist the UWC National Committee in Ukraine with its selection of students.   I arrived in Kyiv at a little after midnight on Sunday morning.  The selection interviews were due to begin first thing on Monday morning, so I had allowed Sunday to rest after the long flight in order to be fresh for the interviews.  That plan changed when I discovered that I might have the opportunity to see Chernobyl for myself, and the only possible day I could visit Chernobyl was that same Sunday because the site was due to be closed for the coming two weeks to accommodate an array of official visitors for the imminent 25th anniversary of the explosion.

So Sunday – my ‘day of rest’ – was spent from 8 am to 8 pm travelling to and from Chernobyl in a bus and exploring the 30 kilometre diameter ‘exclusion zone’ around the nuclear power plant.  Located near the Ukrainian border with Belarus about 150 kilometres north of Kyiv, the exclusion zone is said to contain the most contaminated land on the planet that will take thousands of years to become healthy again.

the adjacent residential city of pripyat (44 photos)

In the abandoned school, many books are still on the shelves where they were left in the hurried evacuation of 1986 (although many others have been strewn across the floors by 25 years of summer winds and winter blizzards.  The floor of the school canteen is strewn with gas masks and radiation overalls.  In the store-room of the city’s theatre, Soviet-era propaganda posters, flags and portraits lie ready for the next political event that will never come.  The indoor pool is empty and filling with wind-blown dirt, and the dodgem cars lie rusting away in the fun park where they were abandoned by children as they left to escape the radiation, 25 years ago.

Perhaps the most poignant sight for me was at an abandoned kindergarten at Kopachi, a small abandoned town two kilometres south of the nuclear power plant.  Many of the houses in Kopachi were bulldozed and buried to stop the radiation escaping into the atmosphere, although geographers now warn that this poses a radiation hazard for the area’s groundwater supplies that feed the nearby river.  However, the kindergarten remains standing, and as I entered the grounds, past the yellow and red radiation warning sign, I looked down at the pile of accumulated leaves.  I could make out the rusting remains of some metal toy trucks, and I instantly imagined the laughter that they once brought to the little children in the kindergarten who were, at that time in 1986, exactly the same ages as some of my own children. And then, as I looked more closely, I could see, looking back up at me, the face of a little girl’s abandoned doll -  a speechless, , contaminated, radioactive witness to 25 years of loneliness. 

It is hard to describe the sickly emotions I felt when I saw the iconic Number 4 reactor, now partly covered in a heavy (though deteriorating) sarcophagus to contain the radiation.  Similarly, it was an eerie feeling to drive through a section of forest to the immediate west that had been destroyed by the initial blast of radiation and hear Geiger counters going crazy because of the high levels of radiation still in the trees, the grass and the soil of the area.

However, what made the most impact on me was the sight of the nearby towns and cities that had been abandoned.

Pripyat, once a lively city populated with young families, is now a city of deserted shells of buildings with decaying walls and broken glass where nature is rapidly reclaiming the land.  Houses and paths are disappearing as the forest takes over.  Even in the town’s main public square, trees sprout through the cracks in the concrete, surrounded by moss that is perhaps the area’s greatest hazard as it holds the highest concentrations of radiation.  And with no people, the wildlife is also returning, including a nest of tens of fairly fast-moving snakes right in the middle of the main public square.  It was like standing in the film set for a post-apocalyptic movie, except that this apocalypse was real!


They were just a few remnants of life “BC” – Before Chernobyl - and you can see what I saw in the photos here.

As you might imagine, I slept very well on that Sunday night following the long and tiring flight from Hong Kong and my intense, almost overwhelming ‘day-of-rest’ at Chernobyl. 

Chernobyl contains many lessons for those with the ears to listen – lessons about unfounded faith in human technology, lessons about the need for true openness (‘glasnost’), lessons about the environmental consequences of human actions, lessons about the need for humility in the face of arrogance, and so on.

Twenty-five years after Chernobyl, people in many parts of the world still suffer because of the impact of twisted versions of reality that are the products of state media.  As an article in last Friday’s New York Times commented, “Dictators make controlling the news media a priority for a reason.  For most authoritarian states, state news media, especially television, have helped leaders stay in power by creating a parallel reality for their populations and depriving dissenters of a wider audience.  Tunisia’s news media environment was routinely ranked among the world’s most stifling in Freedom House’s annual assessment of press freedom before this year’s revolution.  In Egypt, state television stood steadfastly behind President Hosni Mubarak, deceptively playing old video of an empty Tahrir Square rather than broadcasting images of the millions protesting there.  Autocratic governments spare no effort to ensure that their state news media provide their audiences a steady diet of regime-friendly news and information.”

As an educator, my visit to Chernobyl reminded me of the important role education plays in helping us remember the past so we can learn from history’s mistakes, as well as the importance of education that promotes understanding and appreciation of peace and sustainability.  I can only hope that today’s schools are doing their share – and more – in educating young people for a different world, one that is capable of preventing future tragedies such as the horror of Chernobyl.