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A visit to Chernobyl in 1997

1997: 11 years commemoration of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

On april 26, 1986 at 01:23 am, an accident happened in nuclear reactor 4 of the Ukranian Chernobyl power plant. This travelog is not going into detail about the accident itself as there is more than enough documentation to be found about Chernobyl on the Internet.

I am a regular visitor of Ukraine since long time, primarily because of one of my main hobbies: amateur (ham) radio. Back in 1984 I met a fellow amateur from Kiev on the short wave bands. This initial contact was followed by more regular skeds and eventually I went over to Ukraine to meet the local amateur society. Gradually this grew into a yearly event. In the beginning getting the obligatory visa was very difficult, but somewhere around 2000 the visa duty was suspended and citizens with EU-passports could enter the country without visa.

The radio amateur society is represented in many walks of life. One of my Kiev friends had friends amongst the “Ham Liquidators” in Slavutich. From them we received an invitation to visit Slavutich, Pripjat, Chernobyl and the remaining part of the working Chernobyl Atomic Elektro Station (from now on abbreviated to ChAEC) since several of the “Liquidators” are still working at ChAEC. The invitation was for april 25 because the 11-year commemoration would take place then. This was a once-in-lifetime opportunity and it would be stupid NOT to accept!

The Chernobyl Liquidators were the volunteers that came to the power plant to clean up the radio active mess and try to contain the radiation that still poured out of the smouldering remains of reactor 4. Needless to explain that this was a very dangerous job, and many Liquidators did not live long after.

Northbound to Slavutich

Northbound to Slavutich

Exit to Chernobyl

Entrance only with valid documents
Friday April 25: Kiev-Chernigov-Slavutich-Chernobyl

Rise at 5 am, on the road at 6 am for the long drive to Slavutich. Yuri at the wheel, Andrej (chairman of the Ukranian Ham Radio Society) and me. Slavutich is situated approx. 40 km east of Chernobyl and was created shortly after the accident to offer alternative shelter to the inhabitants of the evacuated city of Pripjat and the village of Chernobyl.
In 1997 most of the working force of the ChAEC was living in Slavutich. Though now (2013) the ChAEC does not generate electricity any longer and the reactors are decommissioned, it still needs staff to attend to the “finishing works”.

In 1997 it was impossible to travel to Slavutich without a permit. Tourists were not allowed, officials only. Since we had clearance from the authorities and had the proper documents we were allowed to enter the Slavutich perimeter. We teamed up with our Liquidators and submitted to the care of our guide/bodyguard Boris who would also take care of all the red tape.

Our host/Liquidator Gennadi

Border Ukraine-Belarus

Village of Gden (Belarus)
in the Exclusion Zone

The trip was set for Chernobyl, Pripjat and the ChAEC. The road from Slavutich to Chernobyl leads first into the Exclusion Zone (the 30-km “dead”zone around Chernobyl) and through Byelorussia.

I always have been fascinated by what happened in Chernobyl in 1986 and I vividly remember the moment when the news broke on our national television three days after the accident! The Soviets tried to keep it covered but eventually news leaked out. The images of the landmark red-and-white smokestack and the steam pouring out of the damaged building were spooky.
And there it was in the distance: the red-and-white smokestack of reactor 4. Eerie landscape. No living soul. 750 KV powerlines. Power substations. Switchyards. 330 KV powerlines. The visit to the ChAEC would be last on our list, first a passage through Pripjat (the ghost town) and adjacent village of Chernobyl.

Chernobyl is a village. No high-rises, only typical wooden houses. A few are habited again by the original owners (with permission of the government) and these houses are marked with a sign. But again: undescribable atmosphere….


Plate on the house indicates the
original owner lives here

Memorial for the first firefighters

First sight of ChAEC
Pripjat is completely deserted, no one is allowed to live there of even enter. A military checkpoint controls the city. Apartments are still furnished and curtains are drawn. No cars in the street. The fun fair still set up. No pedestrians. Trees growing through the pavement. No dogs. This is undescribable…
We were allowed to get out of the van for short moments only since the radiation levels are considered not healthy for long exposure. Boris directed us with a very strict hand. Also at the Memorial for the firefighters we could just get out for a few quick snapshots.




Two more things that I really wanted to see were off-limits because of military restrictions (unofficial version) or excessive high radiation levels (official version):

DUGA-3 (the former Soviet Over The Horizon radar antenna array), and the

Rescue Vehicle Scrapyard. (the yard where all highly radioactive rescuing craft was concentrated.)

Onward to ChAEC for the interior visit. Protective clothing was issued and our "entry radiation level" was measured. We were actually IN the control room of reactor #3 and were allowed to take a look in the huge generator room. In 1997 reactor #2 was still active (while reactor #3 was temporarily shut down for maintenance) and generated power for the national grid. An absolute necessity since the country simply had no alternatives.






The sarcophagus over reactor 4

Radiation levels

Control room of reactor #3
We were shown photos, taken by an engineer who actually went INTO the sarcophagus that contains the melted down reactor #4. Needless to say he was wearing a special protective outfit. He went in because not much accurate information about the situation inside was after the accident. Besides the photos he measured and mapped the radiation levels over, besides and below the core. If you are a bit familiar with radiation levels, the figures you will read in the image below will alarm you and the existence of the sarcophagus is well justified… It is a pity I could not get copies of the images: the sight of molten steel, flowing like lava through cracks and pipes tells the story about what happened there on the night of april 26, 1986...

What caused the disaster (in short):

  • Due to a cooling pump problem the water in the reactor vessel overheated
  • Steam formed and pressure built up
  • Steam could not escape and pressure continued to rise
  • The (heavy concrete) lid of the vessel was blown away and upwards through the roof, somersaulted and fell back on (and partly) in the reactor vessel
  • The explosion ejected massive quantities of highly radioactive substances from the core and spread over the roof
  • A fire started. The highly radioactive steam and smoke could escape and went with the wind in all directions
  • It was detected in Scandinavia after a few days and that broke the Soviet silence

After concluding our visit our "exit radiation level" was measured again and compared with the entry level. If the difference would be too big, decontaminating measures would have been taken. We were all within the safety limits though and could proceed.

Photo display of interior
reactor 4

In the environment monitoring room

The immense turbine hall

Exit level check: even
now in 2013 no after-effects!
The day was, according to good Ukranian tradition, evaluated with a social event of which the proceedings might be imaginable… I was nackered and wouldn't mind to sleep but I was informed that it would be appreciated if we would attend the Orthodox Mass at 01:23 am (april 26) which would be conducted on the Central Square in commemoration of the disaster. I have to admit it was overwhelming. Besides the special nature of this mass, the Russian Orthodox mass always impresses me because of the strong chanting.

April 26: Slavutich-Kiev

Apart from ChAEC employees and the incidental scientific team to carry out measurements, no strangers were ever seen in Slavutich. Our visit was reason enough for the Mayor and the local press to welcome us. Especially a “non-Ukranian” was the complete exception to the rule and I must admit I felt a bit like an alien when I was ushered into the seniors’ year class of Slavutich High School. As it turned out it was the professor of English language who had asked the mayor if the Dutch visitor would be willing to attend his class. His students would be delighted to exercise some English with me and ask any question they would like to. He stressed the fact that these 16 and 17-year old boys and girls never actually have had contact with anyone from outside Slavutich and therefore it would be a great opportunity.
Remember: it was 1996 when GSM and Internet, let alone social media, were non-existent in Ukraine. I spent a memorable morning in the class and was genuinely honoured to be of help to these youngsters.

Nocturnal Orthodox Mass

Introduction by the principal

..bit strange to talk
with a foreigner...

..but friends for life after
the lecture!
Amateur radio was an official sport back in Soviet days, and virtually every school and university had an amateur radio station where the young Pioneers could learn morse telegraphy and technics. We were invited to be guest operators in their amateur station to air the special commemorative callsign EN5US.

We said goodbye to our Liquidator friends. The controls were set for Kiev city centre.

Though it is 16 years ago now I still remember feeling very overwhelmed by what I saw and felt. Like walking on a different planet. On a human life scale 16 years is your kid growing up. For Chernobyl 16 years is nothing at all: it will take forever before the area will be “business as usual” because of the centuries it will take for the radioactive contamination to be on an acceptable level.

Nowadays Chernobyl is open for (mass-)tourism. It is possible to book a “Visit Chernobyl” – daytrip from Kiev. I never joined one of these and I certainly never will. The Chernobyl disaster should not be exploited and generate money, unless this money is used for the benefit of the victims. But this most certainly will not be the case. My two cents, for what it's worth...

Amateur Radio Station EN5US,
city mayor attended
(4th left, standing next to me)


Motorway M01 near Pidlisne

Still the old license plate
system back in '97
(both on our car and the Kamaz)
About the images:
The trip was made in the pre-JPG era and I made my with a 35 mm camera. During the developing process by the manufacturer one of the 36-exposure films was lost completely, the second partially and the third survived. You can imagine I was a bit upset when I got the news from the processing plant. Out of 108 shots barely 40 were more or less usable. Shit happens...

The JPGs on this site are scans from the diapositives, and in many cases touched up to be of acceptable level. It should have been more and better, but at least it is something.

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