My Chernobyl Adventure Part 2: The dirty bomb details

(part 1 of the story is here)

Part 2: Exploring Deeper into Chernobyl

Because nothing is maintained, every roof of every building in Pripyat has leaks, causing swampy conditions inside all the rooms. This has resulted in all sorts of fauna, trees, roots, weeds, and other strange things to flourish in these Planet-of-the-Apes conditions. I am sure a botanist would have a field day there, seeing as there is still ample Cesium-137 and Strontium-90 that is slowly decaying there and probably causing all sorts of random mutations. I pictured Venus fly traps that eat humans and the like.

Another place I visited was the big hotel here was the shining star of the city in its Russian splendor, now an empty, cold, and radiated husk.  Part of me wanted to go inside and explore all the floors… explore everywhere!  But, the snow was waist-deep in most places and I was having enough trouble just getting from place to place.

After that, I visited a giant apartment building that is slowly collapsing from the harsh winters and rainy springs. A lot of windows have been broken and desperate daredevils sneak in to loot on occasion. It wasn’t exactly the homiest place in the world, and I am not sure everyone got the damage deposits back. Then again, I don’t know if mid-eighties Soviet policy had a robust apartment deposit system in place.

The enormity of the abandonment felt heavy here. If I stayed around longer, i feel like I could have heard it breaking apart, like a great glacier.

Schoolhouse and Beyond

And then it was time for the schoolhouse. Creepy dot com.

As children evacuated, schoolbooks, papers, drawings and coloring books were left scattered behind. It is as if everyone just suddenly disappeared and time froze in a Soviet educational stasis of 1986. However, that educational system was clearly amazing. I know a ton of brilliant Ukrainian and Russian programmers.  It’s interesting that these ex-Soviets come from the same system that enabled their brains to launch rockets with slide rules. They are absolutely some of the smartest and sharpest math/comp-sci minds in the world. The US public education system is as socialist and government-operated as the Soviet system, but the general populace of the US does not have close to the scientific prowess of the typical cold-war child. I don’t know why this is, but I do know that I have digressed.

My geiger counter started clicking away, so I took quick photos while speed-walking.  Below is a photo of a phone booth outside the entrance. You can clearly see the amount of disintegration in the past 20 years. The paint colors have stayed bright. Nothing galvanizes paint like a sealant of unstable elements.

This takes urban decay to a whole new level

Caesium-137 and Halflife

We checked the Geiger counter because this area was supposed to still have a significant amount of caesium-137, which takes a good 300 years to dissipate to safe levels. It was around 0.054, so we decided to keep moving. Now we started heading for the main power plant complex. Slogging it through the snow was slow and tough. We stopped to commune with nature a little bit and add to the exotic cocktail around the trees. While doing this, the Geiger counter started clicking in a very scary way. *0.290* on the screen. He looked at me, “We should leave quickly.”

Getting back in the truck, we took another way. Yuri looked at the readout a little too much, and then he stepped on the accelerator. When Yuri was worried, I was worried. I grabbed a look at the monster under the bed (the highest number I had seen yet) and grabbed this photo.

This number was the highest I saw. It was clicking rapidly, and it made me a bit unsteady while I took the photo.

Heading over to the reactors themselves was another matter. The snow was thick and the roads were difficult to see. We swerved around and Yuri looked nervous. I don’t like my Russian military die-hards to look nervous. It is a bad sign. He mentioned we should not get off the road because we end up in areas that have not yet been “scrubbed.”  Okay, sounds like a good plan to me too, Yuri.

Approaching the main reactor, we stopped and found one that had not yet been completed. It was a hollow husk of a structure, left to fall apart in the radioactive fallout. You can see that another one was just in the beginning stages to the right.

Some partially completed cooling units, crumbling apart.

Stuck in Time

We came across another area of interest – a new Chernobyl reactor that was abandoned in the chaos of the fallout. The cranes remain there, frozen in motion for 30 years. There was no activity at all. It is the closest I’ve come to that superhero power we’ve always wanted, where we can freeze time and run around while everything else stays still.

I asked Yuri about this place. I was curious about the day-of and the day-after. Even though Yuri spoke great English, the conversations started to become more stilted. It’s the opposite of almost every interaction I’ve had. Usually I warm up to people, even strangers, as we spend the day together. But Yuri, who clearly knew this place inside out, would often just shake his head at my questions. He didn’t want to talk about it.

And then, I decided it was time to go. We headed for the exit of the Exclusion Zone faster than Trotsky heading the Politburo.

It was time to head for the radiation checks, cleaning, and scrubbing.

The entire construction scene on the new reactor sits still, frozen in time.

Decontamination

I was immediately put at ease by his avuncular smile, that is, until he pointed the radiation gun at me.

This was the first of three different radiation checks.  This cheerful gentleman took me through the various stages.  At the end of each one, he gave me one of those characteristic Russian frowns and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “Eh, good enough.”

He didn’t speak any English. But, you know, there is sort of this international language. I’ve learned to get by in any country in almost every situation. Have you read this book, *”The Alchemist”*? There are many wonderful themes in there, but one of them is this idea that there is only one language. I’ve found this to be very true.

Not to go down a tangent, but why not. I read this book very late in life — I read it after I had already independently suffused the same themes into my own life. But, it was very nice to see all of these personal things described in a pleasant, allegorical manner. I do recommend it, obviously. The audiobook version is wonderful too – read by Jeremy Irons.

Okay, back on topic. There was one final stage of decontamination.

Upon final departure from the exclusion zone, I had to do a final rad check. You can see me below, jammed into a 10,000 kilo metallic device used to check the amount of rads all over my body. Often times, people end up with a “light dusting,” as they so brochurely described, of radiation.

This device was curious. It looked like stripped down telephone booth mated with a late seventies nautilus machine. I placed my hands and feet on special sensors. It flashed something in red cyrillic letters that may or may not have said I was clean. Either way, I found this whole Soviet-era scrubbing experience to be far cry from that decontamination scene with Trip and T’Pol. I can assure you of that.

The strange rad chamber where flashing red cyrillic letters are either good or bad.

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