Sunday, September 21, 2014

Jayne Visits Chornobyl (Chernobyl)

Thou shalt not freak out over my trip to Chornobyl, nor how I spell it:

First, let's dispel some myths re: Chornobyl (spelling is based on how Ukranians pronounce it). Because some of your comments ("Oh, Jayne, please stay safe!") have me much more worried than my trip to the exclusion zone:

The town of Chornobyl is still inhabited. There are houses there. There are people there. It's quite a nice little village, actually. Approximately 3,000 people work in the area on various projects, such as the construction of the New Safe Confinement, the ongoing decommissioning of the reactors, and assessment and monitoring of the conditions in the zone. Employees can live in the 30 km exclusion zone - in Chornobyl - but not within the 10 km exclusion zone. Some work "4-3" shifts (four days on, three off), whilst others work 15 days on, 15 off. Other workers commute into the Zone daily from outside of it.

What isn't in Chornobyl: children. The people that live in Chornobyl are not allowed to have children there. More on that later.

"Chornobyl" is the same word as a local Ukrainian name for wormwood, though  alternative etymology holds that it is a combination of the words chornyi (чорний, black) and byllia (билля, grass blades or stalks), hence it would literally mean black grass or black stalks.

Chornobyl was NOT not the residence of the power plant workers nor the industries that supported those workers - restaurants, dry cleaners, movie theaters, bars, hair salons, etc. That was Pripyat, a city much larger than Chornobyl, and built specifically for the Chornobyl workers and their families. It was ultra-modern, with all the latest everything. It's Pripyat that is the ghost city now, with all the decaying streets and buildings, that you see in photos and videos.

After the explosion at Reactor No. 4, the remaining three reactors at the power plant continued to operate. They are now in the process of decommissioning those reactors, which actually takes several years - there's no "off" switch. The first stage of decommissioning is the removal of the highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel, which is placed in deep water cooling ponds. However, storage facilities for this are not suitable for long term containment, so, officially, the place is NOT fully decommissioned. And all this is said to explain why the place still looks like a working nuclear power plant, with offices and plant workers all around. (and it's the constant lack of places to safely store highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel that keeps me from embracing nuclear energy as a viable energy option, along with the human potential for stupidity).

The remains of Reactor No. 4 will remain radioactive for 1000 years.

It was Sweden's search for the source of radioactivity at a Swedish nuclear power plant that led to the first hint of a serious nuclear problem in what was then the Western Soviet Union. They figured it out and, so, the Soviets had to come clean and tell all.

Contamination from the Chornobyl disaster was not evenly spread across the surrounding countryside or the nearby regions, but scattered irregularly depending on weather conditions. Some mushrooms as well as wild animals which eat them, e.g. wild boars hunted in Germany and deer in Austria, may have levels which are not considered safe for human consumption - while the same in Southern Ukraine are fine.

Invertebrate populations (including bumblebees, butterflies, grasshoppers, dragonflies, and spiders) has significantly decreased in the area. Currently, most radioactivity around Chornobyl is located in the top layer of soil, where many invertebrates live or lay their eggs. The reduced abundance of invertebrates can have negative implications for the entire ecosystem surrounding Chornobyl. However, the "giant" fish you see near the plant aren't so large because of radiation - they are that large because of their diet.

One of the main mechanisms by which radiation contamination was passed to humans was through the ingestion of milk from contaminated cows.

The issue of long-term effects of the Chornobyl disaster on people is an ongoing debate. There's little pre-disaster data to rely on - how many people had thyroid cancer before the plant was built? How many birth defects were there before the plant was built? Without that kind of data, it's really hard to say what the radiation, for sure, has caused in humans and animals, beyond the immediate injuries and deaths of first responders. Lack of funds, an infrastructure with little or no experience in chronic disease epidemiology, and extremely poor communication (record-keeping, information sharing, etc.) hamper efforts to effectively study this.

In Belarus, Yury Bandazhevsky, a scientist who questioned the official reporting regarding Chornobyl's consequences, was imprisoned from 2001 to 2005 for "corruption." Bandazhevsky and some human rights groups allege his imprisonment was a reprisal for his publication of reports critical of the official research being conducted into the after effects of the Chornobyl incident.

After Ukrainian Independence in the early 90s, funding for the policing and protection of the Zone was initially limited, resulting in lots of returnees - samosely - and other illegal intrusion. But they have it under better control now.

A Geiger counter measures both radioactive particles and waves in the air around it. Most of the radiation in Chernobyl now is transported via particles that can easily be blocked by clothing. The other types of radiation that exists as waves can move straight through a wall. A Geiger counter is expresses the amount of radiation, from both particles and waves, in a unit called Sieverts, per hour of exposure. I receive about .15 microSieverts (μSv) of radiation during my breakfast time in Kiev. And that's around what YOU had this morning as well. Maybe more.

Here are some basic numbers to use as a guide:

10 μSv – The average total radiation you received by the end of today

40 μSv – The radiation you receive by taking a flight from New York to L.A.

100 μSv – The radiation you receive during a dental x-ray

3,000 μSv – Radiation dose from a mammogram

3,600 μSv – Average radiation a US citizen receives in a year from all sources

50,000 μSv – Maximum allowable yearly occupational dose (USA)

100,000 μSv – Lowest yearly dose likely linked to increased cancer risk

2,000,000 μSv – Severe radiation poisoning (sometimes fatal)

A new steel containment structure named the New Safe Confinement (NSC) is being built to replace the aging and hastily-built sarcophagus that currently protects Reactor No. 4. That's what a lot of the workers at the plant are doing now - working on this giant dome. Behave, or you will be encased in it. Just kidding. Maybe.

The most radiation I was exposed to on this visit, at once, was 9 μSv, for at least some, and maybe most, of the 45 minutes we were standing right outside the plant. In one hour, I supposedly got what I normally get in a day, in terms of radiation - and it's still not as much as I get on a long plane ride - I say supposedly, because my counter was usually at 3.5 while we were at the nuclear disaster site. In Pripyat, I checked my Geiger counter constantly (yes, I rented one) and we were between .5 and 3.5 μSv the whole time. But upon visiting the Duga-3 radar, readings were at 4 and 5 μSv, and stayed there for the next 2 hours, all through lunch. Not sure why they were so much more there. Yet, even so, at the end of the day, I still had less exposure to radiation all day than you received during your last dental x-ray.

To limit exposure to radiation, even though radiation levels are low, workers in the Chornobyl Exclusion Zone are limited in the number of days per week or weeks per month they stay in Chernobyl.

So, why not let children back in to people back into Chornobyl? Why not let people back into Pripyat and the many villages that have been evacuated in the exclusion zone? Because of so many, many hotspots (where radiation levels spike), because the items that were left behind - clothes, furniture, books, everything - are still radioactive, because of the lack of information about health risks for people, especially children, regarding elevated, constant, long-term radiation exposure - we just do not know what having the effects of having a dental x-ray EVERY day would be.

Finally, you are not allowed to freak out about my trip to Chornobyl until you've read this web site.

Would I move to Chornobyl? No. There's no movie theater there. Would I suggest you go to Chornobyl, even if you want to get pregnant someday? Absolutely. Would I suggest you go if you ARE pregnant? No - just as doctors don't like doing x-rays on pregnant women.

So, are we good?


Let's talk about my trip to Chornobyl:

On Saturday, September 20, I awoke to a positively GORGEOUS Kyiv day. It was cool, but not at all cold. A visit out on the balcony and I was back in the bedroom changing my clothes from a long warm undershirt to a long sleeve oh-so-light shirt, with a t-shirt over it. The SoloEast web site said that long sleeves, long pants and shoes - not sandals - were mandatory, so I had planned ahead. I brought a sweater just in case, but it stayed in my bag the whole time.

When I booked this trip more than two weeks ago, I was gambling on the weather. But looking at all the forecasts, I had a feeling this might very well be the last dry, clear weekend. I was SO right. I wanted this particular weekend because I knew my former host here would be out of town - and I really like spending free weekends with her.

Why did I choose Solo East? They had great reviews, they were mentioned in Lonely Planet, and they were the company that Top Gear used when the boys went to Chernobyl - and Stefan and I had watched that very episode earlier this year. How could I not? I'll say right up front: they were terrific. I'll also say, right up front: next time, when Stefan is here with me, we're paying big bucks for a private tour. I'm losing my patience with other tourists.

I headed out the door at 8 a.m. and walked the less than 2 km (about a mile) to the McDonald's in Maidan, and found Tom, a co-worker, having breakfast. I had invited him and a few other co-workers to sign up for the tour with me, but only Tom took me up on it. Took us to find the tour organizer - he was quite nondescript. I got called "number 1", because I was the first to sign up on the tour, so I was first on all lists for the rest of the day, actually. A few other people from our company turned up - not sure when they booked, but we don't really hang, so they stuck together, and I got to do my own thing. Which was what I wanted. Other people on the tour: interactive game designers, an MBA student, an Australian on that epic international trip all Australians do, an Irish guy obviously making the trip of a life time, and a really annoying guy I'm going to skip talking about for now.

We headed out on time, though one guy - from the USA, of course - forgot his passport, so he had to be driven back to his apartment to get it and then catch up to us on the road. He, and all of the people from my company, forgot to bring snacks as well - both Lonely Planet and the SoloEast web site say to bring a snack, as lunch is REALLY late. I was getting annoyed now - I started to feel like there was a large group on our trip not taking this trip seriously. It was a school field trip: WOOT!

I took this trip seriously. I take all trips seriously. I'm not an emotionally-distant, snobby aid worker that does touristy things just because I'm bored and hungover. Visiting historical sites is serious business for me. It's not a joke. As for being a "disaster tourist" as someone called it - it's not that l seek out sites of disasters - like Pompeii and Mt. St. Helen's and Chornobyl - it's that I seek out places of SIGNIFICANCE - maybe because of tragedy, maybe because of triumph. Hence why I've also been to the pyramids and Karnak in France AND Egypt and so many USA historical sites.

I am happy in all the photos touring the area. But please understand: the trip was, in many ways, quite sad. There were times I had no words - I just stared. What made me saddest was how people were lied to about the accident. Everyone lied to everybody. And the consequences of those lies are so far-reaching.

We were in a large mini-bus, very comfy, and the drive is surprisingly quick - but, then again, I like road trips. I liked looking out at the Ukrainian country side and the suburbs and villages on the way. I half watched the view and half watched what was on the screen above the center of the front of the van: two horrific cheesy music videos that were shot at Chernobyl, and a documentary called The Battle of Chernobyl. Before it started, our guide, Anastasia, said the video was sensationalist and we shouldn't be alarmed because everything was presented in a very overly dramatic manner. But watching, I didn't think much was overly-dramatic - the video very accurately helps you understand just how close Western Europe came to nuclear annihilation. And it came SO close. And it also helps you understand just what the first responders did - and what they sacrificed - for all of mankind. For you. Those are people that truly deserve to hear, "Thank you for your service. Thank you for my life. Thank you for the future of the planet." I had done a lot of research beforehand - I knew how much things had changed in almost 30 years since the accident, so the video didn't freak me out, in the sense of, "Turn this bus around, I ain't goin'!" But I can totally see someone doing that after watching the video and not understanding what the site is *now*. I asked our guide later if, indeed, people had panicked over the video and, indeed, they had - a couple of people have seen it and changed their minds about going.

And I'd like to say "Soviet problem", regarding the mistakes and the lies, but the owner of Fukushima did the same damn thing - lied about the damage, lied about the risks, lied about the containment. I just don't trust humans. I trust nuclear energy only if aliens manage it.

There is a very strict check point at the entrance to the check point to enter the 30 km exclusion zone. Passports are rechecked against a list that the guard has. Our guide says that there have been cases where the guards have turned a group back - because something didn't quite match up between a passport and the list, because someone wasn't dressed properly, because someone behaved badly (NO PHOTOS). I could hear what she was saying underneath those stories: please follow directions, please don't ruin it for everyone.

If you have decided to dress one way for the drive and another for a tour, this is where you change clothes. Also, USE THE BATHROOM AT THIS CHECKPOINT. It's your last opportunity to use a toilet before lunch. Otherwise, you'll be using a bush. Watch out for the hot spots!

And speaking of Geiger counters - yes, I rented one from the company. Because… GEEK GIRL! Come on, it's a GEIGER COUNTER. It was the best toy EVER. I was the only one that rented such. Anastasia had one as well, of course.

Once you enter the 30 km exclusion zone, most cars on the road disappear. Even though Chornobyl, as noted earlier, is inhabited, it's a village. You are on mostly empty roads, with forests all around. That's your only indication for a while that's something different here - there are few cars, and the roads look fantastic, from lack of use.

Once you enter the 10 km exclusion zone, things get even more deserted. Most houses are gone. Cars are VERY rare. There are two more check points beyond the first one, but because our guide is so trusted, we didn't have to get off the bus and present passports again. But she said that does happen sometimes.

And… well, I'm not going to do a play-by-play of the tour. I have a lot of commentary in my photos about what we did, what we saw, etc. That's your play-by-play.

I will say that myself and other passengers harassed poor Tom for forgetting his camera - in fact, I'm still harassing him about it. He has a decent camera on his smart phone, so he got some good photos. And he took photos of me, whenever I asked, which was sweet of him - and that included the very best photo of my in the last five years.

Also, Anastasia thought Tom and I were brother and sister - literally. So we kept making jokes the whole time about how mom always liked me better, how I always got the best Christmas presents, etc.

I will also say that the dogs and cats in Chornobyl broke my heart. All of the dogs and cats n the area were killed in the 1980s after the accident, for fear that they would take radiation with them outside the area. All animals in the area were killed, actually - cows, chickens, horses. The dogs and cats there now have wandered in from the surrounding villages, or been brought in by thoughtless residents. There were no strays seen around Pripyat, thankfully - that would have made me insane.

And one of the many reasons I want to do a private tour next time is because one of the tourists convinced everyone that it was a better idea to go to the Duga-3 radar than to climb the 16 stories to the top of the Pripyat hotel, to get a rooftop view of the city. I wanted to do the latter. But the lazy, hungover members of our group didn't. I let it go… but I'm still bitter.

Another reason other tourists annoyed me - they didn't realize that they weren't the only ones that wanted a particular photo, or that someone might want a photo where they had decided to stand and hang out. One guy not only asked others to take photos of him - which is FINE - he wanted you to redo the photo SEVERAL times. Dude, if you are that obsessed about how you are supposed to look in your photos, HIRE SOMEONE TO GO WITH YOU AS A PHOTOGRAPHER.

And yet ANOTHER reason tourists annoy me: temperature. There was one woman that complained about being cold every time we were outside. It was a GORGEOUS sunny day, and it was NOT cold. The Australian woman had stripped down to her thin, short-sleeved t-shirt, and most people had no jackets on outside. She stood in the sun, wrapped in her coat, shivering. Which wasn't the problem. It was her insistence that the van have the heat on. On the way back, I had to demand it get turned off. I was ready to say I was going to get car sick if it wasn't turned off, if that's what it took.

And then there was the woman who, I swear, asked the DUMBEST questions and make ridiculous comments. I don't even know where to begin...

Private tour next time. For sure.

Wow. I sound like I didn't enjoy the trip. I did. I did a remarkable job of finding ways to stay away from everyone else when we were off the bus. I really enjoyed the trip, truly.

So, yes, I totally fan-girled over Anastasia being the guide for the Top Gear guys. I wanted to ask her a million questions, but limited myself to just a few:

    Were they all nice?


    But you didn't know they were famous?

    No. I have never seen the show. I understand it is about cars. I don't like car shows.

    Have you seen their show that they did here in Ukraine?


    So you may be on TV and you don't even know it.

    (grins nervously)

    So, I know you say they were all nice. Even the really, really tall, big guy, fat around the middle?


    And the short guy was also nice?


    Who was the nicest?

    The tall guy with the long hair.

    James May?

    Yes. He was very nice, very considerate, and asked a lot of questions
And I left her alone after that, for fear I would sound creepy.

Except for at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant and various hot spots, my Geiger counter was always below 2. Until we started towards the Duga-3 radar. After that, it hit 4, then 5, then a little over 5, and stayed there. It was still there when we arrived at one of the exit check points, and I had to give the Geiger Counter back. I never did get a chance to ask why.

Lunch didn't happen until after 4. But that was fine as I, of course, had BROUGHT SNACKS. Also, lunch was worth the wait - as usual, it was a great meal. Because - UKRAINE. All of the food is brought in from outside the zone, FYI. Surprisingly, the only gift shop is a small display case inside the restaurant. I bought two key chains.

You go through two radiation check points on your way out. The first checkpoint has a machine that, supposedly, is very sensitive, and WILL reveal if you were an idiot and picked up something. I asked Anastasia if she'd ever witnessed the machine go off. Indeed, she had - because someone had something they had picked up, which they then have to leave. Or, in one case, because they thought a photo in a scooper of a bulldozer was a great idea - a bulldozer used to help clean up right after the accident. She said he went pack to Kyiv without his pants, as they could not be decontaminated. And he was Russian.

And… everyone slept as we drove back to town, except me. I looked out the window and thought about the day. Midway back, we passed a large group of motorcycles, none Harleys, that were taking a break from a group ride. The riders looked so happy on this beautiful day. Oh, to have joined them…

I cannot believe I forgot to listen to the Great Atomic Power while touring Chernobyl. Alt country FAIL. I have three different versions of it on my iPod! (Uncle Tupelo, Southern Culture on the Skids and, of course, the Louvin Brothers).

And… that's it, really. Far more details in the descriptions that go with my photos. I beg you to please read the descriptions that go with the photos. Please? Start with the first photo. Not all have descriptions yet, but they will. Soon. Otherwise, they're just images, pretty colors, a few seconds of your time... and they're worth more than a few seconds.

And if you ask me a question that is answered in the photo descriptions or in the above narrative, like, "But weren't you worried about all the radiation?! And why are there people living there?!" I'm not answering you.

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