Passing by the big colourful sign marking our entrance into the town of Chernobyl, we noticed a little life along the barren stretch of road that lay out before us. There is a factory still running in the town, the workers spend 15 days on before having to leave, spending 15 days outside of the exclusion zones. The old apartments have been repurposed as living quarters, basic accommodation for those choosing to work in the deserted town.
In the heart of the town stands the museum which has been elaborately painted with storks, the national bird, creating a large standing mural and memorial for the disaster. Just opposite there is a long line of basic street signs, they stretched out before us in the snow – another memorial, this time to the villages that were lost. Around 163 of these signs stood, bearing the names of every village and town that was lost. They stretched back until I could no longer read the names, the sheer number of them acting as another reminder of the level of devastation suffered here.
Out the other side of Chernobyl itself we trundled along another solitary snowy road before coming to the 10km check point. Our passports were checked as we stood around in the cold of the snowy day. We were headed for the nuclear power plant and the cause of all that we had seen this far. En route we stopped off and were taken into a large building set back a small way off the main road. The old kindergarten was an interesting hot spot – just after the accident ‘liquidators’ were enlisted, those who hosed down the villages and towns, washing all the radioactive debris off the buildings and into the ground where it was less likely to be carried by the wind, spreading the destruction further.
As with all the other buildings the kindergarten was littered with evidence of its past life. Children’s beds lined the rooms, with dolls and toys still perched on them, the dolls offering a rather quintessentially ‘horror’ feel to the scene as many of them were scarred or headless. There were shelves full of books and paintings were still attached to walls or placed on windowsills. Around the outside of the building the liquidators had successfully washed all the radioactive matter into the ground, with dramatic effect. The dosimeters started beeping excitedly and the numbers on the screens flashed ominously as they increased at large intervals, we were instructed to only walk on the concrete steps around the front of the building, avoiding the bare ground at all costs.
Back on the bus and in no time at all we were approaching the site of the disaster. As we stood on the edge of the cooling channel that meandered through the flat white expanse ahead of us, we held a panoramic view of the site. We could see the incomplete reactors 5 and 6, the building of which was abandoned after the event. Reactors 1, 2 & 3 continued to operate after the explosion with the final shutdown happening in 2000, the reactors have all been defuelled, however the radioactive fuel is still onsite. And in the distance we could see the huge dome of the new safe confinement of reactor 4. It was a bleak scene, these huge man-made structured pinned to the white-grey backdrop of a misty snow filled sky.
We were taken right up to reactor 4, the huge building loomed up ahead of us as we were informed of its construction. The first housing of the exploded reactor was made from concrete and thrown up quickly. They knew it did not have an especially long life ahead of it but they did it to reduce the risk as quickly as they could at the time. For the new safe confinement engineers and contractors were brought in from across the world, the very best of their trade. The structure was built 300m away from reactor 4, where the radioactive impact would be significantly less harmful for the workers – building directly over the old reactor would have been a death sentence.
It became the largest man-made structure to be moved across land, having to use runners and Teflon coated pads to transport it as the weight would have crushed any kind of bearing that might have been used. Huge mechanical shunts pushed the structure across the ground bit by bit, a slow and tense job, until it was in place completely covering the reactor and its old crumbling sarcophagus. The edges that had to fit perfectly around the old building were made from mechanical flaps, they were lifted during the move and, once in place, were dropped creating a precise fit around the original building.
It was a sight to behold, a great mass of steel – stark, grey and in no way aesthetically pleasing, yet it stood grand and stoic, protecting the world from what lies within. In front of the building stood a monument, a memorial for all those that were lost in the disaster. We stood listening intently, marvelling at the feat of engineering that stood before us. It was quiet all around us and it seemed there was barely a colour to be seen, a monochrome picture, layer upon layer grey which felt very suitable indeed.