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Chernobyl - A series in 12 parts five years after the atomic disaster

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Chernobyl: A tourist guide to the death zone

45000 people used to live here before the catastrophe. They were evacuated in less than 2 hours. Now this is a ghost town.

Destroyed and left behind: The ruins of the polyclinic in Pripyat, the ghost town next to Chernobyl
Picture by Petr Pavlicek/IAEA

It's been 5 years since the catastrophe. What does it look like now in the death zone in the Ukraine and White Russia? What's going to happen to the 3000 square meters ground that have become inhospitable? Repeatedly reporters have dared to set foot in Chernobyl and they have impressively described what has been going on at the power plant where the three other reactor blocks are still is use. A report from the contaminated area.

The town Ditiaki, located 30 kilometres south of Chernobyl - restricted area. It is impossible to get closer than that to the fatal plant without a special permit. Men in uniforms control all vehicles entering the restricted zone. They are all wearing protective masks against the radioactive dust. All of the passengers have to get out of the car and get checked for radioactivity with the Geiger counter. After that the trip can go on. On the left and the right hand side, there are meter-high barbed wire fences. It is as if there was a war going on and you would be on your way to the front. There are military vehicles, huge trucks and cranes everywhere. More than 5000 soldiers are part of the decontamination program, all equipped with respirators. Their salary got raised to its fourfold and they get two weeks of vacation after having worked for two.

A quick-drying foam is applied onto the contaminated fields. The dried up foam gets cut into plates by the workers and is then rolled up together with the radioactive particles and buried in tunnels far below the ground.

When the ground is more severely contaminated a bulldozer removes up to 80 cm of soil, which is buried as well to "get rid" of the Caesium 137. Even though the sun has been shining for days, all the streets in the contaminated area are wet. Tank trucks are driving around spraying water non-stop to keep the radioactive dust on the ground so it won't reach the lungs where it would probably cause cancer.

On our trip we pass by empty villages. Furniture can be spotted through the windows. The people who used to live here had to leave everything behind. Everything is contaminated!

The last couple of kilometres before the plant had to be razed to the ground and smoothed. A contaminated forest had to be cut down and buried - if it had burned there would have been even more radioactive radiation in the air. The sour ground is drenched in water and muddy.

The destroyed reactor was covered by a gigantic shelter after the explosion, the so called Sarcophagus.
Picture by Petr Pavlicek/IAEA

And then we spot the "sarcophagus" as the Americans called it, a concrete block that was constructed out of 7000 tons of steel and 410000 cubic meters of concrete. This "atomary burial chamber" was built within 7 months after the catastrophe to seal up the radioactive remains of reactor block 4. Five years later rainwater is already trickling through the cracks and chinks in the leaky roof.

Back then it was all about sealing up the radioactive mass as quickly as possible. Now there are the same problems as with the flak towers in Vienna: it is very difficult to destroy such a huge block of concrete!

Drilling crews are trying to make holes in the walls during four shifts daily because the burning hot core of carbon and radioactive material has to be analysed and inspected by specialists with robots.

When the workers manage to drill a hole bigger than one meter in the concrete wall during one shift, it is considered a success. However sometimes they only get a couple of centimetres closer to drilling through the wall.

Additional tunnels had to be constructed in the concrete block and each one of them is lined with panels of lead and has a milky substance on its floor to bind the dust.

The levels of radioactive radiation vary immensely in this maze of tunnels. There are tunnels you can stroll through - with protective clothing on - while there are others you have to sprint through. Suddenly there is a board that blocks the way down a staircase. It says, "Stop! 200 X-ray an hour!" Not even the workers are allowed to go there.

And once again this is a demonstration that the intensity of the radiation can't be felt. Only the Geiger counter crackles like a ratchet drill. Each "crackle" stands for a radioactive particle that hit the receiver of the device.

3 kilometres from the reactor the ghost town Pripyat is located. On the way are another two controls. 45000 people used to live here before the catastrophe. They were evacuated within two hours. Everything is empty.

18 months after the catastrophe there was still laundry hung up to dry on balconies of the houses and toys were scattered in the back yard of a kindergarten. All of that is buried now - deep deep down.

In spite of that there are still two people staying here. Two companies have their domicile in this town: "Kompleks" and "Spetsatom". They keep busy with the removal of radioactively contaminated material. "Spetsatom" developed a sonic treatment to remove radioactive particles in soil. Up to a hundred tons of soil are decontaminated every hour.

The roundtrip is finished. On the way out of the restricted area, the cars get washed several times, decontaminated and searched during controls because people who live outside of the restricted area used to sneak into the empty villages in the dark to rob the houses that were left in panic.

< Read part 4 of the series: Homesickness is stronger than the fear of radioactivity

© A report by Tobias Micke (23-04-91) – Contact