A Day in Hell – Spring 2004

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Who could ever forget April 1986 and the day an explosion ruptured a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, sending radioactive fall-out around the world?

For people opposed to nuclear power, it was a case of “I told you so”. For myself, it was terrible – a glimpse of something that hung over us for decades – World War 3.

Chernobyl left the headlines, but the work of Irish people with Belarussian children, whose lives were blighted by the disaster, kept it in my mind.

l always had ideas of visiting the place and last summer on a visit to the Ukraine, my wish came true. I went for a day-trip with Valentina, my guide, and driver Sergei who was born and raised in Chernobyl.

Departing Kiev on the 16O-km journey north, I reflected that this city of 4 million might well have been empty now but for fortuitous winds at the time. The radioactive fall-out mainly hit rural areas of present-day Ukraine and Belarus, and a pocket south of Kiev. Disaster, yes – but nothing to what it could have been.

Ghost country

We drove through the beautiful farmland of Ukraine until we reached the roadblock and fence that marks the 30km exclusion zone. In no time, we were passing untended fields and derelict farm buildings. Side-roads were turning green under the encroaching vegetation. The only permanent residents are about 300 older people who preferred living in radiation at home to living in exile. They grow their gardens and are helped by regular food deliveries from outside.

Thousands of people work in the area monitoring the environment and the stricken reactor. But the radiation level is too high for safety, so work schedules are for 2 weeks, followed by 2 weeks outside the area. Every year, workers undergo a full medical examination.

Then it was on to the reactor complex. There were 3 working reactors besides the doomed No.4. Units 5 and 6 were built but never commissioned. Now, work is proceeding to dismantle all the units. Nos. 3 and 4 shared a common smokestack.

Keeping it stable is a constant priority. Dismantling No.4 will happen when the technology to do so safely is developed. Right now, it’s a learning curve.

The remains of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant after the explosion. Photograph: AP

Poison debris

The doomed reactor core has been partially probed but 75% of it remains hidden. Inside, there is a cocktail of fuel rods, nuclear waste, concrete and other chemicals. Fission and other reactions still generate heat, and radiation. Water, whether from rain or condensation, is a hazard because it leaches out poisonous waste, initiates chemical reactions and causes cracks to form in the entombed debris.

The interior is regularly sprayed with foam to keep down radioactive dust. Rain and the weather are excluded by a sarcophagus made of metal and concrete but serious leakages are happening due to deterioration of the structure. Work on a new sarcophagus is proceeding as a matter of urgency.

Any radioactive debris that could be collected has been lodged in over ground and under ground repositories. This includes a few hundred trees, which withered and died after the accident.

These storage facilities are safe for a 100 years and after that, as one technician remarked, ”lt’s our grandchildren’s problem”.


A few km from the reactor complex lies the ghost city of Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people. A typical Soviet city, it has its tower blocks, bus stops, telephone kiosks, shops and a hotel. The trees are untended, weeds are growing in the streets and the square is overrun with shrubs. The Chernobyl station director had a luxury apartment here. He swapped it for 5 years in a more basic one. On one apartment you can still read a notice proclaiming that “the victory of Communism is at hand”.

In the terrible days of 1986, this city and hundreds of villages were evacuated, never to be re-settled. In came the looters to take anything that wasn’t nailed down, and plenty that was. Fridges, Televisions went on sale to unsuspecting customers who didn’t realise just what a red-hot bargain they were getting.

Heading home, we drove by a huge radar complex, a relic of the Soviet space programme, looted and deserted. We also took to the side-roads to see a few small towns and deserted villages that nature is rapidly reclaiming. Toys lay strewn in a children’s playground. I stood uninvited in a kitchen and thought of its departed owners.

At the boundary fence, we got a radiation check.

Why did it happen I asked my guides? They didn’t know – maybe an experiment, human error or maybe it was just a shoddy reactor. One good thing though, the cleanup has been a huge technological learning experience for the entire world and if energy shortages ever force widespread use of nuclear energy, we’ll be better equipped to handle it safely.

More about this disaster:The truth about Chernobyl? I saw it with my own eyes…
Kim Willsher  Reported on the world’s worst nuclear disaster from the Soviet Union in   www.theguardian.com – Sun 16 Jun 2019 10.00 CEST

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About this record

Written by Paul Holland

Published here 19 Nov 2023 and originally published Spring 2004

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