I have my motorcycle and the absolute
freedom to ride it wherever curiosity and the speed demon takes me. I have
ridden all my life and owned many different bikes. I ended my search for
a perfect bike with a big Kawasaki Ninja that boasts a mature 147 horse
power, some serious bark, is fast as a bullet and comfortable for a long
I travel a lot and one of my favorite destinations is through the so called Chernobyl "dead zone", which is 130kms from my home. Why my favorite? Because one can take long rides without encountering a single car or living soul. The people are gone now and nature is reasserting itself in blooming plants, woods and rippling lakes.
In places where roads have not been travelled by trucks or army vehicles, they are in the same condition they were 20 years ago - except for an occasional blade of grass that discovered a crack to spring through. Time does not ruin roads, so they may stay this way until they can be opened to normal traffic again........ a few centuries from now.
To begin our journey, we must learn
a little something about radiation. It is really very simple, and the device
we use for measuring radiation levels is called a Dosimeter. If you flick
it on in Kiev, it will measure about 12-16 microroengen per hour. In a
typical city of Russia, America or Europe, it will read 10-12 microroengen
per hour. 1,000 microroengens equal one milliroengen and 1,000 milliroengens
equal 1 roengen. So one roengen is 100,000 times the average radiation
of a typical city. A dose of 500 roengens wi thin 5 hours
is fatal to humans. Interestingly, it takes about 2 1/2 times that dosage
to kill a chicken and over 100 times that to kill a cockroach.
This sort of radiation level can not be found in Chernobyl now. In the first days after explosion, some places around the reactor were emitting 3,000-30,000 roengens per hour. The firemen who were sent to put out the reactor fire were fried on the spot by gamma radiation. The remains of the reactor were entombed within an enormous steel and concrete sarcophagus, so it is now relatively safe to travel to the area - as long as we do not step off of the roadway....... and so long as action is taken in the very near future to rebuild the sarcophagus, which is crumbling away.
The map above shows the radiation levels in different parts of the dead zone, which I updated for our local biker club lately. Map is a bit confusing. I will soon place a more comprehensive one. It shows various levels of radiation on asphalt - usually on the middle of road - because at edge of the road it is twice as high. If you step 1 meter off the road it is 4 or 5 times higher. Radiation sits on the soil, on the grass, in apples and mushrooms. It is not retained by asphalt, which makes rides through this area relatively safe now.
I always go for rides alone, because I do not want anyone to raise dust in front of me. I have never had problems with the dosimeter guys, who man the checkpoints. They are experts, and if they find radiation on you vehicle, they give it a chemical shower, and this eat ya bike. I don't count those couple of times when "experts" tried to invent an excuse to give me a shower, because those had a lot more to do with physical biology than biological physics.
On the Friday evening of April 25,
1986, the reactor crew at Chernobyl-4, prepared to run a test the next
day to see how long the turbines would keep spinning and producing power
if the electrical power supply went off line. This was a dangerous test,
but it had been done before. As a part of the preparation, they disabled
some critical control systems - including the automatic shutdown safety
The flow of coolant water dropped and the power began to increase.
When the operator moved to shut down the reactor in its low power mode, a domino effect of previous errors caused an sharp power surge that triggered a tremendous steam explosion which blew the 1000 ton cap on the nuclear containment vessel to smithereens.
Some of the 211 control rods melted and then a second explosion, whose cause is still the subject of disagreement among experts, threw out fragments of the burning radioactive fuel core and allowed air to rush in - igniting the tons of graphite insulating blocks.
Once graphite starts to burn, its almost impossible to extinguish. It took 9 days and 5000 tons of sand, boron, dolomite, clay and lead dropped from helicopters to put it out. The radiation was so intense that all of those brave pilots died.
It was this graphite fire that released most of the radiation into the atmosphere and troubling spikes in atmospheric radiation were measured as far away as Sweden - thousands of miles away.
The causes of the accident are described as a fateful combination of human error and imperfect technology.
In keeping with a long tradition of soviet justice, they imprisoned all the people who worked on that shift - regardless of their guilt. A man who tried to stop the chain reaction in a last desperate attempt to avoid the meltdown was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He died 3 weeks later.
Radiation will stay in the Chernobyl area for the next 48.000 years, but, humans may begin repopulating the area in about 600 years - give or take three centuries. The experts predict that, by then, the most dangerous elements will have disappeared - or been sufficiently diluted into the rest of the world's air, soil and water. If our government can somehow find the money and political will power to finance the necessary scientific research, perhaps a way will be discovered to neutralize or clean up the contamination sooner. Otherwise, our distant ancestors will have to wait untill the radiation diminishes to a tolerable level. If we use the lowest scientific estimate, that will be 300 years from now......some scientists say it may be as long as 900 years.
I think it will be 300, but people often accuse me of being an optimist...
In Ukrainian language ( where we don't
like to say "the") Chernobyl is the name of a grass, wormwood (absinth).
This word scares the holy bejesus out of people here. Maybe part of the
reason for that among religious people is because the bible mentions Wormwood
in the book of the revelatons - which fortells the end of the world....
REV 8:10 And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;
REV 8:11 And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter.
If I tell someone that I am going to take a relaxing spin through the "dead zone"... the best case response is; "Are you nuts?"
My dad used to say that people are afraid of a deadly thing which they can not see, can not feel and can not smell. Maybe that is because those words are a good description of death itself.
Dad is nuclear physicist, and he has educated me about many things. He is much more worried about the speed my bike travels than about the direction I point it. My trips to Chernobyl are not like a walk in the park, but the risk can be managed. It is similar to walking on a high wire with a balancing pole. One end of the pole is the gamma ray emission intensity and the other end of the pole is the exposure time. But the wire is also covered with a slippery dust, and this is the major risk. Inhaling the radioactive dust that is kicked up by a vehicle or a herd of horses can severely poison your lungs.
My bike trips to Chernobyl require a working understanding of biology and physics, also knowing geography and ecology of a zone.
Dad and their team have worked in the "dead zone" for last 18 years doing research about the day it all happened. The rest of the team is comprised of microbiologists, doctors, botanists and other professions with long names and many syllables. I was a schoolgirl back in 1986 and within a few hours of the accident , dad put all of us on the train to grandma's house. Granny lives 800 kms from here and dad wasn't sure if it was far enough away to keep us out of reach of the big bad wolf of a nuclear meltdown
The communists kept silent about this accident. In Kiev, they forced people to take part in their preciously stupid labor day parade and it was then that ordinary people began hearing the news of the accident from foreign radio stations and relatives of those who died. The real panic began 7-10 days after accident. Dad says that those who were exposed to the exceedingly high levels of nuclear radiation in the first 10 days when it was still a state secret, incuding unsuspecting visitors to the area, probably died or having serious health problems.
Time to go for a ride. This is our road. We will see fewer and fewer cars and other signs of civilization as we approach the Ghost Town. The land gets cheaper and the roads get better.......quite the reverse of everywhere else in the world - and a forecast of things to come.
As we pass the 86th kilometer, we encounter
a giant egg - which marks the point where civilization as we know it ends
- and the Chernobyl ride begins.
Someone brought the egg from Germany. It represents LIFE breaking through the hard shell of the unknown. I am not sure if this symbolism is encouraging or not. Perhaps it will be better understood 600 years from now. Either way, it makes people think, and for us this is our last chance to stock up on edible food, drinkable water and uncontaminated fuel. Our journey from here is a gradually darkening picture of deserted towns, empty villages and dead farms..
This is what left of a fertile village with a population of 4.500. It lies 50 kms South of ground zero - the reactor
Now we are 50 kms West of the reactor.
This old man lives in the Chernobyl area. He is one of 3.500 people that either refused to leave or returned to their villages after the meltdown in 1986. I admire those people, because each of them is a philosopher in their own way. When you ask if they are afraid, they say that they would rather die at home from radiation, than die in an unfamiliar place of home-sickness. They eat food from their own gardens, drink the milk of their cows and claim that they are healthy.....but the old man is one of only 400 that have survived this long. He may soon join his 3,100 neighbors that rest eternally in the earth of their beloved homes. It appears that the people with the most courage were the first to die here. Maybe that is true everywhere.
We are now crossing the border into Belorussia - which is a separate country. The evil dark wind of that day brought 70% of the Chernobyl radiation here. As we travel deeper into Belorusian territory, we begin to grasp the immensity of the total area that was poisoned, and will still be poisoin in the year 2525. Most of the houses here are made of wood - and it absorbs radiation like a sponge.
This is a Belorusian Cemetery. In many
villages, hasty scratches on wooden crosses are the only chronicle that
remains of the rich lives that dwelled here. Many of the loved ones who
prayed over them are probably here, too.
I couldn't find this village on my map, but the town cemetary tells the tale that from the early 1800's, until 1986, all of the people who lived in this village were Smirnovs.
It must be sectarian village, where brothers married sisters and all have the same last name.
I put this village on my map and named it Smirnovka. I wonder if there is a connection to the people who lived in this place and the people who make Smirnoff Vodka?
I can only guess, because there is nobody here to answer the question.
Road to ground zero
There are no commercial gas stations
in the dead zone, so the tank must be full and I check the fuel reserve,
tire repair kit.. I don't want to be marooned in the middle of nuclear
Tanked up on fuel, I snap open the throttle wide - and bolt like lightning down the best road in the area. Ground zero is dead ahead.
This is a credential control point, one of two dozen checkpoints that lead into dead zone. Special permission is required to enter the zone of exclusion. Mine is issued by a governmental organization. Thank You, Big Daddy!
This is where they give careless or unlucky visitors a chemical shower.
As I pass through the check point, I feel that I have entered an unreal world. In the dead zone, the silence of the villages, roads, and woods seem to scream something at me....something that I strain to hear....something that attracts and repels me both at the same time. It is divinely eerie - like stepping into that Salvador Dali painting with the dripping clocks.
These are radioactive technics as far as the eye can see. There are a type of army truck, most of these vehicles were full of troops on that day.
How many people died of radiation?
No one knows - not even approximately. The official death tolls reports
range from 300 to 300,000 and many unofficial sources put the toll over
The final toll will not be known in our lifetime, and maybe not our childrens either.
It is easier to calculate material loses. It was a crippling economic catastrophe for the region - from which it may never recover.
These fire engines are some of the most radioactive objects in all of Chernobyl. The firemen were the first on the scene, and they thought it was an ordinary fire. No one told them, nor the soldiers nor the helicopter pilots what they were really dealing with.
The fire-engines never returned in their garages, and the firemen never returned to their homes. They all died within a few hours.
This hellish inferno became a sort
of paradise for wild animals - at least on the surface. They thrive with
no humans to prey upon them, but nobody fully understands how the nuclear
poisons have altered their genetic makeup, the extent of their migration
or their interactions with the adjacent "safe" areas. Grotesque mutations
have been reported, but zoologists deny that.
Populations of wolfs and wild boars grow rapidly. They occupying the abandoned houses and sheds. They are curiously unagressive here. Maybe that has something to do with the food supply which plentiful for all species except man, but contaminated. It's not unusual to see a wolf, a fox, a wild boar or a wild deer casually crossing the road, so I must take be vigilant about my speed.