I spent a few hours at this museum in the end, listening to all of the audioguide entries. Entry costs 20 UAH, taking photos will cost you 40 UAH and an audioguide costs 50 UAH with a small deposit on top.
The museum itself
The museum opened on the eve of the 6th anniversary of the disaster and was chosen to be placed at this site because the fire station here was the largest contingent of firefighters to respond to the disaster.
The museum is excellent, it’s not an easy place to be, however I think it’s important. It’s set over two main rooms on the first floor and it tells the story from the event up until present day.
Over the staircase hang the street signs from the 76 settlements in Ukraine which were evacuated in the first exclusion zone, this evacuation didn’t take place until Scandinavian scientists prompted the Soviet Union. Over 116,000 people in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were evacuated and relocated, 91,000 of these were Ukrainian from the 30km zone.
At the top of the stairs there is a display where the audioguide tells the chilling story behind the divine prediction of the disaster at Chernobyl (hindsight is 20:20?). In the book of Revelation (Revelation 8:10-11), John prophesied:
“The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water–
the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.”
Chernobyl is the name of a type of bitter wormwood and this tiny village which took its name from the wormwood tree in 1193 became a place on the global map because of events on April 26th 1986.
The upstairs exhibition starts in a room floor of pictures of people involved in the cleanup operation and lots of equipment that was used and is now irradiated and broken. This ranges from firemen’s outfits and radiation suits up to helicopter rotor blades.
The first display as you walk in shows headshots of all the firemen and women in the department and there is a radiation symbol added to the photos of those that died.
In the first year, 360,000 people were involved with the clean up. This figure rose to 600k over the first five years. The people involved were known as “liquidators” and half of them were Ukrainian and the rest were from the other 15 soviet states.
45% of the Ukrainian liquidators have passed away early due to the exposure to radiation. And a further 50% remain disabled.
Reactor Number 4
In the corner there is an interesting cutaway model showing reactor 4 which exploded.
There were similar 46 functioning reactors across the Soviet Union. Powerful, quick and easy to build, the RBMK-1000 model high power uranium-graphite channel reactor did not require a complex hermetically sealed shell. The design was efficient and could be refuelled while it was operational.
Core is octagonal 7m across. There were 661 channels holding 18 plutonium fuel rods and water.
221 graphite rods absorb nuclides from the radioactive decay.
Exposing the rods increases production.
Reporting of the Disaster
The New York Times 29th April article announcing the disaster is interesting too as it spells out exactly the same story that I have been told while I was here. The Scandinavian sensors detected a rise in radiation and at first believed they might have an issue.
There is a lot more detail including that the Swedish power plant was evacuated at first because they thought it was them and then they discovered that Denmark and Finland were also reporting gamma radiation levels 30-40% higher than normal, and in Oslo the radio reported a 50% increase in radioactivity. The Scandinavian authorities turned their attention to Moscow as the winds were blowing from Ukraine. The spread of radiation without a warning to the countries affected was in breach of international agreements.
This was the first nuclear accident ever reported by the Soviet Union however it is believed that in 1957 there was an accident in the Urals which may have even led to fatalities and another in 1974 when a steam line exploded in the Shevchenko reactor but this didn’t release any radiation. The Soviet press agency, Tass, chose to focus most of its reporting on accidents in other countries, particularly the USA, rather than reporting about Chernobyl. They focused on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Aiken in South Carolina.
The Disaster and Immediate Aftermath
At 1:23 am on 26 April 1986, during planned suspension of power generation a test was undertaken and the graphite control rods were taken out, and the temperature raised in a runaway reaction. A design flaw stopped the control rods going back in and then there was a huge fire caused by the superheated graphite rods coming into contact with air. It was a level 7 disaster, which is the worst rating of any disaster.
There were 28 fatalities linked directly to the initial event.
The first man, a plant worker called Valeri died in hall in the wreckage caused by the explosion.
Vlodinir Hall underneath the reactor he was burned by radioactive steam and the two friends who dragged him out also received serious radiation burns.
The next man to die had run into the radioactive cloud to close a safety door and spent the next 5 hours guiding friends and colleagues out to safety in the dark, he died on May 12.
The two men on shift were initially blamed for the accident. Everything they did was correct, there was nothing those men could have done. It was an unsafe reactor and those men continued to work until dawn to seal the radiation.
The Soviet government announced it was human error and 6 people were jailed for the accident, one of whom had acute radiation sickness and died in 1995.
The night shift could have run away, but they stayed. One brave man led a team to shut down reactor 3.
237 people died of acute radiation sickness within the first few months.
28 people died in the immediate aftermath: 22 plant workers 6 firefighters.
Eight out of the 12 Turbine Department workers who were on the night shift died. Of the 99 workers in the department, only 5 returned to work due to the psychological aspects.
The Evacuation of Pripyat
Three days after the explosion at Reactor Number 4, when the Soviets acknowledged that there was an issue and needed to evacuate the citizens of Pripyat, 1200 buses and 3 enormous trains were dispatched. Citizens only had one hour to gather their belongings. They weren’t told how to protect themselves and they weren’t allowed to take their pets as it was supposed to last only 3 days. At 2pm the buses arrived outside the houses and by 5pm the evacuation was complete and Pripyat became a ghost town. An interesting video taken by a resident shows the evacuation and even captures the rising radiation level as white flashes on the film. The woman who videoed this died at age 40 of heart failure, the most common cause of death for the victims.
Compounding failures and ongoing effects
Millions of people were unnecessarily exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, without being told to take simple precautions like sheltering in brick buildings or stopping drinking milk and eating fruit and vegetables.
The May 1st (Labour Day) parade in Ukraine went ahead and thousands of citizens were exposed in Kiev to a dangerous level of radiation.
There has been an epidemic level outbreak of thyroid cancer in Ukraine, an 80-fold increase since 1986. In 2010 there were 6,000 recorded cases of thyroid cancer among citizens who were children at the time of the disaster.
The initial seal to keep the radiation in was made from sand and clay dropped from helicopters. They dropped 5,000 tonnes onto the reactor and estimated that 20% would land in the core itself. This estimate turned out to be spot on when they did the secondary damage assessment.
The initial Object Shelter was completed in November 1987 and was made of 400,000 cubic metres of concrete.
388 coal miners built a 136m long tunnel under Reactor Number 4 which was filled with concrete to stop any of the radioactive waste seeping through the floor and escaping. Radiation levels were fatal in that area and many of the miners died after.
Air force unit created with a huge variety of tasks including dissipating clouds to stop nuclear rain over towns.
The Soviet Heath Ministry changed their advice about the acceptable level of exposure to make the incident look less serious. In reality, it’s very complicated but the limit was changed from 50 millisieverts to a much higher level.
The new acceptable “limits for pregnant women and children was: 100 and for anyone else up to 500 is the norm”.
The evidence shows that 300 millisieverts increases the potential for genetic changes in the blood while and exposure to 100 millisieverts highly increases the risk of thyroid cancer.
Between 1990 and 2012 an organisation called Children of Chernobyl was set up to save the lives of the children affected by the disaster, with equipment, research, information and partnerships.
It began in 1990 when 139 children went to receive free medical treatment in Cuba and this support lasted 20 years and helped over 18,000 children.
There is a large open-plan second room which is mainly dedicated to an exhibition about the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s interesting and also has interactive screens showing the Chernobyl radiation cloud development over the first 10 days and demonstrating that it covered most of Europe over that time.
I consider the audioguide to be essential and I spent a few hours here to listen to all of the entries; some of them more than once (partly so I could note down the facts in this post…). It was harrowing for the first half an hour I would say, but definitely worth it. The stories of the poor firemen should be heard and you will get far more information than on a tour to Chernobyl itself (in general).