Herr Direktor Funranium Goes to Chernobyl & Kiev, Part 2 – Chernobyl, the Town & the Reactors

Chernobyl City Limits – Yes, I am wearing one Fallout shirt or another under my frock coat everywhere I went. (picture by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

When you have the incredibly photogenic and not bulldozed ghost city of Pripyat to take pictures of, it’s easy to forget the other towns and villages that were once there, or still are in the case of the city of Chernobyl. Generally the name “Chernobyl” is associated in everyone’s head with the the reactor that went up in smoke, Chernobyl-4, rather than the seat of the old administrative district. I can understand forgetting it. It wasn’t a sexy place with fascinating architecture like Pripyat, just solid utilitarian construction like the buildings of a county corporation yard. Except, to paraphrase Harry Potter, Chernobyl is the city that lived. While everyone in the exclusion zone got evacuated, Chernobyl has since repopulated with a few hundred resettlers. Also, on a transitory basis, all the Ukrainian State Emergency Service workers (the agency that administers the exclusion zone among other things) stay there a few days to two weeks, rotating to their posting outside the zone for an equivalent amount of “cool off” time before coming back. It even has operating markets and the church that serves the resettlers in town, those that come in from more distant farms, the workers, and tourists. It is the hub for life in the exclusion zone. Above all, if you’re a visitor to the exclusion zone and stay there, unless you have friends that are resettlers you’ll be sleeping at the Desyatka Hotel. That said, it’s comparatively a ghost town when you realize that with all those folks added together it has less than a tenth of it’s previous population.

But what Chernobyl mainly struck me as, other than a diminished but still active regional center, was a memorial. Dozens of small towns and villages vanished from the map after the accident as the bulldozers knocked all the buildings down and then buried them like latter day kurgans. No, not The Kurgan but I know you probably thought it. But “Why?” you ask. “If the Liquidators could decon the cities of Pripyat and Chernobyl, why couldn’t they clean all those towns?” And there is answer to that which comes down to one word: wood. If your construction is primarily wood, we can’t decon it and there’s nothing to be done other than dispose of it as waste. Entire buildings and whole villages, crushed and buried under a layer of dirt and then a stake with a little radiation trefoil on it to warn people “DO NOT DIG! HERE BE RADIATION, NOT TREASURE, ME MATEYS!”

(As an aside, the complicated question of how to communicate STAY AWAY to our descendants for the next 10,000 years regarding nuclear waste is part of the genesis of my beloved Long Now Foundation. Humans, being the people we are, which is remarkably consistent across time and space, tend to see dire warnings of danger and curses as instead invitation to come [Terrence & Phillip voice] Look For Treasure!)

I am to understand that the Japanese authorities have figured out a methodology to decon wood for the Sendai Prefecture to allow reoccupation of the towns. I am VERY interested to learn more about how they do this because this would be a game changer for what can and can’t be saved in an accident/contamination incident. Needless to say, the Soviet Liquidators didn’t have this at their disposal. They did have spray glue, bulldozers, and dirt which are all very economical, which is why there are several memorials to the missing communities in Chernobyl. I am particularly fond of this one which I called the Graveyard of Villages. Our minder thought it was an apt name.

The Graveyard of Villages – Each of those signs stretching off into the distance is a town that is gone.

This, incidentally, is all that’s left of a building when a team of Liquidators are done with it and fast forward with 30 years of plant growth.

Radioactive Barrows – DIG YE NOT HERE!

We got truly lucky with our trip out to Reactor 4 because they were closing the zone the next day to begin moving the New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure over the old Sarcophagus at 2 meters per hour. By comparison, the old Kennedy Space Center crawler-transporter for the Space Shuttle rolled from the Vehicle Assembly Building to Lauchpad 39A/B at the comparatively breakneck drag racing speed of 1.5mph (I wish I still had a picture of that speed limit sign on the crawlerway from my last visit to KSC). So, we were the lucky last people who weren’t actually working on the NSC to get to see the two as separate structures. Behold!

The Chernobyl Sarcophagus – on Nov 12th, they began rolling they new containment over it. This is one of the last views of it we’ll ever have.

New Safe Containement – Those flaps on the left are the “mouth” to close over the structure of the Sarcophagus as it rolls over.














I’m not going to tell the tale of the loss of life, the danger emergency responders braved knowingly and unknowingly to try to get some kind of control over the situation, the difficulty figuring out how to build the Sarcophagus structure in short order, much less doing it, again. The internet is full of accounts of the Battle of Chernobyl and the mobilization of the resources and technical/scientific acumen of the entire Soviet Union to get ahead of this disaster. The effort involved absolutely deserves to be compared to the Battle of Stalingrad; it was a win at all costs or the nation will perish situation. And, if you ask Gorbachev, he was quite certain that they won AND the nation perished because of it; that the staggering cost of bringing the meltdown and fire to a stable and contained state may have bankrupted the Soviet Union. Since the Soviet command economy doesn’t quite map to a market economy for equivalence in expenditures, suffice it to say that the official estimate of costs was 18 billion rubles. While officially the pre-1988 exchange rate had been .9USD to the ruble, there was no actual exchange rate, as it was illegal for citizens to exchange currency. Technically, the only reason the Soviet bicyclists I met in 7th grade didn’t get in trouble with their KGB minders for giving a coin collecting nerd a 1 kopek coin when they visited my school was that I gave them nothing in exchange. He was quite clear that I shouldn’t, in fact. That said, the amount of time, effort and resources that 18 billion rubles represented in the command economy was staggering. Literally, as the economy couldn’t take that hit, keep trying to keep everything else like they had, and the Soviet Union became unstable in its wake.

At least, that’s Gorbachev’s take on the matter. I’m inclined to believe the last premier on this matter at least.

Of course 18 billion is merely the cost of the materiel and labor to bring the disaster under control. This doesn’t count the cost of losing THE ENTIRE EXCLUSION ZONE’s economic productivity, much less the value of all the things in it. One reason Chernobyl Reactors 1-3 kept running until the year 2000 was that the region needed them to keep remaining industry and modern living in cities running and absolutely could not afford to replace them. When the deal to was made to shut them all down, Ukraine got a nice replacement oil burning power plant which was sufficient for need by then. The reactors had been expensive to build and abandoning them was a heck of a loss, especially considering the Soviets had been following the proper model of reactor construction/rotation here: one old one you’d be decommissioning soon, one half way through operational life, one that just came online, and one you were still building. This is sort of like fallowing fields, but to allow succession of designs to allow engineering improvements to propagate and to keep any reactor from being run well into decrepitude (SEE ALSO: the United States nuclear power stations).

But Chernobyl was special. This region was booming, a showcase for the future so they weren’t just following the reactor succession model. They were planning to expand capacity by making a complete second reactor complex containing Chernobyl 5-8. They never got beyond building the cooling towers for #5 and #6 before the accident happened.

Chernobyl-5 Cooling Tower Sunset (picture by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Chernobyl-6 Cooling Tower – rising incomplete in the distance over the cooling channel














Wandering through the acoustically perfect hyperbola of a cooling tower is an echo chamber like I’ve never experienced before. Every footstep came back to me from every direction. As a piece of health and safety advice, they never quite finished the Chernobyl-5 cooling tower, even though it looks much more complete than Chernobyl-6’s, and the rebar exposed to the elements up above is slowly tearing the concrete apart. When a chunk falls to the ground below inside the cooling tower, of which there is plenty of evidence, try to act surprised.

Now, the reactors weren’t the only very expensive thing named Chernobyl in the exclusion zone. The Army, being the Red Army with all attendant powers, couldn’t resist taking advantage of all this plentiful power for a little pet project that they kept secret and didn’t put on the maps. As an early warning system, they’d been working on an Over-The-Horizon radar system known as Duga-3 for skipping a signal off the ionosphere to look thousands of miles away for missile or bomber launches. The receiver part of the array was located near the power plant, taking up a decent percentage of the power station’s output and was designated Chernobyl-2, obviously to maximize confusion in people writing and reading about the topic. This antenna array was about the size of two football fields, tipped up on their side and pointed due north to listen over the pole to North Dakota.

Chernobyl-2 OTH Antenna Array (picture by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

While this is an impressive antenna, I would like you to take a moment to think about the signal processing for a device like this. The amount of computing power and electronics, and what they looked like with a late 1970s/early 1980s design. This secret installation that had its own population of a few thousand needed to operate it. Now think about the power and cooling needs for that kind of hardware.

HINT: Like a old Volkswagen, they decided to go with air cooling. Fans are easy, right? And Ukraine’s pretty cool the rest of the time.

I’ll wait a moment for you to envision where this all goes wrong. [sips beer]

Okay, now light Reactor 4 light on fire, spewing radioactive fallout into the air. You know, the air which you use to cool your computers and electronics…

[sips beer again, waits for the screaming from the IT folks thinking about their server rooms to die down]

By the end of day on April 26th, 1986, the receiver for one of the Soviet Union’s pet projects to watch Strategic Air Command from the comfort of their homes in Ukraine was completely fried. Costing somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5 billion rubles to build, keeping in mind that the Battle for Chernobyl cost an estimated 18 billion, the system had been commissioned the day before the accident and would never work again.

So, yes, I’m seeing how one localized disaster can shatter a nation with the compounded costs. I assume that’s why it easier to look away from recognized risks and, very wishfully, assume they’ll never happen. Much easier to just ignore problems rather than do the hard work of mitigating them.

The DECEMBERING 2016 Draws to a Close

Most of the order slots for production have zeroed out at this point and many have already flipped over to the next window that ends New Year’s Eve. I will still be cranking BBotE & steins out all next week, but all bets are off as to things showing up in time for those of you looking to stick something under the Xmas tree. You may get lucky with USPS, you might not. Your best plan, however is to drop me a line to see if what I have on hand, what is in the production queue, and what day which things will finish.

And, on top of that, if your need is truly desperate because of waiting until the last minute and are willing to pay the price, you can always choose “Express” rather than “Priority Mail” for your shipping option.

For the folks about to send me more emails complaining “I waited until the 17th to order but now everything is out of stock or now has a ship date of 12/31/2016. WTF,  YOU RUINED CHRISTMAS, YOU ASSHOLE!” (this is a direct copy-paste), please don’t. As each and every BBotE listing has said for the last four years, that date is not “Does Not Ship Until #DATE”, it clearly reads “Will Ship No Later Than #DATE”. If there has been a theme that’s run through my career in safety it’s that just because people are literate doesn’t actually mean they actually read anything. Sadly, this is appears to be a very broad problem in the world.

Of course, for those of you who are looking for Go Juice or a fine drinking vessel to ring in the New Year, this is just a normal production window. Carry on with your happy lives.

¡LUCHA TUBA! – By far the most amazing thing in Cirque du Soleil LUZIA show.

Anyway, to preserve the holiday spirit, I give you a luchador with a tuba.

Herr Direktor Funranium Goes to Chernobyl & Kiev, Part 1 – Pripyat

The very short version, to paraphrase Ghostbusters: if someone asks if you’d like to go to Chernobyl, you say YES!

Fair warning, there are going to be units related to radiation dose discussed in this post. For an idea of what they mean and to put them in perspective, I recommend this excellent infographic by Randall Munroe from XKCD.

Last year, a photographer friend was directed my way for helpful radiation safety things to know when visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Intending on just a few protips, I instead gave her many thousands of words of advice, but she didn’t end up going. This year, in mid-September, she dropped me a line again about going but, to paraphrase, “Rather than find and read all that stuff you sent me, and forget most of it, how about you come with me?” I told her that if she had things arranged already and was willing to just add my name to the permits, I’d be happy to go assuming flights weren’t too expensive. My flight from SFO to Kiev, with a few connections, round trip, ran $708. I have had flights that stayed in the US that were more expensive than that. Apparently, the demand to go to Kiev in early November is kinda low for some reason. Perhaps it’s the whole approaching winter thing or simmering conflict in near Donetsk scaring people away. Either way, I was happy and swooped on that deal for my Long Weekend in Chernobyl.

I’m gonna start with a thought that struck me on the long drive back to Kiev from the exclusion zone. About half way back, tired and wanting dinner, I thought “Fuck, we’ve been in the middle of nowhere forever.” Then I stopped and reconsidered, “Where we are right now is the middle of nowhere between Pripyat and Kiev. Pripyat used to be somewhere, the last stop before Belarus, rather than more nowhere.” Of all the villages, towns and cities evacuated when the 30km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was established, the most prominent one to empty and stay empty was Pripyat. Pripyat was a GLORIOUS NEW CITY OF SOVIET FUTURE!!! and you can see it in the propaganda-as-architecture everywhere you look.

Standing in front of the Pripyat city limits sign. That one button is hard to get in the cold, don't hassle me. (Photo by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Standing in front of the Pripyat city limits sign. That one button is hard to do in the cold, don’t hassle me. (photo by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Pripyat was a planned town, built out of whole cloth in 1970. When you look around there is no organic feel to the growth of the city, other than the trees and weeds that have conquered it in the 30 years since. Perhaps this look of unitary construction to an entire city is more common in the rebuilt environment of postwar-Europe or a Chinese “Instant Metropolis, Just Add Water”, but the only place I can really remember encountering this feeling in America is Disneyland. Disneyland creeps me out badly for reasons that are hard to explain, but this felt right. Maybe it’s a matter of purpose to the construction and Disney’s purpose rubs me deeply the wrong way. Pripyat, on the other hand, was intended to be a showcase of what the peaceful use of atomic energy could do. In fact, on top of one of the buildings, across the entire length, there used to be a giant lit up sign that said something like “Let Atom Be A Worker, Not A Soldier” which sure sounds like something from the Children of Atom in Fallout. And because the authorities felt pretty confident in the safety of the RBMK reactor design, it’s the first of the Soviet atomic cities that wasn’t closed, and didn’t require papers to come and go (Russia still has some closed cities and technically America still has one).

In short, Pripyat was a place for up and comers. The reactor staff of thousands was well educated, perhaps not the cream of the Academy but some of the best scientific and technical minds around. The military associated around here were people working on new and interesting projects, one of which I’ll get to in a future post, and were just generally not the Red Army’s grunts. But what the city was above all else was young. I’m informed that the average age of the population of Pripyat when the accident happened was ~25, which means if you’ve wandered around the usual watering holes of recent college grads and postdocs you probably have a feel for what Pripyat was like. And if you want those young up and comers to be happy, stay, and want to do their best for you, you’re gonna have to give them incentives, luxuries, such that the Soviet Union could provide.

Pripyat River view from the cafe

Pripyat River view from the cafe

The American vision of life in the latter days of the Soviet Union is dark, grim, and filled with lines to buy nothing from empty stores. Perhaps that was life in Moscow, but that’s not the impression I got of the the last days of Pripyat just looking around. In a setting that wouldn’t look out of place on the promenade and marina of any prosperous city, there was a cafe on the Pripyat River where you had the choice of sitting on the patio and watching the boats go by or you could go sit in the beautiful, though mostly destroyed now, stained glass window seating area.

Pripyat Cafe Stained Glass Window

What remains of the Pripyat cafe’s stained glass window

Or perhaps you’d like to go to the cinema? Or the music school/symphony? Don’t worry, Pripyat has you covered there with it’s own independent ones from the central Palace of Culture. And, oh my god, the Palace of Culture was a sight to behold. The more I walked through that place and realized how much had been in that building, how much was going on, the more and more angry I got that America doesn’t have anything that even comes close to what the Pripyat’s Palace of Culture was once like. The closest equivalent is like a grange or community hall, but that’s kinda like comparing the crappy rides in front of a supermarket to Six Flags. The Palace of Culture had multiple large theaters, libraries, a possible wine bar and cafe, shooting ranges, a gymnasium, lecture halls, an electronics workshop, dance studios, etc. And Pripyat wasn’t even a particularly large city.

But, well, we know how this story ends. Glorious City of the Soviet Future is abandoned 48hrs after the fire at Chernobyl-4 begins. Children are allowed to bring one toy with them, most of which are confiscated due to contamination, and are told they’ll be allowed to come back in a couple weeks. Instead, the poor residents of Pripyat got an entirely new town, 50km due east of the power plant. You see, they were mostly power plant workers and we still needed the power from the other three operating reactors, which didn’t actually shut down until 2001, and a place to house all the people working on the emergency response. Today, without a particular reason to exist 15 years after shutting down Chernobyl-1 through 3, Pripyat’s replacement is heading towards becoming a ghost town too.

Phil & the not quite AEC building of Pripyat (photo by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

Phil & the not quite NRC building of Pripyat (photo by Robyn von Swank, 2016)

During the Battle of Chernobyl, as Gorbachev termed it to get the Soviet people motivated like it was the Battle of Leningrad, Pripyat was the staging ground for the work to put out the fire and build the eventual Sarcophagus that would contain the destroyed reactor. The old city hall, for lack of a better term, got turned into an ersatz atomic emergency incident command center. Unfortunately, at the time of the accident, the Soviet Union didn’t quite have a civilian agency like America’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or even the old Atomic Energy Commission, so they were kind of making it up as they went along with Valery Legasov tagged by Gorbachev to lead the way. In light of that, their success in a failure is not an option situation is to be commended. At an admittedly high human price among the Liquidators, but still a successful emergency response.

Beyond the fight to get control of the reactor, there was a totally separate effort to control the spreading contamination from fallout. As I helped explain with Maki Naro in his “Fallout Guy” comic series earlier this year, fallout rains out in a predictable manner based on wind speed and direction, temperature (the fire unfortunately lofted things high), and particle size. Pripyat was downwind from the accident and took the brunt of it, though the Red Forest (so named because of the color all the pine trees turned when they died) between the reactor and the city got the worst. They made a commitment that they’d clean up all the contamination in Pripyat and save what they could. The first step in contamination control was to stop it blowing around and washing off as much as possible by trying to fix it into place. Think of the fire tanker planes. Now think of them dousing the city and countryside with something like glue instead. All the contamination was all still there, but at least they weren’t going to be surprised by it moving every day and made it easier to map so you could go back and scrape, power wash, or whatever to clean it off later. And honestly, as someone who used to do a lot of decon for a living, they did a great job. The general dose rates around town are only a couple times background. Inside buildings, as long as you stay away from the broken windows where stuff has since blown or dripped in, dose rates are pretty much background. After all, fallout lands on the building, not in the building. Any contamination you find inside is something that has either been tracked, say by looters or early tourists who didn’t do a great job with contamination control (such as the Pripyat hospital), or more likely water infiltration.

Speaking of the hospital, chucklefucks playing in the basement of the without actually knowing how to do contamination control have tracked shit back upstairs and left their contaminated coveralls scattered around the place. The very first safety thing I got to do for Robyn, which was grab her by the back of her jacket and say “Don’t step on that”, then use my meter to demonstrate why, as she was about to  stand on someone’s discarded Tyvek to get a picture. I then pointed out all the other crap that had been left around by urban explorers who didn’t get the memo about leaving things like you found them.

This isn’t to say that I found no elevated dose rates in Pripyat. Goodness me, no. Because I can’t turn off that part of my brain for very long, as we were wandering through the city I started looking around and trying to figure out:

  1. Where would low level contamination that was “clean enough” and left behind have concentrated over 30 years?
  2. Where would the Liquidators have missed something and left a hot spot behind?

Thanks to the nice folks at Thermo Scientific, I’d brought my personal RadEye B-20 to go surveying with. For the first question, at the riverfront cafe, I reasoned that this was a low lying area and that rain run off would have generally run toward the waterfront. So slowly started at where the downspouts once were (identified them by the rusty brackets from where they’d been stolen from) and traced my way along the path down to the quay. Sure enough, at the seam in the concrete where the slope down from the cafe hit the flat of the quay, the dose rates jumped up from 30μSv/hr just walking around the area to 10mSv/hr from everything that had gotten caught in that crack.

"Manhole Covers Aren't Suppose To Do That"

Pripyat Amusement Park – “Manhole Covers Aren’t Suppose To Do That”

Perhaps the most iconic part of the Pripyat that everyone knows from pictures is the rusted Ferris wheel from amusement park. Like a lot of things in the Exclusion Zone, the amusement park has the sad quality of having just been built but never used when the accident happened. It was intended to open for the May Day celebration in a mere six days when Chernobyl-4 went up. While my compatriot was off trying to get excellent shots of the bumper cars, I started wandering around toward the trees on the edges of the amusement park looking for elevated dose rates. My reasoning of basic human laziness was that you clean the easy open ground of asphalt in the park, but probably get a little slack near the edges. Before I even got there, my meter alarmed, making the nearby ravens rather upset. I was standing next to a manhole cover and had a dose rate of .12mSv/hr roughly foot above it.

So, I stepped away from that and walked toward another bit of woods nearer to the Ferris wheel. Meter alarm went off again as I approached a pile of litter I soon figured out was an open manhole. I stuck my hand and meter down there and hit 1.5Sv/hr, which officially exceeded the amount of fun I was willing to have with recreational dose rather than occupational. PROTIP: don’t play in the sewers of Pripyat. I then walked from the open manhole back to the covered one, meter clicking away quite happily all the way, and realized I was tracing the storm drain line with my meter. You see, the Liquidators cleaned a lot of surfaces and the results of their efforts are frankly remarkable, but they also committed the failure of every rad decon and demolition project I’ve ever worked on: not going below grade (i.e. contamination in pipes underground, like sewer lines). That’s expensive and hard work, so they left it. Considering that there was still a reactor that needed buttoning up a few miles away, I can understand choosing your battles.

The Pripyat Amusement Park Ferris Wheel - Never Used, Fixed Radioactive Contamination, CHEAP, MAKE OFFER

The Pripyat Amusement Park Ferris Wheel – Never Used, Only Mild Fixed Radioactive Contamination, CHEAP, MAKE OFFER!

The main thing I took away from Pripyat is that I want to go back. The urban explorer desire screams at me that I barely scratched the surface of all the buildings there. At the very least, I want to get into the “Politburo hotel”. I want to know what the interiors of hotel built with visiting senior Communist party officials in mind looks like. And I want a damn clear shot of the Cyrillic sign for “LET ATOM BE A WORKER, NOT A SOLDIER”, I never found a good line of sight for it. I also want to know who is living in that ghost city because right after leaving the amusement park I met the most friendly cat who was well fed and happy. Feral cats don’t come near you, so that was clearly someone’s pet.

And since you made it this far, I’ll end this with a the traditional picture of the Ferris wheel and remind you that there’s only 9 days left to order in the current BBotE & Stein production window. After that, if you’re hoping to get something in time for Xmas, there’s no guarantees I can get things out to you in time.

NEXT TIME: Let’s talk reactors, sarcophagi, New Safe Confinement, and what the hell is that thing over there?