The ghosts of Chernobyl

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The site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster is open to a small number of visitors every year. PV Tech had the opportunity to visit the site on a recent press trip to Ukraine to see how the former Soviet state is beginning to embrace renewable energy technologies such as PV.

Today, the power plant lies at the centre of a 30km guarded exclusion zone, really just an area of wooded wilderness that, because of its depleted human presence, has become a haven for species such as wolf and moose.

The damaged reactor itself is now encased in a concrete 'sarcophagus', leaving little visible evidence of Chernobyl’s terrible history. The relatively large number of staff working to maintain the rusting hulk of the power plant only adds to the air of apparent normality around the site. Only when a Geiger counter is placed near the ground, which remains highly irradiated, does the presence of the invisible peril that continues to make this place uninhabitable become clear.

Near to the reactor lies Pripyat, the town of 50,000 that was abandoned almost overnight after the severity of the fallout became evident. Much of the town lies exactly as it was left in April 1986, a microcosm of Soviet life frozen in time. Nature has now reclaimed the town, and there is a certain comfort to be drawn from the speed at which it has recolonised this previously manmade landscape.

But Pripyat is above all a haunting reminder of the human cost of a tragedy that, along with the more recent disaster at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, should be at the forefront of policy makers’ minds as they debate the fraught question of what part nuclear should play in the world's future energy mix. It is an energy source that seems to offer humanity so much, but, as Chernobyl illustrates, is also one that can spiral rapidly beyond our control.

The sign marking the entrance to the guarded Chernobyl exclusion zone. The area has largely returned to forest and is a haven for wildlife. It will be unsafe for human habitation for 20,000 years.
A memorial to the firefighters and miners who fought to bring the fire in Chernobyl’s number four reactor under control and helped avert a much bigger catastrophe. The official Soviet death toll of 31 people is still hotly contested, as is the number of people who have been and will be indirectly affected by conditions such as thyroid cancer. Some put this figure in the tens of thousand.
Radiation levels in the air in the exclusion zone are a high background level, but the ground is still contaminated. Flora and fauna in both in the immediate area and much further afield continue to be affected; wild boar killed in Germany in 2010 were found to be contaminated with radiation levels above those permitted. The ongoing effects of the fallout are anticipated to last for 100 years.
Children’s toys still lie where they were dropped at a kindergarten in the exclusion zone.
Beds at the same kindergarten, not slept in for over 27 years.
Reminders of the invisible dangers of Chernobyl are prominent features of the exclusion zone.
A memorial marks the events of April 26 1986, when a systems test in Chernobyl’s reactor four went wrong and caused an explosion and fire, sending plumes of radioactive smoke over large areas of the western Soviet Union and Europe.
All that remains of the damaged reactor is the concrete sarcophagus, built shortly after the disaster to contain the radioactive waste.
The New Safe Confinement, an immense steel arch being built to protect Chernobyl’s crumbling sarcophagus and allow engineers to work safely on the gradual dismantling of the damaged reactor. The internationally-funded shelter is due to be wheeled over the reactor sometime in 2015.
The town of Pripyat, only a short distance from the reactor, was home to around 50,000 inhabitants, but was hastily evacuated a day after the explosion.
Today, Pripyat has returned to nature, its main square choked with vegetation.
Soviet iconography can still be seen around the town.
Abandoned tenements overlooking the main square, a post-apocalyptic scene.
Graffiti adorning a wall invoke the ghosts of a once-thriving town.
Pripyat’s supermarket, evidently abandoned in great haste.
An image of Lenin lies amidst detritus littering the floor of the foyer of what was Pripyat’s cinema.
Dodgem cars, seemingly abandoned mid-ride.
The rusting Ferris wheel in the town’s fairground, a note of false cheer amidst the decay.
Wild fruit and berry trees are abundant throughout Pripyat, but their bounty is unsafe to eat.
The future of energy? Scarred by its nuclear past, Ukraine is now looking to new forms of energy generation such as solar. This is the 43MW Starokozache Power Plant in Odessa, south Ukraine, built by Activ Solar.
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