How to Make a Modest Author’s Day

I want to share the most uplifting, delightful email that hit my inbox this week:

Hi Bill,

I’m off to Chernobyl in a few weeks and so ordered your book on Amazon. I read it cover to cover over the last couple of days and I wanted to say how great I found it.

You strike a great balance between illustrating what I will see on my visit, whilst sharing the historic and human narrative of the disaster.

Thank you so much

Andrew

Thank you, Andrew, very much. Have a good trip.

30 Years On

chernobyl

This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Three years ago we visited Chernobyl and that visit resulted in my second book, Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide. No doubt we’ll be seeing a bunch of coverage this anniversary week, so for my part, here is an excerpt from the book, and here are some photos from EarthPhotos.com.

Some readers may know that my regular day job is doing voiceovers for radio and television. I have recorded Visiting Chernobyl and it is almost ready as an audiobook, narrated by me. I’m finishing up editing now, and it ought to be up on audible.com in the next couple of weeks.

Here is the beginning of Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide:

1 KINDERGARTEN

The fence fell over itself, a cascade of wooden slats. It was hard to tell with everything covered by snow, but probably the trees between here and the building grew up since the accident. Down the road radiation signs stuck out of long earthen mounds.

This was Kopachi village, not far inside the ten kilometer inner zone around Chernobyl. They buried Kopachi, almost the whole village. Maybe that was a good idea in desperate days, but burying things forced radioactive material toward the water table. So once they thought twice they stopped burying to think things through.

At first they’d bury villages whole, especially across the border in Belarus. They’d dig pits, push entire houses in and cover them up. Special trucks, who knows where they came from, sprayed water up and down the streets all the time, because all the dust that burying kicked up was radioactive.

Belarus buried more than a hundred villages. Conscripts sent down here by Minsk did it. They filled up all the wells they could find with concrete trying to protect ground water.

It’s only ten miles (16 kilometers) from reactor 4 to Belarus, and on April 26th, 1986 the wind blew straight to the border. That meant between half and two thirds of all the radiation fell on

Belarusian farmers who lived on whatever produce they coaxed from the soil, and on the family livestock.

Authorities moved over a hundred thousand Belarusians in a hurry, to places with no housing and little employment. Twenty per cent of Belarus’s agricultural land was rendered useless.

Ten years on, farmers could breed horses and cattle for beef but not for milk, and 32,000 square miles, the area of South Carolina, remained too radioactive to use. That’s nearly a quarter of the country.

•••••

They commissioned studies and they anguished and eventually they worked out how to bury things more safely. They’d dig a pit and before they pushed anything in they’d line the bottom and sides with four feet of clay. Then they’d bury the bad stuff, seal up the top with clay and add soil and grass.

It was better than that mad bulldozing they did at first. One thing though, still today they have to keep trees off the mounds. Roots make the crypts leak.

They left two buildings in Kopachi, I don’t know why. Ice lurked up under the snow, you knew it, so you crept along step by step. Bum place to slip and get hauled out to Kyiv in the militia’s ambulance up at the checkpoint.

You had to bat away tree branches to get up the walk to the kindergarten. Nobody here to chop them down. Rose bushes intruded as prickly hazards up the walk. There were no foot prints, so nobody had been here since the newly fallen snow, a day or two. Icicles hung from the window frames. No glass.

Igor held his dosimeter to the ground. 6.04 microSieverts per hour.

The kindergarten in Kopachi was a solid old thing, a brick building with four columns, fading blue paint around the wood of the windows. All over the floor papers were scattered about, workbooks with activities, kid stuff like coloring and matching similar objects.

Somebody had brought a little metal tricycle with a metal seat inside, its rubber tires gone. A spoon sat on a low table and a green poster board, I think a science project, was propped up against the wall behind it. You had to skirt a charred spot in the floor where somebody once set a fire.

A cabinet, a tea cup, a grown-up’s coffee mug. A stuffed bear leaned back, propped against a chalkboard on the little tray where the chalk would be.

Three narrow wooden doors hung crooked, kind of defiant, open and upright. Cabinets listed down at the end of the hall. Somebody had spilled their insides out all over the floor, a pretty pointless thing to do. A bottle of glue sat alone on a shelf. A tree poked right through the window.

Down the corridor bunk beds filled up a whole room, cloth safety nets around the top bunks. The original 1986 covers and pillows. They must have been. Who’d smuggle in soiled blankets?

Paint peeled in palm-of-your-hand sized slices. A children’s book was titled Barvinok. In Ukrainian that’s ‘periwinkle.’

Two girl dolls, one in long johns, the other barefoot in a pinafore, lay on one bed’s lower frame. Snow piled up on the trees. One window still had glass.

People had posed things for pictures: a book opened to a particular page on a window sill, gas masks on the floor. After 27 years this wasn’t April 1986. People had been here. Workers brought in for the clean-up effort for example (they called them ‘liquidators’), took whatever they needed wherever they found it. Families came back now and again to salvage what they could of their own things. And Kyiv let contracts to salvage scrap metal, resulting in ripped out window frames and pipes.

And the looting. Igor lamented “bad people,” and he was so innocent, such a wide eyed academic, that you thought along with him, “Yeah, those bad, bad people.” Igor had no guile. He always called it “OUR government” like a boy scout. He was utterly unaffected and you had to love him.

The government cracked down hard on the looting. You didn’t want radioactive teddy bears finding their way to Kyiv after all, or hot batteries driving around in cars.

The kindergarten wasn’t exactly a freeze frame of April 26th, 1986, but little girls’ dolls, 80s style tricycles and rusted cribs in the school? They’ll still get to you, 27 years on.

•••••

The Fire at Chernobyl Is a Real Danger Right Now

chernobyl

Articles with titles like Ukraine Fire Near Chernobyl Disaster Site Brought Under Control create an incorrect impression. They probably mean to reassure by suggesting that the sarcophagus that contains the ruined reactor four is not under threat.

But as I’ve been tweeting this afternoon, it’s not that simple. The forests around the Chernobyl nuclear facility have been irradiated since the event itself in April of 1986, and the forests are still toxic. A study has shown that radioactive cesium 137, for example, with a half life of 30 years, “isn’t disappearing from the environment as quickly as predicted.”

Ukrainian authorities established the exclusion zone in the first place to keep people away from dangerous materials like cesium 137, strontium 90 and others. Visitors to the exclusion zone are made to sign an agreement not to wander into the woods and disturb the ground. We were instructed not even to rest a camera bag on the ground while changing batteries.

Fire needn’t reach the reactor proper to cause the dispersal of cancer causing material. It can be lifted from the forest floor into the air in clouds of smoke from the fire. People in Kyiv, Minsk and rural areas of Ukraine and Belarus must be careful not to breathe smoke from this fire.

Chernobyl Film Using Drones

About a year ago I authored the short book Visiting Chernobyl, based on a visit and my research. Having seen the subject of this short video in person, I can recommend it as looking just as I saw it in March, 2013.

It’s from a British freelance filmmaker named Danny Cooke who used a drone and camera to capture aerial footage of Pripyat, the town in the center of the exclusion zone made up of scientists and engineers dedicated to keeping the reactors running. Read more in this article at the Smithsonian magazine website.

Visiting Chernobyl, This Month

A British fellow named Geoff Barker bought my book Visiting Chernobyl ahead of his own visit there and has just returned. He’s been kind enough to allow me to share his photos and impressions of his trip. Here we get a couple of nice closeup views of reactor four, and progress on the New Safe Confinement structure, which is meant to cover the entire reactor four.

Kiev March 2014 086

Kiev March 2014 087

Mr. Barker used the same tour company that we did, Solo East Travel, and writes that

“…we travelled with Solo East to the Ukraine Missile Museum some 300 kms south of Kiev, a long but worthwhile day. The highlight is descending 45 metres into the control room of the ICBM silo that had the capacity to wipeout the whole of the USA. To have your finger on “the button” certainly makes you realise what a very dangerous place this use to be.

 Wednesday was our trip to Chernobyl, again unlike on your visit the skies were blue and we were blessed with sunshine. Igor collected us from the hotel and we followed the route you know so well. It is certainly the most surreal experience to see the new sarcophagus appear on the sky line and then the first glimpse of reactor 4. Being a bit of an old bloke I remember very well the accident and watching the story unfold day by day on the television. Never did I think that one day I would be up close and personal with the Ukraine let alone reactor 4. The whole day was superb and wandering around Prypiat is again something that is difficult to convey to people who have not had that experience. We also enjoyed lunch in the canteen at Chernobyl and the mix of nationalities made for good conversation.
Igor from Solo East was excellent and their organisation for both trips was spot on.”
Mr. Barker’s an intrepid kind of guy and went in spite of all the turmoil around Kyiv just now. In a separate post I’ll publish a couple of photos he took around Independence Square and was kind enough to share.
Thanks very much, Geoff!

One More Look at Pripyat and Chernobyl – A Dozen Photos

Photos from a March visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Ukraine. Click ’em to make ’em bigger.
More photos here.

01
Kindergarten inside the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, near Chernobyl, Ukraine.


02

The lobby of the Palace of Culture, Pripyat, Ukraine, inside the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.


03

School inside the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Pripyat, Ukraine.


04

School inside the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Pripyat, Ukraine.


05

Inside the 30 kilometer Chernobyl exclusion zone, Pripyat, Ukraine – HDR.


06

The Supermarket on Lenin Street, on the central square, inside the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Pripyat, Ukraine.


07

The gymnasium at the Palace of Culture, inside the 30 kilometer Chernobyl exclusion zone, Pripyat, Ukraine – HDR.


08

That’s Chernobyl reactor 4, the ruined one, on the right. The New Safe
Containment is the structure under construction on the left. It’s an
arch (as you can see through the trees) which will be jacked up in the
air on legs one section at a time, until it’s tall enough to slide on
tracks over to the right to cover reactor 4. This photo from March,
2013.


09

The amusement park at Pripyat, Ukraine, inside the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.


11

Kitchen inside the 30 kilometer Chernobyl exclusion zone, Pripyat, Ukraine.


12

Inside the 30-kilometer Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Pripyat, Ukraine.