Tuesday 31.10.2023 / Chornobyl / Jan Vande Putte
Today is our first day in the Chornobyl exclusion zone. We are departing from the hotel in Kyiv in the morning with cars fully loaded with equipment: material to protect us while working in the contaminated zone, and a series of measuring devices. Approaching Chornobyl, the area becomes less populated, the number of checkpoints increases, and the road becomes more damaged. To get into the exclusion zone, we need a special permission from the Ukrainian government. Apart from not only being a contaminated site following the 1986 nuclear disaster, the exclusion zone is also a military sensitive area today: We are close to the Belarussian border from where the Russian invasion towards Kyiv started on February 24th last year.
In Chornobyl, we meet with the director of the EcoCentre Serhii Kiriiev. He started to work in the zone in 1986 and is now leading the scientific work on the contamination in the area. 2600km2 - it's not only vast in surface, but also immense in its complexity of contamination of water and soil. The Russian invasion has disrupted the management of this area, they looted and vandalized equipment, dug trenches into contaminated soil, and drove hundreds of tanks and heavy military vehicles through the zone. But they also set mines when they were pushed back by the Ukrainian army into Belarus. Since then, especially anti-personnel mines have become a huge problem because it makes access to the territory difficult and dangerous.
Serhiy Kireev, director of the "EcoCenter", shows a locker damaged by Russian forces in the Chornobyl exclusion zone Wednesday 1.11.2023 / Chornobyl / Jan Vande Putte
This morning, we are visiting the laboratories of the EcoCentre. Before the war, they were analyzing thousands of samples a year, but last year this was impossible. Now they are building up their capacity again. When we visited the laboratories in July last year, shortly after the Russian troops had left, the situation was dramatic, with vandalized labs, broken computers, and stolen equipment. They even had no printer. Over the last year, much has been re-established, but some damage to the machinery is very difficult to repair. Most interesting to us are the dirty rooms, where radioactive contaminated samples are incinerated or dried and further treated before they are analyzed. It is very exciting to see that such a world-class lab is following a very similar methodology as ours, but at a totally different scale.
Greenpeace expert Jan Vande Putte analyzes sediment samples from the cooling ponds with employees of the 'EcoCentre' in Chornobyl Thursday 2.11.2023 / Chornobyl / Jan Vande Putte
Today we take samples in the cooling pond with Anton from the Ecocenter. As a result of the draining of the cooling pond since 2014, 75% of the original cooling pond is now most of the year dry. For someone who has taken hundreds of soil samples at contaminated places around the world, my brain switches and focuses on the technology and protocols. There are many processes at work in nature that have concentrated the contamination in deeper layers of the soil and into the waters far down: When we analyse a sediment in our own mobile laboratory, we observe a relatively very low contamination in the first 5 cm of the soil, while the highest contamination is seen in the 10-20 cm layer. Chornobyl is a place of extreme contradictions, overwhelming beauty and the largest nuclear disaster in history. Meanwhile I am looking at this place as a 3D model, trying to better understand all the complex processes…
Greenpeace and EcoCenter employees collect soil samples near the cooling ponds at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant Friday 3.11.2023 / Chornobyl / Shaun Burnie
After several days of working at the cooling pond, the team’s last full day in Chornobyl starts with a visit to the memorial wall to the first victims of the 1986 disaster – the engineers and workers on duty the night of 26 April. The memorial wall stands opposite the entrance to the worker’s canteen, where we have been eating lunch the last few days. I was in the Soviet Union just after the Chornobyl disaster began in 1986, and have worked on nuclear issues for nearly 40 years. In all that time I had never expected to find myself eating delicious borscht sitting next to plant workers at Chornobyl. It is overwhelming to be here and such a surreal moment, as Susanne Vega and the hip hop version of Tom’s Diner is playing on the canteen sound system. When observing the workers, I am thinking: In addition to the 26th of April in 1986, a new date is now engraved in their memories: February 24, 2022 - the first day of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, when Russian armed forces attacked and occupied the Chornobyl plant on their way to Kyiv. Before, there were thousands of workers, today there are hundreds, and it’s not possible to continue as normal. I feel the deepest respect for these people.
We then visit nearby Pripiat, where nearly 50,000 people were evacuated on April 27, 1986, due to high radiation levels spewing from the burning unit 4 reactor. Standing in the middle of Pripiat it seems like the perfect moment to send a message to the Russian nuclear industry and the Russian State Nuclear Corporation, Rosatom. From day one of the 2022 occupation, Rosatom personnel were on the Chornobyl site with their military. Standing with our banner in Pripiat, we make clear that Rosatom - because of its direct role in the Russian war against Ukraine - must be punished through sanctions to stop its nuclear business overseas.
Protest is the ghost town of Pripyat: We demand sanctions against the Russian company Rosatom because of its role in the war Saturday 4.11.2023 / Chornobyl / Tobias Muenchmeyer
I got up very early to pack my stuff, ready to leave Chornobyl after four intense days. Time for a walk before breakfast. I don’t know why I chose a Chopin piano concert to put on my ears but suddenly everything I see gets blurred. I’m walking through the cold and cloudy morning air, the city is still asleep. A limping dog approaches me, sniffing at my backpack. I would like to say hello, but I got clear instructions: “Avoid touching anything in the Chornobyl zone. Just imagine that everything you see has been freshly painted, and your main task is to come home clean, without any color spots!” So I walk away, with the eyes of this dog haunting me.
I walk down “Soviet Street”. A large label on a house says “Ticket Office”. The glass is broken and branches of bushes loom out of the windows. So tickets for what? For 37 years no ticket has been sold here. The only ticket you can get in Chornobyl is the one to enter the inner 10 kilometer zone around the exploded reactor Number Four. Not here, but at the 30 kilometer zone checkpoint. It really is time to leave.. I’m tired of all of the mine warning signs, radiation measurement points, men with kalashnikovs at checkpoints, tanks, mock tanks and this whole jungle of memorials. The memorials, which almost nobody can access, are expressions of the helplessness and loneliness of the survivors of various catastrophes that took place in this deceptively beautiful and seemingly innocent cosmos.
Sunday 5.11.2023 / Kyiv / Tobias Muenchmeyer
Returning from Chornobyl you feel dirty. “Get clean again!” rings in my head. Back in Kyiv I took a hot shower, then a bath, gave all my clothes to the laundry and slept for a long time. Breakfast in clean clothes with normal hotel guests without camouflage, fresh coffee, porridge with honey, bliny, croissants - back to life!
After breakfast I enjoy a walk in the city center. I turn around the Bessarabskiy Market towards Khreshchatyk, the Champs Elysées of Kyiv. Young people enjoying a Sunday late morning stroll, small groups, young couples. I’m walking under the iconic chestnut trees which are paving the pathway with their golden leaves, and passing Vitaliy Klichko’s town hall. This is exactly where I lived in 1995 and 1996 and every spot is charged with memories for me.
Later, I meet Denys in a cefé, a hydrologist from Kyiv who has a laboratory in Chornobyl. I’m asking him about the time when Chornobyl was occupied by the Russian Army. He says: “It was weird, they messed up my office, but when I cleaned it up, I realized that no hard drive, no documents, no scientific book was missing. The only thing which they took away was - my favorite book: the autobiography of Keith Richards”. He adds with a bitter smile: “You must know: I’m a big Stones fan.” And I wonder where this book is now, if he’s still alive, if he had believed what Russian propaganda had told him, or if he had protested against Putin in a time when that was actually possible.
Selfie by the Greenpeace team in the hotel in Kyiv