Adventures in the dead zone

Elena loves motorbikes and the freedom of the open road. Her quest for the ultimate deserted highway has taken her to one of the most dangerous places on Earth - the contaminated region around Chernobyl. Her weblog charts an extraordinary journey...
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The Independent Online

My name is Elena. I have a motorcycle and the freedom to ride it wherever curiosity and the speed demon take me. I have ridden all my life and owned many different bikes. I ended my search for a perfect bike with a big Kawasaki Ninja that is fast as a bullet and comfortable for a long trip.

My name is Elena. I have a motorcycle and the freedom to ride it wherever curiosity and the speed demon take me. I have ridden all my life and owned many different bikes. I ended my search for a perfect bike with a big Kawasaki Ninja that is fast as a bullet and comfortable for a long trip.

I travel a lot, and one of my favourite destinations is through the so-called Chernobyl "dead zone", which is 130km from my home. Why my favourite? Because one can take long rides without encountering a single car or living soul. The people are gone now and nature is reasserting itself in blooming plants, woods and rippling lakes.

In places where roads have not been travelled by trucks or army vehicles, they are in the same condition they were 20 years ago - except for an occasional blade of grass that discovered a crack to spring through. They may stay this way until they can be opened to normal traffic again... a few centuries from now.

To begin a journey into the dead zone, you must learn a little something about radiation. The device we use for measuring radiation levels is called a dosimeter. If you flick it on in Kiev, it will measure about 12-16 microroentgens per hour. In a typical city in Russia, America or Europe, it will read 10-12 microroentgens per hour. One thousand microroentgens equal one milliroentgen and 1,000 milliroentgens equal one roentgen. So one roentgen is 100,000 times the average radiation of a typical city. A dose of 500 roentgens within five hours is fatal to humans. Interestingly, it takes about two-and-a-half times that dosage to kill a chicken and more than 100 times that to kill a cockroach.

This sort of radiation level cannot be found in Chernobyl now. In the first days after the explosion, some places around the reactor were emitting 3,000-30,000 roentgens per hour. The firemen who were sent to put out the reactor fire were fried on the spot by gamma radiation. The remains of the reactor were entombed within an enormous steel and concrete sarcophagus, so it is now relatively safe to travel to the area - as long as you do not step off the road. Radiation at the edge of the road is twice as high. If you step one metre off the road it is four or five times higher. Radiation sits on the soil, on the grass, in apples and mushrooms. It is not retained by asphalt, which makes rides through this area possible.

I always go for rides alone, because I do not want anyone to raise dust in front of me. I have never had problems with the dosimeter guys, who man the checkpoints. They are experts, and if they find radiation on your vehicle, they give it a chemical shower, and this eats your bike.

It was on the evening of 25 April 1986 that the reactor crew at Chernobyl-4 prepared to run a test to see how long the turbines would keep spinning and producing power if the electrical power supply went offline. This was a dangerous test, but it had been done before. As a part of the preparation, they disabled some critical control systems - including the automatic shutdown safety mechanisms. Shortly after 1am on 26 April, the flow of coolant water dropped and the power began to increase. At 1:23am, the operator moved to shut down the reactor and a domino effect of previous errors caused a sharp power surge, triggering a tremendous steam explosion.

Some of the 211 control rods melted and then a second explosionignited several tons of graphite insulating blocks. Once graphite starts to burn, it's almost impossible to extinguish. It took nine days and 5,000 tons of sand, clay and lead dropped from helicopters to put it out. The radiation was so intense that all of the pilots died. It was this graphite fire that released most of the radiation into the atmosphere, and spikes in atmospheric radiation were measured as far away as Sweden.

In keeping with a long tradition of Soviet justice, they imprisoned all the people who worked on that shift - regardless of their guilt. The man who tried to stop the chain reaction in a last desperate attempt to avoid the meltdown was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He died three weeks later.

Radiation will stay in the Chernobyl area for the next 48,000 years, but humans may begin repopulating the area in about 600 years. The experts predict that, by then, the most dangerous elements will have disappeared - or been sufficiently diluted into the rest of the world's air, soil and water.

In the Ukrainian language, Chernobyl is the name of a grass, wormwood. This word scares people here. Maybe part of the reason for that among religious people is because the Bible mentions wormwood in the Book of Revelations - which foretells the end of the world...

Revelations 8:10: "And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters."

Revelations 8:11: "And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."

If I tell someone that I am going to take a spin through the dead zone, the best response is: "Are you nuts?". My dad used to say that people are afraid of a deadly thing which they cannot see, cannot feel and cannot smell. Maybe that is because those words are a good description of death itself.

Dad is nuclear physicist, and he has educated me about many things. He is much more worried about the speed my bike travels than about the direction I point it. My trips to Chernobyl are not like a walk in the park, but the risk can be managed. It is similar to walking on a high wire with a balancing pole. One end of the pole is the gamma-ray emission intensity and the other end of the pole is the exposure time. But the wire is also covered with a slippery dust, and this is the major risk. Inhaling the radioactive dust that is kicked up by a vehicle or a horse can poison your lungs.

Dad and his team have worked in the dead zone for the last 18 years, doing research about the day it happened. The rest of the team is comprised of microbiologists, doctors and botanists. I was a schoolgirl back in 1986, and within a few hours of the accident dad put all of us on the train to grandma's house. Granny lives 800km from here, but dad wasn't sure if it was far enough away to keep us out of reach of the big bad wolf of a nuclear meltdown.

The Communist government that was in power then kept silent about this accident. In Kiev, they forced people to take part in their stupid Labour Day parade, and it was then that ordinary people began hearing the news of the accident from foreign radio stations and relatives of those who died. The real panic began seven to 10 days after the accident. Dad says that those who were exposed to the exceedingly high levels of nuclear radiation in the first 10 days, when it was still a state secret, either died or have serious health problems.