UWTSD visit site of Chernobyl accident


Students at University of Wales Trinity Saint David have travelled to Chernobyl on September 9 to study the effects of the accident on the environment – 30 years on. The students have published an account of their trip which can be read below

chernobyl visit

The seven students, all members of the university’s Environment Society and studying BSc Environmental Conservation, travelled to Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone, a 1,000 square mile area around Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor. After the 1986 meltdown, the area was evacuated owing to its radiation levels and barring the occasional resident too determined to leave – it has been almost entirely empty of human life since. The disaster created a huge ecological and social scar, and to date, the radiation remains at 10 to 100 times the normal background levels.

“We studied the negative impacts we can have on the environment on our course,” said Chris Beynon, one of the students. “Arguably, there’s no bigger example of human harm than Chernobyl. But I find it fascinating that, despite the predictions that nothing would survive, nature found a way to flourish.”

And flourish, it has. Since the Zone was declared 30 years ago, this year, wildlife has rebounded without human interference. Scientists have recorded burgeoning populations of moose, European bison and wild boar and have even caught images of wolves and bears on camera traps; both thought to have been lost from Eastern Europe. There are reports of catfish that have grown to six feet or more, weighing 350kg. In fact the area has recovered so well, that in 2007, the Ukrainian Government designated the Zone a nature reserve.

“It is ironic,” agrees student Elanor Alun. “It was a humbling experience for us to realise that, as it turns out, having your DNA altered at a molecular level is less dangerous than living within 1000 miles of humans. I think it is excellent evidence of nature’s ability to recover as long as it’s given a chance. With modern climate change predictions and the like, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything is hopeless – but, clearly it’s not.”

Pic shows L-R, UWTSD students Chris Beynon, Abbie Charlton, Dylan Harris, Elanor Alun and Natalie Jordan.

chernobyl visit

Day 1

We left Swansea at some thoroughly uncivilised hour (turns out, there’s a five o’clock in the morning, these days) and made our way to London. The flight out took three hours, which we spent with the book that would become our Bible – the Lonely Planet guide to Ukraine, complete with a phrasebook at the back so we could learn the important basics.

Kiev itself was beautiful. There was also a lot of street art, and many many trees, both in numerous parks and in long boulevard strips down the middles of streets, which warmed our environmentalist hearts. The hostel was lovely (£5 a night!), and after settling in, we met up with the final member of our group – Gabriel, who had flown in from Lithuania to meet us! The reunion was wonderful.

Day 2

We took a taxi to Kiev Zoo. We paid special attention to the animals that have all been caught on camera traps in Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone – European bison, moose, lynx, wolves, and brown bears. This was so we could get our eye in ready for the trip the next day. Later that night we went to a varenichnaya – a restaurant that specialises in varenyky, a Ukrainian dumpling that can be stuffed with sweet or savoury fillings such as rabbit, cheese or blueberries. They also sold honey cake and “tinctures”, which is vodka infused with different plant extracts. The sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) vodka was particularly delicious, in case anyone is wondering, but we did also enjoy the spiced strawberry.

Day 3

We had an early start on Day 3, because we had to get to Maidan Nezelezhnosti (or Independence Square) to catch the tour bus to Chernobyl. This meant putting on long sleeves and trousers and also hiring a radiation detector. The tour guide showed us how to use the detectors and what they meant, and then put on a documentary of the disaster for us to watch on the way.

Chernobyl the town, as it turns out, is currently still inhabited, albeit only by a few thousand people now; and most of those are shift workers on fifteen day rotations. They are decommissioning the nuclear plant – although Reactor 4 blew up in 1986, the other reactors actually remained in use until the year 2000. The town – and the wider Zone – are filled with monuments everywhere. Some are dedicated to the first responders, some to the villages that were lost, some to others again. It’s not possible to forget history in the Exclusion Zone. It’s all around you.

This is particularly true, though, because of how ably nature has reclaimed it all. It was a bright, sunny day when we went, with the temperature peaking at about 26 degrees, and most of the Zone is now a beautiful young forest that is absolutely packed with invertebrate life. Beetles, butterflies and grasshoppers were everywhere.  The buildings that loom out of the trees sometimes are shells now; it’s hard to see a lot of it as ever having been built up at all. It is, above all else, incredibly peaceful there.

And yet, we never heard a single bird the whole time we were there. The effect was eerie, to say the least.

The nursery we stopped at was harrowing, but for a different reason. There’s definitely something creepy and horror game-esque about seeing abandoned children’s toys about the place, but seeing the conditions that the children would have been living in during the Soviet era was harsher. The background radiation back in Kiev was 0.16 ms/h. The detectors would start an alarm at 3 ms/h. The radioactive tree outside the nursery clocked in at 13.45 ms/h.

Lunch was provided (using food from outside the Zone!) and consisted of cheese, meat, bread, soup, and pork chops with vegetables and rice.  After we’d eaten, we went to Pripyat, the town built next to the reactor that had housed the workers. There we got to explore inside the school (complete with a roomful of gas masks), the gym and swimming pool (the trees are now coming in through the windows) and the fairground, with its iconic ferris wheel. After that it was off to Reactor 4 itself, with the new sarcophagus to one side, waiting to go on. We went in September 2016; two months later, the sarcophagus was fitted, making us among the last people to see Reactor 4 for another century.

We did see one remarkable bit of animal life. We went and stood over the cooling channels, and threw bread down to the giant catfish that have grown to around seven feet long. On the way back we drove through what was the Red Forest.

Day 4

Day 4 was dedicated to exploring Kiev again, so we went to Rodina Mat, the Motherland Monument, which is a massive statue of a woman with a very big sword. We climbed her and took many pictures. Then we went to Kiev Pechersk Lavra – an underground monastery cave system, in which many monks have been entombed and mummified. As it’s an active pilgrimage site, we had to cover up. After that we took a stroll by the Dnipro River, and found a wishing tree. In the spirit of exploring the local culture, we tied on our own ribbons, and made a wish.

Day 5

Day 5 was hometime, but our flight wasn’t until much later. We waved goodbye to Gabriel, who was going back to Lithuania, and took ourselves off to a dinosaur-themed swimming pool.

What an eye-opener. The pool was vast – four pools knocked into one, really, and took a very eastern European attitude to water slides. One slide became a giant roulette wheel halfway down. One ejected you at speed up a vertical surface and then left you to fall back down. One was a high-speed slide that you had to go down in the brace position, and dumped you bodily through a hole into the pool three metres below.

The pool also had an aquarium part way along that contained fish and snakes and an actual, real live caiman.  After that we headed back to the airport, and then home. Overall it was an excellent adventure – it was eye-opening and just an incredible experience, and we enjoyed it so much we’re planning another. 

chernobyl visit

Further Information

For further information, please email: press@uwtsd.ac.uk