September 04, 2017

The view from inside Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station

I used to pass by the cooling towers at Didcot on an almost weekly basis on the main rail line between Bristol and London. They dominated the landscape pouring columns of steam in the sky from the coal powered plant, some saw them as a blight on the green country landscape of Oxfordshire. I just though they looked magnificent, symmetrical and a marvel of modern architecture.

The towers no longer exist, the demolition in 2016 resulting in both a radically different Didcot, and sadly some deaths of the demolition team. I always wondered what it would be like to look out from inside the heart  of one of them, but I never thought it would happen until I travelled to Chernobyl.

On the fateful evening of April 26th 1986 when reactor number 4 caught fire, leading to the worlds worst nuclear accident, a large team of contractors were in the midst of building reactor number 5. They had finished work earlier that evening, and were relaxing in their porta cabins in the small town of Chernobyl. The work was almost complete, and they would have been thinking about their next job in only a few weeks time, when news came through about strange goings on at the nuclear plant.

The huge blue column, filled with sparkling stars, had appeared above reactor number 4, and the inhabitants of Chernobyl were walking down forest trails to view this unusual site, until the local police suggested this was not such a good idea.

As the enormity of the accident became apparent, the workers were confined to their temporary homes, until they were evacuated the next day to Kiev and other towns in Ukraine.

Reactor number 5 itself was never finished, the cranes are still standing there, slowly rusting away alongside the cooling tower which is awaiting the final layer of concrete to be poured around the lip at its top.

The cooling tower is an integral part of a power plant, to get rid of the steam created when powering the turbines that produce electricity. In the case of Chernobyl water was drawn from the River Pripyat, boiled by nuclear fission, to produce the steam to drive the turbines to produce power for most of southern Belarus and the northern part of Ukraine.

It transforms the hot water into cold water, by using fans pushing the water skywards before it cools and drops into a basin at the bottom of the tower. Only about 2% of the water is actually lost as plumes of steam, the majority is pumped back into the river.

Inside the cooling tower at Chernobyl it is eerily quiet. The silence only broken by strange creaks and a piece of metal occasionally clanging against the concrete as a gust of wind catches it. The view out of the top is stunning. The opening resembles a round television, and I could have spent the entire day watching the clouds racing pass over the background of the blue sky.

There was another good reason to look skywards. Rust and wind has started to remove the metal scaffolding at the lip of the tower. Huge chunks of metal now litter the ground, and there is now a risk of being hit by a piece as you explore the abandoned building.

At the base of the tower is an impressive artwork, completed in April 2017, by the Australian street artist, Guido Van Helten. It shows a tired doctor working to help save the life of one of the emergency workers who rushed to the scene without any protection after the initial explosion. Based on a photo from the famed chronicler of the Chernobyl disaster, Igor Kostin, it has a haunting quality which suits its desolate surroundings.

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