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Roadside Picnic (Spring 2018)

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We are heading to Chernobyl area. This photo reportage is an account of the two day trip though dead zone in spring 2018.

I can not post photographs of guys from my group because some still blacklisted by authorities. Persona non grata is a title society grant us for disturbing their ignorant slumber. To us it is honor to be on black list.

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From the outside, our car looks like a mid-20th century funeral vehicle. When someone sees this car in the wasteland they think we either visiting relatives in the graveyard or we are a funeral service. They usually let us pass and don't ask any questions. Death is something that people tend to ignore near Chernobyl as the region is an endless funeral procession that people turned their backs on years ago.

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Inside, our car is decorated with flowers. Nemo in Latin means "no one."

here is my daughter video with lifehacks for travel to Chernobyl.

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We decided to spend first day visiting Chernobyl radioactive junkyards. Our driver has maniacal devotion to those places.

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Here I am wondering where is radiation.

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On this video I am telling my friends that the glow-in-the-dark frogs of Chernobyl are laughing at us because we arrived to Chernie with an uncalibrated geiger counter. I just replaced tube on it and I expected service to calibrate my geiger counter - but they probably forgot. On low levels of radiation it was not noticable but as radiation levels rise, geiger counter just lived a life of it's own, with no regard for the safety of ours.

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This photo shows how a Geiger counter can fail you with high levels of radiation. My "Inspector" is reading radiation in Roentgens. We use this system of measurements in Chernobyl, while in Fukushima they prefer Sievierts. Reading on Geiger counter below is 9.873 microsieverts per hour, which is 110 times more than normal, but an uncalibrated "Inspector" device is only capable of reading 0.296 microroentens per hour which is 29 times more than normal. The invisible difference is quite dangerous to living tissue.

I never cared for Sieviers but after Fukushima all videos from Japan show us readings in this system. I originally learned to operate with Sieverts by parallel reading from two counters at the same time. To me it was very useful, as for tailor to have inches and centimeters on the same tape measure.

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Trip to those tanks cost us a pair of shoes.

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We can see how fast red Inspector on right gaining speed from reading hot particle radiation in CPM (counts per minute) mode. A level already 1200 more than normal, while improperly calibrated white device only shows 31 times more than normal. One can get fried like chicken while the slower device can't see the danger.

This reminds me of an anecdote about two cats who went on a Girls Night Out: One cat is completely blind and the other has only one eye. Blind cat whispers to her friend, "When you see some cute boys say, 'HOT DAMN!" "OK," says the one eyed cat, as she walks into a branch and puts out her one good eye. "GOD DAMN!" she exclaims ...and the blind cat smiles broadly and says, "HELLO, BOYS!"

I guess it is time for me to say 'Hello, Boys!' too because my friend the white "Inspector" is completely blind.

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Quite possibly these are the same army vehicles we see on 1986 documentaries. They were driving on the site of destroying a reactor, covered with reactor core. Some of its particles are still trapped on and in those vehicles. If someone is unlucky to encounter even a bit of graphite the size of a grain of sand this would send a Geiger counter off the scale. Its operating range is only from zero to 0.11 Roentgens.

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With a Geiger counter off the scale you never know when you will be knocking on Heaven's door, it's better to run or to get this Soviet-era army Geiger counter. Its operating range is from zero to 200 Roentgens. It was developed for atomic war.

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If someone happens to see this DP-5 counter off the scale next thing they gonna see will be white ceiling in a hospital ward.

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This Soviet Army Geiger counter is very cheap, reliable and simple. It was made 54 years ago for the army, which means that someone as dumb as this concrete sewage pipe can operate this device. It works well to inform about dangerous levels of radiation, but with this army device you can only hear leading tunes from gamma and beta, not the whole orchestra. With nuclear isotopes it goes like with a symphony orchestra. Different instruments go into play either one after another or all together. With couple of modern Geiger counters and proper knowledge it is possible to tell what isotopes coming into play. This is very interesting science. The higher is radiation the more interesting it gets.

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Selfie time.

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Looks like this junkyard was watched over. This is where guards lived and I guess iron bars were guarding the guards... a prison on wheels where mere bars can not stop invisible intruders of radioactive decay.

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This is prison on wheels from the other side. Nature never doublespeak or makes subtle points, it always speaks a firm and clear language, giving signs like this one.

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Scappers nowhere to be seen. They must have day off today.

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By removing easy detachable parts, previous generations of scrapppers have picked most of low hanging fruits in this poisoned garden.

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Now they have to cut body of a car apart, or take apart their motors, to get to the valuable metal.

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When I mention previous generations of scrappers, I mean those who worked on a field couple of years ago. The life expectancy of scrap metal collectors is lowest in the zone. Usually they become "Nemo" after couple of years of work in a field, but on this field I don't think they will last that long.

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Radiation damage to our bodies is accumulative, so everyone who explores Chernobyl and now Fukushima starts spending unrenewable health capital that nature provided us for whole lives. It is prudent to start spending this capital little by little and increase spending it with years. When I was young I would never go to such places as this junkyard and I would never take my daughter to this place, but my father is now 81 years old and he has more of this capital left than years to live so he can go to places with much higher radiation. The rule is simple- microroentgens for the young, milliroentgens for adult and roentgens for old.

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In the first days after Chernobyl explosion my parents spent half a day waiting for the bus to go to their dacha (summer home). It was difficult to catch a bus in Kiev. Authorities had sent most busses to Chernobyl, but people didn't know it. The massive radiation escape was still a state secret and people on the street unknowingly paraphrased an old folksinger's lament when they asked each other, 'Where have all the busses gone?'

Maybe one of those busses is the very one that my parents were waiting for that day...

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It is time to leave junkyard and go see other places. The road is already cleaned from falling trees. Today our driver is in charge, it is his program which places to visit. He is self taught so when he is running a show everyone gets tense and receives an adrenaline double portion. Nuclear is the kind of training where ones first steps can also be ones last steps, so there is a sense in which a self trained nuclear enthusiast is a bit like amature sapper.

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Me trying to guess whose house it could be. It stands apart, but it doesn't look like a forest guard house which usually have sheds around them. In Soviet times authorities settled people close to each other. This way it was easier to control them. Everyone was keeping eye on each other. The only people who didn't want to mingle with others were those same authorities. My guess this was dacha of someone important.

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Here is this house from other projection.

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There is not many things left inside. In Soviet Union people didn't have a lot of stuff in their houses. It's not like nowadays when wardrobes are full. In USSR brothers and sisters often wore each other clothes. This sofa was one of the most valuable possession of a family.

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My friend picking up ideas for renovation at her home. She would like interior to match her jeans. Color would be easy, but it might cost a lot of money to copy the shredded look.

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Designer would charge arm and leg for walls to look like this. In Chernobyl Mother Nature, the best designer, presents her works for free. Chernobyl is like the Louvre, you can walk through to enjoy masterpieces, but you cannot live there.

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Here is more of Mother Nature works.

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She re-designed this house in her own fanciful fashion.

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Usually, when we have only locals in our car on trips to Chernobyl, we don't care about getting permission to enter the dead zone. We just drive though the fields. There is not much the authorities can do to us. But when foreign friends join us, it is wise to get permission, otherwise - if we are caught - our friends will be deported from Ukraine within 24 hours.

On this trip we had a foreign friend on board, so to get permission, we travelled from one checkpoint to another (there are 6 checkpoints over 30 kilometers to reach the dead zone). At the checkpoints they were asking us where our funeral service was heading and my friend was telling them a story about taking her fiance to her mother's grave for engagement. At the first checkpoint they turned us off, but at second it worked out: the story was so touching that they forgot to check the black list and we got official permission to proceed.

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Nice place for fishing - if there were not that 'certain uncertainty'.

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It was time to get something to eat so we travelled 80 kms though wasteland to have dinner with old friend. He is last man in a town where 20.000 lived in 1986. This is him on the photo, watching how we grilling meat.

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We had some meat with us, but making an open fire in Chernobyl is a very serious crime. If a fire escapes, then millions of people will breathe airborne radioactive smoke particles for weeks. We thought the best way to grill this meat would be to do it together with firefighters, so we invited some local firefighters for dinner. When they came and saw that we brought charcoal with us for the purpose of grilling, they laughed and explained that charcoal sold in Kiev's supermarkets is produced illegally in highly contaminated areas of Chernobyl. So, our charcoal made a trip from Chernobyl to a Kiev supermarket and then returned back to Chernobyl with us.

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Here is our shashlik. We had a nice dinner, and after some drinks our party moved to the fire station.

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I cannot publish many photos of the fire station, nor can I publish photos of the firefighters because they were on duty, but I can publish a story they told us...

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Station has only one old Soviet car with two guys working there. When fire broke out in this town few years ago they were calling their boss telling there is fire, but they have no fuel, boss ordered to stay put to protect the station.

I guess the aim of a crew is protect the station, but what is the purpose of the station?

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When we returned to our friend, he had visitor, a clergyman who settled down in this town few month ago. Since then he lives rather stressless life in some abandoned church nearby. Arrival of the prist is an ominous sign. All he can do for this town is to say - dust to dust, ashes to ashes, isotope to isotope, amen..

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Last moments of a town very similar to last hours of a human. Priest is already here, drinking tea with the coroner in next room. People are taking things out. An undertaker with tape rule walks around the house. All waiting.

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When driving an older vehicle like ours, it is best if the driver has mechanical skills. Even better would be a mechanic with driving skills! This car can be started without battery. Most of the things can be fixed with insulating tape and a piece of wire. Leaks under the car is a good sign, usually when the old timer does not leak it means nothing is left in a car. This old timer made 40.000 kms on roads of Chernobyl, it gives problems but it never fails. Sometimes we ended driving this car with two cylinders, sometimes with no light but we always made it home. The only problem is to find car service who still remembers how to operate with a wrench and hammer. When I bring this car to service they beg me to send for my friend priest, to say -dust to dust to this car. I tell them no way, guys, this car has been on the road for almost 50 years and will be for another 50.

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Mechanics in car service do not understand that this car was built at the time when they built things to last. At that time all infrastructure, we are using today was built. It was time of all major scientific discoveries and real industrial progress.

You can see holes from bullets in a building. It is from army and police special forces training.

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They believe those buildings just remains of evil, barbaric past, so it's ok to ruin them. To do that they are often used arms and ammunition which were produced 40-50 years ago.

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Some of shells from AK-47. Those shells have year on them and they not new.

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Here is a question: can barbaric civilization produce cars, fire trucks, Geiger counters and other things we are using for half century? Soviet people build sarcophagus over glowing reactor in several months and it took us 30 years to cover old sarcophagus with iron arch. So, maybe it is we who are barbarians now destroying remains of higher civilization?

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The picture of our plastic cups from drinking water reminds me one anecdote.

Two girls are drinking coffee in a Dead Zone. They are both environmentally conscious and scientifically minded ladies. After one finishes her coffee she wants to be rid of her plastic cup, but there are no garbage bins around.

So she asks the other lady- I hope that throwing our plastic cups on the ground will not undermine the ecological balance of this area. The other lady thinks for a while and replies - It takes from 30 to 300 years for this plastic to break down while the half-life of nuclear isotopes here take thousands of years. We can leave them here, by the time people can return and live in this cursed place again, these plastic cups will have long disappeared. It is only 300 years..