Chornobyl of Healthy Person: Exclusion Zone Guide by Radiation Protection Expert

If you also saw the Chernobyl series and now want to go and see everything with your own eyes, read this text to the end. Maybe it will make you change your mind or at least treat such a trip more responsibly.

The flow of tourists to the Chernobyl exclusion zone (or just the zone) after release of the eponymous HBO series immediately increased by a third. “Not tourists, but visitors”, Julia Balashevska, employee of the State Scientific and Technical Center for Nuclear and Radiation Safety corrects and continues: “Tourism is a recreational activity. The zone is a place of man-caused disaster. They come here for information and education purposes”.

Now Julia is the Head of the Radiation Technology Laboratory, Radiation Protection Department. She managed to work in the very exclusion zone for four years, where she headed a large analytical laboratory. She also told how to protect yourself the best during a trip to Chernobyl.

How the radiation background in the exclusion zone differs from normal in Ukraine and Kyiv?

The radiation background in Kyiv, region, and throughout Ukraine, except, of course, the exclusion zone is within normal limits. As for the Zone, then, at first it is necessary to remember that this is the place of a man-caused disaster, and at second, its territory is contaminated non-uniformly. The background changes slightly depending on what activities are performed there. In Chernobyl, it is practically the same as in Kyiv, sometimes even lower. However, the background will increase closer to the industrial site, nuclear power plant and radioactive waste storage facilities, waste disposal sites, large spots, for example the so-called Western trail. As of 22:00 yesterday (20 June – editor’s note), the maximum value I saw on an online map was 6 µSv per hour.

For comparison: in Kyiv, it is about 0.10-0.14 µSv per hour. It means that in the exclusion zone, the indexes are about 40 times higher in the most contaminated place. However, this is the maximum. The most common are values from 0.7 to 1 µSv per hour, i.e. 5-7 times higher than in Kyiv.

Of course, there are point contamination, where the background is much higher, but this phenomenon is local.

Recently, a new confinement “sarcophagus”, which covers ChNPP-4 was put into trial operation. Are some results of its operation already noticeable?

Confinement task is to protect unit 4 and the former protective sarcophagus with the expired lifetime and to protect this zone physically from unlawful entry. At the same time, inside it has an infrastructure to slowly dismount the former sarcophagus, remove radioactive materials and gradually transform unit 4 into an environmentally safe system.

As for radiation safety, then, of course, the radionuclide release into the atmosphere is reduced. However, I think that this mainly affects personnel working at the site. 

Formerly, before the confinement was moved on, I worked in the organization involved in radiation and environmental monitoring (Ecocenter). We monitored, in particular, the release of radionuclides beyond the exclusion zone. It was found that even when there was no confinement, the radionuclide release from unit 4 per year was still 125 times less than it was released by personnel, 500 times less than released by animals (they cannot be controlled), and 30 thousand times less than the Pripyat river releases to the Dnipro river.

It is impossible to retain artificially the main amount of radionuclides coming from the exclusion zone.

The main barrier on the path of radionuclide dispersal in the zone is the zone itself. It performs a barrier function. The larger the exclusion area, the more safe the surrounding territory. It is very difficult to retain radionuclides within a small area. Therefore, the most hazardous in the zone is the zone itself and its territory.

We (Ecocenter) somehow calculated radiation hazard indexes for events in the exclusion zone related to human exposure. It turns out that hazard index for an accident at the Shelter (the most significant of possible ones, though, of course, not the same as the accident in 1986) is 2 µSv per year, taking into account the probability of its occurrence: once per 100 years. However, the most dangerous thing that may happen regarding human exposure it is just to be in the zone every day, work in regular conditions. Radiation hazard index is 25 µSv per year, because the probability of this event is 100%. It should be recognized that to be in the zone is dangerous.

Is it true that metal objects, such as cars accumulate radiation the most? From what it is better to stay away in the zone?

All surfaces and materials adsorb radionuclides to a greater or lesser extent, especially porous. In laboratories working with open radionuclide sources, it is prohibited to cover the floor with the parquet or even tiles. It is covered with a special plasticate. So concerning metal, it is a myth.

As for cars, their bodies from this point of view are more or less safe. Wheels will be contaminated, but they may also be washed (decontaminated). An unpleasant situation will arise regarding seat contamination. It will be very difficult to decontaminate them.

 How to dress better for a trip to the zone and is it necessary to wash clothes in a special way?

I will start from the end. You should pass radiation control before leaving the zone. The radiation control gate will show one of two: “dirty” or “clean”. If “clean” lights up, then there is no contamination exceeding the allowed level.  Obviously, insignificant contamination will remain, but it does not pose a threat regarding standards and rules on radiation safety. Therefore, if you have passed radiation control, then your shoes and clothes are clean, you can go and then wash clothes in the usual mode at home.

As for clothing, it should be closed. Sleeves should be below the elbow; it is necessary to put on pants, shorts and a shirt are excluded. Shoes should be put on socks.

What can I bring in and out of the zone? The bag usually contains keys, hand cream, thermal water. Should I leave it at home?

Of course, you may take keys. However, hand cream is unnecessary during the trip: with it, you will rub contamination into the skin. I want to recall that porous surfaces, including skin absorb contamination the best. Therefore, the use of thermal water is also unnecessary, it will transfer dust deeper. Being in the zone, you should avoid touching the face. Once I saw a group of foreign visitors. They were equipped very well: shoe covers, overalls, in fact chemical protection suits. The series was not released yet, but they were prepared (laughs). Moreover, the people who believed that they were protected, corrected shoes and shoe covers, in which they went through Pripyat, and then removed the hair from their faces. This happens involuntarily. People working in the zone are much less likely to do this. The personnel of the laboratories in general developed a reflex: while they are in the “dirty” zone, the face should not be touched.

Employees even have the rules on how to wash their hands. First, it is done with cold water, then with warm, and then with cold again. The primary contamination is washed off, then the skin is steamed and cleansed with detergents, and then cold water tightens pores again.

If you are traveling with an official tour and observe the rules, the chances of getting to a place where you can touch something really dangerous, are extremely small. However, it is important to know for understanding what is dangerous.

Tell about food and water. Is it dangerous to eat in the zone?

You may only eat in the zone in the designated place: the canteen. You should not eat a sandwich on the road admiring the landscape. It is possible to drink bottled water: dehydration is always harmful. If you are traveling with a legal tour, your program will have a special time for lunch. Before you get to the dining room, you will have to go through radiation control again.

The danger of taking food in the zone is in the fact that for eating you should stop, sit down, and there is a danger to swallow a hot particle: a microparticle with high activity. The probability of this is small, but it exists. In addition, you do not know how much your hands are contaminated at this time.

You can eat only in canteens and in the hotel if your trip takes more than a day. Even in Chernobyl, where the radiation background is generally normal, you cannot walk on the street and eat ice cream. This will be a violation of the radiation safety rules.

If to imagine an apple in a backpack during a trip to the zone, and there was no opportunity to eat it, what to do? Is it better to throw it away?

If an apple was in a backpack, it is safe. In this case, the same principle works as with clothing. Before leaving the zone, visitors pass radiation control. Things are also checked. If you are allowed to leave it, then everything is okay and there is nothing dangerous on you or with you.

How long can you safely stay in the zone?

For personnel, the safe time of stay in the zone at workplaces during direct work with radiation sources is 1700 hours per year. However, only observing all the rules, of course. Tourist routes are mainly formed for one day so that the dose received is minimal.

How dangerous it is for an individual depends on two factors: on his/her health and on the zone area where he/she is. First, I will tell when the trip is dangerous at all. Trips should be excluded if a person has an oncological disease, for women: from the first day when it is known about pregnancy. Trips to the zone are also not allowed for persons under the age of 18.

It is dangerous to stay without protective equipment at the industrial site, where activities are performed, to move independently in the zone without being unaccompanied, stay in the places not intended for visiting, for example at radioactive waste temporary storage sites. It is dangerous to collect berries and mushrooms, to catch and eat fish, swim, sunbathe, drink water from wells and rivers, and go to abandoned houses. At first, in overgrown areas you can find animals (for example, snakes), and in second, it is a partisan land: in almost every single house, there is a cellar, in which, perhaps, water was accumulated and the rotten floor can break under the feet.

In one episode of the Chernobyl series, Uliana Khomiuk gives the secretary of the city committee a jar of stable iodine in tablets to protect the thyroid gland. Is it necessary to do something like this before or after a trip to help the body to cope with the load?

The sense of iodine prophylaxis is to take stable iodine and prevent accumulation of radioactive iodine in the thyroid gland. People do this because iodine enters the body in different ways, but at last it is accumulated in it.

However, iodine prophylaxis is an urgent countermeasure. It is conducted within a few hours after an accident like that happened in Chernobyl.

There is no radioactive iodine (iodine-131) in the zone. Its half-life is eight days. It is useless to take stable iodine even in five days after a release; it should be done during the first hours. Moreover, it is organized in accordance with the rules of response to a nuclear and radiation accident.

Therefore, to take iodine before a trip is not only senseless, but also dangerous. Even the use of medication from sore throat with iodine is limited in time, because it is harmful to the thyroid gland.

Can you stroke animals in the zone?

From radiation safety viewpoint, cats and dogs are absolutely safe, as well as the known Pripyat fox Semen. However, dogs in Chernobyl are wild and aggressive, and foxes convey rabies. Therefore, animals are better not to touch, but it is not related to radiation.

How to understand, does a guide with whom you come to the zone do everything properly? By what signs you can guess that something goes wrong and what to do in this case?

All visitors should get personal dosimeters. You can ask before a trip whether it is provided by an operator. Organizers should give you instructions, tell that you cannot deviate from the route, pick up something, eat, collect mushrooms and berries, and go to houses. You should be accompanied by a person with equipment: a direct-reading dosimeter. At any time, you can come to him/her and ask about the radiation situation. He/she should answer. Accompanees should keep the group in sight.

You should be put on guard if an accompanee says that the group has an hour of free time and can walk, suggests looking houses, collecting mushrooms, taking pictures on a dirty spot or even undressing, because it’s hot. If this happens, it is necessary to report to the administration of the exclusion zone.

If you could give some advice to those who plans visiting the zone, what it may be?

In Japan, after the Fukushima accident, there is also an exclusion zone. It is very difficult to get into this zone. Only the fact that we worked with the Japanese researchers helped me. Ordinary Japanese in principle do not understand why visitors go there. Everyone who goes to the zone should understand why he/she does it. He/she will still receive a certain radiation dose. The basic principle of radiation protection is justification. No activity that has caused human exposure can be justified if the benefit from it does not exceed the damage caused by exposure.

Furthermore, do not forget about hot particles. These are extremely small particles having significant radioactivity. They are still in the air.

If a hot particle enters the body, it will not stay in either nose or sip, but will immediately transfer to lungs, in the alveoli and will remain there forever. It will end with a guaranteed painful death from cancer for several years. The probability of this event is very small, but it exists, and the more you violate the rules of stay in the zone, the higher it is. So think whether pictures and impressions are worth it.