The Zone is so far from normal at times it can often make the absurd seem appropriate. Such was the journey to Buriakivka. As we approached the main road we paused for a blue dump truck to pass. Although travelling at speed the radioactive warning triangles adhered to its sides were obvious. As we pulled onto the road behind it, the tarpaulin covering its load could be seen flapping violently in the wind.
Words were briefly exchanged between driver and guide before the accelerator was floored. It took a minute or so to catch the truck with considerable excitement onboard for the duration.
As we approached the front passenger window was lowered and our guide thrust his arm out clutching his Geiger counter. Several arms from the rear windows of the bus quickly followed suit. Eyes darting rapidly between the truck and digital displays as we drew closer. Sure enough, the numbers onscreen increased, accompanied by a cacophony of audio warnings emanating from the handheld devices. Yes, its cargo was indeed radioactive! Fact established, windows were quickly slid shut and we dropped back from the radiation source for the remainder of the journey.
Prior to that morning, I knew nothing of the radioactive waste facility we were about to visit. By mid-morning, despite an intense 20-minute presentation in Ukrainian by a man clearly deeply passionate and proud of the facility he managed, I was only slightly the wiser. Fortunately, I was soon to see it with my own eyes.
Buriakivka is one of three radioactive waste disposal facilities, or storage sites, within the Exclusion Zone. The Buriakivka facility is able to handle low-level waste with an exposure dose rate up to 5 R/h (initially it was 1 R/h).
The other two facilities being the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Stage III, able to handle low and medium level waste, and Pidlisnyi designed for high-level waste with an exposure dose rate up to 50 R/h.
All three sites were constructed quickly in the immediate aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster and do not comply with modern regulations for radioactive waste (RAW) management.
Buriakivka (“Buryakovka” in Russian) was commissioned in 1987 and is classed as a “near surface disposal facility”. Consisting of 30 specially engineered trenches measuring 150 × 50 metres. A compacted layer of clay 1 metre thick encompasses each trench. The clay barrier is designed to prevent contact with groundwater and radioactivity entering the environment.
The facility covers just short of 100 hectares and is now almost full. Its trenches now hold a total of 635,918 m3 of radioactive waste. An option to almost double the capacity of the storage facility to 150000 m3 is currently under consideration.
The majority of this waste coming from the construction of the New Safe Confinement, decommissioning of the three Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plants and general decontamination of the Exclusion Zone.
Many vehicles involved in the clean up of the Zone became highly contaminated themselves. Hundreds were stored on hardstanding at the facility and this was to be our next destination.
Accompanied by the manager we drove out onto the site on a road running through the centre of the burial pits. Brown grasses covered the undulating ground. These meadows must be maintained to ensure that no trees grow as their roots could potentially penetrate the clay barrier beneath.
Since all the vehicles from the once vast Rassokha vehicle Cemetery have now been cut up for scrap, Buriakivka is likely the largest collection of vehicles left in the Zone. I suspect many are also on borrowed time. The metal itself is not radioactive, even if fission isotopes have been dispersed onto it, and those isotopes can be separated, mostly with detergents if someone chooses to take the time and effort.
Two battered BAT-M Soviet bulldozers greeted us at the entrance to the yard. We had 20 minutes here and were sternly instructed not to step off the concrete or touch any of the vehicles.
The bright metal remains of numerous Soviet helicopter fuselages sat scattered atop lines of rusting trucks (many ZIL 131 & ZIL 157) and armoured personnel carriers (including BTR-60). Most of the vehicles were daubed with a number, the highest I noted being 395. Engines, had in most cases been removed.
All too quickly a whistle blew. Surely a couple more minutes wouldn’t hurt. 30 seconds later it blew again and then again. Summoning us reluctantly back to the bus.
At the rear of the site, a number of smaller vehicles were unceremoniously stacked on top of each other. One with the distinctive silver wheels of an STR-1 robot, slightly less complete than the one on display in the centre of Chernobyl. These were used to clear some of the 200 tons of radioactive graphite and nuclear fuel scattered around Reactor 4 in the aftermath of the explosion.
The STR-1 is based on a lunar rover from the “Lunokhod” (or Moonwalker) Soviet robotic programme, which between 1969 and 1977 designed robots to explore the surface of the moon.
15 years later the team of engineers behind the Lunokhod programme were re-assembled when it was found that the remote-controlled East German-built bulldozers available to Soviet civil defense troops where too heavy to operate on the badly damaged rooftops of the Power Plant.
With their electronic systems already designed to resist radiation in space, the team were quickly able to produce a version that could be used for nuclear disaster recovery work. On July 15 1986, two STR-1 rovers were delivered to the disaster site.
The first STR-1 robot was hoisted onto the roofs on 8 August 1986. Using its 6-wheel drive chassis equipped with a bulldozer blade and live camera feed they cleared radioactive debris from the roof of Power Plant 3 and the ventilation unit for Reactors 3 and 4 until October 10. Radiation levels on parts of the rooftops said by some to have reached in excess of 120 Sv/h.
There were issues with the STR-1. It was controlled via a long cable. As the cable became contaminated the vehicle’s manoeuvrability would reduce. The cable was also constantly getting caught on objects and would become much less flexible in cold weather.
Control cables were always an issue; with one of the first scout robots deployed to ascertain the damage to the reactor irretrievable after becoming entangled in its own cable. It remains within the sarcophagus to this day.
According to data, the performance of STR-1 was not great. The robot worked for a total of 10 hours or less and cleared about 20 square metres of the roof. Other sources say the STR-1 made it possible to remove 90 tons of highly radioactive materials the roof of the Chernobyl NPP, reducing levels of radiation by 20 times.
Sat behind the STR-1, half covered by a tree, is a larger tracked robot called the “Joker”. This yellow machine was developed in Germany. Placed on the roof of the Power Plant by helicopter it was quickly immobilised when a fragment of graphite reactor core became wedged in its tracks. A team of men were tasked with manually freeing the tracks and were exposed to high levels of radiation in the process. This heroic effort was in vain as the machine stopped functioning soon after it was freed.
It was later revealed that in an effort to play down the scale of the disaster the Soviet authorities had reduced the stated levels of radiation by 90%. Consequently, the Joker hadn’t been designed to cope with anywhere near the levels of radiation it would actually encounter.
Due to the radiation the rovers, along with nearly 60 other robots, eventually failed. Even those machines that could cope with the radiation often ceased to function after being decontaminated with jets of water.
A human workforce, named liquidators, were drafted in to carry on with the deadly task.