The vehicle graveyard is legendary, and no outsiders ever get to go there. We spent the better part of an hour wandering around unchaperoned. Arkadiusz has friends in low places, it would appear...
(None shall pass!) (Google map)
"Vehicle graveyard" is a bit of a misnomer - it's where everything that was hauled off and buried is buried. There's still lots of unburied stuff, too. Supposedly some of the firemen who were the first responders on the scene are under one of the tumuli that march in rows across the landscape, along with their trucks and clothes and the buckets and shovels they were given to use, to pick up radioactive chunks of burning graphite ejected from the core. According to accounts I've read, there is not a single survivor who saw the burning graphite; that was pretty much the definition of "too close." Arkadiusz says that down in the basement of the hospital in Pripyat there are some firemen's helmets that read right off the scale of most dosimeters, and there's a mechanical claw that was used for picking up graphite that's just insanely hot; otherwise everything has been buried in the vehicle graveyard.
We pull up in the van and Arkadiusz and Sergei (our minder) go to the commandant's office for a while, then come back with the commandant, who levers himself into the already crowded van. A lift-gate guarded by a guy in a different uniform is opened after some back and forth with the commandant, and we're driving through a landscape of evenly spaced mounds containing - stuff.
(Tumuli at the vehicle cemetary. We drove through here fairly quickly and were not allowed to get out and wander around)
Each tumulus has a big steel sign with a number and a capped-off pipe for dropping a sensor in to check the radiation level. Later, the commandant gives us a briefing (in energetic and military-inflected Russian) explaining the layout of the facility and the tumuli.
(The vehicle graveyard: 10x3 tumuli, almost all filled)
According to the commandant, they are considering accepting radioactive junk from other places to add to their collection, since they've got a collection that (as the commandant put it: "makes Doug Humphrey look like a piker") I can imagine that some day in the future there will be Japanese-logoed gear cooking down next to CCCP-logoed gear.
(The construction of a tumulus)
In the US I'd expect the football-field-sized tumuli to be lined in concrete or something fancy. But the legend is "green=gravel" "brown=clay" "yellow=sand" They have a large fosse around the entire graveyard to catch run-off but none of us knew the Russian word for "groundwater" so maybe there just isn't any such thing in Pripyat. (That's sarcastic; Chernobyl is right on top of a major aquifer, which is why a full melt-down of the reactor would have been indescribably worse than an explosion. In a sense things worked out "rather well" compared to what could have happened)
When the helicopter ride ends, tomorrow, one of the guys says that they flew over the partially-filled tumulus and it didn't look much like the neat pretty picture above; it looked more like a hole that stuff was being shoved into and buried.
The far end of the map shows a region of dots. That's actually the cool part of the graveyard. It's where the "stuff that's not too hot that we actually need to get rid of it right away" sits. I checked the rad levels a couple times there and it's no worse than the backround of the whole area around Chernobyl. So they must be doing something right. The commandant explains that some of the stuff in here is from nuclear testing sites elsewhere in the USSR. It seemed like a good place to put it.
As we pull up to the parking lot of the damned, there are the fuselages of two MiG Hind-Ds (no, I am not mistaken) on either side, as if to make a weird gateway. I am too proud to point the camera through a car window and later regret it because I didn't get a shot of them. The van stops and the commandant tells us very very seriously that we are NOT to touch anything at all, NOT to go off the paved path, and to come running back to the van when the horn blows. We clown-car out of the van clutching our
cameras and whatnot and vanish into the vast columns of rust.
(Military armored personnel carriers were used in the disaster response as glorified ATVs and it was hoped that the metal in the hulls would offer some protection)
(That grey mass behind the rad-meter is chopped up fuselages of Hip helicopters which were used later in the response. The ones you can see in the old movies of
the disaster, attempting to dump sand into the open core, are buried in one of the earliest tumuli)
(The little remote-controlled bulldozer with the rad-bucket that you may have seen? That's it. Or its brother. I checked from a safe distance; it's not hot)
(A convertible BMP. Have you ever wondered what a BMP looks like if someone chops the top off with an oxy torch and tips it on its side? Now you know.)
The mix of stuff here is daunting. Schoolbuses, military armored cars, firetrucks, bulldozers - everything in a state of extreme decay. Lots of parts have been taken from
vehicles - they are actively being recycled. Somewhere, someone is driving a BMP with a cylinder head that's a bit more radioactive than he's thought to check... More realistically, it's probably that parts were taken to maintain other BMPs during the disaster response, which went on for years.
(Row after row of wrecks)
After a while I begin to suffer the first onset of what I now think of as"Chernobyl Stun" - it's when your brain starts giving up on trying to figure stuff out and just goes "oh. more junk." In reactor #6 yesterday I wore my brain out trying to figure out what I was seeing. Here, I've become jaded and it's just looking at internet porn: flickering images that don't even linger in the mind if they aren't captured by the camera.
(Raised hoods in a junkyard mean what they always mean: distributors, radiators, carbureators, and cylinder heads are being recycled)
I finally get to the end of the lot after what seems like a mile of wandering, and hit a barbed wire fence and the fosse. I know I'm not supposed to but I jump the fosse and maneuver to see past the fence: it's just more stuff on the other side. In other words, the graveyard is vastly larger than it appears to be. I see piles of BMPS parked atop trucks. I imagine they ferried them in with the Hip helicopters and dropped them in a conical heap that's slowly collapsing, then cut the Hips up to complete the job.
Suddenly I hear the van horn and haul ass back to the gate, arriving barely ahead of the others. Most of them are burdened down with tons of gear; I'm just carrying my camera. As I run I take lots of blurry pictures that I'll probably throw away later.