Chernobyl – The Sarcophagus 30 years later

Almost three years ago, I rode across Ukraine on my motorbike. A lot has changed since. I travelled through the Donbass region, spent two nights in Luhansk and crossed the border into Russia. This would be unthinkable today, the region has been ravaged by war and the border with Russia is sealed. I do not know when I will be able to visit the area again – soon, I hope, but might still be some time. Far from this conflict zone, to the north of the country, lurks another enemy that will take much, much longer to defeat.

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This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The night of 26th April, 1986, a fatal combination of human error and design faults led to the worst nuclear catastrophe in history. The story of the exact events that caused the explosion, despite being rather technical, has been told many times. The disintegration of the USSR and the difficulties in doing accurate research meant that less is known about the long term effects that the radioactive fallout had – whole areas rendered uninhabitable, displaced population, contaminated crops and water sources, an increase in several types of cancer, particularly thyroid, genetic disorders… in one way or another, the disaster directly affected the lives of at least 300,000 people.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with disasters that seem to be far from us, the world has long turned its regard away from Chernobyl. The area was put under military control, the remains of the reactor were sealed and we forgot about it.

But the danger is far from over. There are still 16 tonnes of uranium and plutonium inside the reactor, among many other radioactive materials. One milligram is enough to be lethal to a person. You do the math.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, once the fire in the core had been put under control the main priority was to seal off the remains of the reactor to prevent the spread of radioactive dust and smoke into the atmosphere – remember that the extent of the catastrophe only became clear when the radioactive cloud reached Sweden and set off the alarms of a nuclear power plant there – but it was impossible to work near the building as radiation levels were high enough to kill a person in a matter of minutes and leave lethal long-term effects in a matter of seconds.

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Building a structure to seal a building that was not only enormous, but partially destroyed and surrounded by debris without approaching it more than it was strictly necessary was not an easy task. The area around it needed to be cleared to lay off the foundations to the structure, ways of putting the structure into place without endangering the lives or workers needed to be found, and everything needed to happen as soon as possible.

Remote controlled bulldozers were used to clear the surrounding area. The debris and the first layer of soil were dug up and buried in deep trenches that were immediately covered in concrete. Most of the structure for the sarcophagus was built on remote sites and then transported and moved into position using enormous remote controlled cranes. The display of ingenuity and technology was staggering.

Even so, building such structure remotely still posed high challenges. The roof structure rests not on newly built pillars or walls, but on remains of the ventilation shafts of the reactor, which were damaged in the explosion. The 2000-tonne slab of concrete that covered the reactor fell into an unstable, almost vertical position; if it moved, it would stir up highly contaminated dust or damage the structure around it. The welding and riveting of the sarcophagus had to be done remotely, so they were not as accurate as it would be desirable, and on top of it all the whole structure has been suffering the effects of the harsh climate ever since.

It was designed to last for thirty years and it was supposed to keep radiation levels low enough to allow work in the construction of a better, more permanent structure. However, the disintegration of the USSR meant that the problem was now in Ukraine territory, and neither Ukraine nor Russia had the money to undertake such operation.

10 years after construction ended, the structure showed cracks and gaping holes, and water was pouring in and leaking to subsoil. Radiation levels inside the sarcophagus were still very high and it was concluded that it would not be possible to repair it from the inside.

As soon as 1992, the Ukranian government held an international competition for a design proposal of a structure to replace the existing one, but it was not until 2004 that the design was completed. The start of actual construction work on the site would have to wait another six years, until 2010. In 2006, the Designed Stabilisation Steel Structure, which had been built next to the western wall to relieve some of the roof’s weight off the damaged concrete wall on which it rests, was extended to support up to 50% of the load. This was said to make the structure stable for another 15 years, but other parts of the sarcophagus were still unstable – in February 2013 part of the roof of the turbine hall collapsed, and workers had to be evacuated. The collapse was later attributed to poor quality repair work and deterioration of the structure.

I visited the site in July that same year, and progress in the construction of the new sarcophagus, called New Safe Confinement, was well underway, even though the project had been originally announced to be completed by 2005. The NSC is designed as an enormous arch that will cover the old sarcophagus completely. It is more than 100 metres tall, 150 meters long and has an inner span of 245 meters. It contains two cranes and all the necessary equipment not only to seal the old reactor, but to start dismantling it and removing the remaining fuel inside. Once complete, it will slide on two rails into its position over the old sarcophagus

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A 180 meters to the east of the construction site of the NSC, the old structure stood much taller than the photographs I had seen might lead to believe. We were only allowed there for a few minutes, but it was enough to appreciate how badly needed a new sarcophagus is.

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As I write these lines, construction of the NSC has been completed. All that remains now is for it to be moved into position and permanently sealed, 30 years after the catastrophe.

Here are some links to interesting material:

The Sarcophagus on The Charnobyl Gallery – A photography website of Chernobyl and Prypyat

Documentary on the disaster and the aftermath

BBC documentary Inside Chernobyl’s Sarcophagus

First farkle – PIAA Powersports Slim Line sports horn

Making yourself heard in traffic is essential, but the horn that comes as standard in most motorbikes sounds little better than the puny one in a scooter, which means that at speed or in heavy inner city traffic cagers might not hear you when you most need to make them aware of your presence.

Replacing the horn in the V-Strom was something that was on my to-do list forever but I never got round to do it even though it was one of the easiest bikes in which to install one of everyone’s favourite horns – the Stebel Nautilus, as it has plenty of room.

Then I got the Super Ténéré and the horn was even more ridiculous, which turned out to be not because it was complete rubbish as I thought but because it was on its way out. It died about a month after I bought the bike. Time to finally fit a proper horn, then.

Space in the Super was a lot more restricted than in the V, and after some thorough research on several forums I choose the PIAA Powersports Slim Line horn. It was a straight replacement for the standard horn, a simple matter of unscrewing and unplugging the OEM one and bolting in the PIAA in the same place and connecting it to the same wires. Current draw is not high, so there was no need to wire in a relay. It made a world of difference, maybe not in volume, but tone was a lot more car-like, so cagers do pay more attention when you sound it.

Happy with the product, I decided to get another one for the AT, and this time I was lucky to find a pack including two horns – 400Hz and 500Hz. The idea is that the combination of both frequencies produces a louder, deeper sound. I found the 500Hz one on the Super to be more than enough, but since I found the pack on Ebay for the same price I had paid for a single 500Hz one, I ordered it.

The problem came when I tried to find a place to install them in the AT. Space is even more restricted on the Honda, and after trying different combinations, it was clear that the only easy option was to fit only the 500Hz in the same place as the OEM horn. The PIAA is quite compact, but still larger both in diameter and depth than the standard horn, so a couple of little modifications were required to install it properly.

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First, to make sure it fitted as close as possible to the radiator and the grill was not directly facing the frame, which might have stifled the sound a bit, I rotated the mounting plate of the horn 180 degrees. This can easily be done by loosening the bolt that attaches it to the horn and rotating it as desired. Careful though, the nut might be stuck due to the paint, so make sure you hold the horn formly. There is a little etch at the bottom of the plate and four little plastic protuberances to secure it in different positions in increments of 90 degrees.

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That left the connectors further down that the ones in the original horn, too low for the standard wires to reach them. You can simply buy or make an extension, but it is only a matter of a couple of inches, and a job well done would include covering them in heat-shrink tubing to protect it properly. After a bit of fiddling, I discovered that it was possible to re-route the bike wiring by unclipping it from the mount next to the radiator and then passing it under the mount. It has a heat shield and even in the new position it did not get much closer to the radiator, so there was no risk of damage and now it was possible to connect the horn without further modifications.

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It is a very tight fit, clear of the bottom of the triple clamps by only a couple of millimetres when in full left lock. I took measurements to ensure that the mudguard would not touch it under compression, and it seems that the only possible situation in which that might happen would be fully bottoming out with the wheel turned right full lock, which is highly unlikely to happen in normal use.

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I might have been able to install the second horn on the other side if I made a bracket myself to attach it to one of the radiator mounts, but I still have not installed the crash bars and they use those mounting points, as do the radiator protectors I also want to fit. I will wait and see if it is possible once everything is in place.

With a draw of 2.7 amps I do not think that a relay is necessary, so all in all it a is a pretty straightforward installation and the gain in safety is considerable.

Even the most oblivious mum changing lanes in a monster SUV while sending text messages with one hand and fighting kids in the back seat with another is bound to hear me now.

1,000-kilometre service in Nova Honda

Well, not exactly… after a weekend away running the bike in, it was more like 1,245km.

When I bought the bike I also got the Honda Plus card, which extends the warranty to four years and gives you the right to the use of a replacement bike while yours is being serviced, which is great for me as I need the bike daily to go to work. I booked the 1,000km service the same day I picked up the AT to make sure that the replacement bike would be available, and on Wednesday she went in for her first visit to the dealer’s workshop.

They took the AT in the moment I arrived and asked how everything was going. I told them about the problem with the 6th gear – occasionally it was difficult to change up into it and then it would jump into neutral – and they assured me they would look into it.

I filled in some paperwork and was given, as I feared, a replacement scooter… Well, at least it was not that bad, it was a brand new SH300 and even though I do not like scooters I have to admit that this one made a pretty convincing city runabout. I will go into my riding impressions more into detail in an upcoming post, for the moment suffice to say that it was more than adequate to take to work outside the city until I could pick up the AT the following day.

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In fact, the bike was ready on the same day, but since I did not finish work until 22:00 I could not pick it up until Thursday. The first service came at 143.64€ and included an oil and filter change and greasing and checking the chain. I had been hoping they would also clean the bike, but they did not… I am going to have to remove the mosquitoes from the weekend myself.

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The head mechanic told me that he tested the bike himself but having changed the oil he found nothing wrong with the 6th gear. He said that these issues tend to disappear with fresh oil and a bit on running in, and another owner on the local AT forum told me that that after 2,000km the gearbox on his bike had become noticeably smoother. I must say that the problem has not happened a single time since then.

All in all, I was quite satisfied with the quality of the service and the price, which was within the average of what I have read about in the forum. Since I was there, took the opportunity to order the tall screen as well. We will see how wind protection improves with it, and if it is not enough, I will fit a deflector on top of it, which was the definitive solution on the Super Ténéré.

Running in the new AT

After clocking 150,000km on her last trip to work on Friday, the V-Strom was safely tucked away in the garage and I started to get ready for the run-in trip over the weekend.

The AT is, you could say, stark naked. Apart from the centre stand, not a single accessory has been fitted to it yet, so packing for the weekend was the first challenge – not that I needed a lot of things for a couple of days over which most time would be spent on the bike, but when you start counting, it adds to quite a few items: rain suit, winter and summer gloves and scarf, cameras, batteries, food, water, etc. In the end it all fit neatly into a small Ortlieb bag strapped to the rack and a backpack.

At a quarter to seven I walked into the car park and fired the AT for her first big trip. The engine roared to life instantly, happy to know it was going to be taken for a proper ride – it is curious how motorbikes sound different when they know you are taking them out on the open road instead of on the daily commute.

I met a friend of mine who has recently joined the biker world and was adamant that we took it easy, so it was a perfect chance to run the AT in gently. Looking forward to a good weekend of riding practice, he led the way out of the city on his Bandit and we started the first leg of our journey on the motorway.

With a lot more time to assess the motorbike, this first stint revealed that the AT is a very good long distance touring bike – the engine is smooth and relaxed at a steady motorway cruise, and I found wind protection to be rather good, particularly around the legs, which I had not expected on a bike that is a bit on the narrow side. On the other hand, while the screen works definitely better than other screens fitted as standard, it is too short for me, so that is one thing that will need changing as soon as possible. My other complaint regarding wind protection were the hand guards – they do not extend low enough to cover the tips of your fingers, and on such a chilly morning, my hands got cold fast. They are attached to the brake and clutch lever mounts, so they cannot be rotated down without the levers also moving. Again, it is not a big issue since I was planning on replacing them with Barkbusters anyway as they are merely cosmetic, they do not offer any real protection for the levers in case of a fall.

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After a stop in La Panadella to put on some extra warm clothes – it was 5ºC – I started to regret not having fitted the heated grips. I thought I could postpone that investment now that summer was coming, but I was already missing them sorely on this trip. The day did not get warmer until we turned off the motorway and took the C-12 heading south to our first fuel stop in the town of Maials. Fuel consumption had been surprisingly low for an engine that was still tight, and on the fast, undulating 30km of C-12 leading here the AT felt light and eager to gain speed even though I was keeping the revs below 4,000 and sticking to gentle throttle openings.

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Time to turn to the back roads, then! From Maials we took a road that was little more than a paved dirt road – I cannot even give you the road number because Google Maps does not list it as a road – and it revealed that the AT suspension was a bit on the hard side.

I was amazed at how agile a bike with such suspension geometry and a 21” front wheel was and how well it behaved on the road. Now, I must confess I am close to a complete illiterate when it comes to suspension set up – my V-Strom has a simple system and other than fitting stiffer progressive springs my experience in fiddling with the suspension is limited to dialing in more preload when I carry luggage or a passenger. What I can tell is that the AT suspension felt harsher than I expected on bumpy roads and broken tarmac, unlike the Super Ténéré, which had a very plush ride. I imagine that the AT is set up on the hard side to favour good on road behaviour, so I will have to experiment a bit with compression and rebound settings. The problem is, I do not really know where to start, so if anybody want to offer advice, leave a comment below.

Once we reached the town of Mequinenza we took better roads to Alcañiz, where the AT really shined. The weather was getting warmer, the wind that had been bother us since early morning had calmed a bit and we were heading towards one of my favourite rides – the road that crosses the Maestrazgo hill region (route description coming soon).

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The roads on this route are a perfect combination of a complete lack of traffic, good road surface, mountain passes, slow and fast corners, and an absolutely stunning landscape. It provided the perfecto opportunity to run the bike in properly – lots of regime changes and working up and down the gearbox.

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The only negative comment I have to make is that sometimes the bike did not go into 6th gear smoothly. On those occasions the gear lever would not click all the way in and the indicator on the dashboard would be slow to change from 5 to 6. Then, when opening the throttle again, the gearbox would jump into a false neutral. This happened several times and the only way to prevent it was to kick 6th gear in firmly when changing up. Hopefully it was just a run-in issue and it would get smoother after the first oil change. I made a mental note to point it out to the mechanics in the first service. Other than that, the bike was performing faultlessly and exceeding my expectations. Halfway through this part of the route it reached 500km and I started bringing the revs up to 5,000.

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We reached our destination by early evening and after settling in and starting a good fire in the hearth we set about checking the bikes. Oil consumption had been negligible, chain tension was correct and all nuts and bolts were still tightly attached – I double-checked the ones on the front mudguard, as there have been several reports of people losing them.

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For the ride back I was planning to take a more direct route on A-roads for the first half of the journey and then the motorway for the last 200km. We set off later to avoid the cold and the day rewarded us with glorious sunshine and little wind for the first half of the ride. My friend, who was still on the learning phase, was completely transformed, leaning more confidently into corners, braking later and keeping a faster pace. So much so that when we stopped for breakfast he suggested skipping the motorway altogether and continuing on A and B-roads, so we turned east on the N-420 and then north on the C-12B until we reached Flix, where we took a much narrower and deserted road. This leg was quite windy again, but the AT proved to be a very stable touring bike even in those circumstances.

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We rode past the Montsant and Prades mountains, the AT happy to be revved a bit higher and my friend making incredible progress with his riding. This detour added a good two hours to our return journey, but it was most definitely worth it. We rejoined the motorway in la Panadella, where we had made our first stop on the outbound journey, and from there it was a relatively short stint back into the city, which cemented my decision to order a taller screen.

It was about 1,200km and the total fuel consumption came at 4.9l/100km (58mpg)

The only thing we did not do was go off road, partly because I wanted to be gentle on the AT for the run-in period, partly because my friend was on a road bike, but the AT proved to be a more than versatile bike in all other aspects of the trip. Well, it also proved to be an attention magnet… I had people walk up to me to chat about it every single time we stopped. There is no better way of meeting new friends!

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150,000km and other happy coincidences

Life sometimes surprises you with little coincidences, and after picking up my new Africa Twin yesterday, today my old V-Strom reached the 150.000-kilometre mark while on duty. Best motorbike ever.

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And as if the welcoming of the new machine with such an important milestone (no pun intended) was not enough, this morning my Facebook account had another suprise in store for me. Do you know how from time to time it suggests certain posts from X years ago? I got this one today:

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Yep, it has been three years to the day since I signed in to the course to get my unrestricted motorbike license! To think it was just a few months before heading to Mongolia…

New new baby

We’re back! It has been some time since the last time I published, but fear not… the blog is finally back on track. But first, a quick recap of the events that led to this post:

(read in a deep voice)

Previously, on Stroming The World…

My faithful V-Strom was replaced by the first new baby, an almost new Super Ténéré that I enjoyed for a few months here and there before it was stolen right from my front door. Fortunately, the insurance company paid a decent compensation and I was left with two choices – try to find another good deal on a second-hand Super or wait and save money until the new Africa Twin was on sale. I so wait I did until I could get a test ride on the new AT, which I happened in early February. The bike was amazing, and the decision was made.

Fast forward to Wednesday, last week.

Having saved enough for the new AT, I had made enquiries at a few Honda dealers in Barcelona, but they were all aware of the high demand there was for the bike and everyone was asking list price for it. Then a good friend from Sant Just texted me to say that he had dropped by his local dealer and had a very tempting offer in black on white. Besides the offer, they also had a Rally red motorbike in stock, which was the only color I had not seen in the metal, so I went to have a look.

Ever since the bike had been officially unveiled, I had spent hours looking at pictures of it, imagining what colour I would get, but these things can change a lot when you see the real thing. I thought that the silver model looked a bit bland, and it did when I saw one, unlike the black, which had not really caught my eye in the brochure but had captivated me in the dealer where I took the test ride. The one I actually rode was the one in the classic Honda tri-colour paint scheme, and that was the one I, like many others, had a crush on. However, now the moment had come to make a decision and order one, I found it a bit too fussy, even more so if I was going to fit it with crash bars, metal panniers and other stuff, so I was practically sold on a matte black one.

Or so I thought… when I walked into the dealer and saw the red one, I fell in love. It looked way better than in the pictures – not so much going on at the same time as in the tri-colour, but not as dark as the black one. It was elegant enough to drive to work every day and sporty enough to look in its element blasting down a dirt road. Perfect.

Any last minute thoughts on the tri-colour were blown away when I learned that the expected delivery dates were around October, and I put down a payment on the red one.

I use the bike to commute every day, and I did not want to run the new one in like that, so we agreed that I would pick her up on Friday the following week to take her for a long ride on the weekend and have her serviced once I came back before putting her to her daily duties.

Why wait a week and a half? you may ask. Why not just do it the following weekend? Because it was Nat’s birthday on Saturday, and we were having lunch with some friends. They did call me on Friday to say that if I wanted, I could pick the bike up on Saturday, and my friends could not believe that I would not, at least, take her home until the following weekend. The reason I didn’t is very simple – I knew that if I went to the dealer and got on that bike, by lunchtime I would already be 500km away from Barcelona… So I patiently waited until I had a free morning… today!

After a thorough explanation of all the controls of the bike and booking the first service for next week, the new baby is finally tucked away in the car park, waiting to hit the road on Saturday morning. We will take three days to ride a combination of motorway and back roads and make sure the bike is properly run in. A longer post will follow when we come back. In the meantime, here are the very first pictures!

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