Spotlight - Chernobyl

While visiting Ukraine, Carl Roberts is inexplicably drawn to the strikingly haunting exclusion zone surrounding the site of the world’s greatest nuclear disaster

There’s something about leaping off a cliff attached to land by only a piece of elastic, or launching oneself from a mountain attached to some large plastic sheeting. We all know that we really ought not to bungee jump or paraglide, but the perceived thrill derived from such extreme sports usually far exceeds the risks. 

The same is true of visiting forbidden lands or venturing to places where Mother Nature clearly has the upper hand. More people have visited North Korea or attempted to climb Mount Everest in the past year than ever before, but the number of deaths on the slopes of the world’s tallest mountain have never been greater.

Whilst one’s feet stay firmly on the ground when entering the area surrounding the site of the world’s greatest nuclear disaster, in many ways it is no less dangerous than visiting any number of volatile nations around the planet, especially if one doesn’t follow instructions. 

Such is the draw of dark tourism these days, that long before the HBO drama Chernobyl appeared on our screens earlier this year, more than 10,000 people had already visited the former nuclear site, despite the fact that it had only been open to the public since 2011 when authorities deemed it safe.

One of the worst man-made catastrophes ever to befall our planet, a corner of the Ukraine has been locked in time for more than three decades since reactor number four of Chernobyl’s Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant exploded overnight on 25-26 April 1986, raining smoke and debris across half of Europe. Such was the power of the explosion, that it sent 400 times more radioactive material into the Earth’s atmosphere than the atomic bomb which was dropped on Hiroshima. Around 30 percent of Chernobyl’s 190 metric tons of uranium eventually ended up in the air.

Following the incident, the Soviet government evacuated almost 50,000 people from a 30-kilometre exclusion zone around the blast area, including the nearby town of Pripyat, 100 kilometres from the Ukrainian capital.

The area is likely to be uninhabitable by humans for many generations to come. But since more than 30 years have passed since the explosion, local tour companies insist that the site is safe to visit. And, just a few months ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree changing the fortunes of the disaster area into a tourist attraction, which will see walking trails and waterways added, mobile phone reception improved and filming restrictions lifted. By comparison, Ukrainian officials have suggested that Pripyat will not be habitable for another 20,000 years.

Just a two-hour drive from Kiev, Chernobyl is indeed an easy and fascinating day trip. But in light of the potential hazards, it is essential to book an organised tour with an official operator, such as Chernobyl Tours (chernobyl-tours.com). Unapproved tours are simply not worth the risk!

Our Chernobyl adventure begins at 8am on a cold February morning at Kiev’s main train station where we meet our guide. On the 2-hour drive in a cosy minibus, heading north of the capital towards the exclusion zone, we watch a video which provides background about the disaster and are furnished with personal Geiger counters. Meanwhile, our guide explains the dos, don’ts and the hazards we are about to face. While there are still radiation hot spots within the exclusion zone, official tours steer clear of these, and we are informed that the levels to which we are about to be exposed are the same as a transatlantic flight. Saying this, the form we must sign is a tad alarming: “I understand and fully realise staying in the area with high levels of ionizing radiation can cause potential harm to my life and health in the future.”

In addition to the city of Chernobyl and nearby Pripyat, it was surprising to learn that some 160 smaller villages within the zone were also forcibly abandoned, although it took 36 hours before buses turned up to move people. Evacuees were told to take only the bare necessities, because they would be able to return a few days later. It would be a year before the first elderly residents were allowed to return to their villages and stay, most of whom have since passed away.

Before arriving at the first of two check points, we are warned not to touch dogs and other animals, because their movement was not restricted to the safe areas and their fur may carry radioactive material.

A veritable state within a state with its own rules, entry to the exclusion zone is strictly monitored (as one would expect), and secured by camouflaged military personnel carrying automatic rifles, with checks at 30km and 10km out. At both points we disembark and are escorted into bland rooms with huge radiation scanners. We are scanned on the way in and on the way out. Needless to say, nothing can be removed from the zone.

Since the people were evacuated, nature has reclaimed the area and wildlife has flourished. Some even suggest that, as a result of years of minimal human impact, the zone may have a bright future as a nature reserve. We were fortunate in that our visit coincides with the first major snowfall of the year, so the entire area is carpeted with a blanket of fresh, clean snow.

Our first stop is an old village which had been home to an elderly resident who passed away last year. Houses are hidden by the dense vegetation. The buildings are standing but their wooden floorings are no more. Newspaper pages are strewn about one of the houses, while the furniture and apparatus within an old doctor’s surgery is wasting away. In the fresh snow the scene is both surreal and serenely peaceful.
Back on the main road we proceed to Pripyat, just over a mile from the nuclear plant, stopping at an old nursery school on the way. The simple crayon drawings pinned to the wall have the children’s’ names in Cyrillic below. The artists would be in their 30s and 40s by now.

Formerly a model Soviet metropolis, erected especially to house Chernobyl’s workers, barbed wire encircled Pripyat until 2000. Today, its football stadium is filled with nothing but poplars and the now famous amusement park appears eerily abandoned in the freezing air. The fair should have opened for the May Day celebrations. It never welcomed a single child. Hospitals, schools and homes are still filled with communist iconography and the possessions their former inhabitants left behind, and the decayed village serves as a time capsule-like reminder of Ukraine’s past. One wonders how much longer it will take for nature to fully reclaim Pripyat. In a couple more decades, there may well be little left worth seeing.

Chernobyl’s three remaining RBMK reactors continued to produce energy until 2000, when the plant was decommissioned under international pressure. Today it still employs thousands, who have built and are maintaining the massive EUR 810 million sarcophagus-like ‘New Safe Confinement’ (NSC). At 105 metres high and spanning 257 metres, the NSC is taller than the Statue of Liberty and larger than Wembley stadium. In November 2016, the behemoth 35,000 tonne structure was slid over the reactor no. 4 building, finally securing its safety for at least another hundred years. It is estimated that the reactors will be dismantled by 2064.

Our school dinner-style lunch in the plant canteen is a surreal experience. Served to us on trays by Ukrainian babushkas, we sit and eat barely 100m away from the failed reactor, on the other side of huge windows.

The ghost city of Chernobyl is our next stop. Founded in 1193, Chernobyl was home to 14,000 people before the accident. Today, although there are some designated areas with essential services, power plant workers’ residences and even a hotel for visitors, large parts of the city are still no-go zones.
A fascinating pit stop is the fire station where many of the first responders were based, most of whom became irradiated and lost their lives. A modest monument “to those who saved the world”, paid for by public donations, serves as a stark reminder that were it not for their critical intervention, the consequences could have left much of Eastern Europe a nuclear wasteland.

Our last stop is perhaps the most intriguing of all. An immense soaring wall of metalwork, spanning hundreds of metres, the huge top secret Soviet Duga-1 radar array installation near Chernobyl was one of two such facilities within the former USSR. The structure still dwarfs the surrounding landscape. Some have speculated that the Chernobyl accident was a plot to cover up the existence of this very installation.

As we pass through the radiation detectors at the 30km checkpoint, on our way out of the exclusion zone, we wonder, for just a moment, whether we will be given the all clear. For, whilst the dark tourism industry is growing in Chernobyl, its waters are decidedly murkier and we don’t really know whether the entire truth has been told, or whether it ever will be.