I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing on September 11th 2001: laying on the bed in my old apartment in Beitou listening to a CD of Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony on my Walkman (iPods weren’t around in those days). I was in the middle of the slow movement (which is probably one of the profoundest statements in Western music, by the way), when David rushed in and told me what had just happened. As we watched the news the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center and my last vain hope that this was some kind of catastrophic accident were dashed.
Fifteen years earlier, I can’t recall what I was doing when news first started leaking of the nuclear accident at Chrenobyl (or Chornobyl) on April 26th 1986, but the following days, as the cloud of radioactive debris began circling around Europe and the extent of the disaster became known, are still pretty clear in my memory.
Like 911, the Chernobyl accident is a prominent landmark in recent world history, yet it’s surprising how little I actually knew about it until on my present trip to Ukraine (and the Balkans) this summer I had the perfect chance to learn much more about it. Chernobyl and the surrounding exclusion zone can now be visited (although it still scares most people off – only 14,000 visited in 2012!), and despite all the rumors that it’s a risky or dangerous excursion, it’s quite safe with a qualified guide, and is an absolutely, humblingly, enlighteningly fascinating experience.
This year’s long summer travels started in the beautiful Ukrainian capital, Kiev (which for some reason, along with the remainder of the country remains very much off the beaten track: I’ve met hardly a single Western traveller during my ten days here so far). The city is a real find that easily holds its own against much better-known European capitals, but that’s a story for another blog if I get time.
Several local outfits now organise day trips to Chernobyl, about a hundred kilometers north of the city, and they’re the only way to get into the 30 kilometer exclusion zone that surrounds the nuclear power reactor. It’s not especially cheap (about US$140 per person if you join a group), but it’s a unique, utterly engrossing and thought-provoking experience if you go into it in the right frame of mind. The trip certainly isn’t a white-knuckle thrill ride, and those expecting an adrenaline rush will be disappointed after the inital buildup. Instead it’s the unexpected fact that nothing here really feels any different from anywhere else (excepting the vaguely eerie silence in the abandoned villages, the barbed wire fences and strict control points, the yellow and black radiation warning signs dotted beside the road (showing ‘hot spots’) and the radiation detectors you have to pass through on the way out) that really makes a profound impression here. The disaster that destroyed this place is completely different from the bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I naively half-expected to see a nuclear wasteland on which nothing would grow, but instead it’s a natural haven of apparently astounding richness – animals live inside the exclusion zone with apparently no ill effects, and with very few people apart from workers and permit-carrying tourists allowed inside, this huge swathe of wooded plain has become perhaps the world’s most unlikely natural reserve. The catastrophe that happened here was silent, invisible and unnoticed until days, weeks, or even years later, when its effects often promised a slow and painful death.
To get the most out of a visit to Chernobyl, it probably really pays to know the subject beforehand, and the Chrenobyl Museum in Kiev does an excellent job of explaining – in unsquinting detail – all the horrific facts of the accident and especially its shocking aftermath. Not reading Cyrillic, I had some trouble finding the museum, but it’s marked by a striking sign showing a pair of trees, one covered in bright red apples, and a second dead and blackened by radiation. There’s an audio guide thingamy you can rent which explains everything in great, grimly fascinating detail, but the simple touches make an equally memorable impression here, such as the clock, stopped at the minute when the blast that started the horror occurred, and a peppering of small black-and-yellow ‘radiation’ sign stickers chillingly accompanying the photos or belongings of people killed directly after the accident or in the months/years afterwards. The museum also acts as a kind of shrine to the many who fought to contain the disaster, and prevented what could have been an infinitely bigger, more devastating catastrophe.
Meeting the bus outside the big, popular MacDonald’s in Kiev’s huge central square, it was a two-hour drive to the first checkpoint at the entrance to the Thirty kilometer exclusion zone – an oddly unsettling drive as I thought about exactly why I was heading towards the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident. If I’m totally honest there was definitely a hint of a morbid curiosity at work, and probably a wish to go somewhere that most people haven’t, but also there’s the fact that, just like visiting a Nazi concentration camp, the experience (while uncomfortable) of visiting the actual place forces a much deeper consideration of the event than just sitting at home Googling it.
At the 30 kilometer exclusion zone barrier, we were met by police (who scrutinized our permits and passports and checked our bus before we we wer allowed to proceed), and Sergei, our Khaki-clad guide for the day, who immediately proceeded to run down what we can and can’t do while in “The Zone” as he called it:
– Don’t touch anything
– Don’t put anything on the ground at any time
– Don’t tread on the moss (which absorbs water, over the years increasing its radioactivity startlingly, as we found out later)
– Once at Reactor Four take photos ONLY of the reactor and the old sarcophagus and of the new arched sarcophagus being constructed in front of it. Nothing else.
– Don’t leave the group at any time, and follow Sergei’s instructions.
All very thrilling and dark. Unfortunately for those of us still expecting some sign that this place is ‘different’ from elsewhere, the Geiger counter that now came out showed a very low level of radiation, well within normal levels for anywhere in the world, and lower than in Kiev!
And so it continued, as we raced down the road (ignoring, as everyone does, apparently, the 40 km speed limit inside The Zone); the radiation level on the Geiger counters stubbornly refused to rise even a bit.
Sixteen or 17 kilometers into the first exclusion zone is a famous sign announcing the entry to Chernobyl town, built for workers at the nuclear power station (still over 10 kilometers away) and abandoned in the days after the accident. The town is now once again inhabited – by workers maintaining the site. One of our group asked the question we all wanted to know – how do people like Sergei manage to work in such an environment without the constant fear of coming down with cancer? The answer is actually simple physics. Despite ominous rumors of atoms of un-depleted uranium (or whatever) floating around in the atmosphere, contact with one of which means certain (if slow and painful) death from cancer, there’s no radioactive matter circling in the air now. It’s all in the ground, concentrated in ‘hot spots’: areas where tiny specks of radioactive material fell to earth, and now send out scary levels of radiation, yet are extremely localized. Sergei helpfully pointed out a few hot spots (all of which are within the Ten Kilometer Exclusion Zone), and as the Geiger counter came really close to the spot, the clicks started going crazy, while drawing the gadget just a foot or so away, they calmed right back down.
The radiation in the air is only especially high in the area around the reactor itself, and since the human body can safely deal with small levels of radiation (as of course we all do, every day, since we’re all exposed to radiation from the sun each day), the trick is to limit the daily exposure to that maximum amount. Outside the Ten Kilometer Exclusion Zone levels are within normal limits. Within they slowly rise, til at the closest point we got – about 200 meters from Number Four itself, we could only spend 10 minutes or so before we’d already absorbed enough radiation to need to leave. Workers in Chernobyl thus work a shift system, 15 days on and 15 off, or 4 days on, 3 off, and ensure they never exceed the daily allowed dose of radiation. In their off-time they’re supposed to leave the Exclusion Zone.
Chernobyl town is a mixture of abandoned houses, now reclaimed by the forest and barely visible, even though some stand beside the road, and a street of rather attractive old stone or wood buildings in which workers still work, live and eat. There’s also a small park, a statue of Lenin (one of many still found in Ukraine) and a startling mural on a wall opposite the canteen depicting the Wormwood Star, a kind of ‘death star’ (the name comes from the New Testament, where it’s mentioned in Revelations). It’s a surprisingly scary piece of art, very unsettling in this, rather appropriate, context. I stupidly forgot to take a photo, although out of context it lacks a good deal of its great power.
Just after the town a large memorial stands beside the road on the right: tribute to the firemen who, unprotected and unaware of the deadly effects of radiation, first arrived at Reactor Four after the explosion, absorbed huge levels of radiation, and died in the weeks after. The memorial was funded by the firemen’s colleagues – one of the most awful aspects of the whole disaster is the cover-up and then complete lack of support given by the Soviet authorities (in 1986 the USSR was, of course, still alive and kicking).
In another kilometer or two we’re at the Ten Kilometer Exclusion Zone border, and another checkpoint – apparently the only way in and out of the core area on the Ukrainian side of the border (the Belorussian side of the affected area – the Belorussian border is ten kilometers or so from the reactor – is by contrast (rather alarmingly) a completely unrestricted area).
First stop is one of only two buildings left standing in a small village abandoned after the accident (the remaining houses in the village were buried in a botched attempt to limit radiation contamination – the buried structures instead leaked radioactive particles into the ground water…). The building was an old kindergarten, and although some of the mangy old toys, books and little beds had obviously been deliberately placed in photogenic positions for maximum effect, it still made a real impact. Just off the road here, at the foot of a tree, is a ‘hot spot’, which sent the feiger counters screaming when placed within a few inches of the soil surface.
Now there’s a definite tension in the air. The Geiger counter starts creeping up a little. Down a track in the right we glimpse the famous boat graveyard, an area of deep blue water with the rusting remains of boats and other vehicles used in the cleanup operation. No one is allowed to look closer, and Sergei says even workers can’t go there, although reasons why seem to vary vastly – some say the vehicles are highly radioactive, others say they’re destined to be sold for scrap….
Before long the eerily familiar tower of Reactor Four can be glimpsed occasionally in the distance, through the trees. The road swings left beside a large artificial pool, passes the unfinished reactors Five and Six which were being constructed when the accident happend (littered with abandoned construction cranes), and then curve round the back til we’re parked right in front of the vast, curved new sarcophagus (due for completion in 2016) that will cover the whole reactor shell, tower and all, and finally, hopefully, restore radiation levels here to normal background levels. As it is, getting out of the bus the Geiger counter reads 5 millionths of a millisieverts per hour (or something like that!). The daily safe limit is about 3, which meant we couldn’t stay too long.
This for me was undoubtedly the most profound moment of the day. The reactor, with that instantly identifiable tower, was just two or three hundred meters away – ground zero of possibly one of the defining moments of the last century. Apart from the knowledge of where we were, it felt like anywhere else, and this very illusion of normality, of being quite safe, is at the root of why what happened at Chernobyl is so very terrifying. You’d feel no adverse effects standing here (or even going closer) for several hours, yet the level of absorbed radiation would quickly become dangerous to the health. Radiation levels here are very localized. We couldn’t stand any closer to the reactor (this was already uncomfortably close to get to that building, familiar from so many photos) simply because the radiation levels rise exponentially as you get in the vicinity of the reactor.
The countryside around Reactor Four is lush and wooded, and shows no sign of this being a toxic environment. One small area of woodland was killed by a radioactive cloud following the accident, and a couple of rust-colored, skeletal trees off the road on the way to Pripyat town, 2 kilometers away can still be seen, but this was no Hiroshima, although it was similarly lethal.
Our final stop in the core zone was the Soviet ‘model town’ of Pripyat, built in the 1970s specifically to house workers at the nuclear power plant, two kilometers away. It was abandoned in the incredibly quick space of just 3 hours the day after the explosion, but only after lethally high doses of invisible radiation had been drifting over the town and its several thousand inhabitants for 30 hours. Apparently prior to the evacuation, the townspeople only heard vague rumors that something had happened at the plant, and had no idea of the deadly cloud already drifting over them, although it was reported than some people noticed a strange taste in the air – radioactive iodine.
In one of the more memorably chilling exhibits at the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev, footage of the evacuation can be seen; towards the end of the several minutes of footage, the film is peppered with many small white ‘glares ‘ – the result of radioactive particles hitting the film roll, while, blissfully unaware, townspeople being filmed make their way calmly onto buses to be evacuated. They were told they’d only be moved for three days, and couldn’t bring any belongings or even pets. They never went back.
Some of the evacuation footage has been uploaded on YouTube (above), an eerie experience after visiting the overgrown ghost town that it is now. The town was extensively looted in the 1990s, and several decades of rain, ice, snow and tree roots on the unheated, un-maintained buildings of the town have caused it to fall into ruin, but it’s clear that it was once an impressive place, with huge blocks of apartments, a supermarket (with lots of overturned shopping trolleys and the old fridge units still intact), and huge gym, boxing ring, and (most famously) the theme park with its Ferris wheel and bumper cars, which was due to open for the Mayday celebrations, five days after the catastrophe, and thus was never enjoyed.
By May 1st, the inhabitants of Pripyat had been moved (albeit far too late to save the health of who knows how many) to safety, yet (and this is one of the most scary things about the whole Chernobyl horror) Mayday celebrations were allowed to continue in the capital Kiev a hundred kilometers south, even though authorities knew that radiation levels over the city by then were dangerously high.
A visit to Chernobyl Museum, supplemented by Sergei’s expert commentary, did reveal another, extraordinary aspect to the Chernobyl story – perhaps the most terrifying aspect of all. Apart from the firefighters who unwittingly sacrificed themselves when trying to put out the fire immediately after the explosion, countless others risked (and often lost) their lives in the horrifying days following when (shades of Fukoshima in Japan) they struggled in unbelievable conditions and – thank God! – managed to prevent a slow, nightmarish lurch towards a far greater catastrophe and a vastly bigger explosion. One source at the museum suggested that (and I’m not sure I want to believe this), if the meltdown in the reactor hadn’t been contained and the reservoir of water beneath it (some of which was from the earlier attempts to put out the initial fire) emptied, the resulting explosion could have turned much of eastern Europe into a nuclear wasteland….
GOING TO CHERNOBYL:
Several operators in Kiev (Kyiv) now run day tours to Chernobyl. I went with Solo East, who usefully allow single visitors to join group tours without having to form their own group. The cost is US$140 (including a non-contaminated lunch inside the exclusion zone) and you must book at least 10 days in advance, to allow for processing of permits.