Travel after the pandemic #19: Chernobyl, Ukraine
Snapshots amid the ruins: one person’s thrill is another’s tragedy
A trip to the contaminated and abandoned area of northern Ukraine offers the chance to see a disturbing vision of the world after nuclear war: growth and decay as empty towns and villages are being swallowed up by the forest; deserted apartment blocks, schools and kindergartens with books and toys – and gas masks – still scattered about; waterless cracked swimming pools and a rotting amusement park that had been just about to open; hospitals and graveyards, gyms and basketball courts, rusting cars and boats; the detritus of lives irredeemably changed.
The overall sense is of widespread rot, an irradiated world still standing and frozen for three and a half decades. Chernobyl also offers a glimpse of what life was like in the Soviet communist era, which collapsed in 1991, not so long after the world’s worst nuclear accident, when a reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 25, 1986.
A political sign shaped as a hammer and sickle stands in a village, so too there are busts of Lenin and portraits of Marx and Engels; village war memorials to Soviet dead; a pioneer camp and a military garrison; a top-secret hidden early-warning radar installation (marked on Soviet maps as a children’s camp); political classrooms with slogans – “Pioneer! Be ready to fight for the goals of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union!” – and disintegrating flags of the Soviet republics on the walls.
And so it goes on, a sort of post-apocalyptic theme park. Tour guides shouldn’t take people into the dangerously crumbling buildings but sometimes they do, and some thoughtless tourists have been spotted rearranging debris to get a better photo of this place of death. That photo we saw of a rotting gas mask on a rotting piano keyboard: was that how it really was?
The disaster showered airborne radioactive contamination 400 times the amount of the bomb of Hiroshima for about nine days onto parts of the USSR and Western Europe, especially Belarus. Naturally, the communists denied everything at first (“Accident? What accident?”) until the obvious had to be admitted. Sweden tipped off the world, from 1100 kilometres away.
An exclusion zone with a 30-kilometre radius was set up covering 2800 square kilometres. The entire towns of Pripyat, purpose-built to accommodate the plant’s workers and their families, and with a population of 49,360, and Chernobyl, population about 14,000, were completely evacuated 36 hours after the catastrophe.
During the subsequent weeks and months an additional 67,000 people were evacuated from their homes in contaminated areas and relocated on government order. More than 100 villages and farms were left empty, and in total some 200,0000 people are believed to have been shifted. How many people officially died – firefighters, scientists, unborn babies – is up for debate, and it may be that more people have a vested interest in keeping the numbers artificially low than in making sure they are accurate.
It’s not possible to take a solo trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone except with an officially recognised tour company and its licensed guide, While most people choose a one-day group tour, you can also take a private tour or two-day and three-day visits that include “meeting local inhabitants”.
Local inhabitants? To this day, some thousands of people live and work in and around the decommissioned plant, and a much smaller number have returned to the surrounding villages, practically in hiding, despite the risks. Clean-up workers are subject to strict labour laws because of the radiation exposure. They can only work for five hours a day for one month, and then must take 15 days off.
Chernobyl is some 100 kilometres north of Kiev, and day tours take about 12 hours in all from the capital and back by minibus. Some companies use the two-hour drive there to show documentaries about the disaster. Tour companies will require your passport number and this will be checked by guards at the entry to the exclusion zone.
You will follow your tour guide for the entire day, without options to pick and choose. Numbers of visitors are increasing and it is advisable to book days in advance, especially for the private and longer tours, which have limited availability compared with the typical group tours. Clothing should naturally be sensible and offer good body coverage.
While everyone’s main concern is radiation, another safety worry is that the derelict buildings are slowly crumbling. These haven’t been repaired or maintained in more than 30 years and any structure that is left to the elements for so long may not be sound. Eventually the buildings will become completely unexplorable. Additionally, there is rubble and glass everywhere, so your own insurance cover is a good idea. Perhaps an up-to-date tetanus shot too.
Lunch is taken at a hotel or even at the workers’ canteen on site, and there is a convenience store selling a limited selection of souvenirs. Do not take anything with you from Chernobyl. These souvenirs are the only exception. Follow the guide’s instructions, stick to the prescribed path and obey posted signs.
The destroyed reactor is now covered by a concrete and steel sarcophagus. Some tours now include brief visits to the control room where the disaster in history unfolded. These visitors have to wear protective suits, helmets and masks and are limited to five minutes, followed by two mandatory radiology tests. The machine cemetery of Rossokha village is still considered too dangerous to visit.
However, the places that are cleared for tours are considered safe and are regularly tested for radiation. When one tour guide’s radiation detector went off occasionally, the group stopped and talked about the different acceptable levels. On the way out of the exclusion zone, everyone goes through an old Soviet radiation-control checkpoint that tests their levels. Once you get the all-clear, you can leave.
According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, although some of the radioactive isotopes released into the atmosphere still linger (such as Strontium-90 and Caesium-137), they are at tolerable exposure levels for limited periods. Those residents of the zone who have returned to their homes of their own free will live in areas with higher than normal environmental radiation levels.
However, these levels are not fatal. Exposure to low but unusual radiation over time, such as X-rays or perhaps long-distance flights, is less dangerous than exposure to a huge amount at once, and studies have been unable to link any direct increase in cancer risks to chronic low-level exposure, according to the agency.
Enter the tourism industry and today’s tours to Chernobyl. Surf the web for costs. Ukrainian officials estimate that the land around the wrecked plant won’t be habitable for humans for 20,000 years. Nuclear clean-up is scheduled for completion in 2065. Some people call it Dark Tourism, like going to Auschwitz.
The European Council has the latest coronavirus advice at consilium.europa.eu