After a last minute decision to have a week in Ukraine I immediately signed up for a tour of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. It’s now a 30km no-go ‘exclusion zone’ with nearly 200 deserted villages and towns. I was inspired by a great book I read recently by Dom Joly about ‘dark tourism’, detailing his travels to places such as Iran (for skiing), Cambodia (to see the Killing Fields) and of course Ukraine, to visit Chernobyl.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened in April 1986, during a simulation of an unexpected shutdown to practice safety measures. It’s still unclear what went wrong but there was a massive steam explosion in Reactor Four, which caught fire instantly releasing deadly levels of radiation into the air. Two workers died from the blast and 28 died in the following days due to radiation poisoning. Since then it’s estimated that thousands have died from illnesses and complications related to long term radiation exposure. The effects of the blast travelled far and wide- sheep in Cumbria and Wales were deemed unfit for human consumption, after toxic rain caused radiation levels to be 200 times higher than normal.
It was a two hour drive from Kiev and before leaving the city our guide Anastasia used a geiger counter to show us the 0.17 radiation level on Independence Square. Apparently you never see a zero reading but anything over three and you’d better start worrying. On the drive a couple of DVDs were shown explaining the explosion and subsequent evacuations – good for me, as I knew virtually nothing about the disaster.
After two passport checks by military personnel at Km30 and Km10 (strictly no photos allowed) and being given personal radiation trackers to wear, we were into Chernobyl town. This town existed before the reactors were built and today is the only functioning town within the zone. Among the many deserted buildings a few are used as dormitory buildings for local workers, bussed in from Kiev. Some 1,500 people still come and go from the area, working in shifts and staying overnight in Chernobyl town. They are tasked with removing the radioactive materials deep inside Reactor 4 to safer storage areas.
We stopped at the town square and saw a moving tribute of street signs showing the names of towns and villages simply erased from the Ukraine map after the disaster. Down the street crumbling wooden houses are slowly being reclaimed by the forest.
After lunch we headed along the river to view the infamous reactor, housed in the same building complex as Reactors 1 to 3. After the disaster helicopters sprayed Reactor 4 with sand, lead and boric acid to try to seal it off and stop further radiation escaping. A sarcophagus entombing it was finished in December 1986, designed to protect workers who amazingly continued to run the other reactors, with Reactor 3 running until 2000.
By then the sarcophagus was crumbling and deadly radiation could start leaking again. A global team of experts worked for seven years to build a massive radiation proof shelter, costing over €2billion. Today the radiation level directly next to the reactor is one of the lowest within the exclusion zone and actually lower than in Kiev city.
Apparently during the whole tour we were exposed to lower amounts of radiation than during the average plane journey. Anastasia showed us a few radiation hot spots though. On the edge of the ‘red forest’, so named because the disaster stripped the trees of all vegetation down to bare bark, the geiger counter bleeped furiously registering over 15.
One of the highlights of the tour was a walk through the deserted town of Pripyat. This town was purpose built for reactor workers, just a few kilometres from the site and at the time was hailed as a pinnacle of urban town planning. Following a media blackout by the Moscow, it was 36 hours before the town was evacuated with many residents unaware of what had happened. But once the military moved in within hours Pripyat was a ghost town. Residents thought they were leaving for three days but in fact never returned. Over the following years many more towns and villages were forcibly evacuated and now there is a 30km exclusion zone, with military checkpoints on entry and radiation scanners on exit.
We had around an hour walking through the streets which now resemble forest paths. The main square was once surrounded by grand buildings, including Ukraine’s first supermarket. Now they are crumbling shells, with every single window broken – not from the explosion which wasn’t felt here but by looters. Apparently today people come from Kiev, sneaking through the forest, to have ‘holidays’ in the deserted apartment blocks.
We all took a million photos of the amusement park where the bright yellow cars of the ferris wheel and dodgems, due to open just days after the disaster, stand out starkly against rusting metal structures. Our guide allowed us into a couple of buildings despite it being against the rules – these buildings have been neglected for over thirty years after all and could crumble at any moment. We saw a decaying gym, the wooden floor still retaining its original paintwork; an empty swimming pool, which was actually used by local workers until recent years; and a old school, littered with school books and overturned desks. Anastasia did tell us that several professional photographers have passed through over the years and ‘artfully rearranged’ possessions within the buildings to make more instagram friendly photos!
Our last stop of the day was the former top secret Soviet missile detector base, which the KGB tried to pass off as a youth camp. Deep within the woods on the outskirts of Chernobyl town lies this massive installation which never functioned properly, although it was intended to detect incoming missiles from the US.
Before driving back to Kiev, we had to pass through radiation scanners to check we hadn’t received above our maximum dose. Luckily we all passed – I’m not sure what the procedure was for those who failed.