Anxiety descending: the dos and don’ts of visiting Chernobyl, by someone who’s just been there

“I felt a warm warm breeze that melted metal and steel. I got a bad migraine that lasted thirty-three long years”

— David Bowie, Time Will Crawl (1987)

At the end of August, Ukraine became the 53rd sovereign state I’ve set foot in, and the summer of 2019 the first time I’ve prised open that once immovable Iron Curtain and ventured into former Soviet Union territories since a visit to Russia in 1996.

At almost 604,000 km2, Ukraine is actually the largest wholly European country, beating France by a considerable margin. Transcontinental Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkey are larger but fall mainly in Asia.

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For such a large country, Ukraine remains a mystery to many. Kiev, the impossibly grand capital city, may be known to the outside world in name only (or on menus), but internationally, there is one major event which put this Slavic Eastern European land on the map and in the history books, for all the wrong reasons.

It’s been more than three decades since a catastrophic accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, but the disaster still casts a long shadow. 

This year marked the 33rd anniversary of Chernobyl, which happened overnight on 25-26 April 1986 in the now-abandoned town of Pripyat. 

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One of the USSR’s many nuclear plants, a botched late night safety test (the plant crew intentionally switched off the safety systems to test the turbine) caused the site’s fourth reactor to overheat, generating a powerful explosion which sent massive plumes of radioactive material two kilometres into the Earth’s atmosphere, drifting across much of Europe and the then Soviet Union.

It’s estimated that 400 times more radioactive material was sent into the air than when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

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In the immediate aftermath of the event, emergency workers scrambled to contain the damaged core, fearing a second, even larger explosion should it have come into contact with the water table beneath. It was a truly terrifying exercise in which many people risked their lives, and later suffered cancer-related illness and death as a result.

Chernobyl, a five-part HBO/Sky television mini series premiered in May, bringing those grim and grisly events to life again, and the dramatic re-creation which depicts the explosion’s aftermath, the vast clean-up operation and the subsequent inquiry, has started to spark interest in the region.

As someone who has just spent time in the zone, the appeal of visiting the site of the worst nuclear accident in human history is completely understandable.

It may come as a surprise to many, but it is indeed possible to walk through the eerie ruins of Chernobyl and its surrounds, as part of an authorised tour into the 30 kilometre exclusion zone around the former reactor complex. 

One established tour operator, Chernobyl Tour, was founded by Sergii Mirnyi, a former emergency worker who took part in the post-disaster clean-up. Other companies offering tours include SoloEast and Chernobyl Welcome. Very impromptu, I opted for Chernobyl Exclusive Tours via Viator.

Coming just a few months after I lost my first blood relative to cancer, as well as a fascinating visit to Japan — a country that’s obviously had its fair share of nuclear disasters in more ways than one — you could be forgiven for assuming I thought long and hard about venturing onto such a contaminated and, in parts, still potentially deadly site.

Truth be told, as I was already in Kyiv (that’s the Ukranian spelling of Kiev) I made a very spur of the moment booking after reading a few reviews on Trip Advisor. Amazingly, I was on the tour just two days later.

Most visitors to Chernobyl will usually join a day trip, starting from Kyiv. The exclusion zone is two hours and 100km north of the capital, close to the border with Belarus, so that makes for an outing of at least twelve hours, including return travel. For those with more time, there are also multi-day tours, with the option of spending a memorable night in basic accommodation within the city of Chornobyl (Chernobyl’s Ukrainian name), and the prospect of visiting more sites of interest.

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So while access to Chernobyl is certainly possible – is it safe? 

Well, that’s a tough one to answer. The tour operators insist that it is, as they generally avoid severely contaminated areas such as the mass of corium under the reactor known as the Elephant’s Foot (“More than five minutes in there and you would die,” announced our brilliantly entertaining tour guide Zhenya), and limit overall time spent in the zone.

The official line is that “total external radiation dose obtained during a typical ten-hour trip in the Zone is several times smaller than the one received during a transatlantic flight,” though that doesn’t take into account the various hot spots you could stumble across — quite literally — throughout the site.

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The exclusion zone contains a whole lot more than the reactor complex, with its eye-catching curved shelter, which— since 2016 — has been covered by a vast metal dome 108 metres high, and which envelops the exploded core of the doomed Reactor 4.

From the haunting abandoned city of Pripyat to standing just metres away from the ruined reactor itself, time in the Chernobyl exclusion zone feels like nothing else on Earth. 

The area around the plant retains the feel of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where stray dogs roam (you’re forbidden to touch them) and wild mutations of vegetation encroaches into windowless, abandoned buildings strewn with rubble.

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The tours also take you to a former top-secret radar base, in addition to various other abandoned buildings once used for military or social purposes. 

But it’s the many ghost towns that are the saddest places to explore, with their collapsed houses, rotting leisure centres and empty schools, still scattered with personal belongings that belonged to evacuees, including children’s toys and clothing.

Visiting the abandoned villages, walking through empty hospital hallways and coming across entire schoolrooms filled with abandoned gas masks provide surreal glimpses of the way humanity reacts in times of unprecedented crisis.

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But as the TV miniseries makes abundantly clear, Chernobyl was and continues to be a site of immense tragedy, anxiety and anger.

Like Cambodia’s Killing Fields or the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland, which I visited on my first trip to Eastern Europe in 1992, the site of the Soviet disaster has been indelibly etched into history because of the terrible events that happened there.

That can make the idea of the area as a tourist destination unpalatable to some, and understandably so.

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Even though tourists have been visiting in relatively small numbers since the late 1990s, parts of the zone are still extremely dangerous, entry is relatively restrictive, and not all visitors play by the rules.

Visitors are officially forbidden to be in the zone with bare legs, arms or feet, which should tell you something about how ‘safe’ the place really is, so, as I turned up in shorts and a t-shirt, I opted for the surprisingly non-compulsory protective clothing.

However, I did have a few brief moments of madness and let the rebel in me take over. Risky perhaps but I did take my shoes off for a few quick ‘felfie’ foot pix, trying to balance on a metal barrier as I did so. Sitting on the ground or touching anything at all is not encouraged, but you’ve got to consummate your thrill seeking somehow, right?

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For many visitors, the most startling location – and the most famous to the outside world via photos of its rusting Ferris wheel – is Pripyat. Built in the 1970s to serve as a dormitory town for 50,000 people who mainly worked at the adjacent nuclear complex, its deserted modernist architecture makes it resemble the location of a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie.

This entirely abandoned city is a photographer’s dream, especially its decaying sports ground and rusting amusement park.

The park houses a rusting hulk of a merry-go-round and dodgem-car track, and that giant Ferris wheel that never went into operation. It was to open on the first of May, 1986 — the traditional May Day holiday.

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On the tours you’ll be repeatedly reminded not to wander off into forested areas, and not to eat or drink in the open air, though you probably don’t need to be told that. It’s worth noting that the sites visited have been deserted for decades and can present physical hazards; if you go, keep an eye out for uncovered manholes, or collapsed girders that can be tripped over.

Beyond that, there’s a definite anxious tension in being equipped with a personal Geiger counter and dosimeter and scanned for radiation monitoring many times a day as you pass in and out of the zone.

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The disaster, and the government’s handling of it — the evacuation order only came 36 hours after the accident — highlighted the shortcomings of the Soviet system with its unaccountable bureaucrats and entrenched culture of secrecy.

Chernobyl killed 31 people right away and forced tens of thousands to flee. The final death toll of those killed by radiation-related illnesses such as cancer is subject to debate. A Belarusian study estimates the total cancer deaths from the disaster at 115,000, in contrast to the World Health Organisation’s estimate of 9,000.

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Whatever the numbers, the series, the tours and the history books are a reminder of the calamity which once occurred here, and how important it is not to forget its harsh filthy lessons.

How long will it take until Chernobyl is deemed safe?

Only forever, not long at all.

Steve Pafford

PS If I end up growing a fourth leg you’ll know what caused it.

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FOOTNOTE: The slightly updated lyrical quotation at the header is taken from the second single from David Bowie’s much maligned Never Let Me Down album of 1987. Here he is discussing the song’s inspiration in the liner notes for his 2008 compilation iSelectBowie:

“One Saturday afternoon in April 1986, along with some other musicians I was taking a break from recording at Montreux studios in Switzerland. It was a beautiful day and we were outside on a small piece of lawn facing the Alps and the lake.

Our engineer, who had been listening to the radio, shot out of the studio and shouted: ‘There’s a whole lot of shit going on in Russia.’

The Swiss news had picked up a Norwegian radio station that was screaming – to anyone who would listen – that huge billowing clouds were moving over from the Motherland and they weren’t rain clouds. This was the first news in Europe of the satanic Chernobyl.

I phoned a writer friend in London, but he hadn’t heard anything about it. It wasn’t for many more hours that the story started trickling out as major news.

For those first few moments it felt sort of claustrophobic to know you were one of only a few witnesses to something of this magnitude.

Over the next couple of months a complicated crucible of impressions collected in my head prompted by this insanity, any one of which could have become a song. I stuck them all in Time Will Crawl. That last sentence rhymes.”

David Bowie

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