It looks like a baby monitor, but the device that tour guide Dennis Zaburin holds in his hand monitors radiation. The digits on the dosimeter’s display change rapidly, indicating rising and falling danger. Other than its beeps, our footsteps are the only sounds we hear, multiplied as they echo off the surrounding abandoned buildings.
Dennis knows which spots are “safe” and which to avoid. But I have my doubts. We are, after all, at the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident: Chernobyl, Ukraine.
Nearly 23 years after the atomic genie was released from the bottle, the invisible danger in this ghost town remains. Dennis tells me not to worry, but I can see the readout: 1,800. Only a few hours earlier, he told me that 50 was normal. What was I thinking, coming here?
On April 26, 1986, Reactor Number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in what was then the Soviet Union, blew up. During a systems test, things went terribly wrong and the reactor overheated. Although it wasn’t a nuclear explosion, the reactor blew apart, shooting radioactive debris more than a mile into the sky.
In the following days, winds carried radioactive fallout across most of Europe.
The number of deaths that can be attributed to the disaster is highly controversial. The World Health Organization predicts that there will be up to 9,000 cancer-related deaths; Greenpeace says this figure is a gross underestimate and puts cancer cases at around a quarter of a million. It also points to an untold radiation impact on survivors in the form of damaged immune and endocrine systems, accelerated aging, cardiovascular and blood illnesses, psychological illnesses, and more.
It may seem a macabre place to visit, but is Chernobyl really any different from places like Auschwitz or Ground Zero? It, too, has become hallowed ground where people come to bear witness to history and to remember.
Chernobyl lies about 130 kilometres northwest of Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. It is an atomic bull’s-eye in the middle of an exclusion area extending in a 30-kilometre radius from the power plant.
Just after 9 on a sunny Wednesday morning, I board a tour bus in central Kiev along with five Swedes and a Norwegian. We pass through a series of military checkpoints before arriving in the town of Chernobyl. (Although the power station is named after Chernobyl, it is actually located in Pripyat, a model Soviet city founded in 1970 to support the nuclear complex.)
We meet our tour guide, Dennis, and begin in the vehicle museum, which is nothing more than a few military vehicles scattered about a field. He waves his dosimeter a few inches from a tank, and the numbers skyrocket. At the Monument to the Firemen, the group becomes subdued. The large blue sculpture reminds us of the human toll.
A few miles down a deserted road, we reach the heart of the disaster: Reactor Number 4, an enormous and enormously frightening building. Nearby is another poignant tribute: the Monument to the Liquidators. In the weeks, months, and years that followed the explosion, 100,000 military personnel and 400,000 civilians and experts worked to stabilize the complex and clean up the radioactive mess. They became known as “liquidators”, and their work may have saved millions. But many became very sick, and many died.
The Sarcophagus, a hastily constructed containment structure, covers the wreckage of Reactor Number 4. Built as a temporary measure, it is the only thing standing between tonnes of radioactive material and the outside world. Before the giant tomb, Dennis explains that it is in dire need of replacement. If it were to collapse, clouds of radioactive dust would be released into the air, creating another nuclear disaster. Construction of a “new safe confinement” structure to completely cover Reactor Number 4 has been delayed by funding problems.
The final portion of the tour covers Pripyat, the power plant’s support city, which once had a population of about 50,000. Today, it’s zero, as residents are no longer permitted.
Back in 1986, officials told residents the evacuation was temporary and that they needed to bring only a few days’ worth of clothes. As a result, most people left everything behind, not knowing they would never return.
Pripyat was a modern city before the disaster. Today, it’s a crumbling shell. There’s a grocery store filled with overturned carts, disconnected pay phones, empty swimming pools, and overgrown paths. Books, chairs, and even household radiators are scattered about, the flotsam and jetsam of 1980s Soviet life.
The children of Pripyat must have been bursting with excitement in the days before the accident. A new amusement park was scheduled to open on May 1, 1986, in honour of May Day. It never did.
Instead of being filled with children’s laughter, the park is silent, a sad reminder of shattered dreams and lives ripped apart. The large, decaying Ferris wheel has become a tragic symbol of the disaster.
It feels like the set of a zombie movie, but Pripyat is not dead. It’s renewing itself. Just as nature is slowly returning—evident in the grass that now grows in the cracks in the plaza, and in the shrubs and trees that have taken root in the contaminated soil—so too are people returning to the area, albeit in the form of visitors like me.
It may be thousands of years before this area is safe for human habitation. Until then, the site of humankind’s worst nuclear disaster may be one of the world’s most chilling tourist attractions.
Access: Several companies offer tours of Chernobyl. The writer went with SoloEast Travel.