“Please do not deviate from the track,” says our guide, as we continued along a stone path towards an abandoned building. My Geiger counter beeping like crazy as we drew closer.
I huddled into my coat; my fluffy boots squelching along the snowy path. I was entering an apocalyptic world and edging closer to the source of the world’s worst nuclear disaster and if truth be known, I was more than intrigued.
Visiting a nuclear power plant may not be on the top of everyone’s bucket list but with the increasing number of visitors taking a Chernobyl tour each year, this dark tourism site seems to be just as fascinating to others as it does to me.
To enter this nuclear zone, your name had to be on the list. I had shown my passport at a checkpoint, yards away from a giant radioactive sign. A mannequin of a man in a white boiler suit with a gas mask had stood as a reminder of where I actually was – on the edge of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
It was declared the world’s worst nuclear disaster. I remember as a child watching the news reports; listening to Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union, as he spoke from the Kremlin in Russia, downplaying the worst disaster in the history of nuclear power.
Now 31 years later the cause of the disaster – reactor number four, was barely a stone’s throw away.
At the time, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was one of the three nuclear power plants in the world. It produced 10% of the energy within the Soviet Union.
On 25th April 1986, workers at the plant were conducting an elective experiment to increase efficiency. As uranium rods were lowered, one malfunctioned and overheated, causing a chain reaction in the core. After several explosions, the lid was blown off the reactor causing radioactive material into the atmosphere.
Radioactive clouds reached as far as Great Britain and Sweden. President Gorbachev was forced to admit that there had been an accident but it wasn’t as under control as they had led the world to believe.
Unbeknown to the rest of the world, the threat of a second explosion was imminent. One that could change the face of Europe forever.
Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Our minibus enters the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Our first stop is within the 30km radius in a town called Zalissya. Before the disaster 473 people lived here. A quarter of the residents (mostly the elderly) have since returned to their homes.
Chernobyl is in fact still a working town although most of it remains deserted. Life here isn’t dissimilar to life back in the Middle Ages with no electricity and a curfew of 19.00. Cancer rates are high and the people who have returned rely on government pensions to live.
Animals such as horses, deer and wolves roam here as radioactivity does not spread evenly through the zone. Our guide tells us one story of an old lady who would lock herself in her house and watch the wolves as they watched her back from outside. She passed away at 94 years old.
Worried about absorbing radiation, our guide assures me that we are subjected to radiation every day even in the capital, Kiev. There are different kinds of radiation and exposure to high levels of ionising radiation can cause cancer or death. Geiger counters are used on our Chernobyl tour to detect this type of radiation.
Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
We take the old road and travel along the outskirts of the red forest. The Geiger counter going crazy as we drive. We are not allowed inside the Red Forest, one of the most radioactive areas within the zone.
We are heading to Kopachi, one of the most radioactive villages within the zone. The majority of the village was bulldozed and the buildings covered with soil. One of the only buildings to survive here is the kindergarten because it was made of stone. Buildings which have been covered are marked by a radiation symbol on top of the mounds. A statue of a soldier, a monument of WWII, stands between us and one of the most iconic buildings in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
I feel as though I have been transported to a video game of an apocalyptic world as I enter the building. Dolls heads lay strewn across the kindergarten, like something out of a Child’s Play horror movie. Children’s books lay abandoned amongst the bunk beds, covered in a film of dust. Windows are rotten and there are holes in the floor making me tread carefully.
Due to the radiation we can only stay for 15 minutes.
At the time of the Chernobyl disaster 400 times more radioactive material was released than at Hiroshima (the atom bomb).
As the radiation rose, none of the residents living in Chernobyl were notified. Instead the children were taken to the daycare centre and life was as normal before the army ordered an evacuation thirty hours after the explosion.
Approximately 30,000 people were evacuated from Chernobyl. One thousand buses took men, women and children known as ‘atomic refugees’ out of the radioactive zone. Children became separated from parents and taken to orphanages in neighbouring Belarus.
One older man stayed behind. They found his body weeks later.
We drive deeper into the exclusion zone, and stop at the Pripyat sign, a town that was built in the same year as the power plant, in 1970.
Described by the guide as a special town for special people, the town was home to the young and the intelligent and had an average age of just 26 years old. These 3000 people devoted their lives to the Soviet Union and Pripyat was seen as a utopia town.
We walk past an old school, one of five that were here. We pass the stadium and the football field – derelict monuments of a town once known as looking to the future. Now only known for its past.
The walk is eerie. As I try to imagine how this town once was just three decades before, we turn a corner and the most iconic symbols of the Chernobyl disaster comes into view. – the giant ferris wheel. Due to be opened on 1st May 1986, just days after the evacuation, the park was never used. Instead it sits as a ghost town within the zone.
The residents of Pripyat had no idea how much danger they were in. Those who stood on the bridge just 3km away could see the reactor on fire and the rainbow colours produced by the explosion. It would have taken just 15 minutes to absorb the radioactivity, and the iodine pills would have done nothing to stop the radiation sickness from the ‘bridge of death.’
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
As the tour continued, I realise that I have become oblivious to the bleeping. We get closer to the epicentre – reactor number four.
“It’s prohibited to take photos of the power plant by International law,” says our guide, as the minibus comes to a standstill.
As the doors open and I step out of the van, I can’t describe what it felt like in that moment. To look head on at something that had taken so many lives. It was just a white building, one that resembled nothing more than an aircraft hanger, yet the invisible killer that lay under the roof, the cause of the radioactive cloud had claimed thousands of lives.
Larger than a football stadium, the roof (known as sarcophagus) took two decades to build. Planned for completion in 2010, the sarcophagus was only finished in November 2016. The operation to slide it on top of reactor number 4 and seal it was a dangerous one. The new roof is expected to last 100 years.
Just outside the plant is an artwork of a dove holding an atom in its mouth. A monument which was finished days before the accident. The artist never receiving payment.
We eat in the same canteen as the power plant workers. They pass us wearing their green military uniforms. The land is still contaminated but people can stay in the exclusion zone for up to 15 days. Workers here work four days on then rest for three days; an electrical train taking them between Chernobyl and the town of Slavutich.
When the accident happened, several workers at Chernobyl Power Plant died from the explosion and the radiation. Fireman who were first to the scene were among the first victims of Chernobyl. Their bodies receiving a yearly dose for every hour they were there.
Those who survived were taken to the hospital here, their clothes stoked in radiation beta particles which were then transferred to the basement. Our guide informs us that their clothes are still here, deep within the basement. Today, the laundry service within the zone cleans the power plant uniforms.
Approximately 100,000 troops were called in for the clean up operation. The emergency workers known as “liquidators.” Due to the radiation levels each man could only spend 45 seconds on the roof, enough time to clear a minimal amount of radioactive debris.
The first journalist to report the disaster took to the air in a helicopter and flew around the site unknowingly exposing himself to the rays. He was later hospitalised for several months and continues to be medically treated every year for two months.
Three decades later and there is still much controversy about the official death toll, although it has been estimated to have claimed 4,000 lives.
A monument for the first sixty people who died sits within the zone. It depicts a sombre display of the reality of Chernobyl. A man holding his head in pain – a headache being the first sign of radioactive sickness. A doctor rushing to the scene to help him, and firefighters putting out the blaze, with actual firefighter’s equipment from the disaster.
Named, “To those who saved the world,” the residents of Chernobyl constructed this in honour of the brave souls who lost their lives here.
As I step into the scanning machine, I feel relief as the light turns green, confirming that I have only been subjected to the same amount of radiation that I would have had in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital. I am okay but my mind turns to the many others who didn’t walk out of here okay.
The Chernobyl Disaster has left a permanent mark on history. The actual figure of those affected by the disaster remains unknown. Some say it is in the hundreds of thousands. But it is still affecting people today. In Belarus, a neighbouring country, children are being born with birth defects, and typhoid cancer is a possible correlation of the crops affected by the radioactivity. Greenpeace believes that more than 270,000 cases of cancer can be traced to Chernobyl and that the death toll could well exceed 200,000.
Although the number of deaths may be disputed, one fact that cannot be debated is the prevention of a second explosion. One that could have wiped out half of Europe and changed the course of world history forever.
As George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” After the explosion at Japan’s nuclear power plant, Fukushima, just a quarter of a century after Chernobyl, let’s just hope that the lessons have been learned.
I visited Chernobyl as part of a group with Chernobyl Tour. Getting to Chernobyl from Kiev takes approx 2 hours and we travelled by minibus. Our tour guide was amazing and really informative. During the journey and the tour we were shown documentaries on the minibus to give us more background into the history of Chernobyl. I was here solo and definitely recommend this company if you are travelling alone.
Accommodation in Kiev
I stayed at Podolski Hostel which was more of a hotel in a residential building. It wasn’t very central but was near to the metro so it was still easy to navigate around the city. A huge double room with a shared bathroom cost me $38 for 2 nights. If you are happy staying alone then I recommend it but if you would prefer accommodation where you can meet people then Yak Olympic Hostel is a good option. This was my second choice as it has great reviews from other solo travellers.
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