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Disaster Tourism: My Day In Nuclear Ruins

Pack your cameras and Gamma-Scouts for a tour through a nuclear wasteland, 26 years after Chernobyl. No need for the white lab suits … really.


The road to Pripyat, Chernobyl's long-abandoned city, runs through a budding forest.

The pines here are all relatively young; the original forest died from radiation poisoning more than a quarter-century ago. You may be able to decontaminate city streets to the extent they are safe for foreign tourists to visit, but you can't decontaminate the soil of a forest floor.

They spend the remainder of the day posing in front of anything that looks even remotely derelict, holding up the German-made Gamma-Scouts they purchased online especially for the trip.

Even now, as our bus passes a sign welcoming us to the city, the beeping of the Geiger counters on board increases dramatically — sounding first like a heart-rate monitor attached to a quickening muscle, soon more like the incessant chirping of a cricket. The Geiger counters show readings of up to 14.59 microsieverts per hour — that’s well below the lethal limit but more than 10 times any reading the devices have taken since we got here. And these readings are being taken from inside the bus.

We have come to Pripyat 26 years to the day — indeed, to the very hour — that Mikhail Gorbachevs' USSR mobilised 1,100 buses to evacuate it. On April 27, 1986, at two o'clock in the afternoon, Pripyat’s nearly 50,000 residents left their homes for the last time on the assurance that they would only be away for a few days. Thirty-six hours earlier, at the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station where a good number of those same residents worked, Reactor No. 4 had exploded during a woefully mismanaged experiment designed to ensure that its cooling systems would continue to operate in the event of a power outage.

The explosion and the 10-day fire that followed it saw 5.2 million terabecquerels of radiation enter the atmosphere — 400 times that released in Hiroshima when Fat Boy was dropped on it in 1945 — and the event remains the single greatest nuclear disaster in history. Today, Pripyat stands as a monument, not only to the depravity and delusions of the Soviet Union, but also to the ambition and perhaps even folly of the nuclear age.

All of which seems to make tourists want to pose in front of it. "It makes you wonder if we'll be walking around on a tour of Fukushima in 26 years," notes one day-tripper.

We are in a group of 20 disaster tourists, one of three such groups touring the Exclusion Zone today. All but one of our party are under the age of 30, roughly the same age as the catastrophe itself, and all are Western European save for an Argentinian and ourselves. Melanie Cook, who took the photos for this story, is the only woman.

Most of us would have liked to have visited the Exclusion Zone yesterday — passing through checkpoints and showing our pre-approved passports at the 30- and 10-km perimeters around the power plant and then again at Pripyat's city limits — to mark the anniversary of the actual explosion. But the place was in lock-down. Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych, was here inaugurating the construction of a new sarcophagus that eventually will cover the one that was hastily built over the exploded reactor 26 years ago.

Our party consists of hipster Norwegians with large-format cameras who smoke despite signing a contract promising not to do so, nihilistic skinhead Swedes who keep eagerly asking those with Geiger counters if they've experienced any extraordinary readings yet, and softly-spoken French death-metal fans. It's like a sequel to Alex Garland's The Beach, only without the initial, mistaken draw of paradise, and with slightly more comic relief.

This is provided by two young architects: a Dutchman who looks like the Australian actor Andrew S. Gilbert and a Dane who looks like Sacha Baron Cohen. They whip out white polyethylene bodysuits and blue polyethylene covers for their shoes the moment we start making our way towards Pripyat from the 30-km checkpoint. They look like actors who auditioned for Breaking Bad without success and never quite got over it.

"Did we need to bring that stuff?" asks a worried Finn.

"You came prepared," I say to Sacha Baron Cohen.

"We wanted to look after our clothes," he says.

In fact, one suspects, what they actually want is to give their fashionable architect friends back home the impression that they have done something very dangerous by coming here and walking around. They spend the remainder of the day posing in front of anything that looks even remotely derelict, holding up the German-made Gamma-Scouts they purchased online especially for the trip, and making sure there are no Norwegians in skinny jeans and blazers in the background to ruin their photos by suggesting — as every decontamination checkpoint on our way out of the Zone will later prove — that the protective suits are unnecessary and none of us is in any sort of peril.

Like the now-infamous Kidd of Speed, Elena Filatova, who became an internet sensation in 2004 after she falsely claimed to have ridden alone through the Exclusion Zone on her Kawasaki Big Ninja, these architects strike me as the worst kind of disaster tourists: those who have come not to learn about an event, but merely to claim they survived it. Filatova's story was eventually debunked in TheNew York Times, when a guide said she'd come on a public tour like everyone else, only with leather jacket and helmet in tow. I wonder how the architects will spin it.

<p>Photo by Melanie Cook</p>

Photo by Melanie Cook

The Sarcophagus

They certainly don’t impress our guide, Maxim, who spends most of the day running after them and imploring them to stay with the group. A mathematician by training, Maxim spends the remainder of the day trying to convince the rest of us that the parts of the Zone we are visiting — Chernobyl, Pripyat and the westernmost perimeter of the power plant — have been decontaminated to relatively safe levels. What's more, he adds, none of the people who work in the Zone regularly — guards, administrators, scientists and engineers building the new sarcophagus and decommissioning the plant — have fallen sick like those who contained the disaster, the journalists who covered it, or anyone who returned to live here permanently after it was over. "I mean, every now and then one of us dies," Maxim tells me, "but it tends to be from natural causes."

Maxim doesn't know of a single tourist who has been contaminated while visiting the Zone. And there have been plenty of opportunities. Some 10,000 people visited Chernobyl in 2010, Maxim says, up from fewer than a thousand in 2004, two years after tours here began. Some have attributed the spike in interest to the success of the video games S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat — first-person shooters by the Ukrainian video game developer GSC Game World, which unfold in digital landscapes directly modeled, with some artistic license, upon their real-life locations.

(In addition to modern history, GSC Game World also took cues from Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 cinematic masterpiece, Stalker, which preceded Chernobyl by seven years and gave the disaster its vocabulary. Stalker's "The Zone" anticipates Chernobyl's Exclusion Zone — just as Tarkovsky's death from bronchial cancer, perhaps caused by his own exposure to toxic substances while working downstream from a chemical plant on the film's set, anticipates the deaths of Chernobyl liquidators that have taken place since the explosion.)

I suspect that the increase in tourist numbers is also generational: for those of us still very young when the Cold War, Mutually Assured Destruction, and the fear associated with both was already fading, here these forces that shaped our lives begin to make some kind of sense.

Whatever the case, the Ukrainian government's announcement in December 2010 that it was officially opening the site to tourists was a rather belated acknowledgment of the fact that tourists had already been visiting for some time and that an increasing number were interested in doing so. (Tours were suspended for several months last year after the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office declared that the Emergencies Ministry was making an unhealthy profit from them. The decision was quickly reversed.)

A SHORT, SLIGHTLY ROTUND figure, Maxim is a born science teacher. He first came to the Exclusion Zone more than a decade ago to take part in a project that measured contamination throughout the area. "I can't count the number of times I've come here," he says. When we first arrive in the actual town of Chernobyl, the administrative centre of the Zone, he shows us one of the maps that resulted from that research.

Contamination here today corresponds more or less exactly to the weather patterns of the days immediately following the disaster. On the map, a long, fang-like shard of red and orange extends westward from the shades of purple around the plant. The colours represent the degree of contamination and the shape describes the direction of the wind at the time of the explosion. A shorter, no-less-colourful tooth juts northwest over Belarus and suggests a change in the weather patterns during the days that followed.

“Who knows what the half-life of strontium-90 is?” Maxim asks to a bewildered silence. “Okay. Let's try something easier. Who know what strontium-90 even is?”

“Who knows what the half-life of strontium-90 is?” Maxim asks to a bewildered silence. “Okay. Let's try something easier. Who know what strontium-90 even is?”

Silence again.

"There are three radioactive elements that currently render the Exclusion Zone uninhabitable," he says. "Strontium-90, which can cause leukemia, has a half-life of 28 years.

“Cesium-137, which travelled farther than any other element released by the explosion, and which attacks the whole body, has one of 30 years.

“And plutonium-239 has a massive half-life of up to 24,000 years.

“This means it will take 28 years for the concentration of strontium-90 in the zone to be reduced to half its current figure,” he continues. “Twenty-eight years later it will be half that again. All three elements can be found throughout the area in sufficient quantities that it's going to take more than a few half-lives before any of them have disappeared completely."

"How many half-lives?" someone asks.

<p>Photo by Melanie Cook</p>

Photo by Melanie Cook

At the Fairground

"Put it this way," Maxim says. "Scientists currently think that it's going to take between 180 and 320 years for the first two of those elements to disappear."

Everyone starts doing the third sum in their heads. Maxim laughs and shakes his own.

"Don't even try to think about the plutonium," he says.

It is lucky that neither coloured tooth on the map points south towards Kiev — and luckier still that that we're not looking at a map of the European continent in its entirety. The nuclear cloud that first alerted Western European authorities to the disaster by spreading above them could have been the precursor to a full-blown nuclear winter had a second explosion taken place.

The cloud's existence seems to come as a surprise to most of the disaster tourists. While Sweden's soil today contains traces of both plutonium-139 and -140 — it rained while the cloud was over the country — the skinheads appear fascinated to learn that theirs was the first government to alert the International Atomic Energy Agency to the fact that something was seriously amiss. Hans Blixs' call to Gorbachev on behalf of that agency may well have helped trigger glasnost and the period of uncharacteristic openness that followed the Soviet government's initial two-day silence.

The USSR initiated a series of measures to prevent a second explosion — including a month-long mining operation that allowed scientists to get underneath the reactor and install a cooling system that prevented radioactive magma from seeping into the groundwater and contaminating the entire continent's waterways. The thousands of blue-collar grunts who performed this work, though treated with reverence at the time, later were lied to about the extent of their exposure to radiation and today are constantly having their pensions cut or subjected to the threat of cuts. That these same workers have a tendency to die earlier and more painfully than many of those who, from a comfortable distance, assigned the cleanup tasks should not be forgotten. Nor should the fact that nuclear energy is clean and safe until it's not. Because when it's not, it's killing people, dispossessing others, and rendering the very soil we walk upon lethal for 240,000 years.

If this sounds like the sort of tree-hugging rhetoric that so bedevils pro-nuclear types today, it is only because it is dangerous to hug a tree in the Exclusion Zone. Indeed, wandering off the beaten track in Chernobyl, to hug a tree or otherwise, is among the many activities visitors agree to forsake by signing the contract at the beginning of the tour.

An anti-nuclear group from St Petersburg is having its picture taken a couple of hundred metres from a 30-year stop-gap that is leaking so much brown toxic waste, it looks like a self-saucing pudding made of concrete.

According to this document, "during the visit to the Exclusion Zone it is totally prohibited to" (among other things):

"Have meal and smoke in the open air; Touch any structures or vegetation; Sit or place photo and video equipment on the ground; Take any items outside the Zone; Violate dress code (open-type shoes, shorts, trousers, skirts); ... Gather, use and bring from the Exclusion Zone and the Zone of Absolute (Mandatory) Resettlement vegetable and cattle-breeding products (vegetables, fruits, berries, mushrooms, plants, fish, etc.), which were cultivated on the area of the Exclusion Zone and the Zone of Absolute (Mandatory) Resettlement, except specimens for scientific purposes; Bring in and bring out of the Exclusion Zone and the Zone of Absolute (Mandatory) Resettlement any animals (dogs, cats, etc.); Drink water from wells, rivers and other open water systems. It is allowed to use water only from Chernobyl water supply system, or water from stores."

It goes without saying that staying in the Zone once the tour is over also is prohibited.

The necessity of these rules is made readily apparent when Maxim decides — perhaps because one of the Norwegians is still smoking every time he gets out of the bus — to demonstrate just how contaminated the Zone still is. Leading one of the boys in white to the edge of the road, he takes a reading from their Geiger counter: 2.1 microsieverts per hour (μSv/h).

"Now take a step towards the forest," he instructs; 4.2 μSv/h.

"And one more." The Dutchman's shoe covers are now in the dirt. "Be sure to take them off before you get back in the bus," Maxim says. The Geiger counter reads 8.5 μSv/h.

"It doubles with every step," Maxim says.

<p>Photo by Melanie Cook</p>

Photo by Melanie Cook

A Lost Civilisation

"Or more," says the Dutchman with some concern. He hasn't brought any blue polyethylene gloves and doesn't know how he's going to take off his shoe covers.

The most famous photographs of Pripyat were taken during the city's bleak winters. Many of those photos were taken inside, or from inside, buildings. But this winter is over — and 26 years of exploration inside the city's most famous structures is over with it. The looted shoe store, the primary school with exercise books still on the desks and the public swimming pool are now all off-limits.

"Every year, at the end of winter, the government runs tests on the buildings," Maxim says. "This year it was announced that they're no longer structurally sound. This is the first month that tourists haven't been allowed inside them."

The bus groans in disappointment.

But the ban is clearly in the tourists' interests. Indeed, Pripyat's current condition rather makes you wonder why it took the government so long to impose it. The city feels like it could collapse at any moment. The front of one building already has. A tour group consisting entirely of Greenpeace members in political T-shirts and defiantly sloganed dust masks ignores the tour guide’s cries, to run inside to take photographs of the eroding staircase and the long out-of-date state pricing lists. A faded Soviet flag flies listlessly in the city's main square, while long-dead floral arrangements in the shape of the hammer-and-sickle adorn the roofs of the surrounding concrete apartment blocks.

PRIPYAT WAS FOUNDED in 1970, designed and constructed expressly for employees of the plant, which commenced energy production seven years later. It was a Soviet project-city, a place that could express the state's ideals from its inception. It was to Communism what the Walt Disney Company's Celebration, Florida, was to the corporation's image — before the former became a nuclear ghost town and the latter's rate of mortgage foreclosures rocketed to more than twice the state average. Gorbachev famously said that it was Chernobyl, far more than the Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan or the fall of the Berlin Wall, that ensured the eventual collapse of the USSR. In this respect, Pripyat is reminiscent of the Mayan cities of Calakmul and Palenque in Mexico, and the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru: it is the ruins of a once mighty empire, given over to the elements.

.

During the visit to the Exclusion Zone it is totally prohibited to (among other things): “Have [a] meal and smoke in the open air; Touch any structures or vegetation; Sit or place photo and video equipment on the ground.”

But this place is a thoroughly modern memento mori, not what Kiev and Moscow will look like eventually, but New York City and London, too. But perhaps because it is spring, and the trees growing out of the pavement are in bloom, and the moss growing on the floor of the bumper car pavilion is a luscious green, the strange sensation of knowing what things will be like when we've gone is made stranger by the surprisingly unworrying suspicion that it won't especially matter when we have.

Today, the V. I. Lenin Nuclear Power Station is the epicentre of two major projects, which between them employ the vast majority of the Zone's regulars: the decommissioning of the plant, which is expected to take 70 years, and building the new sarcophagus, a 20,000-tonne steel arch due to be completed in three years’ time. The structure is expected to cost €1.54 billion, with more than 25 governments from around the world contributing to the effort.

An anti-nuclear group from St Petersburg is having its picture taken in front of the old sarcophagus when we arrive: seven or eight smiling Russians with their group's flag standing a couple of hundred metres from a 30-year stop-gap that is leaking so much brown toxic waste, it looks like a self-saucing pudding made of concrete. A large yellow brace has been added in recent years to keep the thing standing: 97 per cent of the nuclear garbage produced by the disaster remains hidden away inside it. One of the Frenchmen makes the devil's horns with his fingers and sticks out his tongue for the obligatory photo.

Rolls of barbed wire line the fences and security men and cameras alike watch closely to ensure no one turns from the encased reactor to photograph the cranes involved in building its new coffin. This off-limits construction site took five years to prepare, a process that included bringing in uncontaminated soil and burying the original dirt in its own concrete tomb. All of the civilian and military vehicles included in the original clean-up of Chernobyl have been buried in similar coffins throughout the Zone. Some of the Russians find the boys in white amusing and put their arms around them for a photo with the Geiger counter.

President Yanukovych enjoyed his own photo-op at this very site the day before. "Chernobyl still evokes pain and is remembered today," he said. "That is why we continue to take care of the safety of the shelter over the fourth reactor." Back in Kiev, at around the same time he was making his speech, more than 1,000 protesters were gathering outside the country's parliament, demanding an increase in compensation and their pensions. The governments of both Belarus and Russia face similar demands from victims. Belarus has a small exclusion zone of its own (there was originally one, but it split into two when the border between SSRs became one between countries) and is actively repopulating it. A great many Russians were involved in the various projects devised to contain the fallout.

On the day of our visit to the Zone, the Kyiv Post runs an interview with Oleksandr Salmygin, who volunteered to be the Soviet government's official Chernobyl photographer not long after the disaster and held the position long after the collapse of the USSR. "[It] is getting worse and worse with every year," Salmygin told the reporter of his medical condition, which includes a number of blood disorders caused by radiation. When he finally started receiving the Chernobyl liquidator pension in 2004, the clerk was very suspicious of his claims. "Chernobyl liquidators don't live [as long as you have]," she told him. In The Battle for Chernobyl, a television documentary we were shown on the ride the zone, Gorbachev asks, over images of deformed children born to parents who worked to contain the disaster: "How many years is this going to go on? Eight hundred years? Eight hundred years. Until the second Jesus Christ is born? Until his return?"

I didn't get to interview any victims of strontium-90 and cesium-139. The stories of those affected by the disaster and its aftermath are precisely what a visit to the Exclusion Zone cannot, by definition, provide. In Chernobyl, two long rows of street signs line a path in the central park, listing the names of the villages, towns and cities that had to be abandoned 26 years ago. They are hundreds. When you reach the end of the path and turn around you are confronted with a striking reverse shot: each name, in the manner of all Ukrainian and Russian road signs indicating that you have reached the town or city limits, has a thick, red diagonal line through the middle of it. We, too, have such limits. We, too, can be nullified at a stroke.

We pile dutifully onto the bus and start making our way back up Prospekt Lenina to the checkpoint on the edge of the city. People on foot, not unlike the downtrodden heroes of Theo Angelopoulos's The Travelling Players, cause us to slow down and pass us by without acknowledging that we have done so.

"Former residents," Maxim says. "They have come to remember the day they left their city."

There is no time for us to get out and talk to them. Among the vast majority of our party, there is also no inclination to do so.

"How do you know they're former residents?" Sacha Baron Cohen asks.

"The fact that they're on foot," Maxim says, "and don't have an official envoy with them."

But something else about them is even more telling.

Not one of them is carrying a camera.

3 comments on this story
by Shaun

Thank-you Matthew for this article, very interesting to read a first hand account of what the situation is at Chernobyl and a reminder of what happened.

It's upsetting to be reminded that thousands of lives have been ended prematurely but apparently not well documented which allows pro-nuclear advocates to ignore them. It's often quoted that there is proof of only a few workers dying as a direct result of the disaster.

My 14 year old son, who not so unusually at his age has an apocalyptic bent, was intrigued by your article as a real-world account of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fantasy.

May 20, 2012 @ 11:32am
by Joseph

Excellent job. A lot of lasting images to juggle with; impassioned, but without feverishness. More please

May 23, 2012 @ 8:44am
by Alicia

Fascinating article, very well-written. Mr. Clayfield's command of prose makes Chernobyl's story come to life, even 26 years after its catastrophic demise.

May 29, 2012 @ 1:29am
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