By Nathan Morley
On April 26th, 1986, a reactor at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl exploded. It released more than a hundred times the radiation of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But, as Nathan Morley reports from Chernobyl that it is still a dangerous and highly contaminated place – and the new star attraction in the niche travel market known as “Dark Tourism”.
“It’s taken me four years to convince my wife to let me come here. If you come to Ukraine you got to go to Chernobyl don’t you? It’s one of the main things I suppose – history and that sort of stuff,” Tony from New Zealand tells me as we board a mini bus in Kiev’s Maiden Square.
We are off on a day trip to Chernobyl, the ex-Soviet nuclear power station – it’s a two-hour ride north of Kiev. Despite the area still being highly toxic, the Ukrainian government allows a limited number of tourists the chance to explore other people’s horror for U$110.
Dark Tourism centres around ‘attractions’ linked with death and destruction and is a fast growing market – Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Rwanda and Ground Zero are particular favourites.
“This Nathan is the most dangerous spot on earth,” our Ukrainian driver says, as we pull up outside ‘Chernobyl Reactor Number 4’.
“What is worse,” he continues, “is that shit Russian sarcophagus is crumbling apart, it’s not working anymore”.
The rickety metal and concrete shell which entombs the reactor, known as ‘the sarcophagus’, is a derelict wreck – it sits on land so contaminated that it will take at least 20,000 years before people can live here again.
It is the most poignant feature in this nuclear never-never land. It was thrown together in just 200 days by soldiers, miners, conscripts and robots in a desperate attempt to isolate the spew of deadly radiation as the reactor melted down in the summer of 1986.
The former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev once said the nuclear meltdown, which took place 200 metres from where we had parked the minibus, was the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The end of the USSR, followed by instability in Ukraine and economic woes made the sarcophagus temporary fix, a permanent fixture. By 1995 over 200 square meters of holes, fissures and cracks riddled the structure.
To make matters worse, some experts estimate it encases between 50 and 100 tons of uranium, plutonium and other nuclear fuel – but the exact amount of radioactive material inside remains a mystery.
But there is a glimmer of hope for the long- suffering people of Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus, who constantly fear their nightmare would be re-activated. A few hundred metres away from the car park, a giant silver dome dwarfs everything around it.
This is the so-called “New Safe Confinement” shelter built to cover the crumbling sarcophagus.
The sheer size and cost of this enormous contraption beggars imagination. It has been described as “the largest moveable structure ever created on land” and weighs 31,000 tonnes and could cover St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Over 6,000 people currently work in Chernobyl, helping to decommission the reactors, and manage the exclusion zone. Around 3,000 live inside the zone for up to two-weeks at a time, while another 3,500 live on its borders.
The Soviet government’s first reaction to the catastrophe was to hide it from locals by assuring them everything was OK. Soviet bumbling reached it zenith during April and May 1986 and exposed a dangerous state run by ageing incompetent Bolsheviks.
But even when the full horror of what had happened emerged, their lies and delays in taking action cost countless lives – and the truth finally exposed lax safety measures, shoddy construction, lies, negligence and inexperience.
Even now, 30 –years after the incident, Ukrainians and Belarusian’s still feel bitter and angry.
Just about every report on the disaster points to a catalogue of preventable errors, with a flawed reactor being operated by inadequately trained staff being the main cause.
Chernobyl was a substandard power station and should have been condemned even before the accident.
LIES AND DANGER
Incredibly, for two days after the blast, life in Pripyat – the workers town next to Chernobyl – carried on as normal.
Kids attended morning lessons and supermarkets remained open – all this as radioactive levels reached 60,000 times higher than normal. A giant plume of smoke hovering over the town was talked down as being a “routine steam discharge” by officials.
Those in positions of authority that did speak lied, talking of an “ever so tiny” incident. However, suspicion grew as army units began to swarm into the town – but everyone stayed put.
For some reason, few heeded the old Russian saying about the government: “The rules are simple: they lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying.”
Finally, thirty-six hours after the explosion, over 1,000 buses were commandeered from across Ukraine and Belarus to evacuate 50,000 residents.
Nobody had any idea they would never return – had been assured the evacuation was temporary. People made packed lunches and gathered a few belongings before abandoning their homes.
The evacuation was speckled with truly horrible incidents, Grigori Medvedev’s remarkable book The Truth about Chernobyl describes one such moment.
When the time came to say goodbye to their pets, there were some distressing scenes. The cats, with their tails straight up, stared at their masters with an imploring look, miaowing pathetically; and dogs of many different breeds were whining plaintively, trying to force their way into the buses, yelping frantically and growling when they were pulled away.
However fond the children were of their pets, there could obviously be no question of taking cats and dogs, as their fur, like human hair, was highly radioactive. After all, the animals spent the whole day outside on the street and must have picked up vast amounts of radioactive particles. Some dogs, finding themselves left behind by their masters, ran after the buses for a long way, but to no avail.
As the first atomic refugees belatedly left the town, some were showing the signs of radiation sickness. Complaints ranged from of severe headaches, coughing, vomiting to a metallic taste on the tongue.
It is unknown how many of these residents joined grim parade of cancer statistics, the full extent will probably never be clear.
Walking around the empty streets and deserted playgrounds of Pripyat is a surreal experience. It is a desolate nuclear aged Pompeii, devoid of life.
However, since the accident, government employees, contractors, curious locals and criminals have all left their fingerprints in the town. Most of them were good, honest, hard working people. Some were not.
Spivs, thieves and wheeler-dealers have infested this place for years, unfazed that the goods they palm off to unsuspecting buyers are caked toxic radioactive particles. For them, Chernobyl continues to offer endless opportunities to profit from the spoils of human misery.
In a three decade long orgy of theft, contaminated scrap metal, radiators, doors, timber, windows, furniture; TV’s, toilets, bikes, cars and even clothes have been looted.
A 2002 a UNDP/UNICEF reports stated: “The impact of the Chernobyl accident on many rural households in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine was catastrophic. In the first weeks many were evacuated with only their personal belongings. A few months later they were allowed to collect their property, but many of them found their houses plundered.”
But the real problems began when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. That’s when the ensuing destabilisation and uncertainty lead to increasingly lax security around the site. With bewildering rapidity the troops, local police and armed guards that had once maintained a ‘ring of steel’ became thin on the ground.
As word spread about the situation, the wholesale looting of Pripyat followed – with the upshot being every apartment, office and shop being robbed.
One of the first victims was the National Savings Bank building, which was plundered from top to bottom in search of money and bonds –even the glass staircase, aluminium windows were taken.
It is said that one multi- storey block of flats was stripped bare in just one night. Even the bathroom tiles, light fittings, sockets and bricks were stolen.
“Men, women, children, grandmothers…they all marched out the building with whatever they could carry. There was nothing that was not taken,” our guide tells us.
Thieves have managed to make off with uranium-filled reactor control rods, 25 tons of radioactive scrap metal, cables from the entire phone network and over 20 tonnes of copper pipes from the sarcophagus around the reactor.
More recently a group of men were caught driving off with a contaminated Mi8 helicopter on the back of a lorry, which they intended to turn into a café-bar. The Soviet helicopter, which is large enough to seat 28 people, was emitting 30 times the legal levels of radiation.
It is very easy to fall under the dangerous illusion that the countryside around Chernobyl was left unscathed by the disaster. Nowadays, the vast expanse of lakes, forests and marshes spread over 1,500 square miles gives the impression of lush green purity.
Insects, birds and beasts, many of which only briefly fled their native haunts in 1986, have returned and it’s only as I trudge through the lush undergrowth of the Red Forest that my little yellow dosimeter starts to make louder crackles.
My ears prick up, it’s quiet, still, and I’m kicked back to reality: This is the world’s most deadly wildlife sanctuary, the contamination that penetrated deep inside the soil, water and wood of the trees is still highly toxic.
Bizarrely, many of the trees have been dead for thirty years – but they don’t seem to be decaying. Even the leaves that should have rotted decades ago remain where they fell. Some experts say that microbes and fungi have not recovered well from radiation contamination in the area.
There are no accurate figures, but it’s believed there are around 200 wolves in the area. The upside is that fear of rabies, vicious bites and attacks act as a forceful deterrent to thieves and souvenir hunters.
As I stood deep in the woods, there was no bird song; it reminded me of Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin, which is probably the only other place on earth where the silence is so loud.
This is an imitation sanctuary, where nothing is as it seems – but it is also a lucrative location if you work in the travel business.
“Every year we have more and more people want to come. But last year we had some problems in our country, so people were afraid to go – so the numbers of visitors became a bit less. Our guests come from most countries,” our guide tells me.
He then hands me a postcard with the slogan I’ve been to Chernobyl.
“They are popular,” he says.