PART 2: Fascination & Horror On A Visit To Ukraine’s Chernobyl
Photos by Oxana Sawka
In this second part of a series on Ukraine, Peter Johansen takes a trip to Chernobyl (also known in Ukraine as Chornobyl), site of the world’s worst nuclear power disaster. Ironically, the catastrophe occurred during a late-night safety test.
The silent Ferris wheel and rusted bumper cars are my most haunting memory. Dolls on the cribs where kindergarten kids once napped are among the most poignant. Stepping through the radiation detector to make sure I could safely leave the restricted-access area was, for just a moment, the most anxious.
I was visiting Chernobyl, where one of the blocks at a Ukrainian nuclear power plant exploded in 1986 in the world’s deadliest nuclear accident. It is surely the darkest of the country’s dark tourism, but with about 80,000 making the trek this year, it’s also Trip Advisor’s top-ranked activity in Kyiv.
Advance planning is a must. Visitors must book with an authorized guide; they must not stray lest they tromp onto hot spots; passport information must be provided in advance. But the preparation pays off.
Our day began at 7:30 a.m., when we boarded an 18-passenger van with guide Helen Ludekha of Chornobyl Tour, a leading operator that’s run these trips for 11 years. We’d been told in advance to bring our passport, snacks, water, toilet paper and wet wipes—all of which were indeed necessary. There isn’t much in the way of creature comforts around Chernobyl these days, frozen as it is in the Soviet era and largely, though not entirely, abandoned. We were handed Geiger counters that would alert us to radiation levels throughout the journey.
During the two-hour ride northeast of Kyiv to the first of two checkpoints, we learned about the history of the accident, watched a Discovery Channel documentary about the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and signed off on safety rules that boiled down to obeying instructions. “You can easily get into trouble with the local police,” Helen said. “They’re quite bored.” Other safety tips: don’t eat or drink in the open air, don’t put belongings on soil, don’t remove anything, such as rocks.
I learned that the accident’s fallout was 100 times greater than the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined; the nearby town of Prypiat registered radiation 600,000 times greater than normal; emergency plans were inappropriate for this type of explosion; and 900,000 people worked on the clean-up. “It seems like every second Ukrainian I speak to is related to someone who worked here,” Helen said.
Our first stop was the ghost town of Zalissya, once a farmers’ village. We walked down a dirt road to a small farmhouse, where floors had gaping holes, fences were tilted, and boots sat on a window sill, the glass long gone.
Residents had been asked to leave after the accident, but many refused and others went into hiding, returning after police left the area. The last resident, a teacher, died in 2016. Nevertheless, by the 1990s, looters had grabbed furniture, scrap metal and bricks and sold the toxic goods to unsuspecting buyers. “No one knows how much contaminated goods are around today,” Helen said.
Our second stop was Radar Duga-1, a secret facility designed to track incoming missiles from the U.S. It was unrelated to Chernobyl but was nevertheless fascinating. With a height of 150 metres and length of 750 metres, it’s imposing, and cost more to build than the power plant. “It worked for 11 years,” Helen told us, “and never caught a single signal.” That’s because it was built hastily and thus inaccurate. I was struck by the tranquility of the place. A gentle breeze blew through the pine forest in which it was once hidden. Birds chirped.
It was near the abandoned village of Kopachi that we saw the kindergarten cribs. The small school is about the only building still standing there. Others, made of wood, absorbed so much radiation they were demolished and buried under ground reminiscent of Indian burial mounds. This is where our Geiger counters beeped for the first time. We brought them close to the ground, without touching it. Each machine registered a different reading, because the toxicity of soil particles varied dramatically.
They beeped again as we reached the high point of our trip—the power plant itself. We drove around the entire operation, which once supplied one-tenth of Ukraine’s power supply. I was surprised to learn the last of the five reactors was shuttered only in 2000. Today, just an electrical switch yard—an “iron forest” of hydro towers—remains operational.
The place is depressingly gray. Concrete buildings are topped with barbed wire fences. Pipes run from reactor to reactor. A huge metal shroud, akin to an oversized Quonset hut, shields ill-fated Block 4. Attempts at beautification—trees, gardens, a few sculptures—don’t disguise the industrial drabness.
We stopped for lunch at a former workers’ canteen, with its “extremely grumpy, unhappy ladies behind the counter,” as Helen aptly described them. Perhaps deliberately, the cafeteria food hasn’t changed from Soviet days: our visit featured thin borscht and dry, thoroughly flattened chicken breast over a bed of gelatinous gnocchi. Dessert was a cookie. Somehow it seemed fine.
It was then to Prypiat, a purpose-built bedroom community for Chernobyl workers. It was considered a Soviet utopia in its day, with high living standards to attract engineers. It boasted a youthful population, offering them a football stadium and swimming pool, amusement park (where the Ferris wheel and bumper cars remain), arts academy (where a grand piano still defiantly stands), and
grand hotel to impress foreign delegations.
Just three kilometres from the reactor, Prypiat residents could see the deadly explosion. “They even opened their windows to get a better view,” Helen told us. “They said the explosion was beautiful.”
The day after the accident, authorities opened the amusement park for a couple of hours, just to discourage panic. Helen said they weren’t trying to fool people: “Authorities just didn’t know the facts.” Their Geiger counters said things were safe. “It was because the equipment was so primitive,” she explained, “the levels were too high for the machines to read.”
As we returned to the checkpoints, each stepped through machines to measure their radiation level. I hoped this one was more accurate.
Chornobyl Tour offers both one-day and multi-day tours of the area, as well as specialty tours inside the power plant. Prices vary, depending on season. For details:
CommentsHanna - October 17, 2018 @ 11:17
Peter Johansen, your writing style and information is fascinating. Really enjoying these 2 pieces !!!