People, Travel

The Nuclear Tourist An unforeseen legacy of the Chernobyl meltdown

The Nuclear Tourist An unforeseen legacy of the Chernobyl meltdownThe Nuclear Tourist An unforeseen legacy of the Chernobyl meltdown

They say that five sieverts of radiation is enough to kill you, so I was curious to see the reading on my Russian-made dosimeter as our tour van passed into the exclusion zone—the vast, quarantined wilderness that surrounds the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.

Thick stands of pines and birches crowded the roadside as our guide reminded us of the ground rules: Don’t pick the mushrooms, which concentrate radionuclides, or risk letting the contaminants into your body by eating or smoking outdoors. A few minutes later we passed the first of the abandoned villages and pulled over to admire a small band of wild Przewalski’s horses.

Twenty-eight years after the explosion of a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, the zone, all but devoid of people, has been seized and occupied by wildlife. There are bison, boars, moose, wolves, beavers, falcons. In the ghost city of Pripyat, eagles roost atop deserted Soviet-era apartment blocks. The horses—a rare, endangered breed—were let loose here a decade after the accident, when the radiation was considered tolerable, giving them more than a thousand square miles to roam, according to the National Geographic.

A few minutes later we reached Zalesye, an old farming village, and wandered among empty houses. Broken windows, peeling paint, crumbling plaster. On the floor of one home a discarded picture of Lenin—pointy beard, jutting chin—stared sternly at nothing, and hanging by a cord on a bedroom wall was a child’s doll. It had been suspended by the neck as if with an executioner’s noose. Outside, another doll sat next to the remains of a broken stroller. These were the first of the macabre tributes we saw during our two days in the zone. Dolls sprawling half dressed in cribs, gas masks hanging from trees—tableaux placed by visitors, here legally or otherwise, signifying a lost, quiet horror.

Farther down the road we were surprised by an inhabitant. Dressed in a scarf, a red sweater, and a winter vest, Rosalia is one of what officials call the “returnees”—stubborn old people, women mostly, who insist on living out their lives in the place they call home. She seemed happy for the company. Prompted by our guide, she told us of worse hardships. The lands around Chernobyl (or Chornobyl, as it is known in Ukraine) are part of the Pripyat Marshes on the eastern front, where the bloodiest battles of World War II were fought. She remembers the German soldiers and the hardships under Stalin.

  Most Important Human Advance

“You can’t see radiation,” she said in Ukrainian. Anyway, she added, she is not planning to have children. She lives with five cats. Before we departed, she showed us her vegetable garden and said her biggest problem now is Colorado potato bugs.

There is something deeply rooted in the human soul that draws us to sites of unimaginable disaster. Pompeii, Antietam, and Treblinka—all eerily quiet now. But in the 21st century we hold a special awe for the aftermath of nuclear destruction. The splitting of the atom almost a hundred years ago promised to be the most important human advance since the discovery of fire. Unleashing the forces bound inside atomic nuclei would bring the world nearly limitless energy. Inevitably it was first used in warfare, but after Hiroshima and Nagasaki a grand effort began to provide electricity “too cheap to meter,” freeing the world from its dependence on fossil fuels.

Then there is the specter of nuclear meltdown. In 2011, Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst catastrophe at a nuclear power plant, was officially declared a tourist attraction.

Nuclear tourism; coming around the time of the Fukushima disaster, the idea seems absurd. That is precisely what drew me, along with the wonder of seeing towns and a whole city—almost 50,000 people lived in Pripyat—that had been abandoned in a rush, left to the devices of nature.

  Contagious Land

The other diehards in the van had come for their own reasons. John, a young man from London, was into “extreme tourism.” Gavin from Australia and Georg from Vienna were working together on a performance piece about the phenomenon of quarantine. We are used to thinking of sick people quarantined from the general population. Here it was the land itself that was contagious.

Of all my fellow travelers, the most striking was Anna, a quiet young woman from Moscow. She was dressed all in black with fur-lined boots, her long dark hair streaked with a flash of magenta. It reminded me of radioactivity. This was her third time at Chernobyl, and she had just signed up for another five-day tour later in the year.

“I’m drawn to abandoned places that have fallen apart and decayed,” she said. Mostly she loved the silence and the wildlife—this accidental wilderness. On her T-shirt was a picture of a wolf.

“ ‘Radioactive Wolves’?” I asked. It was the name of a documentary I’d seen on PBS’sNature about Chernobyl. “It’s my favorite film,” she said.

In the early hours of April 26, 1986, during a scheduled shutdown for routine maintenance, the night shift at Chernobyl’s reactor number four was left to carry out an important test of the safety systems—one delayed from the day before, when a full, more experienced staff had been on hand.

Within 40 seconds a power surge severely overheated the reactor, rupturing some of the fuel assemblies and quickly setting off two explosions. The asphalt roof of the plant began burning, and, much more threatening, so did the graphite blocks that made up the reactor’s core.

A plume of smoke and radioactive debris rose high into the atmosphere and began bearing north toward Belarus and Scandinavia. Within days the fallout had spread across most of Europe.

An excerpt from an article by George Johnson for the National Geographic.