When I told my friends and family where I was going on my holidays I was met with quite a few raised eyebrows: the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident probably isn’t exactly what you’d expect to find at the top of anyone’s destination list, in place of a sunny beach and some cocktails. But I could barely contain my excitement, and I loved it so much that I even wrote a book about it, called ‘The Road to Chernobyl’.
One night back in November, about a year ago, I went out for drinks with some friends. The following day I was feeling the effects, so I took refuge on the living room sofa and found a repeat episode of Top Gear. On this particular episode the presenters were driving across Ukraine and eventually to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Having studied physics for years this intrigued me, and I spent a few minutes on my phone – still on the sofa – researching how one gets to Chernobyl. Very quickly, I made the decision to go.
I arrived in Kiev late on a Monday afternoon, and after settling in I prepared myself for the trip to Chernobyl the following day. Kiev itself is a stunning and vibrant city, full of an often dark history from the Soviet era to much more recent times: on many roads and paths you will find permanent chalk outlines of the people who were killed during the bloody 2014 Revolution. It’s certainly somewhere I recommend visiting if you ever get the chance.
‘Eerie’ is probably the best way to describe the Exclusion Zone and everything in it, though the word doesn’t even begin to come near to describing just how eerie the place is. When we arrived at the 30km border checkpoint we had to wait to have our passports checked and be allowed in. I took a few moments to look back along the road we had just travelled, and a soft fog hung over everything. The sky was overcast, with a hint of brightness coming through. The air was cool and damp, and the whole countryside around us was silent.
The abandoned villages barely exist anymore: wooden structures were demolished and buried because they could not be decontaminated, their burial sites marked with a signpost bearing a radiation warning symbol, like a cold, metallic headstone. The concrete buildings that do remain are disintegrating having been unmaintained for three decades. Ceilings are stained with leak marks as the roofs above them crumble; floorboards are soft and warped, punctuated with holes throughout; debris is scattered about the place.
Tens of thousands of people were evacuated from Pripyat about a day and a half after the explosion at Reactor 4 in the nearby power plant – it wasn’t even an immediate evacuation, and people were not informed of the seriousness of the incident – and were told they’d be back in a matter of days. That never happened. The nuclear city still stands empty, devoid of human inhabitants. Nature is creeping back, however, as it always does: in Lenin Square in the centre of the city trees and shrubs are growing from the gaps in the concrete slabs; dried leaves cover the surface of a bumper car ride in the famous fairground; the twisting roots of trees rise up underneath walls, breaking them up.
Over time, Pripyat will disintegrate and crumble back to nothingness – ashes to ashes, as they say. Dust to dust. But the power plant won’t undergo the same fate: it can’t be allowed to, not for a long, long time.
Following the explosion on 26 April 1986, a concrete structure was built around the exposed reactor core to shield it from the rest of the world. It was done quickly as a temporary measure, and was not meant to last long. Continued maintenance over the years meant that the solid tomb could last longer, and was given a lifetime of about 30 years. We’re now at the end of that lifetime, and in its place a huge structure called the New Safe Confinement will be placed. The NSC is being built next to the reactor building, and on completion it will roll along specially-built tracks over the reactor.
I stood at the memorial site a couple of hundred metres from the reactor building, looking up at it, and thought to myself ‘I’m finally here, I’m finally at Chernobyl’. In my hand I held a digital Geiger counter which measured the amount of radiation I was being exposed to. As I took a few steps in the direction of the reactor building – still quite far away – the counter’s reading shot up. Another few steps, an even higher reading. My exposure was rapidly climbing the longer I stood there, and my counter began to sound an alarm to tell me it’s probably not a good idea to hang around too long.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is surprisingly busy with workers, scientists, guards, and so on. A couple of cranes were in action over Reactor 4, a little too close for comfort for my liking. Being home to several reactors, the power plant continued to operate and produce electricity long after the accident: in 2000 the last reactor – Reactor 3, next to the destroyed building – was shut down. The decommissioning process is ongoing.
38 people died as a direct result of the accident at Reactor 4 in 1986, from a helicopter crash, acute radiation sickness immediately after the accident, and massive health problems caused by radiation later on. The number of indirect deaths and sicknesses is effectively speculative. Some sources say there has been no rise in attributable cancers, while others say hundreds of thousands will eventually die or be affected as a result in the future. I’m not sure we’ll ever really know for certain the full extent of the effects of the accident.
When I arrived in Ukraine I was very much in holiday mode. My taxi driver – not much older than me – said I’d really enjoy it, but that he had never visited. It brought back too many bad memories for him. On the night of the accident he was on a break with his family between Kiev and Chernobyl. Before many people knew what was happening, his father got a phonecall in the middle of the night telling him that he and his family needed to get away from there as fast as possible, because something very bad had just happened at the power plant.
That really brought me back down to Earth, and made me appreciate the extent of what this event meant, not only for people in Ukraine and Belarus, but for the world.