A chilling tourist attraction

It looks like a baby monitor, but the beeping device that tour guide Dennis Zaburin clutches in his hand monitors radiation. The digits on the dosimeter's display change rapidly, indicating rising and falling danger.

Chernobyl, Ukraine

It looks like a baby monitor, but the beeping device that tour guide Dennis Zaburin clutches in his hand monitors radiation.

The digits on the dosimeter’s display change rapidly, indicating rising and falling danger.

Besides the beeps, our footsteps are the only sounds we hear, multiplied as they echo off the abandoned buildings that surround us.

Dennis knows where it’s “safe,” and which spots to avoid. But I have my doubts.

I am, after all, at the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident: Chernobyl.

More than 20 years after the atomic genie was released from the bottle, the invisible danger in this modern ghost town remains.

Dennis tells me not to worry, but I can see the readout on his dosimeter. It reads 1,800. Only a few hours earlier he told me that 50 is normal.

What am I doing here?

***

On April 26, 1986, Reactor Number Four at Chernobyl, in what was then the Soviet Union, blew up.

For some reason, I’ve always been fascinated by the tragic event. I’ve read the books, seen the movies and played the game (yes, there is actually a video game set in Chernobyl).

I think this fascination comes from how man’s quest to control nature backfired and how nature is slowly reclaiming a city where thousands once worked, raised families and made a community.

At the time of the accident, four reactors were in operation and two more were under construction. It was during a systems test in the early morning hours of that spring day that things went terribly wrong.

Technicians tried to stop the test and rein in the reactor, but it was out of control. It overheated, resulting in a massive blast. While it wasn’t a nuclear explosion, the reactor blew apart, shooting radioactive debris more than a kilometre and a half into the sky.

In the days after the explosion, winds carried radioactive fallout across most of Europe. Eventually more than 300,000 people were forced to relocate.

It may seem a macabre place to visit, but is Chernobyl any different than the sites of tragedies like Auschwitz or New York’s Ground Zero?

It, too, has become hallowed ground where people come to witness history and to remember.

***

Chernobyl lies about 130 kilometres northwest of Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine’s capital. It is an atomic bull’s-eye in the middle of the menacingly named Zone of Alienation, a 30-kilometre exclusion area that surrounds the power plant.

Just after 9 a.m. on a sunny Wednesday I board a tour bus in central Kyiv, along with five Swedes and a Norwegian.

We pass through a series of military checkpoints before arriving at the town of Chernobyl. While the power station is referred to as Chernobyl, it is actually located in Pripyat, a model Soviet town founded in 1970 to support the nuclear complex.

We stop at a bland government building and head inside. This is where I first meet Zaburin, our young but serious government tour guide.

The 27-year-old is dressed in blue jeans, camo jacket and a Formula 1 ball cap. He doesn’t smile. Perhaps he doesn’t like his job?

Inside a large room lined with maps and photographs of the disaster, Dennis gives us a short lecture about what happened and what to expect.

***

The tour begins at what Dennis calls the vehicle museum. It’s really nothing more than a few military vehicles scattered about a grass field in desperate need of a mow. Dennis waves his dosimeter a few inches from a tank—the numbers skyrocket.

Even though I know how dangerous radiation is, it’s easy to forget about the risk because it’s invisible. But the signs and the beeping of the dosimeter keep reminding me.

Most of the time our group is quite boisterous—making comments, asking questions, taking pictures. But at the Monument to the Firemen we become subdued.

Until this point we’ve only seen objects that were affected by the disaster. The large blue sculpture before us reminds us of the human toll.

***

A few kilometres down a deserted road, partially completed cooling towers and idle construction cranes welcome us to the reactor complex. We drive past stagnant cooling ponds and a decaying network of electrical transmission infrastructure before reaching the heart of the disaster: Reactor Number Four, an enormous and enormously frightening building.

Nearby is another poignant tribute: the Monument to the Liquidators.

In the weeks, months and years that followed the explosion, 100,000 troops and 400,000 experts and civilians worked to stabilize the complex and clean up the radioactive mess. They became known as the liquidators, and their work may have saved countless millions. But they paid a high price: many became very sick. Many died.

The Sarcophagus, a hastily constructed containment structure, covers the wreckage of Reactor Number Four.

Built as a temporary measure, it is the only thing standing between tons of loose radioactive material and the outside world. As I stand before the giant tomb, Dennis explains that it is in dire need of replacement. If it were to collapse, clouds of radioactive dust would be released into the air, creating another nuclear disaster.

***

The final portion of our tour is Pripyat, the power plant’s support city that once had a population of about 50,000. Today nobody lives there. No one.

Back in 1986, officials told residents that the evacuation was temporary and they need only bring a few days’ worth of clothes. As a result, most people left everything behind, unaware that they would never return.

Pripyat was a modern city before the disaster. Today, it is a crumbling shell, a surreal place where empty roads are lined with street lamps that never light. The only traffic is the occasional bright yellow dump truck emblazoned with radioactive symbols. Dennis warns us not to breathe when they pass by. The dust could be hazardous to our health.

It’s at the main square where I really feel Pripyat’s emptiness. Dennis tells us we’re free to explore the city’s skeletons: A grocery store filled with overturned carts and mouldy signs. A hotel waiting for guests that will never come. Disconnected phone booths, empty swimming pools and overgrown paths that snake past faded signs highlighting the achievements of a country that has ceased to exist.

Books, chairs and even radiators are scattered about, the flotsam and jetsam of 1980s Soviet life. A child’s ballet shoe here, a trumpet case there. A strip of old film, perhaps touting the bright future of this atomic city?

***

The children of Pripyat must have been bursting with excitement in the days before the disaster. A new amusement park was scheduled to open on May 1, 1986 in honour of May Day. It never did.

Instead of children’s laughter, this amusement park is silent, a sad reminder of shattered dreams and the lives ripped apart. The large decaying Ferris wheel has become a tragic symbol of the disaster. A few steps away, I spot a rotting stuffed toy hanging in the smashed window of a ticket booth, as if caught in mid-escape.

It feels like the set of a zombie movie, but Pripyat is not dead. It’s renewing itself. Just as nature is slowly returning, evident in the grass that now grows between the cracks in the plaza or the shrubs and trees that have found root in the contaminated soil, so too are people slowly returning to the area, albeit in the form of visitors like me.

It may be thousands of years before this area is safe enough for human habitation. Until then, the site of mankind’s worst nuclear disaster may become one of the world’s most chilling tourist attractions.

Doug Murray is a freelance

journalist based in Vancouver.

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