I first went to Kiev, the elegant 19thC capital of Ukraine, 15 years ago and saw the Chernobyl Museum there. That was 15 years after the nuclear disaster when a series of blasts brought down Reactor No. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
It was the gravest technological catastrophe of the twentieth century when fifty million curies (Ci) of radioactivity was released into the atmosphere. Four hundred and eighty-five villages and towns were wiped out. The number of people dead is still uncalculated.
I knew I had to go and see the place once there was a way to get into the ‘radio active exclusion zone’. Now, thirty years after the disaster, you can go into the toxic wasteland that is the ‘Zone’ but not as an individual. You have to join a tour. And so I did, travelling with 9 others, to the Zone, about 60kms north of Kiev.
We went through various checkpoints (there are 12 in all) and through contamination machines to check radiation exposure. If you don’t pass the test you become one of ‘them’ with the eyes that glow at night. Just like in the movies, but this time it would be for real!
We had to wear long trousers, long-sleeved shirts, boots and not touch anything or pet friendly stray dogs. Dust is the enemy. All over the place there are yellow triangular street signs with three red dots warned us of no-go high radiation areas. When our little yellow Geiger counters bleeped loudly you had to back off fast.
In 1970 a town a couple of kilometers from the power plant was built to serve it. A five-minute drive away, it was lovely. It had a hotel, cinema, school, hospital, blocks of flats, rows of cottages, supermarket, a fairground with a ferris wheel. It was called Pripyat after the Pripyat River. It was the Soviet Union’s ninth nuclear city.
The residents loved living there until, in 1986, they heard the bang and saw the flames when the concrete protecting Reactor No. 4 cracked on April 27th and the 1,000 ton roof blew off from a steam explosion. Their pretty new town was enveloped in radioactive fog and it was blown to hell and gone.
The Zone had to be evacuated. For the next 10 days, every inhabitant was taken in 1,200 buses to somewhere safe(r), possessions and pets left behind. They were to start from zero in some other town. Moscow said little, preferring to cover it up. It was a matter of evacuate and be done.Abandoned house in Chernobyl
We obviously couldn’t stay in nuclear blasted Pripyat, so we slept-over in the town of Chernobyl where there are some rooms for workers. From there we set off to see Pripyat.
Welcome to a ghost town, unmaintained for 30 years and crumbling. Paradise turned to hell on earth. Between lines of fresh green trees, small villages appeared flattened as grassy hills, abandoned houses in various states of decay peeped out between the branches, sometimes whole deserted apartment blocks were glimpsed.Classroom
Then the town, scarily desolate. The main square with the destroyed fountain and the overgrown silver birches. The Soviet-era Palace of Culture was just broken wooden shelves and legless chairs. The supersize pool with its diving boards and changing room, the hospital with its maternity ward, the nursery with its empty cots, ruined dolls and a wheel-less tricycle.Hospital ward
Somebody piped up: “Just like Newcastle, the wheels have been knicked!” We laughed, uneasily, and picked our way through to the school with the classroom with a picture of Lenin still on the wall, and the rusty dodgem cars in the funfair. Pripyat is such a mysterious place.
Nearby are 2000 people working on the nuclear reactors – they work six months on, six months off, off somewhere else far away. The current project is a vast steel sheath, a curved dome to cover the entire plant of Reactor 4. 18,000 tonnes of metal alone is needed. It’s a £1.3bil job funded by donations from various nations, and designed to contain concrete, radioactive dust, nuclear material, graphite, disintegrating walls and gamma rays. The dome is to stop it spewing death again.
It is large enough to encase Notre Dame cathedral and it sparkles dazzlingly in the sun. The UK’s largest bird of prey, a white-tailed eagle, flew overhead, circling, spotting a possibly radiated mouse. Men in bright yellow jackets rushed forward indicating to us to not take photos of the reactors. The wind whistled in the trees. We all spoke in subdued voices. Grotesque yet fascinating, and contaminated forever.
We get back onto the bus and drive past a sign saying : ‘Drive as fast as you can’, heading back speedily to the buzz and energy Kiev with her glorious churches and elegant houses. We want to get home, clean the dust off our boots and have a long, hot, cleansing shower.
The Zone, Chernobyl, is a place I’ll never forget and am so grateful to have been there. But I’m not sure I’ll be rushing back to Pripyat. Maybe one day I’ll go back to the Zone to trek with the wolves, the deer and the big brown bears they say live in the forests. Maybe to watch the silvery sheath being slid over the remains of Reactor 4. But I’m not at all sure about that.
TOP IMAGE: By Doroshvin via Shutterstock.com
OTHER IMAGES: By Dominika Trelinska