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Anyone with half an education will know a little about this Soviet catastrophe that shook the world. Not only was it the world’s first big nuclear disaster, which caused clouds of radioactive dust to rain over Europe, it is also partially responsible for the collapse of the great Soviet Empire. It was a careless mistake that killed untold numbers and will effect the earth even after we as humans are long gone (plutonium has a half life of 24,100 years).
The year 2016 was the 30th anniversary of this disaster, which now attracts over 10,000 tourists a year. It seems dark tourism is on the rise yet two day tours are still quite rare. Part of the appeal of these tours is being where history took place. In Chernobyl the 30 km zone is still uninhabitable. The city of Pripyat a ghost town, it’s 50,000 residents hastily evacuated leaving most of their belongings behind. Watching nature reclaim it is fascinating. Hearing the history and witnessing the empty schools and shops tragic. All at once you have the fascination of being somewhere dangerous, sad and tragic yet so beautiful.
Apparently there is little risk to tourists. The outer zone registers no more radiation then in Kiev. Enter the inner zone and the Geiger counters we rented go nuts. All slowly beeping together in a combined frenzy to tell us that radiation is at unsafe levels to live at. However it is still at a level far less than an X-ray or cross Atlantic flight. The guide knows where the hot spots of buried waste are and generally keeps us away.
When I get back in the van the driver berates me for stepping over the seat. The guide explains that to leave each zone we need to do a radiation check. It is possible for me to tread on an invisible radioactive hot spot collecting radioactive dust, which could fall off my shoes onto his seat. The authorities won’t let anything radioactive leave the area so he would have to remove the offending chair and leave it behind. Seems a little far fetched but the driver seems seriously concerned. People have had to go back to Kiev barefoot or pant less before.
Apparently many people in Kiev own Geiger counters which they use to check any used items of furniture in apartments or in stores. Much has been looted out of Chernobyl and these “hot” goods were sold extensively in the chaos after the fall of the Soviet Union. One girl I met told me about one of her friends who kept a Geiger counter on their window sill. It would go crazy every time a certain bus drove past her house. She called the authorities and the bus disappeared as it was too hot for actual use. This happened only last year. The Ukrainian people are living with a nightmare of a tourist attraction and most do not understand why anyone would want to visit Chernobyl.
To enter the zone means you have to get a permit a few days in advance. The tour company does this on your behalf. To go you have to agree to a whole bunch of rules; no taking anything from the zone, no eating anything from or in the zone, no entering abandoned buildings and no smoking. From my photos it is clear that the guide was happy for us to enter buildings hence you will have to email me if you want the name of this highly recommended company. Some daring locals enter the zone illegally for a thrill. Called Stalkers they go for the fun of the cat and mouse game with the patrols. Staying in abandoned buildings and traveling at night it can take three days to reach the centre. Those that are caught receive a minor fine. Try to leave with anything you didn’t bring in, and the penalties are quite harsh.
An interesting note. The top of the reactor was so radioactive after the accident that robots kept malfunctioning due to the radioactivity in their circuits. To continue the clean up “bio-robots” were used. These human troops were given the choice of two years in Afghanistan or two minutes on the roof top of Chernobyl shovelling radio active degree. Even with lead suits they could only work for 40 seconds maximum at a time.
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