The site of an infamous power plant may not be a likely place to spend your vacation but every year, curious tourists make their way to Chernobyl for a look at where the world’s worst nuclear disaster took place.
On Apr. 26, 1986, at 1:23 a.m., reactor No. 4 exploded, releasing nearly nine tons of radioactive material into the environment. That’s 90 times as much as the Hiroshima bomb. It contaminated the air, soil and water in parts of Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and Russia.
There are disputes surrounding the number of deaths the accident caused. The World Health Organization reports that fewer than 50 deaths can be directly attributed to that day, and predicts some 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure released in the melt down. Greenpeace contends that the eventual fatalities will be closer to 93,000.
However, the contaminated zones are apparently safe enough for tourists to visit. (I’m not entirely convinced, I?suppose?I’ll know for sure if I start glowing green.) There are several Kiev-based tour agencies that offer all-inclusive day trips to Chernobyl.
My own trip to the site began with a 120-kilometre drive from Kiev, to an area near the reactor called the exclusion zone. I presented my passport at a series of checkpoints, got a safety briefing, signed a waiver and drove through a deserted area.
Despite high levels of radiation, everything looked normal. The grass was a healthy shade of green, trees were full and leafy, bees were pollinating. Nature has been resilient — or it appears so, at any rate.
I hopped out of the van and stood in front of the infamous reactor. It was incredible how close I could get, considering there’s still radioactive sludge brewing inside.
My Geiger counter was reading off the charts near patches of moss on the ground. Since the moss is soaked with radiation, tourists are warned against touching or standing on any clumps.
No eating, drinking or smoking either — although the tour group did end up drinking vodka with a guide who claimed it would protect against radiation poisoning.
Next was a visit to Pripyat, a town three kilometres away from the reactor, from which 45,000 people were evacuated following the disaster.
Walking around this abandoned city, I felt as if I were the last woman on earth. It was post-apocalyptic.
Wilderness had taken over, dominating cement structures, causing them to crumble and crack like Roman ruins. Weeds pushed through floor boards and branches overtook ex-apartments.
Rusted cribs and burndt dolls were scattered around a former preschool. With school books strewn around the room and black boards still fresh with chalky arithmetic, the scene was a time capsule of Soviet-era life.
An amusement park, set to open the day after the nuclear explosion, was just a graveyard of rusting bumper cars and a lone ferris wheel.
The scariest part of the tour was learning that the “sarcophagus,” a concrete-and-steel shell built to contain Reactor No. 4’s radioactive spew, is leaking.
Our guide warned, that if the proper measurements aren’t taken in the next few years to rebuild this deteriorating shelter, there’s a real risk of a more severe Chernobyl-type disaster happening again.
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