Visiting scenes of devastation and death, such as Auschwitz, The Killing Fields or Ground Zero is always a sobering experience. People go to pay respect to lost ones, many to experience a place in history or visit because of a morbid curiosity. I must admit my visit to the Chernobyl Power Station was the latter.
In the early hours of the 26th April 1986 the number four nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Power Station hidden deep in the countryside of southern Soviet Union (now Ukraine) exploded causing the world’s largest civil nuclear disaster. It was an explosion so enormous it released over 100 times more radiation into the heavens than one of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
My visit to Chernobyl started in Kiev as part of an organized tour. After a two hour journey from the Ukrainian capital we entered the military exclusion zone at 30 kilometres which circles the plant. Entry to the zone is now strictly controlled and our passports were taken and checked. We were taken to a classroom where our guide informed us of the rules, don’t touch anything, don’t walk on the grass and cover your lower legs, which was a disappointment to the Kiwi and Australians in flip flops and board shorts. We then each signed a declaration absolving the Ukrainian government of the any blame if anything happened to us. As we stepped out of the building a cute kitten headed our way; it was hilarious as forty adults backed away from an adorable cat in fear.
Today, around 500 people live in Chernobyl, mainly workers employed to continue decommissioning the reactors. We were surprised to find a corner shop although it was stocked with a meagre supply of produce.
We circled the half built reactors surrounded by cranes suspended in animation until we came face to face with the disastrous reactor 4. At a 20th anniversary monument behind the reactor and with trepidation, we left the coach to walk around and take photos. The ugly grey reactor encased in concrete was just 400m away.
Following a circuit of the reactor we moved on to the deserted town of Prypiat just a few kilometres away. The population prior to the explosion was 50,000, mainly comprised of workers from the plant. Following the disaster many people waited days for buses to safety. No-one has returned to live.
Prypiat is now an eerie ghost town with birch trees springing out through cracks in the concrete, crumbling apartment blocks, Iron Hammer and Sickle decorations rusting on lamp posts and the occasional picture of Lenin on faded signs.
We walked around the indoor swimming pool littered with broken glass and debris under foot. The school had been looted, with textbooks scattered over the floor and left to decay like the rest of the town.
A particularly haunting and iconic image of Prypiat is that of the fairground; a big wheel constructed for a May Day celebration sits unused and corroding, such happier times, long since forgotten. There are dodgem cars frozen in time, waiting to be driven for over two decades. This part of town is one of the more contaminated parts of Prypiat. Our guide placed the Dosimeter on a patch of moss on the ground, the reading shot up so quickly it had to be reset.
At the end of the tour we were tested for radiation by standing on an upright metal contraption and clasping our hands on a sensor. The green light was a welcome sight. We then took lunch in the Chernobyl Power Station workers canteen; thankfully all the food was shipped in from Kiev. However, the Garlic buns seemed unnaturally potent.
The only good to come from the disaster is that it opened the eyes to the world of the dangers with nuclear energy and many countries started to disband their nuclear weapons.
The Ukrainian government briefly permitted tours to the area, yet soon withdrew this authorization, when monies raised from tours failed to be channelled through the appropriate authorities. There are various unofficial tours to Chernobyl Power Station and Prypiat like ours, booked via tourist agencies in Kiev.