n March the 7th, 1986, American television viewers were shocked to discover they may no longer be hearing Gary Coleman utter the words “Watchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”. Only nineteen episodes into season eight, the hit ABC sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes” was abruptly canceled, primarily due to the real life cocaine habits of the actors that played Kimberly, Willis, Arnold, Phillip, the girl who played Willis’s girlfriend, every single one of Arnold’s classmates, and of course the widow house-cleaner Mrs Garrett.
In the weeks that followed, the world experienced a series of events that, in hindsight, were clearly a prelude to major catastrophe. George Michael filled the airwaves, inexplicably locked in at number one on music charts from London to Slough. Crocodile Dundee introduced an archetypal Australian to movie-goers around the world with “that’s not a knoife, this is a knoife”. Finally, on the morning of April 26th, 1986, a terrible tragedy occurred that would eventually span decades and change the very nature, of California.
Arnold Schwarzenegger married into the Kennedy dynasty on that day, tying the knot with a young Maria “Pam” Shriver. But, as Arnie’s champagne and steroid-fueled orgy began to swing, an even bigger disaster was unraveling – the largest nuclear catastrophe the world has ever known.
Near the little known Soviet Union town “Chernobyl”, reactor four had just exploded, releasing over four-hundred times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than Hiroshima. More than one-hundred-thousand square kilometers of land is radioactively contaminated. A deadly atomic cloud is discharged into the atmosphere, passing silently around the planet, twice. Many people perish in the initial days and weeks after the disaster, and thousands of people will die and become ill over the coming decades.
Those of us in “the West” old enough to remember 1986, have blurry pre-internet recollections. News reports hit our screens, mostly along the lines “Russian nuclear power plant explodes, damn those evil drunk Russians, we need more nukes… more nukes! MORE NUKES! U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!..”. Now, thirty years after the events of the April 1986 disaster, Western news reports typify Chernobyl as “nuclear fallout zone containing giant three-eyed fish, killer-wolves roaming an abandoned city surrounded by dead forests, damn those secretive evil drunk Russians, we need more nukes… more nukes! MORE NUKES! U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!”.
And, although that’s all true, there’s a whole lot more to Chernobyl beyond the thousands of “hauntingly beautiful and eerie” posed photos of children’s dolls and gas-masks in decaying classrooms filled with tiny furniture.
We took our overnight stay in the Chernobyl “Exclusion Zone” relatively seriously. After-all, this was part of our first Ukraine “Pop-Up Tour”, a gathering of intrepid “Untourists” from all around the planet – China, USA, Australia, Canada, the UK, and New Zealand, along with our local Ukrainian fixer. For transportation, we organised a modern Mercedes van, replete with velour seats embossed with “V.I.P”, air-con, tinted windows, television, and all the various creature comforts. In relative luxury, we approached the 10km Chernobyl Exclusion Zone checkpoint. Our passports were checked. Then’s we continued on down the abandoned road, and then, our van broke down. Really, loudly, broke.
Starting out completely destitute, moments after entering the secure Exclusion Zone area of a level-seven atomic disaster, was not part of our initial itinerary. Rather suddenly, our tour wasn’t going very well, and we couldn’t even sit down, because, well, possible radiation contamination in the dirt. Not long after this moment, my digital camera – having been with me through countless countries on several continents, across deserts and mountains, snow, dust storms, and rain, also stopped working. Permanently.
Fortunately, without too much roadside waiting, we were soon picked by a couple of soldiers in an unmarked minivan. We piled inside the type of vehicle normally driven by parents taking the kids to soccer practice, there were roughly twice as many people as seats, and we enjoyed a leisurely 140 km/h drive through the atomic wasteland. It was decided we should eat lunch at the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Power Plant worker’s canteen, and await our replacement vehicle. The canteen, not far from reactor four, services those workers who are bravely and tirelessly creating a longer-term solution to the monumental stuff-up that Chernobyl really is.
I ended up in the very back of the mini-van, squatting on the floor with five other people in the space normally reserved for a few shopping bags and the pet dog. The man squatting opposite me was dressed in camouflage, and his uniform read “Militia” in Cyrillic. By my side, an altogether shadier man was dressed all in black, his 9mm pistol dangling near my feet. With curiosity, I asked our guide/translator/friend to find out what “Mr. Black” and his 9mm were doing in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone on this fine day.
“He said he is patrolling, Nate”.
“Ask him what is he patrolling for.”
“S.T.A.L.K.E.R’s, of course, Nate.”
S.T.A.L.K.E.R’s are the mostly Russian and Ukrainian youths who have decided a fun weekender is sneaking into the off-limits Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, avoiding the very real threat of wolf-attacks and armed patrol guards, to camp-out in one of the many abandoned and collapsing villages, eat apples from radioactive trees, and drink water from the streams that run through the emptiness. Yes, this is a real thing.
So now, we’re approaching the Chernobyl reactor, to hit the local worker’s canteen, our entire tour group crammed inside an unmarked police/army/who-knows-what van, hanging with a dodgy looking guy who has the official job of patrolling for mostly Russian S.T.A.L.K.E.R’s. Things were finally looking up.
Although the Exclusion Zone is mostly deserted, the area directly around reactor four is a hive of activity. Thirty years after the disaster, cleanup and containment work on the nuclear power plant continues. The problem is, the concrete sarcophagus that envelopes reactor four (site of the initial explosion) is leaking, and the thirty-year shelf-life has come to an end. Through the concrete, at the core, Chernobyl reactor four remains lethally radioactive. If you could get close, you would die. This extreme level of toxicity won’t be changing anytime soon – so the consequences of ignoring Chernobyl remain beyond imagination.
Indeed, without ongoing maintenance, another, larger, nuclear catastrophe would have already occurred – rendering much of Europe uninhabitable and giving anyone who isn’t wearing 2 million sunblock a really bad day. Unfortunately, the Chernobyl power plant will need to be carefully monitored and coddled for many, many, centuries to come. And this is why I found it a particularly strange choice of moments for one of our guests to mention “ya know, Nate, Nuclear Power is actually one of the safest ways to generate power”. Ken from accounts, I love that guy.
Currently, there’s a large army of workers on-site, busily completing the largest movable structure in the history of humanity. Soon, the enormous shell will be slid over the existing sand and concrete filled reactor four – and then, robots and humans (“bio-robots”) will remove as much radioactive material from the reactor as possible, including dismantling the old concrete structure, moving the toxic debris to a newly constructed secure location. The new cover has an estimated lifespan of around a century. Hopefully, our multi-national Pop-Up-Tour gang were among the last people who will ever see Chernobyl Reactor Four in its current state.
It was a really strange feeling, standing so close to the deadly reactor that so much has been said about over the last few decades. But the thing is, the area around Chernobyl is, mostly, not highly radioactive. For comparison, the general background radiation throughout the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is similar to New York City. Even standing within a few hundred meters of the reactor, the measurement isn’t much higher than what you’re experiencing right now, wherever you are. If you’re currently reading this on an international flight or undergoing an x-ray, you’re now receiving a higher dose of radiation than people standing within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Even with the “safeness” of the Chernobyl area in 2016, atomic radiation is something not to be flippant about. Entering the worker’s canteen was our first experience of the many times we would be tested for radiation levels over the next two days. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R’s may not have the benefit of a guide who has been trained in the dangers of radiation and has personally visited the “zone” countless times. However, we did – and we wisely followed his instructions, most of the time anyway.
Despite the overall low-level of radiation, “hot spots” do exist. Certain objects, plants, and sections of the ground, where the radiation levels are significantly higher than normal. In one heart-stopping moment, I watched our guide hover his radiation meter over a known hot-spot, located near one of the enormous, unfinished, concrete cooling towers. Rapidly, the meter moved from a “normal” reading of 0.13, and then up to 1, 4, 19, 126, 800, and I quickly walked away as the meter read over 1400, beeping in a very distressing way.
“It’s OK Nate, we only need to worry when we reach 10,000”.
This was the revelation – I’d read extensively about Chernobyl, and viewed thousands of “hauntingly eerie and beautiful photos of a city frozen in time”. And, watched many documentaries on the events of the disaster, and the aftermath. However, that didn’t prepare me, and it won’t prepare you, for actually being on the ground at the site of such a catastrophe – especially when the radiation meter begins to beep loudly.
Radiation is a particularly strange enemy. You can’t see it, and so you’re totally dependent upon a good guide, a series of accurate meters, and above all – not allowing your mind to be tricked into panic by the surreal reality of being inside a remote ex-Soviet atomic disaster area covering over 100 square kilometers, sparsely populated with men in uniforms and stray dogs. The reality is, a visit to Chernobyl is safer than many other far more popular “tourist activities” around the world – but your mind doesn’t always agree with these facts.
There are so many sites to see around the Exclusion Zone area. This is a large, formerly thriving, Soviet district. Power plants, cooling towers, fish farms, a port, the until recently off-limits Duga “radar” facility, and the infamously abandoned “Pripyat” ghost-city, situated several kilometers away from the reactor. Established in 1970, the sole purpose of Pripyat was to house the workers and families of the Chernobyl Power Plant. At the time, Pripyat was growing, home to around 50,000 people, vibrant, and by all accounts a particularly desirable Soviet city in which to live and work. In 1986, a large workforce was required – to run the four existing nuclear power reactors and to construct a fifth, and sixth, nuclear reactor.
When disaster struck, the evacuation of Pripyat was initially delayed, and then very hasty. Residents were told their evacuation was only temporary – a tactic designed to reduce panic, and luggage. In the days following the explosion more than one thousand buses arrived, taking the residents away from their Pripyat homes to safer ground. These people became known as “refugees” of Chernobyl.
Today, apart from few dogs, wolves, tourists, and curiously no birds at all, Pripyat lies completely dormant. We were able to explore many buildings throughout the city – entering Soviet-era cultural and learning institutes such as theaters, schools, and kindergartens, stores, and many large apartment blocks, typical of Soviet architecture circa the 1970s. We climbed the stairs of a sixteen-level building to obtain a fantastic roof-top view. Pripyat is now so overgrown with vegetation, that many of the streets have disappeared. From above, this was a remarkable sight – an incredibly green city, with only the large apartment buildings poking up above the trees (and of course, the famous Ferris-Wheel in the central theme park).
Even though radiation is not of much concern in Pripyat, there are dangers. Buildings are collapsing, quite devastatingly in places. Ceilings are falling down, toxic paints and buildings materials are decaying and covering every surface. Inside the main Pripyat Hospital, we were given particularly stern warnings of the dangers. Although Pripyat city has no general radiation levels of any concern, the Hospital was at the forefront of the time-sensitive fight to stave off an even bigger disaster.
In 1986, an army of half-a-million people battled to contain the Chernobyl disaster – in unfathomable conditions where a lethal dose of radiation could be received in mere seconds. Firefighters entered the building wearing clothing doused with radioactive particles. Bandages were applied and disposed of, all covered with radioactive detritus. The entire world owes an enormous amount of gratitude to these unsung heroes.
As we stood in the hospital lobby, although I was carefully listening to the instructions of our guide, I began to stray into the building, subconsciously compelled to see what remained within.
“Nate, don’t do it… come back to me.”
A couple of feet away from where I had been standing, we measured a solitary latex glove, laying on the floor, for radiation. The meter jumped from around 1, to over 350+. This is not an unsafe level to pass by, but it was an indication that this building was really not like the rest of Pripyat. We then scanned a piece of machinery – the meter jumped higher than the glove reading. It was suggested we didn’t enter any rooms of the hospital without checking the meter first, stay away from walls, don’t touch any bandages, clothing, equipment, or anything really, and definitely don’t visit the basement, where radioactive materials have since been collected and stored.
Of course, the Pripyat hospital makes for an exceptionally “haunting” backdrop for “ruin-porn” photography. There are some particularly harrowing scenes within these hospital walls. However, as with other sites around Pripyat, it’s clear that those perfectly composed photos of babies cribs, dolls, and specimen jars set against the grittiest wall you’re ever likely to see, are simply props within a very unusual theatrical production. Mostly, they’re staged. Sorry.
After thirty years, there remains very little of any value, anywhere in Pripyat city. Any object worth anything at all has long been removed. Residents, who had been initially evacuated from Pripyat, were allowed to temporarily return to reclaim their belongings. Many did – stripping their apartments bare. After a certain amount of time, all of the apartments were declared “fair game” to anyone who would like to remove anything. I visited and explored the inside of perhaps thirty apartments, all that remained was furniture. Every cupboard and wardrobe, empty.
Those “moments frozen in time” photos – the kitchen table with the old newspaper, the coffee cup, and the child’s doll, sure, they’re incredible, and will set imaginations alight – but almost all of these scenes have been staged. However, if anything, the theatrics were enhancing, not deriding, to the Chernobyl experience. How can you not laugh, seeing a carefully placed dirty-faced child’s doll, now wearing a gas mask, sitting on a tiny chair beside a tiny school desk with an unfinished colouring book, in just that perfect way? Sure, the small details may sometimes be staged – but Pripyat is a very real, very incredible, completely amazing abandoned city – with no parallel anywhere on the planet.
You would think with a city this size, there must be some totally unexplored apartments. However, thirty years later, it’s extremely unlikely. Surprisingly, some of Pripyat’s facilities, such as the Gymnasium/Swimming Pool complex, remained open and operational for up to fifteen years after the initial disaster. For several decades, people have been wandering these city streets and exploring all of these buildings – tourism to the abandoned atomic city really only became regulated about five years ago.
It’s been said that Chernobyl is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ukraine. Last year was the busiest season yet. Not accounting for S.T.A.L.K.E.R’s, around sixteen-thousand tourists officially visited Pripyat over a twelve month period – almost all of them day-trippers from Kiev. Sixteen thousand seems like a lot, but in reality is little more than forty a day on average – wandering around an overgrown city that once housed fifty-thousand people, within an Exclusion Zone that covers around one-hundred square kilometers.
It’s all too easy to be cynical. Especially, if you’re a Soviet-o-phile who has spent too many years aimlessly ambling around ex-USSR nations, including some that may-or-may-not actually exist (my hand is up). However, even with the increased numbers of visitors in Chernobyl and Pripyat – this remains decidedly fringe, not mainstream, tourism.
There are a few things that made our “tour” of the Exclusion Zone memorable, and more unique than most. Importantly, we had a guide who is well connected, experienced, and was far more interested in keeping us safe, rather than impressing us with the unwanted bravado that this kind of job naturally attracts. We were educated, and amazed, we covered a lot of ground and received a curated overview of the highlights from a very large area – not just the photogenic abandoned city. Another key to our journey was staying overnight in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – in the nearby namesake town, Chernobyl.
Unexpectedly, Chernobyl, the town, is absolutely charming. It’s small, current population around seven-hundred, housing mostly the local clean-up workers and those that provide essential local services. It’s a real working town – with a market/general-store/pub, post office, a couple of hotels, a few houses, a lot of apartment blocks, and one of the last statues of Lenin in Ukraine – all located within spotlessly clean, quiet, and leafy streets. At night the sky is perfect for stars-gazers, as the town has very few streetlights. Chernobyl is quiet, friendly, and really, we all enjoyed it so much. I would suggest an overnighter, at least, should be carefully considered as a “requirement” of visiting the Exclusion Zone.
At the local Chernobyl market/pub, doing a roaring trade after a busy day at the plant, a local worker who spoke English overheard me saying to the group “we really should get more than two bottles of Vodka”. We joked about the anti-radioactive properties of hard liquor, looked over at the full-body radiation scanners near the entrance, and grinned. Whether this is true or myth, I was surprised that the locals seemed genuinely glad we were around town at this time of night. Maybe the appreciation our small multi-national group received, was earned by bringing a few welcome smiles and just a hint of normality – to a town that is tasked with one of the world’s most dangerous clean-up jobs.
In any case, I was acutely aware of my status of “tourist” throughout my time in Chernobyl. However, all of the locals I engaged with over my two days within “the zone” – the police, army, Mr. Black the S.T.A.L.K.E.R patrol guy, our Soviet-era hotel staff, the ladies at the worker’s canteen, and the plant workers, made me feel welcome. Perhaps, one day, I’d consider staying in Chernobyl for more than an overnighter – perhaps a week or so. Perhaps.
As we left the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to head back to the “real world” of Kiev, there’s a requirement that all people and vehicles are checked for radiation prior to exiting. After two days, I was used to these checks – a full-body machine that you stand inside, press your palms on the readers and wait for the results. Disconcertingly, you’re awaiting a bright red, not green, light to indicate “all clear”. Previously, we’d been scanned at the worker’s canteen, at the market, and at various checkpoints within the Exclusion Zone. Even my camera had been specifically scanned for radiation – alas, it was radiation free, but still not functioning.
Our final check of the day occurred at the 30km Exclusion Zone border. I entered the radiation-check-point building, underneath one of the most beautiful sunsets I’d ever seen. I wondered what would happen if anyone from the group “failed” this final radiation test, but brushed the thought away, as by this point it’s really just a formality.
Inside, I entered a testing machine, one of four lined up next to each other, for one last time.
Moments later, a very loud buzzing alarm started.
I didn’t get the “all clear” red light.
I got the “awwww shit” light.
The buzzer pulsated and screeched. Lights were flashing. Our guide asked me what had I done. He asked, no, he insinuated, that I was playing around inside the machine. He thought this was some kind of elaborate prank I had somehow pulled, to get him back for scaring the shit out of me inside one of the buildings at Pripyat.
I told him, no, I wasn’t playing around. This was real.
And I was starting to worry, perhaps even panic.
“Really, Nate, really?”
The lights and buzzers were still going off.
“Yes, really, fuck you, I’m not joking, what the fuck is happening?”
His eyes widened, and his perma-smile shifted into a concerned frown. This expression, coming from a man who has visited Chernobyl countless times, was the complete opposite of the reassurance I desperately needed at this moment.
A soldier came running into the room, and stared directly at me, still standing inside the machine.
His eyes were also wide, and he also held a concerned frown.
The soldier instructed me to retake the radiation test, three more times.
I moved to another machine.
Maybe that second machine wasn’t switched on, but either way, I needed to get out of there, fast.
My heart still beating, I walked outside, lit three cigarettes, and awaited the rest of the gang to pass their radiation tests.
Our tour guests started to appear from the building, one by one.
“So, who set off the alarm? …we could hear it buzzing from outside the building, and the soldier absolutely took off running past us, heading inside to see what was happening…”
“It was me, fucking hell, this is actually some scary shit…”
“Nate, you idiot. Hey, apparently Michelle set the alarm off as well – what the hell is going on?”
I turned towards the building, and at that moment, Michelle came walking outside.
A few steps outside, Michelle stopped walking.
She looked as white as a ghost.
Michelle put her hands on her knees, bowed her head, and vomited, substantially.
Vomiting is one of the first, key, indicators of severe radiation poisoning.
Now, I was really wondering just what in the fuck was going on.
The group, standing on the side of the road, outside of the testing building, was showing signs of worry.
We had been wandering around for two days inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
At the beginning, we were stranded with a broken down van, and now, we were just trying to leave, setting off all kinds of radiation alarms. One of our guests was throwing up. This was really not what we expected, at all.
I looked over at my fellow tour organisers, Darmon and Phillipa.
“BEST. TOUR. EVER.”
PS, as it turns out, a severe Vodka induced hangover will result in the same symptoms as radiation poisoning. Yada yada yada, we’re all fine now.
PPS, we just launched our next Ukraine Pop-Up Tour, and would love for you to come along… apart from Chernobyl, we’re heading to Kiev, Odessa, Transnistria, and Moldova… details here …hope you can join us.