18 November 2009
I Went To Chernobyl. No, Seriously. I Did.
Probably the first thought on your mind is: “People can go to Chernobyl? Didn’t a nuclear reactor blow up there?” The answer to the latter is yes and while you might think that would make the former a big “no,” you’d be wrong. People can - and do - visit the site of the worst nuclear disaster in world history. The Atomic Energy Commission says it’s totally fine in low doses and hey, who doesn’t want to glow in the dark?
In all honesty, the radiation levels are no higher than you’d expect flying a Trans-Atlantic flight from Europe to North America (yes, you are exposed to radiation while flying) except for the brief moments when you’re standing 100 meters from the reactor. Oh yeah, I stood 100 meters from the reactor.
The whole experience was incredibly surreal. My travel buddy had mentioned the idea in passing and I sort-of thought, “hey, who goes to Chernobyl? Sure, I’m in.” Little did I know it would involve a tram to a bus to a plane to a taxi to a bus to a bus to a subway to a bus to a flight to a bus to a tram to get there and back! We fortunately managed to find a smaller tour company, which meant are group was just eight-strong comprised of Frenchmen, Italians and Americans (that’s us!) not to mention our Ukrainian driver and tour guide (who was the most amazing person I have ever met. I would follow this guy to the ends of the earth if he asked me to, he was just that good).
The ride from Kiev to the exclusion zone took just under two hours. Now 23 miles from the reactor, we had to present our passports and be checked off a list. From there it was another 10 miles to “Chernobyl Town” (how original, no?) where we picked up our guide and signed away our rights on the back side of a flimsy piece of paper. Yuri our yellow-goggled guide hopped in the van and away we went. Five more miles and we reached the inner exclusion zone, where there was another passport check before they lifted the road block for us to pass. I felt slightly important and slightly terrified all at once. Approaching the reactor was otherworldy, especially because the other reactors were active - yes ACTIVE - until 2000. That’s right, even after one of them blew up and spilled radiation all over Europe they allowed the other three to plug along.
While it looked rather drab and harmless in its now cracking sarcophagus, the blaring “beep beep beep” of the Geiger counter reminded us of just how dangerous this site once was (and still is if you’re, you know, climbing around on top of it, which we saw people doing). After visiting the reactor we headed to Pripyat, the town that once housed all the workers and their families that was designed as “the model Soviet city” to be shown off around the world as a perfect example of what Communism brings. Oops?
This is the part of the tour that was somewhat shocking because while some people stayed in the town for years afterward working on clean-up, nearly 99% of the 60,000 left within days, leaving everything exactly as it was. The local athletics center was littered with flat basketballs and broken tiles in a now abandoned pool. The town’s amusement park - set to open the very next day - is now a perfect set piece for a horror film. Perhaps the eeriest of all was the school, where lessons were half-written on the chalkboards, papers were scattered across desks and library books had been worn and tussled by the weather.
We closed with a non-radioactive meal that had been imported from outside the exclusion zone then a run through the contamination reader to make sure we were “all clear” before heading back to Kiev amid a light glow of neon green. As we drove out of the exclusion zone I noticed that the old sidewalks had been completely overgrown by grass, trees and other elements of nature. It appeared that the planet was actively “retaking” this charred earth perhaps in an attempt to return it back to how it once was. In just 23 years of removing humans from the equation our creations and our “modernizations” were slipping away, soon to be gone without a trace. It appears that instead of trying to be a part of nature we have perhaps been trying to fight it. How might we alter that mode of thinking? How might we once again try and be part of our planet instead of destroy it? I’m not entirely sure but I do know that zucchini are not supposed to be four feet long and as far as I can remember, human beings don’t have three nipples or eleven fingers. Oops...
Video of the day's happenings here:
The video link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNsWoy-tlKE
More photos here: