I Went to Chernobyl’s Nuclear Exclusion Zone

I Went to Chernobyl’s Nuclear Exclusion Zone

Gareth was looking resplendent in a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Freedom Fighters… Big Five”. It is the kind of shirt that could get you into strife in several countries. The featured heroes started off fairly standard (Che), then got weird (Osama). He was one of eight foreigners living in Tiraspol, the capital of the unrecognised Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic or Transnistria: Europe’s last communist state. The rest comprised the Transistrian football team.

Gareth once did that thing from Fight Club where you beat yourself up in order to get out of a tight situation (in this case it was to escape a corrupt policeman, not to blackmail a boss) and still has the scar to prove it. He loves Communist kitsch so much that he started a company called Young Pioneer Tours that does trips to places that make mothers worried, including North Korea, where we had first met, and Chernobyl. The idea of visiting an abandoned city had captivated me for several years and I’d finally made it to Kiev to check out Pripyat, population 0, and its surrounds.

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When I was a poor uni student, I did some pretty stupid things for money, including becoming a test subject for various PhD experiments. One experiment involved being blasted with radiation. No idea what the experiment was for, but I suppose a small part of me did hope that I would develop some kind of super-power for my trouble. No latent gifts were elicited, however, which is probably a good thing: the glamour of mutants on the silver screen bears little resemblance to real-life mutants, who are mostly weaker and poorly adapted to their environment.

Mutant animals emerged when Reactor 4 of Chernobyl’s nuclear plant exploded in 1986, with changes in feather colouring and sexual orientation. Now, nature has completely reset, meaning there are no white walkers or giant spiders in the area – the worst you’ll find is rabid wolves and some freakishly huge catfish in the cooling river (leave your swimmers at home). In fact, nature is doing very well. Animals’ life spans are often too short to really cop ill effects from radiation. The odd animal dies from acute radiation poisoning after stumbling upon some hot spot – but the casualties aren’t enough to deter nature from taking over. The Nuclear Exclusion Zone has become a nature reserve, and the abandoned city of Pripyat is a modern ruin with forests where there were squares.

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I visited in the summer, lending it a different vibe to the stark winter devastation photos that litter the internet. You can find friendly foxes to feed. It’s easy to forget where you are. We met a happy dog at the city entrance, the pet of one of the patrolmen. I played with him. He licked me; I licked him back. Our guide, a local man of few words who used to work in disaster emergency services, suggested I wash my hands. Dogs don’t carry Geiger counters – who knows if this little guy had just been rolling around in a puddle of plutonium?

It’s beautiful – but you wouldn’t want to live there. Radiation is complex enough to appear unpredictable. Death estimates for the disaster range between two (the death toll of the original explosion) and one million (the upper estimate of all deaths indirectly caused by radiation). There is random neutron-activated stuff lying around in the forest, so you can’t really go bush without testing the environment as you go, nor take any souvenirs. Ingesting a tiny radioactive particle can kill you. You can explore the buildings, but basements and rooftops are off limits: fallout settles there readily due to rain. Plants, notably the moss growing in danker ruins, absorb radiation so don’t touch.

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As we entered the Soviet model ghost city, we received a sheet we had to sign, explaining that we should not take souvenirs, stray into the forest, eat or smoke. Upon arriving in the main square, our guide immediately lit up. We entered a nearby hotel and walked to the top floor (the elevator seemed to be out of order) and enjoyed a view of the whole area, including a skyline comprising the derelict power station and the ‘Woodpecker’, a previously top-secret over-the-horizon radar array for early missile detection: a postcard vista for the trendy comrade of the 80s.

We were a humble crew of six. In addition to our local guide was Gareth’s friend Alistair from Young Pioneer Tours, our driver, and two Americans called Laura and Katherine. We had left early in a van that morning from Kiev. Chernobyl is ominously close to the city, maybe two hours door to door. From there, we had entered the nuclear exclusion zone and flashed our passports. The zone started as a perfect circle of 30 kilometres’ radius, but has been reshaped to account for contemporary readings. Wind, rivers and animal movements can be factors in how far the fallout travels. From there we drove into the 10-kilometre circle, the zone of absolute resettlement. A town had been levelled and all the wooden remains buried – forest fires are still a big risk for spreading radiation. Only one building now stood: the husk of a stone children’s nursery, filled with rusty, pint-sized beds, ancient stuffed animals and ransacked book shelves.

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As we descended the hotel back into the streets of Pripyat, I used the bathroom. The soviet-era plumbing still works. Most buildings of import were on the main square, so we enjoyed a walking tour of Pripyat, then took the van out. We entered an apartment block, and the guide said, “Guys, we are not supposed to be here – hurry up.” Thinking he was summoning us back to the van, he surprised us by leading the way to the rooftop. The guide was proving himself quite the maverick.

We visited a convention centre containing posters which have lain strewn and waiting for the May Day parade. Celebrations went ahead in Kiev following the disaster, in spite of fallout hitting the city streets. Then on to the supermarket, the stadium, the public school, the mariner, the theme park with its bleak, rusted Ferris wheel, and the swimming pool, which the clean-up crew made use of for another decade after the disaster.

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Every location looked like it had been through a war. Everything had been torn apart softly by time and nature, or violently by the army and scavengers. Every portal had been ripped out and there was broken glass everywhere.

Come afternoon, the bars of Pripyat were proving to be lacklustre, and I was getting no Tinder matches whatsoever (no three-titted Martian women), so we returned to Chernobyl for the night.

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We checked into the catchily named Hotel 10. Yes, you can stay in Chernobyl. This isn’t even the only hotel in town. It is repopulated and “safe-ish”. Laura wanted to step into the bush to photograph a particular derelict building and asked if it was safe; the guide responded, “This is clean, it’s chernobyl” – a sentence I didn’t expect to hear in this lifetime. But nobody is really making a life here. It’s all army and supporting industries. Pipes and other new infrastructure are above ground because it’s unsafe to dig. Nothing happens except out of necessity. Even an imposing statue of Lenin has survived (his likenesses in Kiev were all torn town). A few people returned to their homes years after evacuation. Then there are people on the run from authorities: it’s a hell of a place to disappear forever if oil rigs in Alaska aren’t your thing. Hotel guests are just scientists, journalists… and Gareth’s friends – if you want to spend a night in Chernobyl, YPT is currently the only company doing that. There was no jacuzzi but I will say this about Hotel 10: it is the perfect place for a quiet, romantic getaway. Not even the staff will acknowledge your existence.

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We went for an evening stroll: apparently a novelty in this town, judging by the glares we received. There was little life, and plenty of monuments to the dead. One was a memorial for the 96 towns that were permanently evacuated. Another was a nod toward Hiroshima and Fukushima, the two other infamous victims of nuclear chain reaction. Another was at the fire station. The firemen who dealt with the explosion had all died in the weeks following – but if they hadn’t extinguished the fires, maybe the other reactors would have detonated and levelled half of Europe. An inscription read, “To those who saved the world”.

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We did actually find a bar, complete with an ATM and a jukebox. The barmaid and two grizzled, yet friendly, men dressed in military camouflage sat quietly listening to 80s classics. The night ended when Alistair was escorted home by police just before 10pm, the hotel’s curfew.

The town’s power plant itself was foreboding, and we got very close. Radiation level drops off very quickly so you can get up nice and cosy as long as you don’t hang around for too long (15 minutes was the recommendation).

The reactor exploded because of a combination of bad design decisions and human error. This is comforting, in a way: with over 400 reactors across the world, I was happy not to discover that it’s just unstable magic technology that nobody can control. Chernobyl wasn’t even shut down until 2000: the other three reactors were not damaged and continued to serve power to the people. The transformers are used to this day. When the reactors were shut off, scavengers broke into the compound to steal wires from the transformers, and were electrocuted to death. Even so, I remain unconvinced on the subject of nuclear power. The issues with Chernobyl are obvious in retrospect, and now reactors are built differently. Fukushima was an obviously bad place to put a reactor, in retrospect – who can tell what the next retrospectively obvious humanity-crippling mistake will be?

The appropriately named “sarcophagus” looked ancient. It was hastily built following the disaster. At first robots were sent in, but they had proved ineffective, getting caught up in debris or having their systems fried by the environment. From then on the work was carried out by “bio-robots”, hapless army volunteers on shifts as short as one minute – the longest they could loiter at the core without ill effects. The bio-robots and afterward the “liquidators”, the team whose job was to avert future disaster and clean up the site, wore less protection than I’d take onto a badminton court: dust masks and painter’s one-pieces like the ones from Bunnings and nary a lead codpiece between them. The original sarcophagus is now a rusty sheet of corrugated iron with holes big enough to drive a mini through, standing between Reactor 4 and the world.

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Behind a new, huge cement wall, workers in hazmat suits were working quickly on a scaffold. Beyond them, the largest mobile structure in the world was nearing completion: a hangar-like cover, five metres thick on all sides, which will slide on rails over the original sarcophagus. Then she should be right for another thousand years or so. Hopefully by then, new technology might provide a permanent solution. Otherwise, generations for the next ninety thousand years will have to watch their step around the Red Forest and its deceptively lush surrounds.

After lunch it was time to bid Chernobyl farewell. Hotel 10 had a few souvenirs, tee-shirts, hats, badges, mostly tacky, including a few postcards of landmarks in the area. Laughably, one of them was not even a real picture, but a convincing HD screen shot from the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: shadow of Chernobyl. Overall, a missed opportunity. I would love to see a Pripyat University sweater, with some kind of mutant super-rabbit as the football team mascot, or a fancy crest with a latin motto (’A life un-examined is a half-life’), or something about Icarus. The general store in town proved no better souvenir-wise, although I managed to find some cheap toiletries including some local condoms. Think about the implications there for a second. Condoms sold in the shadow of the greatest human-made accident of all time. So much potential for catchy advertising. “Reactor 4 Condoms. Probably safe”; “now with lead shielding”; “love in the time of Acute Radiation Poisoning”; “use by 2886”; “no sarcophagus, no love”. Another missed opportunity.

Kiev is a great city, and every building is built way above human scale to ensure you don’t forget it. There is monolithic soviet era architecture everywhere; Even the Macdonalds looked like a KGB office. Perhaps it was some profound biological imperative that made me stay up all night, talking to Anastasias and Svetlanas and Natalyas – who knows, maybe my little swimmers only had a week of health left after dragging my long-suffering balls through an apocalyptic forest. I returned to Palata 6 (Ward 6), a hospital-themed bar and one of Gareth’s world favourites. Two nights prior, we had shared in a complicated beverage that involved being set on fire while the bartender hits you with monkey wrenches and kegs (“In ex soviet Ukraine, cocktail drink you!”). I enjoyed a more relaxed drink served by a nurse from a syringe whilst I lay on the table, and ordered a plate of assorted fat – literally cold cuts of four types of fat.

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A woman asked me if it’s true that wombats shit cubes. Another stated, “Is Australia very feminist country? We are not feminists here, it’s OK if you buy us drinks.” I ended up talking to two art directors, Anastasia and Natasha (I swear they only have three female names in this entire country), who verbally rolled their eyes when I mentioned my recent trip. “This is kind of fetish thing.” My mind went back to the abandoned nursery, with all the tourists photographing Smiley the lonely stuffed bunny, alone and forgotten and riddled with free radicals and posing on his rusty child-sized bed frame, desolation all around no company but nuclear mosquitos. Back in Kiev, this was just a shitty ugly place that burnt millions of much-needed hryvnia per annum. In Kiev, remnants from the revolution abounded – a revolution that continues – makeshift monuments built out of loose bricks and improvised weapons used by the rebels. Considering how fresh it all is, people seemed pretty relaxed. I asked the women about this. They said that they are sad and worried all the time, with family in danger or some other issue always pressing, but what can you do? Humans roll with punches – it’s maladaptive to dwell on things, so we don’t have a strong aptitude for it, even while the architecture and the landscape and the psyche bear the scars.

Cover by Rebecca Bathory; inset by Luke McConaghey