Chernobyl: Mutate and Survive

Nearly thirty years after the nuclear power plant disaster at Chernobyl, both tourism and wildlife are thriving within the exclusion zone.

'It's good, isn't it?' said our driver, pointing to a battered children's tricycle 'abandoned' next to the shell of a vandalized, grey Soviet building. 'I brought it over yesterday.' We looked up from our viewfinders for a second before returning to the process of capturing such a photogenic image, while sweating in our long sleeved shirts. Despite the summer heat, our legs and arms had to remain covered at all times as a condition of our entry to the exclusion zone. I was wearing a thin blue plastic jacket over the top of my T-Shirt and had to keep pulling it off of my arms when it started to stick. I doubted if it would be much help in combating nuclear radiation but at least it provided some protection to my arms against the swarms of mosquitoes leaving itchy red welts across my exposed knuckles.

Within a series of graffiti-strewn former government and school building we were exposed to yet more artfully-arranged photographic subjects. There were abandoned dolls, textbooks left open as if the class was halfway through a lesson, and lines of suspended gas masks that wouldn't look out of place in a modern art exhibition. It was like walking through a makeshift set for a budget movie about the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse.

There wasn't a nuclear explosion at Chernobyl: it was a series of gas explosions which caused a fire in which radioactive particles were released into the atmosphere. The authorities didn't even start bussing out the residents until more than a day and a half after the accident (the rest of the world was only alerted when a nuclear power station in Sweden started picking up on unusually high radiation levels). Nobody would have been rushing out of a school lesson half way through, let alone abandoning children's favourite dolls in positions that just happened to juxtapose their child-like innocence against destruction and decay. As entrance to the exclusion zone was supposedly so tight, it also wasn't clear who was sneaking in to break the windows and spray paint giant cocks on the walls.

Although only 31 people were killed on the day of the accident it really could have been much, much worse. According to a rather dramatic documentary that was played to our group in the minibus from Kiev - preceded by some hilariously bad videos of Eastern European rock groups performing songs about the disaster - if it had not been for the heroic efforts of the fire fighters, a nuclear explosion would have completely flattened Belarus's nearby capital city Minsk, and left around half of Europe as an uninhabitable wasteland. Of the 134 workers who suffered acute radiation syndrome in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, 28 died soon afterwards (19 others also died later on but not necessarily from anything to do with the radiation). In the years that followed, almost every health problem, cancer, or birth defect in the surrounding area was blamed on radiation from the disaster. There was certainly a huge increase in thyroid cancer amongst children but this was almost entirely attributed to the Soviet Union's failure to prevent people drinking milk contaminated by iodine 131.

Many of the journalists who reported on the disaster in April 1986 had grown up at the peak of the cold war, intoxicated by stories of impending nuclear apocalypse. They couldn't resist succumbing to such seductive tales; genuine research, or even basic logic, were often sacrificed to their more immediate need for a great story. Near biblical prophecies of Armageddon grew increasingly hysterical as rumours began to spread that 'Chernobyl' was actually the Ukrainian word for 'Wormwood'. In Revelations, the Bible prophesises the fall of the star Wormwood, leading to a third of the rivers becoming bitter, and many deaths. Again, this is a great story but really doesn't stand up to a great deal of critical thought. 'Chernobyl' is actually mugwort, a plant that is related to wormwood but has none of the biblical significance. Apparently it was mistranslated by a Russian author, talking to the New York Times, and the story stuck.

At the edge of an overgrown pathway, our guide ran her Geiger counter - hireable for the day for an additional €10 on top of the €130 for the tour - over a memorable piece of ground. When the Geiger counter started beeping hysterically we did our best to look impressed. She then somewhat diminished the drama by informing us that the average background level of radiation in Chernobyl is about half of what you would be exposed to on an airplane. The tour guides and other workers within the exclusion zone generally work nine days on and nine days off and - as with pilots - would be required to have their radiation levels regularly checked.

We were permitted to take photos of some parts of the outside of the nuclear plant, where a giant shell was being constructed to permanently enclose the currently concrete sealed Reactor No. 4, but not others. Sometimes they would check tourists' cameras but this didn't happen often. 'Can't they just see it all on Google Earth, anyway?' somebody asked. Our guide admitted this was true and then asked us to point our cameras slightly more to the left.

Underneath a large iron bridge, just across from the soon to be enclosed reactor, circled huge, whiskered catfish. None of them had three eyes. After the people had been forced to leave the exclusion zone, the wildlife prospered. Wild horses, boars, lynx, and wolves have all returned to the area, and none appear to have any health problems. Even the birds that nest in the reactor itself appear to be fine. I asked if it was possible to eat the catfish but our guide didn't seem to think that it would be a good idea.

The much photographed but never completed fairground in Pripyat doesn't so much recall the set of a post-apocalyptic B movie as the background to a video game. The atmospherically rusting big wheel and bumper cars, along with other sites around the abandoned towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl, feature, most notably, in the Call of Duty series of first person shooter video games. Other sites from within the exclusion zone have also featured in a number of movies and music videos but it is an inability to recall exactly where they have encountered such iconic imagery before that installs an uneasy sense of déjà-vu amongst many visitors.

On leaving the exclusion zone - after a decent meal at the on-site restaurant - we were required to have our radiation levels checked. This involved clambering into a large metal contraption and placing our arms, legs and hands into the required position. All but one of us was relieved to see the green light flash up, permitting our escape. The one member of our party who set the alarm off was forced back by the security guards but, after scraping some mud of his shoes, he passed the test and was allowed through. Our driver told us that this had only happened three times out of more than 500 trips he had run to Chernobyl over the last few years (€130 x approximately 10 passengers a trip x 500 trips = €650,000). Two of these failures had made it through after some vigorous shoe scraping but a less fortunate tourist had had to return to the scanner a number of times, each time wearing fewer clothes, until he was left standing in front of a minibus load of inpatient tourists wearing only his underpants. It was only when the driver and guide started to panic that he thought to mention that he had been receiving radiotherapy for his cancer.

 

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