The Chernobyl Disaster first caught my attention when I was 13 years old, in a school lesson about the pros and cons of nuclear power. I remember developing a morbid fascination with the event, followed by a strange, inexplicable ambition to visit. That ambition was fulfilled last weekend when with two friends I saw first-hand the gloomy legacy of the worst nuclear catastrophe in history.
After the 1986 disaster, when one of the reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, the settlements near the scene were frantically and permanently evacuated. A lethal amount of radiation had been expelled into the atmosphere and despite a huge ensuing clean-up operation, the area had been irreversibly contaminated, and will remain so for many thousands of years. It’s now a closely guarded radioactive wilderness, peppered with ghost towns, and known simply as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
The decision to visit Chernobyl
I don’t know what drew me so strongly to a place of such desolation and sadness. I suppose it’s the same thing that compels people to visit Auschwitz in Poland. Or the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields in Cambodia. To travel is to learn, and sometimes the best lessons are learnt from things that have gone wrong. The more potent the failure, the more passionately we fight to halt its repetition.
Perhaps such experiences help hone perspective. When we see the magnitude and ramifications of other people’s mistakes, like those of the staff in charge of the reactor on that fateful night, we might feel a little better about what are comparatively minor issues and flaws in our own lives.
Or maybe in this instance it was simply a rejection of what so much of my travelling life has been: an increasingly pressurised hunt for all the best stuff. The prettiest church. The coolest bar. The loveliest beach. A wintery Chernobyl seemed to offer a brief – albeit bleak – respite from all that.
Entering the Exclusion Zone
It was bleak. Satisfyingly so. The Exclusion Zone, which covers the 30km of land radiating out from the power plant, is a 90-minute drive from Kiev, from which all tours depart. The land is flat, heavily forested and, on that day, patched with hardened snow. At the checkpoint, men in camouflage and AK-47s slung around their shoulders observed our documents with grim faces before waving us through.
Almost immediately, on both sides of the empty roads, we began to see sagging roofs and the dark hollows of empty window frames, like ghostly eyes watching us from the woods. Our first stop was a village called Zalissya, still recognisable as a settlement, webbed with weedy streets, but falling apart and ravaged by the elements. It’s only been three decades since this place and others in the area were abandoned; the speed at which nature is reclaiming its territory is immense.
We would continue to make stops at similar spots throughout the day, and all seemed as melancholy metaphors for the fickleness and vulnerability of human existence. We saw much. An abandoned hospital with dusty medical records scattered about the floor, the blue ink handwriting faded but legible. Glass crunched under our boots as we traipsed around a derelict nursery, with tiny steel bunk beds in one room, and half-collapsed pigeon holes in another. We visited the gargantuan Duga radar, once a top secret Soviet military system at the height of the Cold War, now a cage-like monument to suspicion.
Finally, we explored Pripyat, the most infamous of all Chernobyl’s settlements. It was here that the plant’s workers and their families lived, and was home to almost 50,000 people. Within 36 hours of the accident, every single person had been rushed out on buses, and the city has been empty ever since.
Many of the scenes are familiar from urban decay photo essays. The hollow concrete buildings, the silent, forested streets and – most iconically – the funfair that was set up just before disaster struck. The big wheel stands vacant and motionless, the dodgems are quietly rusting under a canopy of weeds.
But these things I was expecting to see. It was the detail that caught me off guard. Children’s toys in the mud; odd shoes strewn across the floors of rotting homes; eyeless dolls with missing limbs and dust-caked hair; rusted saucepans on rusted stoves; empty mugs on kitchen tables; gas masks on dead leaves; yellowed song books and faded registers; peeling wallpaper and broken glass. Things made harrowing by their sheer ordinariness, poignant clues that above all else this was a human tragedy whose victims were normal people. The settlements are haunted not by ghosts, but nostalgia, despair and an aching atmosphere of loss.
All the while, wherever we were, Geiger counters beeped with relentless urgency.
Finding hope in the ruins
There is hope in the ruins, reminders that while humans were to blame for this terrible event, they also displayed extraordinary spirit in putting it right. The firefighters who were first on the scene must have known they were facing a suicide mission, yet they tackled the blaze regardless. Some were dead within hours from radiation poisoning; others died days later, with horrific chemical burns. The Civil Defense troops, enlisted to clear the waste with shovels from the reactor’s roof, worked for weeks in conditions so extreme they could only manage 45 seconds at a time before running for shelter from the radiation.
Were it not for these people, further explosions and meltdowns could have occurred, causing damage on an unimaginable scale.
The latest chapter in Chernobyl’s history opened recently with the installation of the New Safe Confinement – an enormous steel arch that will cover the exploded reactor, keeping the deadly material inside locked away for another 100 years. Because it was being put into place while we visited, we were unable to get close to the plant, but we caught a glimpse of the £1.5b structure from a distance on our way back to the checkpoint. It was an important reminder that the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster is far from over, even 30 years on.
How to visit
British Airways fly from London Heathrow to Kiev; prices vary depending on season and demand
Tours can be booked through Chernobyl Tour