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Radioactive day-trip: Chernobyl – not for the faint-hearted

Chernobyl isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you’ve been to Kyiv before and worn out the regular tourist sites, next time around try taking the day trip out to Pripyat. It might just be worth the hours in the car, $150, and the risk of mild radiation.

Everyone remembers where they were on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, and some of our older readers will almost certainly tell you what they were doing when they heard that JFK had been shot back in 1964. Yet ask any Soviet citizen what they were doing on April 26, 1986, and you’re likely to draw a blank.

To save you Googling the date, this was the night when the fourth reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, contaminating surrounding countries with radioactive fallout and affecting the health of millions. The nuclear reactor is not actually located in the village of Chernobyl (the name was apparently chosen as it was an old village nearby), but in fact some seven kilometres to the north by the town of Pripyat, which was purpose-built for the plant’s workers and their families, who enjoyed above-average living standards for the USSR.

Following the disaster, which needn’t have happened ” it was caused by a power surge following workers’ attempts to see if during a shutdown, sufficient energy would remain to fuel the reactor, the usual scenario was to keep silent ” the Soviet Union didn’t “do” disasters and there was nothing in the Soviet-controlled press to inform the public. As the elite secretly pondered over what action should be taken, the first emergency crews arrived on the scene to put out the fires, which they accomplished relatively quickly. That, however was the easy bit ” the problem with radiation is that you can’t see, hear, feel or smell it, but it’s there all right.

The 50,000 residents of Pripyat were eventually informed that they would temporarily be evacuated, but only almost 48 hours after the explosion. Shockingly, the May Day parades in Kyiv, a population kept shielded from the truth despite the Ukrainian SSR capital being only 140 kilometres away, were allowed to take place as usual. It was only after the West began to pick up the radioactive trail – such was its strength – that the Soviet authorities were finally forced to admit that something was indeed seriously wrong ” and that they weren’t exactly sure what should be done. Eventually a massive clean-up operation got underway and the nearby region remains abandoned to this day, almost 25 years later.

A trip to Chernobyl, the reactor and Pripyat certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted. It’s done in a full day trip from Kyiv and must be booked well in advance ” the area is strictly controlled so you can’t simply show up on your own and have a wander around. It’s a two-hour ride and you’ll be shown a video on the way up in the minibus, an interesting documentary containing interviews with Hans Blix and Mikhail Gorbachev on their reactions to the events that unfolded.

First stop will be for a photo opportunity at the monument to the fire fighters who died putting out the blaze, most surviving little more than a few hours. Next you will see the ghost village of Chernobyl itself and a presentation on the geography of the key hotspots. Then it’s back on the bus for a trip to the reactor – you obviously can’t go inside it, as it’s been concreted over with a sarcophagus, but you can get up fairly close; your guides will loan you a Geiger counter so you can see the numbers rise as you approach.

The “highpoint” of the trip is Pripyat itself, which is utterly surreal ” it is by far the eeriest place that I have ever been and doesn’t leave much to the imagination. TV clips usually focus on the Ferris wheel in the park, but for me the most poignant moment was entering the school that was obviously abandoned mid-class, as textbooks remain on desks and lessons in chalk on the backboard. The town’s residents were apparently told that they were not being permanently evacuated and would be able to return to fetch their belongings. They were never allowed back.

You will walk down empty streets and feel what life used to be like here, peering into the few restaurants and the one hotel, as well as studying the various murals portraying the ideals of socialism and what a great chap Lenin was. Careful not to step on the moss as this stores radiation better than other substances ” if you don’t believe me, hold the trusty Geiger counter just above it and listen to it beep.

Is it safe to visit? The simple answer is yes, for a brief period of time. Tours are state-sponsored and wouldn’t be permitted otherwise, would they?

Luc Jones