The Lost City Of Chernobyl

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine — It looks like a baby monitor, but the beeping device that tour guide Dennis Zaburin clutches in his hand monitors radiation. The digits on the dosimeter's display change rapidly, indicating rising and falling danger. Other than the beeps, our footsteps are the only sounds we hear, multiplied as they echo off the abandoned buildings that surround us.

A park that never opened in Pripyat.

Zaburin knows where it's "safe" and the spots to avoid. But I have my doubts. I am, after all, at the site of the world's worst nuclear accident: Chernobyl, Ukraine.

More than 20 years after the atomic genie was released from the bottle, the invisible danger in this modern ghost town remains. Zaburin tells me not to worry, but I can see the readout on his dosimeter. It says 1,800. Only a few hours earlier he told me that 50 is normal. What am I doing here?

Hallowed ground

On April 26, 1986, Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl, in what was then the Soviet Union, blew up. I've been fascinated since then by how man's quest to control nature backfired and how nature is slowly reclaiming a city where thousands once worked, raised families and made a community. I've read the books about Chernobyl, seen the movies and played the game (yes, there is actually a video game set here).

At the time of the accident, four reactors were in operation and two more were under construction. It was during a systems test in the early morning hours of that spring day that things went terribly wrong. Technicians tried to stop the test and rein in the reactor, but it overheated, resulting in a massive blast. While it wasn't a nuclear explosion, the reactor blew apart, shooting radioactive debris more than a mile into the sky.

In the days after the explosion, winds carried radioactive fallout across most of Europe. Eventually more than 300,000 people were forced to relocate.

It may seem a macabre place to visit, but is Chernobyl any different from the sites of tragedies like Auschwitz or New York's ground zero? It too has become hallowed ground where people come to witness history and to remember.

Welcome to Pripyat

Chernobyl lies about 80 miles northwest of Kiev, Ukraine's capital. It is an atomic bull's-eye in the middle of the menacingly named Zone of Alienation, a 20-mile exclusion area that surrounds the power plant.

Just after 9 on a sunny Wednesday morning I board a tour bus in central Kiev, along with five Swedes and a Norwegian — curious tourists from countries close to the accident. We pass through a series of military checkpoints before arriving at the town of Chernobyl.

While the power station is referred to as Chernobyl, it is actually located in Pripyat, a model Soviet town founded in 1970 to support the nuclear complex. We stop at a bland government building and head inside.

This is where I first meet Zaburin, our young but serious government tour guide. The 27-year-old is dressed in bluejeans, camo jacket and a Formula 1 ball cap. He doesn't smile. Inside a large room lined with maps and photographs of the disaster, Zaburin gives us a short lecture about what happened and what to expect.

Machines and men

The tour begins at what he calls the vehicle museum. It's really nothing more than a few military vehicles scattered about a grass field in desperate need of a mow. Zaburin waves his dosimeter a few inches from a tank — the numbers skyrocket.

Even though I know how dangerous radiation is, it's easy to forget about the risk because it's invisible. But the signs and the beeping of the dosimeter keep reminding me.

Most of the time our group is quite boisterous — making comments, asking questions, taking pictures. But at the Monument to the Firefighters we become subdued. Until this point we've seen only objects that were affected by the disaster. The large blue sculpture reminds us of the human toll.

Officially, fewer than 100 people died in the initial disaster. But poor record-keeping, combined with the long-term nature of radiation poisoning, make it impossible to determine exactly how many have died in the past 23 years — or to predict how many more will.

A city's skeletons

Pripyat, the power plant's support city, once had a population of about 50,000. Today it's zero.

Back in 1986, officials told residents that the evacuation was temporary and they need only bring a few days' worth of clothes. As a result, most people left everything behind, unaware that they would never return.

Pripyat was a modern city before the disaster. Today, it is a crumbling shell, a surreal place where empty roads are lined with street lamps that never light. The only traffic is the occasional bright yellow dump truck emblazoned with radioactive symbols. Zaburin warns us not to breathe when they pass by. The dust could be hazardous to our health.

It's at the main square where I really feel Pripyat's emptiness. Zaburin tells us we're free to explore the city's skeletons: a grocery store filled with overturned carts and moldy signs. A hotel waiting for guests that will never come. Disconnected phone booths, empty swimming pools and overgrown paths that snake past faded signs highlighting the achievements of a country that has ceased to exist.

Books, chairs and even radiators are scattered about, the flotsam and jetsam of 1980s Soviet life. A child's ballet shoe here, a trumpet case there. A strip of old film, perhaps touting the bright future of this atomic city?

The heart of the disaster

A few miles away, down a deserted road, partially completed cooling towers and idle construction cranes welcome us to the reactor complex. We drive past stagnant cooling ponds and a decaying network of electrical transmission infrastructure before reaching the heart of the disaster: Reactor No. 4, an enormous and enormously frightening building.

Nearby is another poignant tribute: the Monument to the Liquidators. In the weeks, months and years that followed the explosion, 100,000 troops and 400,000 experts and civilians worked to stabilize the complex and clean up the radioactive mess.

They became known as the liquidators, and their work may have saved countless millions. But they paid a high price: Many became very sick, and many died.

The Sarcophagus, a hastily constructed containment structure, covers the wreckage of Reactor No. 4. Built as a temporary measure, it is the only thing standing between tons of loose radioactive material and the outside world.

As I stand before the giant tomb, Zaburin explains that it is in dire need of replacement, and there are plans to build a new structure to completely contain the Sarcophagus. If it were to collapse before then, clouds of radioactive dust would be released into the air, creating another nuclear disaster.

A park that never opened

The children of Pripyat must have been bursting with excitement in the days before the disaster. A new amusement park was scheduled to open on May 1, 1986, in honor of May Day. It never did.

Instead of children's laughter, this amusement park is silent, a sad reminder of shattered dreams and the lives ripped apart. The large decaying Ferris wheel has become a tragic symbol of the disaster. A few steps away, I spot a rotting stuffed toy hanging in the smashed window of a ticket booth, as if caught in mid-escape.

It feels like the set of a zombie movie, but Pripyat is not dead. It's renewing itself. Just as nature is slowly returning, evident in the grass that now grows between the cracks in the plaza or the shrubs and trees that have found root in the contaminated soil, so too are people slowly returning to the area, albeit in the form of visitors like me.

It may be thousands of years before this area is safe enough for human habitation. Until then, the site of humanity's worst nuclear disaster may become one of the world's most chilling tourist attractions.

Source: Mercury News


jrooney7 said…
I visited Chernobyl in February. My guide drove up from Kiev in his car. I was the only "toruist" that day. The sky was gray and a light snow fell most of the time. Pripyat was covered in a blanket of snow. My guide with his radiation counters clicking in the background and I wandered through many buildings including the hotel with its small crumbling auditorium, the gym with the climbing rope still in place and a singe running shoe off to the side. I saw the theatre with its rows of rotting seats and the prop room with the signs and banners in listing piles.

There was the swimming pool with the equipment still stored in a room by the pool and the empty lockers waiting for someone to come back. The elementary school with the indoor basketball court with its wooden floor largely rotted out and decayed from the weather and the old basketballs almost unrecognizible in the rubble. The school desks with pencils and papers and books still inside, and the pair of childrens boots in one room lying on the floor in the snow.

We saw wolf tracks crossing our own when we returned outside and then later where a moose had been stripping bark from the bushes. I went into a few of the apartment blocks and high up, where the scavengers hadn't reached, apartments with moldering furniture, clothes still in the cupboards, and other personal things never recovered.

As awesome as the Reactor #4 was with the rst streaks down its walls and the schaffolding for the new cover rising up through the mist on the end of the building, the more intersting scene was Reactor #5 off in the distance. Reactor #5 had nearly completed its testing and would have been commissioned just weeks after the explosion of Reactor #4. Next to that were the rusting cranes and construction equipment for the unfinished Reactor #6. All work stopped on that reacore and it was never completed. Simply abandoned to the elements.

It was an erie experience and a bit depressing. Thousands of people had lived and worked here, and now were no more than a few rotten bits of furniture, broken windows with the curtins flapping in the wind and faint chalk marks on classroom blackboards.

Although the monuments to those who died containing the fires and radiation were impressive, it is the city of Pripyat and the town of Chernobyl that are the real monument to the disaster. One can only hope that Ukraine has a photpgrapher on site continually recording the mangitude of the event for the future before it all rusts into oblivion.

It was like walking on the decks of the Titanic. All the beauty and glory was gone, all the ordinary humanity just a faded memory, only hints remaining.