I wanted to go see Chernobyl.
Like a lot of Generation X kids, I was terrified by the prospects of nuclear war and nuclear disaster.
So how could I not want to go see the sight of the largest nuclear disaster in history?
You can buy a tour to Chernobyl -- I took the one-day variety, which ends up being about 10 hours. This will set you back a hundred bucks or so, and includes lunch. (There are 2-day options, but 1 day is plenty, in my opinion, unless you happen to have very specialized interests in radiation damage.)
I had visited the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev the day before, and had listened to the whole history of the affair on the headset; also highly recommended, if only to put your sex tourism in perspective to the country's relentlessly tragic history.
The drive to the Nuclear Exclusion Zone takes maybe an hour and a half. I went with about a half-dozen other people, all guys, all individual travelers.
Our guide was a guy in his early 30s, and he had been living in Pripyat when the city was evacuated in 1986. Soviet bureaucracy, foot-dragging, and the Cold War culture of secrecy and deniability led to the surrounding areas being warned much later than they should have been; even staying indoors for a few days would have saved a lot of lives. He approached the amount of radiation he'd been exposed to with typical Slavic aplomb, and he smoked cigarettes with gusto every time the car stopped.
|About ten times normal background radiation levels|
The amount of radiation you would be exposed to during a one-day trip is considerably less than an x-ray; nonetheless, of course, the guide loves to see the tourists jump when he puts the radiation detector near a "hot spot" and it starts dinging. (You have to go through several radiation detectors on the way in and out to make sure you're not bringing out any badass particles on your shoes or hands, of course.)
The tour will likely take you to a couple of scary abandoned places: a couple of schools, a youth center, and this abandoned radar facility. These are all brick buildings so they provided some shielding from the radiation and have low levels inside; all the wooden structures, which absorbed radiation, have been demolished.
|Pool in abandoned Soviet youth center|
|Abandoned school Pripyat|
I'm sure the mold, asbestos, and lead paint in these places were far more dangerous than any residual radiation.
There's also a walk through the town square in Pripyat; this Ferris Wheel was set to open on May 1, 1986, and it never got the chance.
Then of course you can see the reactor itself, but the radiation levels are highest here, so you don't get much chance to linger. I was surprised to learn that thousands of people still work in the zone and at the containment unit, and that the other reactors -- there were four, total -- continued to produce power up to the year 2000. They dragged away the contaminated topsoil and debris and resurfaced that lot, so the power plant itself and the sarcophagus surrounding it are surprisingly non-scary-looking -- at least, until your radiation detector starts clicking in overtime and beeping its warnings.
|Highly contaminated cooling ponds, you can see the power plant behind it|
|The monument to the disaster outside Reactor 4, containment unit in the background|
Then you can cap things off with various monuments to the dead and a stop at the small produkti that serves as the Chernyobl Nuclear Exclusion Zone's only restaurant, guest house, and souvenir shop.
|Monument to the firefighters. Supposedly drinking vodka helped protect some of them from radioactive iodine.|
|"Granma went to Chernobyl and all I got was this lousy t-shirt!"|
And how many people actually died directly because of the disaster? Well, it's difficult to say. 32 died in the actual accident itself. But indirectly? Somewhere between 5000 and 500,000, depending how you try to figure the numbers. Because when you start trying to count up all the birth defects, non-fatal cancers, and people who just plain drank themselves to death rather than die slowly of cancer, the issue gets pretty confused.
Suffice to say it was "a fucking lot."
But interestingly the wildlife and fauna in the area is really thriving, just because there aren't many people around to trouble them. And hey, what's a cheeky 500,000 people compared to the millions who died in the Soviet Era Famine?
Next week on Atrocity Tourism: The Vietnam War Museum, Saigon