Then there are the ecological tales of woe. Even though wildlife -- moose, wolves, wild boar -- is finally returning to the exclusion zone, mutations in plants and animals born with physical deformities are still reportedly not uncommon. Birds in the area have brains that are on average 5 percent smaller. The radioactive fallout even affected the northern reaches of Europe. Lina Selandar, an artist visiting Chernobyl from Sweden, told me she still does not eat the berries and mushrooms in her native country.
That may explain why Chernobyl remains the single most famous site in Ukraine, which is both a blessing and a curse for Sergii Mirnyi. A Sean Connery-lookalike who was a commander of the radiation reconnaissance platoon that responded to the disaster in 1986, Mirnyi has made Chernobyl his life work -- even penning a novella and screenplay about the disaster. The name has become a watchword for Soviet bungling -- a "monument of failure," in Mirnyi's words -- and the hazards of splitting atoms to power the planet. But it is now also seen as a potential gold mine, one the Ukrainian government hopes to turn into a lucrative international tourist attraction, half a decade after allowing the first of many unsanctioned tours by private companies.
Ukrainians such as Mirnyi worry that Chernobyl may become a missed opportunity to warn the world about the perils of nuclear power and radiation poisoning, one that has become only more urgent after the plant at Fukushima began spilling radiation into the air. If the Ukrainian government succeeds, Chernobyl could become a post-Soviet Disney World of sorts for disaster tourism rubber-neckers. Yuri, my guide, is wearing a Hard Rock Chernobyl t-shirt -- a way of cashing in on past generations of Ukrainians' misery. Mirnyi bemoans that the authorities recently bulldozed a historic block in the town of Chernobyl to make room for a park. He called for a boycott of the reactor by local tour companies but was rebuffed. The lure of tourism dollars is too sweet to resist.
On the way out of the exclusion zone, a busload of migrant workers covered in dust -- thousands of Ukrainians still punch the clock in the town of Chernobyl -- empties out and walks through the radiation detectors, almost oblivious to the inanity of the exercise. I step onto the Soviet-era contraption and press my hands to its side. A yellow light flashes - chisto (clean, or free of radiation). Relieved, I step off.
the jig will be up, and all the millions of tourism dollars Ukraine's
government is hoping to reap may very well disappear, if even one of the
thousands of visitors expected to stream through this desolate part of
northern Ukraine steps onto this machine -- and it doesn't flash yellow.