As Fukushima stokes popular fears about nuclear energy, can Ukraine turn its most infamous disaster into a Disneyland of Soviet-era devastation?
The ruined nuclear reactor at Chernobyl is seen through deserted buildings in the neighbouring town of Pripyat. Gleb Garanich / Reuters
CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- "Did you drink last night?" Yuri, my chain-smoking guide, asks me as we head north out of Kiev to the world's most notorious nuclear plant. "If you have alcohol in your blood, you'll survive longer than other tourists."
My stomach growls, a mixture of motion sickness and dread as Kiev's dreary concrete flats give way to snowy fields and forests. I am visiting Chernobyl a few weeks in advance of today's 25th anniversary of the reactor's nuclear meltdown. The plant and its surroundings -- the ghost town of Pripyat, the Red Forest, all cordoned off in a 30-kilometer area dubbed the "death zone" -- have become a bizarre tourist attraction in recent years. After being deemed safe a half-decade back, thousands now make the pilgrimage, a ritual that is part ecological voyeurism, part morbid curiosity. And, as another nuclear disaster continues to unfold in Fukushima, Japan, visits to the site are reportedly increasing.
I ask Yuri how many Ukrainians suffer from health problems. "Define 'healthy people'," he answers with a wry smile. "Ukraine is a complicated place."
We pass through a series of checkpoints, where officers lazily run their Geiger counters up and down the outside of his beat-up car and check our documents. Shortly after being waved through, I see the remains of a millennium-old village. Once popular among fishermen and hunters, it's one of several villages now buried within the earth like a post-apocalyptic version of the Atlantis. The seedlings of forests, razed after the disaster, are slowly coming back to life, oblivious to being planted in the world's most radioactive topsoil.
Over the horizon, I spot a few smokestacks and cooling towers. I look down at the yellow Geiger counter that Yuri handed me. It begins to beep faster. The familiar image of a giant reactor, encased in a steel and concrete sarcophagus, comes into focus. The plant actually comprises four reactors, the last of which was deactivated in 2000 (though the smoke billowing from one of its chimneys gives off the eerie, if false, impression that the plant is still active and spewing isotopes). The government has begun work on a billion-dollar concrete shell -- said to be the world's largest movable structure, capable of encasing Notre Dame cathedral -- to shield tourists from radiation that might seep through the rusting sarcophagus currently in place.
Next up on the tour is Pripyat, the Soviet-planned city next door to Chernobyl that was emptied 36 hours after the plant exploded. It looks much as it did on that fateful April day, except for what has been looted by vandals, Yuri tells me. The swimming pool, apartment flats, and Palace of Culture sit empty and strewn with broken glass, like a Soviet house of horrors. Wires dangle from fluorescent light fixtures. A black-and-white photo of Soviet premier Konstantin Chernenko stares up from the floor.
Visiting Chernobyl can feel slightly dream-like -- a cross between Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic novel The Road and Wim Wenders' sepia-toned surrealist film Wings of Desire. I am alone except for Yuri and a tour group of older Russian shutterbugs bundled in fur. Ukrainians generally do not visit Chernobyl. Perhaps the wound has not yet healed -- the half-life of government resentment appears to outlive that of radiation.
The stories of human suffering are gruesome. A new United Nations report estimates that as many as 6,000 children in the area suffered from thyroid cancer. "He was producing stool 25 to 30 times a day," Lyudmilla Ignatenko, the wife of deceased fireman Vasily Ignatenko, remembers in remembers in Voices From Chernobyl, a collection of narratives compiled by Svetlana Alexievich. "His skin started cracking on his arms and legs. He became covered with boils. When he turned his head, there'd be a clump of hair left on the pillow." After choking on his own internal organs, Soviet authorities came to toss Vasily's corpse into a cellophane bag.
Nikolai Fomich Kalugin, a local father, recalls, "And then one day you're suddenly turned into a Chernobyl person. Into an animal, something that everyone's interested in, and that no one knows anything about. You want to be like everyone else, and now you can't. People look at you differently. They ask you: was it scary? How did the station burn? What did you see? And you know, can you have children? The very word 'Chernobyl' is like a signal. Everyone turns their head to look at you. He's from there!"
Back in Pripyat, the floor of a school cafeteria remains scattered with tiny gas masks fitted for the small heads of Soviet schoolchildren. "We were preparing for war, for nuclear war, we built nuclear shelters," Anatoly Shimanskiy recounts in Voices of Chernobyl. "We wanted to hide from the atom as if we were hiding from shrapnel. But the atom is everywhere. In the bread, in the salt. We breathe radiation. We eat it."
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.
But 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.