A little yellow bear abandoned on the floor, an open notebook on top of a desk showing a child’s handwriting, overgrown grass blocking the light coming in the window. The viewer scrolling through pictures on the website Chernobyl Galleries is left with an impression of abandonment. The pictures on the website show the devastation that befell the area around Chernobyl and Pripyat, the once prosperous town home to workers and their families on nuclear power plant Chernobyl.
“I hope it will go some way to document the city before it crumbles away. I think it’s important for people to remember what took place there and learn from it,” said Paul Hill-Gibbins, the 39-year old UK government employee who created Chernobyl Galleries.
Paul traveled to Chernobyl and Pripyat for the first time in 2007.
The area directly surrounding Chernobyl, referred to as “the Zone,” is forbidden to people who do not have a government official accompanying them. There are several travel agencies committed to producing tours of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The tour guides are often people who worked in the area when the nuclear explosion at Chernobyl happened. They are government officials there to make sure the tourists are safe, which they do by staying on the roads, in less contaminated areas, and by carrying Geiger counters, used for measuring radiation.
Tourists have to wear long-sleeved shirts and pants and are not allowed to put anything on the ground. On the way out they and their belongings are checked for radiation. There is little risk, officials say. At most one’s shoes turn out to be contaminated, something easily solved by brushing off the soles.
“The tour of the Exclusion Zone itself was both frustrating and fascinating,” Paul said, “so much to see, so little time and with a guide who watched over our every move.” In 2010 he returned for another visit after which he was sure he had “got the place well and truly out of my system.” In 2011 he was back in the Zone again.
The Chernobyl disaster, on April 26 1986, is the worst accident in the history of nuclear energy. A graphite fire burned for ten days, releasing large doses of radioactivity into the environment. It turned out to be an experiment gone wrong because of a human error.
The Soviet Union government brought in helicopters on-scene with sand and boron to bury the radioactive fuel. Miners were called in to dig tunnels underneath the factory to prevent the contaminated fuel from leaking into the groundwater. A concrete slab, called a sarcophagus, was built over the remains of Chernobyl in an attempt to keep the radiation levels in the surroundings on an acceptable level. Many of those who helped build the sarcophagus died of the effects of radiation exposure.
It was not enough. The effects of exposure to radiation were felt all over Europe. Even now, almost thirty years after the explosion, the World Health Organization has linked increased thyroid cancer in many areas of Europe to the higher levels of radiation after the accident. The people of Pripyat were evacuated on April 27, a day after the accident. Almost all 50,000 of them left in long rows of Lada buses. What they left has become a window into the past: a worker’s town of the Soviet Union, stuck in 1986.
Now, Chernobyl has become an increasingly popular destination. The reason, according to Paul, is “the rising popularity of urban exploration coupled with the growing market for more extreme, different and adventurous holidays.”
But speaking of his own attraction to the place, Paul explains it in more dramatic terms.
“I couldn’t resist the gravity of the Zone,” he said. “It is a fascinating place, immensely peaceful and set amongst beautiful landscape.” On top of that, he was attracted to Chernobyl because of his interest in old buildings, in Europe and in the human tragedy that has occurred there.
“Tourists take these tours, because they want to experience unforgettable feelings,” said Anastasiia Stetsenko from a Ukranian travel agency called Chernobyl Tour. This seems to be more than a line out of an advertising campaign. The trip to Reactor No 4 has many reviews on tripadvisor.com and they are all overwhelmingly positive.
One of the reviews was left by Mark S., who said “This was honestly the trip of a lifetime and I never wanted to leave.” Another visitor to the site, using the handle Tomba1104, said “it really is a once in a lifetime experience.” Peter H, from the Netherlands, said that while standing in front of the remains of the exploded reactor “I saw some images from a documentary about Chernobyl in my mind: thousands of workers only allowed to work on the roof of the reactor for 30 seconds because of the intense radiation (many of those are now dead). The monument in front of reactor 4 keeps the memory of those who sacrificed their lives alive.”
Paul also recounts his first time visiting the site of the explosion. “As we approached reactor’s 1-4 it was also the first time I would hear the Geiger counters clicking away which makes it immediately feel very real.” “It’s not a happy place,” Paul said, “lots of concrete, you’re essentially standing in a car park staring at a failing rusty box that cost the lives of many and if it collapsed would release vast amounts of radioactive dust.” Even so, the tour through the Zone was a tour like any other: “Group shots were taken, it was remarkably normal in terms of tourist activity.”
Though it may seem like a radioactive time capsule, the Zone is not going to remain the way it is much longer. A new sarcophagus, constructed of gleaming stainless steel, will replace the old one. The government is cleaning up scrap metal in the area. Nature is reclaiming the buildings and belonging of those who left Pripyat in 1986.
The remains of human habitation in the Zone are, after all, a living monument. What is left in the Zone stands testament both to the devastating effects of the nuclear accident and to the way many people lived in the Soviet Union worker towns. Chernobyl has become a pilgrimage for those modern tourists interested in recent history.
Written October 2014. Written for Journalism Skills I, taught by Robert Chesal, part of the MA journalism master at the University of Groningen. Also published here.