|Jun. 4, 2005. 01:00 AM|
Nuclear disaster is now a tour site
Chernobyl is still haunted by past
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
April 26, 1986: Chernobyl's No. 4 reactor erupts in the early morning sky — shuddering through the homes of its workers in the town of Pripyat, three kilometres away ... Official silence is maintained by the former Soviet Union until Swedish radiation detectors sound the alarm days later. May 7, 2005: Chernobyl, its reactor and Pripyat have become tourist attractions. CHERNOBYL, UKRAINE—Yuriy picks me up at my hotel at 8 a.m. He's the English-speaking guide who has been assigned to me for my tour of "hell." We exchange pleasantries and Yuriy hands me a permit that allows me entry into the exclusion zone of the world's worst nuclear accident — one that killed thousands and left thousands more suffering with the painful after-effects of radiation poisoning. I have no real conception of what to expect at Chernobyl. Yuriy tells me there are 3,000 people working at the site, decommissioning the complex and constructing a permanent nuclear waste handling facility. What many Westerners do not know is that the remaining three reactors at Chernobyl remained in service long after the accident at reactor No. 4. The Exclusion Zone enclosing Chernobyl in a 30-kilometre restricted radius is about a two-hour drive from Kyiv breezing through small villages and thick forest on a sparsely travelled two-lane highway. A military checkpoint marks the entry to the zone. Guards emerge from a small office to ensure that our papers are in order. I notice little difference from one side of the gate to the other. Both sides are lush and green. "Farther away from the main road," Yuriy says, "many have returned to their former villages." Unofficial numbers estimate as many as a thousand have voluntarily returned. Most are older peasants, left with few alternatives, owing to disruptions in compensation payments. Shortly we are within the 10-kilometre exclusion zone. This is the original evacuation line set a few days after the disaster at reactor No .4. The 30-kilometre zone was set nearly a month later. Residents of Chernobyl and Pripyat were originally told they would be back in a matter of weeks. Current workers at the complex are housed in the town of Slavutich, 30 kilometres away, brought in on a special train. All told, 300,000 people were resettled. The streets of Chernobyl are ribboned with huge stainless steel pipes bringing heat (from a gas plant outside the city) and water supplies to the offices of the remaining workers. Near the centre of town is a monument to the firefighters and "liquidators" who came to fight the blaze and clean up the site shortly after the disaster. Initially, 200,000 men and women were summoned to the cause, with the eventual total rising closer to 600,000. Only 30 deaths are officially acknowledged as a result of the catastrophe, but estimates of cancer-related deaths start at around 2,500 and rise sharply. We pause at the tour office to pick up a Geiger counter and Yuriy displays various pictures of the site in different stages of the remediation project, and a large map delineating the zones of contamination. The area surrounding the power plant looks similar to any industrial zone. There is little obvious evidence of the disaster. A massive field of electrical towers sits dormant. Construction cranes slowly corrode with other equipment beside the hulking concrete cooling tower intended to serve reactors 5 and 6. International agencies have agreed that the current levels of radiation are safe for the brief exposure that our day trip involves, but I wonder about the workers. Yuriy explains that they are paid five times the normal Ukrainian wage, roughly the equivalent of $1,500 U.S. per month and work only two weeks in a month, but I can't help wondering if the money is worth the risk. Our tour of Pripyat begins in a junior school's entrance. It boasts greetings and posters similar to those you would find on the walls of any school — intact, as though time has stopped mere moments ago. The best view of Pripyat and the reactors is from the hotel located near the centre of town. Marble slabs still line the foyer, however everything else has been stripped away. We ascend the stairs to the upper floor, our feet crunching the shards of glass that once formed the hotel's windows. Several small trees have begun to sprout from the floor as seeds have blown in through the missing windows. Returning to Earth, Yuriy points the Geiger counter to some moss sprouting from the pavement. It reads slightly above one miliroentgen per hour exposure, even more radioactive than the gates to the crippled reactor. Once home to some 48,000 people, the town is now eerie in its solitude. Nearby, a theatre contains a treasure trove of larger than life paintings of Soviet leaders. Our next stop is an outer village, where we are invited to a modest meal by an elderly returnee couple, and their Belarussian friend. Only every third or fourth house is inhabited, the rest succumb to a now-familiar decay. The final stop on my tour is the vehicle graveyard, some distance outside of Chernobyl. My itinerary describes "thousands of trucks, helicopters, and armoured personnel vehicles so soaked in radiation it is dangerous to approach." "Only 30 dead," I remember. I have seen no human graveyard, and the memorial in Chernobyl makes no list of names of those to be honoured. It is only here at the vehicle graveyard that one can begin to imagine the human toll. My trip to Chernobyl was arranged through SAM Travel over the Internet. My $193 U.S. fee included a driver, English-speaking guide, permit for entry to the exclusion zone and lunch in the tour office's cafeteria at Chernobyl. It is worthwhile to purchase the hardcover pictorial for sale at the tour office in Chernobyl. If you ask, the personnel can provide you with an English booklet which explains the pictures.
Chuck Wightman is a Burlington-based freelance writer.
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