Thanks to the HBO mini-series, Chernobyl is experiencing renewed popularity. Here’s what you should know about visiting the site of the infamous 1986 catastrophe.
On 26 April 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine underwent a routine safety test that went catastrophically wrong. Unsure of how to proceed, the Soviet government kept the disaster a secret for as long as they possibly could.
A Swedish nuclear power plant began detecting high levels of radiation, and westerners soon began to suspect something was awry. At first, the Swedes shut down their plant, believing the problem was their systems.
But when plants across Sweden and elsewhere in Europe also detected radiation, people began to suspect a disaster within the Soviet Union.
Initially, the Ukrainians and Belarussians underestimated the dangers posed to them. That summer harvest in Belarus was glorious, and apple trees sagged to the floors. But when the army came to the villages to test for radiation they discovered the summer bounty was completely contaminated.
Stories abound about rural dwellers using makeshift methods to keep safe, like drinking a bottle of vodka before the harvest, or covering themselves in sacking when digging up the potatoes.
But the tragic reality is that to this day people still feel the adverse effects of the disaster.
There are of course other disaster sites, such as in Fukushima for example, and other near misses like Metsamor in Armenia, where a 6.8 magnitude earthquake tested the safety of the nuclear power plant.
But nothing captures the public imagination quite like the Chernobyl disaster, perhaps because it occurred in the then secretive USSR, and initially, the Western media massively overestimated the death toll and the extent of the damage.
Rumors circulated around Kiev that the disaster was in fact caused by a Western spy.
After HBO’s landmark “Chernobyl”, which attempts to tell the true story of the disaster, there has been renewed attention on this dark and perplexing site. So much so that the writers had to warn people from posting inappropriate images, scantily clad, at a site where people died.
Tours to Chernobyl, which usually depart from Kiev, play up the danger and might be considered ‘dark tourism’, a branch of travel that revels in forbidden or abandoned places.
Morbid curiosity attracts people to these places, but so does the fact that since the abandonment, the wolf, bear, lynx, bison populations have increased dramatically. There are now over 200 types of birds recorded at the site. Just like the demilitarised zone between North Korea and South Korea, the site has become an odd sort of nature reserve.
So how best prepare for a trip to Chernobyl? Well first, we would all do well to remember that sites like this deserve respect. The effects are still felt in Ukraine and Belarus, the latter of which received a large dose of radiation when the wind blew the fallout over the country.
With the right attitude and a bit of appropriate reading before you go (we recommend Svetlana Alexievich’s glorious “Chernobyl Prayer”), a trip to this site can be fascinating and instructive about the dangers posed by nuclear energy.
It is safe to visit Chernobyl, but you shouldn’t throw snowballs, consume anything, or play with the dirt. Try to touch as few things as possible, essentially, and leave once you are ready. Long-term exposure is what really causes damage.
Most tours depart from Kiev and last between a day or two, depending on whether you are brave enough to stay overnight. There are plenty of Soviet murals, mosaics, and interesting architecture to see. And the unchanged interiors of rooms, where old books spill out on to the floor, are quite eerie.
If you are really scared and want to play it safe, you can wear old clothes and throw them away after the visit. But you should be fine so long as you listen to the tour guides and behave according to the rules.
Chernobyl fascinates us not solely out of morbid curiosity, but because its abandonment offers us a glimpse of a post-apocalyptic world. At a time when ecological disaster and nuclear war seem more likely by the day, Chernobyl foreshadows the future we all fear.