The most read article on this weekend’s The Times Online was Chernobyl offers a holiday in hell. Before we go on, I ought to say I spent six months working at Chernobyl in 1995. I’ve visited many times since. I met my wife there. My child sort of qualifies as being a child of Chernobyl.
I’m partly responsible for rehabilitating Chernobyl’s reputation. In 1995 I had the good fortune to be sent to the site as a PR seconded from the western nuclear industry trade associations. Their view was that the media, campaigners and all sorts of other players were talking nonsense about the effects of the 1986 Chernobyl accident and the 10th anniversary of the accident might need some special attention.
When I first arrived on site, I was the only westerner permanently based there. Entry into the Sarcophagus that shielded the remains of the explosion was forbidden. The two exclusion zones that surrounded the stricken power station had a separate administration. They were closed even to people working at the Chernobyl power station. (And there were thousands of those, running nuclear power units pretty safely.)
I’m proud of my small role in opening the place up: the world’s media were welcomed with open arms in 1995/6 and have been ever since.
My subsequent returns to Chernobyl and its exclusion zones have been one- or two-day affairs. I’d go back on official business and, when my work was done, slip my minders. Ignoring the official exit-itinerary I’d go runabout in a mini-van with some friends, food and a crate of beer. We rarely knew where we were going; we just followed our instincts.
Freed from official minders, we walked through Europe’s most isolated meadows and forests. We sat by the wild riverside, smelling the smoke from the wood fires lit by liquidators having BBQs on the beaches. Occasionally they’d invite us to share their feast.
My illegal excursions gave me the joy of calling unannounced on refuseniks as they worked their land. They’d long-since dodged the security barriers to return home. At first they were scared off by armed guards, but they’d kept coming back until the guards gave up chasing old folk across contaminated ground.
Sharing a beer, or perhaps a shot of vodka, I’d ask the locals about the threat from contamination. One told me “I’m too old to care”. Another said that where they’d been resettled had taken the meaning out of their lives. It seems there really is no place like home. The Chernobyl region was always recognised as one of Ukraine’s natural treasures.
Sometimes we’d visit waste dumps to inspect the rotting carcasses of abandoned helicopters, earth-moving machinery and other contaminated vehicles lined-up in massive fields. Once, we were nearly arrested by soldiers with dogs when we got too close – on foot – to an off-map former Soviet early-warning radar station that, though abandoned, was still considered a military secret. We escaped thanks to the quick wits of our driver.
Returning to the official route many hours later than was allowed we’d tell a half lie to bewildered – sometimes angry – guards. We’d claim that we’d accidentally separated from our official guide, and spent hours driving around in circles looking for the way out. Those acts of irreverent rebellion have made me an expert on the wonders of Chernobyl’s exclusion zone.
But it is with a sense of sadness that I now read about the official tours. For as I wrote in another article:
Today, I have selfishly mixed feelings about the world’s discovery of Europe’s best-protected nature reserve. My joyrides in a speedboat on the broad empty river observing the fish, birds, grazing animals and natural shoreline brushed by rushes, trees and beaches, may not be so special an experience in future. Others will also now be joining me by the roadside overlooking waterlogged fields at sunset in the forsaken land.
Now the secret is out. But Tom Whipple’s article in The Times does not do full justice to the exclusion zone’s wonders. There’s too much focus on geiger counters, and too much said about dust and contamination for my liking. It is actually – as to be fair Whittle says – a low-risk but exciting outing. In praise of Whipple, he captures well how gobsmacking a visit to the ghost-city Pripyat is:
The Communist Party headquarters is just visible behind 20 years of forest growth, displaying the logo of an atom. The angular concrete of a restaurant beyond is softened by a small copse on its roof. This is the apocalypse, and the apocalypse is leafy.
On the way into the Chernobyl exclusion zone, Maxim explains that it is now a wildlife reservation.
Beautifully put. His mostly upbeat account will inspire other travellers to experience Chernobyl for themselves. But get there soon. What Whittle doesn’t say is that the barriers around the outer Chernobyl exclusion zone are starting to come down. Much of the abandoned land is now deemed safe to live and farm on. So go see Europe’s only medieval-style green wilderness before it is too late.
Chernobyl is a scene of man’s folly and of his and nature’s triumph. Chernobyl is not a place of desperation and despair. It is one of hope, courage and beauty that puts content into the expression “we shall overcome”.
Those of you interested in my myth-busting work at Chernobyl – and those wishing to brief themselves on what’s there – can read more here and here. Moreover, romantics might find this PR Week piece, “Chernobyl seems an odd place for romance to blossom, but,” interesting. By the way, my son – for anybody who worries about so-called pre-conceptual cancer – is healthy.
I do hope that people who go on the tours will drop a comment here afterwards.