Working at Chernobyl in 1995 was an amazing experience. I was the only westerner living in the new town of Slavutych that was built to replace the abandoned city of Pripyat. In addition, I was the only westerner working full time at the power station. This gave me an insight into a closed world that was as thrilling as it was unique.
Just leaving Kiev on the long road to Slavutych was an eye opener to a world I had only ever read about in spy novels. Every twenty or so miles there were police roadblocks to negotiate: documents, please, and can you answer some questions? My interpreter called it a giant job creation scheme. There were hardly any cars on the road. I soon understood that freedom to travel did not yet exist in Ukraine.
As night fell, few lights shone from roadside cottages we passed. Old ladies, carrying massive piles of sticks or buckets of water from the well, seemed surprised by the sight of our fast-moving car. They sometimes froze in the middle of the road forcing us to make sudden manoeuvres to avoid killing them. The few cars going the other way appeared to be heading directly at our Volga, which was an old communist party boss’s car well past its peak.
We arrived in Slavutych and went immediately to a restaurant. It was a public facility with high ceiling and loads of ostentatious marble, or marble-substitute, in reddish-brown and gaudy pink, and seats for two hundred people. I named it the Taj Mahal because the tacky-style reminded me of an over-the-top second-rate Indian restaurant I once visited in Birmingham, England.
The six of us were the only diners that night. I would eat there every night for many months to come virtually alone or with a few power station bosses or with very welcome parties of visiting foreign journalists. The menu took twenty minutes to read, but a waitress soon told us that they had nothing available from the menu that night. She brought what they had in the kitchen – it turned out to be caviar and bread. Most nights we had a choice of only one or two dishes or starving.
When I got up next morning and toured Slavutych, I discovered a large, half-built town with deserted streets, next to no shops, except for roadside kiosks selling Polish biscuits and Ukrainian vodka. There was only one private bar in town; the police used to throw out the gangsters (none of whom worked at the plant) when I visited, then huddle in the kitchen until I left to ensure I was protected. One night a fight erupted at the next table, blood spilled and the police rushed out and made matters worse – but I was kept safe.
Just getting to the office was a nightmare. The creation of Belarus placed an international border between the power plant and Slavutych. So everyday we had to cross into Belarus and back again into Ukraine, and navigate two tightly controlled exclusion zones, there and back. Some days, I was seriously delayed at the Belarus border on the way to work and at the Ukrainian border on the way home. Sometimes all the border guards in both countries appeared to be asleep as we motored past.
At that time, Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP) was not able to sell electricity for money. It bartered it instead for goods from other enterprises that were equally devoid of cash. The power plant also paid its own workers with plastic tokens which had a notional dollar value that no bank would honour and which were not valid outside of the shops it owned and ran. The shops lacked food, anyway. People were growing their own vegetables, or doing odd jobs for farmers in return for meat.
It took all my powers of persuasion to get the Chernobyl management to open up the “Sarcophagus” to the prying eyes of western journalists. Why, asked the then station manager Parashin [now an even more senior figure], should we show the world our shame, our embarrassment when they can tour two working reactors onsite? I told him that the construction of the protective shelter over reactor 4 was a triumph – and I knew he thought so too. His fear was really that opening the doors would just produce negative coverage. It was also a big decision because it takes a long time to prepare people to safely penetrate the Sarcophagus. Tours inside disrupt the daily work that goes on there. To his credit he signed the order to allow entry.
On days off, I toured hospitals and schools neighbouring the exclusion zone, finding malnourished and sick people everywhere. The hospitals lacked medicine, the schools lacked new books and other essential material – nobody had been paid their wages for months. There was no interest in politics; the atmosphere was fatalistic and quietly depressing.
In the villages I found evacuees decanted to places they didn’t really like (there is no place like home) among people who could barely support their own struggling communities. Chernobyl victims appeared to receive additional support denied to “real” locals. That was resented, until villagers realised they too could claim victim status certificates from their doctors because they considered it unjust to say no.
At that time, life spans were getting shorter and health levels were declining all over the former Soviet Union. Evacuees, and people living on contaminated land, were convinced radiation was the root of all their troubles. Others only pretended that was the case to gain access to scarce health services and other benefits, including weekly invalidity cash and free holidays for their kids. I even met power station workers whose kids, born elsewhere, cynically took advantage of holidays to Ireland – and who could blame them?
It was sad. There was nothing I could do to help – except in working to get decent information out. I found Chernobyl to be an amazing place. Five thousand people turned up every day to run two working reactors and to keep the rest of the site maintained and safe. The worst of the accident was not visible. The staff had smart, well pressed, uniforms. The corridors and offices were full of pot plants. There was a busy and professional buzz about the place.
I soon discovered that communism and centralism were not dead; certainly not at Chernobyl where a gigantic bust of Lenin overlooked the main entrance. The station manager ran the plant and the town of Slavutych with its 30,000 or so residents, including shops, hospitals and schools. All major decisions crossed his desk and awaited his signature. Sometimes it seemed to take forever to get an answer.
I was one of the first westerners to enjoy life in the exclusion zone. I saw how its wildlife flourished in a verdant setting without parallel elsewhere in Europe. In the zone, wild animals roamed unmolested through ancient forests and luscious marshes, along untouched riverbanks and across riotous unfenced meadows. It rather defied expectations and gob-smacked me; what nine years of human absence had produced in a so-called dead zone.
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.