Chernobyl... welcome to the dead zone
Three decades on, the world’s worst nuclear disaster site has become an unlikely tourist spot. Emma Thomson braves a visit
The Ukrainian winter bites like a wolf, but what I hear next chills me more. "I was 28 at the time of the explosion. I wanted to volunteer, but my wife said she'd divorce me if I went - she saved my life," says our guide, Serhii Uzlov. He's speaking of Chernobyl - the worst nuclear disaster in history.
Thirty-two years ago, on April 26, 1986, the crew of reactor number four switched off the safety systems in the early hours to test the turbine. The reactor overheated and generated an explosion the equivalent of 500 nuclear bombs. It blew off the concrete lid and sent a plume of radioactive material two kilometres into the atmosphere.
Nobody has an accurate count of how many died indirectly. Mortality rates have been obscured by propaganda, and reports were lost when the Soviet Union broke up. After the disaster, an 18-mile radius known as the 'exclusion zone' was set up around the reactor.
Remarkably, the site and the nearest town, Pripyat, have been open to tourists since 2010, but although scientists from other countries have corroborated Ukraine's claims that it's safe to visit, many are still nervous.
The experience starts at the 30km checkpoint outside the exclusion zone. I look at the form we have to sign before entering: I understand and realise staying in the area with high levels of ionising radiation can cause potential harm to my life and health. But Serhii has visited more than 200 times. "I'm sorry to say it's safe. I know you wanted adventure," he teases.
A wide avenue of tapered silver birch trees guides us towards the inner 10km checkpoint, where military men outfitted in camouflage and carrying automatic rifles come out to inspect us. "The exclusion zone is a state within a state - it has its own rules," says Serhii.
As if matching our misgivings, the mercury slides to -17C. The cold saps the energy from phone batteries and freezes my phone.
Past abandoned homes, and on the horizon, is the domed roof of the reactor. It's inside the 'special zone', which is demarcated by a 10-foot concrete wall topped with an electric fence and barbed wire for good measure.
No tourists are allowed inside this section.
"People still get ill working there", says Serhii, as we pull up outside the observation deck where a hulking granite memorial stands to those who died. I'm shocked to learn around 4,000 people work here, cleaning debris. "They usually work on a two weeks on, two weeks off rota, but inside the reactor it can be as little as an hour before they reach their daily limit," explains our guide We don't linger long.
Around 160 villages fall within the exclusion zone, but Pripyat is the best-known. After the disaster, it was encircled with barbed wire until 2000.
Serhii takes us on a walk, past the Palace of Culture, the school (which now features in the video game Call of Duty), through the football stadium and to the never-used fairground that was scheduled to open just a week after the disaster. The yellow cabins of the Ferris wheel hang limp in the freezing air. "Follow me, I have something to show you," he says, weaving through the trees towards the hospital.
"The basement here is one of the most contaminated places in town. The first casualties (firemen) were brought here for treatment and their stripped clothes discarded. Radiation Readings reached 7,000 millisieverts (the risk of haemorrhage starts at 1,000; death at 4,000)." We step through a broken window, our boots crunching on the shattered glass, and he points the Geiger counter at an old rag lying on the side. Immediately, it starts to emit a shrill alarm, recording 5.5 millisieverts - the highest reading we've encountered. "This belonged to one of the firefighters," says Serhii.
It's easy to be complacent. And yet, thanks to years of minimal human impact, there have been suggestions that the zone has a future as a nature reserve, with wolves, beavers and the rare Przewalski's horse flourishing.
Before we can leave the zone, we must be screened for radiation.
We're escorted into a room with a metal box. I'm told to step inside and put my hands and feet on sensors. If the warning light flashes red, I might have to abandon my clothes; if it's yellow, I'm safe.
I wait nervously for the verdict. Click. Yellow. The relief I experience takes me by surprise. Back on the bus, I sneak a swig of celebratory vodka.
Wish you were there?
Explore (explore.co.uk) has a four-night Discover Chernobyl trip from £829pp including flights, some meals, a tour leader and an official Exclusion Zone guide.
Emma travelled as a guest of Explore
Independent News Service