Chernobyl's tourism explosion, by Tristan Rutherford
Mojeh Men, September 2019
Chernobyl looks like an open-air museum dedicated to the folly of humankind. Cooling towers rise like Disney castles over decaying concrete. Red buses that transported workers to the nuclear power plant have become rusted and encrusted, then busted by trees that punch branches through windscreens and doors. Moose raise calves near deserted turbine halls. European bison stride past abandoned parking lots. Some 340 bird species next in crumbling apartment blocks, completing nature’s takeover. The urban jungle is alive.
This wasn’t the plan. Chernobyl was supposed to showcase a triumph of humankind over nature, not a USSR reclaimed by Mother Earth. The first nuclear power plant on Ukrainian territory was commissioned by communist chiefs in 1977. Soviet Union leaders told the public it was so safe “that we could build one on Moscow’s Red Square”. But the reactor type, the RBMK-1000, utilised cheap materials and 1950s tech. Its computer system worked from data stored on perforated paper tape. Worse still, the nuclear reactor design was based on weapons technology. It was therefore considered a state secret and all discussion of its flaws was forbidden by law.
On 26th April 1986 a throttle became jammed during a routine test at Chernobyl nuclear power station. The output of reactor number 4 increased by 120 times. Fuel rods fractured while a chain reaction blew the plant’s cement casing with the force of 500 Hiroshimas. Scientists said the surrounding area would remain uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years.
Once again the white coats were wrong. In 2018 Chernobyl officially opened to tourists eager to witness the world’s most unlikely outdoor museum. There’s even talk of a UNESCO Biosphere reserve. That’s because Chernobyl charts how your town might look - if nature was given 33 years to move in. Visitors inspired by the 2019 HBO Chernobyl mini-series can even purchase an atomic gasmask from a souvenir shack at the site entrance. Here guests must supply exhaustive personal details then pass through numerous radiation scans. In return they are paired with a minder, a driver and a geiger counter to warn of radioactive overdose. A record-breaking 100,000 visitors are expected this year.
My tour continues to the Chernobyl suburb of Pripyat. The settlement, 5km from the nuclear power plant, was planned as a socialist Silicon Valley. Here elite Soviet scientists worked in high-tech laboratories and at Chernobyl itself. The crumbling concrete utopia includes 10 gymnasiums and 27 cafés, plus a department store that sold luxuries unavailable across the shortage-ridden USSR: fresh fish, chocolate, East German sausage. Now wolves raise cubs near the ice cream freezer. The shopping carts are pushed only by winds. It’s a nuclear Pompeii; an entire city frozen in time by the world’s greatest radioactive disaster.
In the futuristic paradise of Pripyat the average age of residents was 26. Thanks to attractions like paid holidays, plus 15 kindergartens set in bucolic woodland, the scientists produced offspring at neutron speeds. To cater for a rapid population increase, Pripyat’s amusement park, with its bumper cars and ferris wheel, was due to open the day after the nuclear disaster. (Here my geiger count bleeps in frantic warning, as moss spores emit more radiation than almost anywhere else in the zone.) That evening 500,000 people, a statistic equivalent to the entire male Emirati population, were evacuated from Pripyat, Chernobyl and 146 surrounding villages beyond a 30km Exclusion Zone. Evacuees were told to bring clothes for a few days. Only a handful ever returned.
An abandoned Olympic-size swimming pool attests to Pripyat’s special status. The art deco diving boards and 6m-high windows now stand in forlorn decay. The thick concrete swimlane markers will stand for centuries to come. But birch trees have knocked on the window panes for decades, then broken through when they received no reply. Iron support beams have rusted to ochre. Only the step ladder, constructed from stainless steel, retains its polish. This has allowed graffiti artists to climb into the ruined pool and daub Cyrillic slogans of love and despair.
Visitors can still shoot hoops in the basketball court next to the diving pool. The scene will be familiar to many thanks to a horror video game. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Call of Chernobyl is a first-person shooter set inside the disaster zone. Its armed hero must combat survivalist militias and zombified animals - all twisted by radioactive fallout - while finding stocks of vodka to alleviate radiation sickness. Spoiler alert: such medicine doesn't walk in real life.
After the video game’s success in 2007, ‘Stalkers’ became the first pioneers to infiltrate the Pripyat settlement and Chernobyl power plant. These youngsters ran the gauntlet of armed guards by cutting the fence of the 2,600km2 Exclusion Zone. They would then camp out in the 160 derelict tower blocks, pulling all-nighters while smoking weed and sharing horror stories. Finding Stalkers to interview is tricky, not least because 33 years of vegetation growth has rendered the apartment blocks invisible from just 10m away. I cut through gorse and hawthorn, then dodge into an already smashed door, to access a 16-storey tower.
It’s nearing dusk, so an eerie Chernobyl half-light filters through the grubby tower block windows. Most apartment doors remain unlocked from the evacuation haste back in 1986. I enter several on the 8th floor to witness beaten-up scenes of the Soviet dream: cheap pots and pans, an ironing board ready to press a manager’s shirt, a big box TV that screened censored shows. I hear scraping noises above and ascend the tower staircase to investigate. Despite my calls the 9th and 10th floors seem deserted. Although I neglect to open the wardrobes and cupboards where Stalkers are said to hide from security guards. Darkness is coming, a niggling fear quickens my breath, and I beat a retreat to Chernobyl’s only hotel.
It seems the Hotel Desiatka has awarded itself 5-star status. However, as it enjoys an accommodation monopoly across the entire Exclusion Zone, it can get away with clingy linen, shared toilets and communal showers. Dinnertime is fun though. The varied guestlist includes a Singaporean nuclear physicist and a Belgian couple on their honeymoon. (Note: it’s a brave man who brings his new bride to Chernobyl.) The fare is tasty but river fish are off the menu: the local catfish contain 1,000 times regular levels of radiation.
The hotel’s most interesting party are a German group of Urban Explorers, or URBEXers. These people are ‘dark tourists’ who seek out calamitous time capsules, from Berlin’s hidden underground bunkers to deserted malls in Detroit. The following day they let me follow them around Ukraine’s Ghost City.
“Chernobyl’s Jupiter Factory is the holy grail for URBEXers”, the group leader tells me. This particular site is like a Soviet Apple campus: a vast test site for robotics and military-grade semiconductors. Pipes bend into rusted sinks like a failed scientific experiment. Moss sprouts over lost shoes, frost snaps vintage recording machine, maple trees overturn trucks. “Here more than elsewhere nature has taken back control,” says the URBEXer. It’s a slow war of attrition which Mother Earth will always win. However, the factory’s spaghetti mess of wires wasn’t caused by general decay: the KGB secret police cut the entire district’s telephone lines lest word of the disaster cause social uproar.
Chernobyl’s final must-see exemplifies the site: nature’s revenge meets a paranoia so strong it broke the superpower Soviet Union. On the drive we pass Scots pines misshapen by radiation, yet also traces of lynx, moose and fox that have recolonised the region. The most astounding sight is a band of Przewalski’s horses, the only wild equines in the world, which have reproduced at speed inside this accidental nature reserve. Where we park our car is equally arresting. The Duga radar barrier, another deep state secret, rises 50 storeys into the clouds, like a kilometre-long wall of razor wire. The occasional fool climbs to the top then posts the photo on Instagram.
Duga was a gigantic Cold War missile tracking station. Because it sucked so much electricity it could only be sited next to Chernobyl. Like much else around here, it was evacuated in 1989 when the USSR was bankrupted by ill-planned schemes including leaky power plants, nuclear powered aircraft carriers and a space race it could ill afford. The Soviet Union would then split into 15 nations, the most populous being neighbours Russia and Ukraine. Pripyat’s population would move into the hastily built town of Slavutych outside the Exclusion Zone.
Although one group did return. Chernobyl’s feral beauty tempted a handful of self-settlers, known as samosely in Ukrainian. These folk, now mainly in their 80s, moved into derelict wooden cottages straight out of a Tolstoy novel. All preferred to take their chances against wild boar, wolves and nuclear winters as opposed to the Soviet boredom of Slavutych. Surrounded by wild berries and fertile gardens, their lifespan is ten years greater than those who stayed in temporary accommodation. One tells me: “The authorities didn’t tell us the truth in the first place, so why should be believe their warnings now?” In this nuclear riddle the call of nature is more powerful than humankind’s.
Tristan Rutherford writes about Chernobyl for The Times