26th April 1986. The world was in shock when the news leaked that Reactor nr 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the USSR state of Ukraine, had exploded. The consequences were disastrous: radiation spread rapidly and as far as Wales and the Isle of Man, minor consequences were experienced. But the true disaster zone was the area around Chernobyl, covering parts of present day Ukraine, Belarus and Russia (back then all states within the Soviet Union). The whole area around Chernobyl, including the city itself and the city of Prypiat where many workers of the plant resided, had to be evacuated in rapid tempo. The whole area in a minimum of time became a ghost town collection. The world stood still for a moment.
Now, 24 years later, Ukraine’s government wants to open up the site for mass tourism in order to cash in on the growing demands of tourists wanting to visit the area. Is this appropriate because it brings in cash in the Ukrainian economy and may spread a message never to let this happen again? Or can we classify this as shamelessly cashing in on one of the biggest disasters in modern history, comparable to the touring companies who shamelessly guide tourists around in poor Brazilian ghetto’s?
Let’s look back on what exactly happened. It was 26th April 1986 when reactor nr 4 of the plant exploded during a test to see how much power was needed to keep the reactor operating during a blackout. Radiation spread rapidly and the citizens of nearby cities such as Chernobyl and Prypiat and countless smaller towns, were ordered to be evacuated in rapid tempo. Many of them had suffered radiation poisoning by then. Once evacuated, the whole area became a collection of ghost towns.
The area where radiation was specifically dangerous is known as the Zone of Alienation. Alternative names include the Chernobyl Zone, Exclusion Zone or 30 Km Zone. It is a 30 km zone around the site of the nuclear disaster which further expands beyond the Belarussian border, although that part of the zone is administered by Belarus itself nowadays. While Ukrainian capital Kiev is 110 km away, Belarus’ border with Ukraine is less than 20 km away, thus Belarus was in fact much stronger impacted by the explosion. The zone is administered by a special administration within present-day independent Ukraine’s Ministry of Extraordinary Situations and by Affairs of Population Protection from Consequences of Chernobyl Catastrophe. The zone is guarded by a special police force. Any residential, business or civil activities remain prohibited within the zone (although, see further in this article, in practise people do reside here) with the only exception of the plant itself. The number of people employed within the zone is between 3000 and 4000, although most reside in the purposely-built remote city of Slavutych (45 km to the east of the explosion site). Their tasks are mainly monitoring safety of the plant. The plant itself is mostly defunct and covered by a sarcophagus which however is in need to be replaced.
The towns and cities in the zone of alienation have attracted tourists for ages. I remember having visited a website of a woman who was granted permission to travel through the zone by motorcycle. She visited the abandoned villages and took a lot of pictures which she later published. Since then however, visits to the zone have become more common and the government of Ukraine issues special visas to visit the zone with tour companies. The number of visits have been restricted so far, until the recent plan to open the site for a more numerous amount of tourists. But the time when the zone was a "no go" territory for anyone but the staff working there, has gone. The zone opened for tourism in 2002 although less than 1000 people have visited so far, according to Wikitravel. A tour, starting from Kiev usually, would cost between 150 and 300 USD.
Visiting the area is incredibly interesting. The evacuation had to be done in such rapid tempo that people left their houses without taking away their belongings with them. When looking through the window of abandoned houses in the ghost towns, you can still see plates on the tables, furniture, TV sets, as if the owners had just left minutes ago. You can still see children’s toys, furniture that seemed ready to use, as if nobody ever left. In reality the zone is desolate alreafor 24 years.
To observe these abandoned houses with all this furniture still in place is somewhat eerie. It is a ghost town like few others. Also, it is like going back in time to communist USSR as propaganda is still visable on the walls in the towns. The biggest city in the zone was not Chernobyl itself but Prypiat, where most of the workers of the plant lived. 49000 people lived in the city and were forced to leave. Here there is an incredible amount of houses to be witnessed where all furniture and even dinner plates on the tables or toys on the floors are left untouched since the evacuation. It is eerie and spooky maybe, but it is also a very unique sight. Communist propaganda is still decorating the town walls. However, the buildings in this city and the neighbouring small towns are not in good state. A lot of buildings are in danger of collapse, and some thieves have taken away the truly valuable things long ago. Vegetation is reclaiming the land and a lot of houses, streets and squares are covered by weeds and vegetation.
Visitors to the zone can also observe what remains of the exploded reactor nr 4, although you cannot actually enter it. It is covered by a sarcophagus which however needs to be replaced by a new one in the coming years for security reasons. A 200m distance is the closest you can get if you are not granted very exclusive authorisation to enter the actual plant (which will only be given to workers and a very select number of journalists. Regular tourists can forget about coming closer than a few hundred meters distance).
Visitors however can enter Prypiat and other smaller villages in the zone to watch the many eerie abandoned houses. That said, guides will not just allow you to go everywhere as the danger of collapsing buildings is high and large parts are covered by vegetation. As vegetation is more prone to radioactive contamination than concrete blocks, tourists should avoid walking on grass or other vegetation and stick to concrete roads. Guides normally know the risks and will make sure that visitors are warned where not to go for the sake of their health.
Prypiat was a modern city, founded in 1970 especially for the workers of the plant. It was a very spacious city with malls, sports stadiums, hospitals, schools, … all to make life in the city pleasant for the workers. The city is full of high apartment blocks in Soviet style, which are now tourist hotspots because it brings back the atmosphere of communist-era USSR. The city was designed to grow up to almost 80000 citizens until disaster stroke and the city had to be evacuated in just 2 days time. Now the many propaganda slogans and the apartment blocks remain curiosities for tourists, but the buildings are in very bad state and thieves have taken away all valuables.
The zone however is not entirely desolate. People do still live here, despite the evacuation after the disaster. Some workers reside in the city to guard what is left of the power plant, and some people refused to be evacuated or returned home after a while despite the health hazards. Some houses own signs indicating "owner lives here" to indicate to visitors that this one is NOT one of the many abandoned houses. As of 2009 however, the population in the Zone of Alienation is below 400. Note that not all of them were people who returned home to re-inhabit their old houses. Some of the people are very reclusive outsiders who for some reason decided to squat one of the many abandoned houses. What thrives these outsiders to settle in this highly radioactive area and live as recluses away from the "populated world" is a mystery. They are described as samosely, which translates as self-settlers or in other words, squatters. The government initially didn’t like the people returning to their old homes against the advise of authorities and obviously were not happy with marginalised outsiders settling in the zone. Now however they accept their presence and even help out these people to survive in the zone. So it is not entirely desolate, within these ghost towns a few people are stubbornly holding on to living here. But most of the zone is really a collection of ghost towns where the abandoned houses with everything still looking as if people only left yesterday, giving an eerie look to the whole zone. The vegetation taking over the desolate cities gives the whole picture an even more gloomy look.
Is it exactly that what attracts tourists? For sure the demand is rising and the government of Ukraine is ready to cash in on that. Weither economical benefit from more tourists is the purpose or weither they mainly want to tell the story of what happened here is not officially stated, but the government is negotiating with tour operators to allow in more tourists starting from January 2011 onwards. The ministry claims radiation levels are returning to normal in large parts of the Zone of Alienation, thus allowing tourism. Nonetheless, to avoid all risks, tour operators who wish to be licensed will need to meet strict criteria, says Yulia Yurshova, spokeswoman for the Emergency Situations Ministry. She was interviewed by the famous American newspaper Washington Post, who published an article on the tourism plans in its paper edition of 14th December 2010. Ms Yurshova stated that "The Chernobyl zone isn’t as scary as the whole world thinks". She says demand of western tourists to visit the sites is growing and the government wants to respond to that request.
Shameless cashing in on one of the worst disasters of the modern era? Justified simply because it feeds the Ukrainian economy? Or justified only in case an educative undertone is given to the trips? You can decide for yourself. In case you wish to visit the Zone of Alienation, keep an eye on the Ukrainian government portals as the choice of licensed tour operators would be made public soon. For sure, a visit to this almost entirely abandoned yet intact area of ghost towns (almost abandoned except for a few people who returned or stayed despite the dangers, and some vagabonds squatting a few houses) will leave a unique impression that one will not rapidly forget.
Sources for this article: Wikipedia.org, Wikitravel.org and the European paper edition of the Washington Post of 14th December 2010.
Some buildings in Prypiat are indeed in terrible conditions:
Cityscape. Apart from a few people who ignored health hazards and returned and some vagabonds, this city is now totally desolate:
The amusement park that never ever opened due to the nuclear disaster:
Danger of collapsing buildings and vegetation that is prone to radioactivity make buildings like this lost forever:
For those interested in this matter: visit pripyat.com, a site made by former residents who were evacuated.