This is a nightmare. It has to be. It’s lucid though. Catch yourself in the act of dreaming and watch it unfold as you hitch a ride in your own dream self. Peer out through your dream eyes at the silent town reclaimed by creeping wilderness as it slips slowly under nature’s swamp, synchronising with the cycle of growth and decay. Mostly decay. It’s a Marie Celeste town, no longer held aloft by fleeing human inhabitants, its decline measured with every flake of faded paint peeling from rust, and with every green shoot that skewers through yielding tarmac and concrete.
A procession of sorts. Of barely-met strangers progressing with purpose, too unfamiliar to voice their unease at the prickling, nervous heat that raises gooseflesh on the backs of their necks. Their silence speaks for them, betrays them.
Footsteps are the only contact points here, and even they could be too much. Don’t touch anything, don’t breathe too deep. Don’t place anything on the ground, except the soles of your shoes.
And that word over and over: contamination.
If you walked with fewer, longer steps…would that mean less…exposure? Would it?
Onwards then, until at last: the heart of all fears. The colossal charcoal-grey mortuary-slab of The Sarchophagus, trailed with rainwashed black and rust-water. No longer part of the human world now; touched and tainted, it belongs to some other place…
The spindled, gaping, bone-steel smoke stack that flashed across a thousand news reports 25 years ago, still silently awaiting your return like a fear from childhood that was real after all. A spit in the eye of creation and still blaspheming, though temporarily drowned by your jangling spine and the crescendo of Geiger counters.
They even run tours there now, did you know? To Chernobyl and Pripyat, its unfortunate neighbour. It once brimmed with 50,000 lives, until April 26th 1986 when Reactor 4 blew its top, all over the city and beyond, with a “plume” reaching across Belaraus, Ukraine and Western Europe to the eastern edge of the Atlantic. I remember hearing that the wind had changed and that the plume was now heading towards us here in the UK. I remember that it rained the day the cloud came. And what if…
Nowadays, visitors can be irradiated to a similar level as those on an Atlantic flight, or recipients of a chest x-ray – so they say, assuming that you play your cards right of course. The contamination is not uniform, some areas being “safe” (a relative term), with other dangerous hotspots signposted. In any case, a Gieger counter and dosimeter are the only sure ways to tell, as small “hot” pockets are dotted around like unmapped landmines. And the mosses seem particularly happy to emit a “spike” into an otherwise tolerable graph.
The exclusion zone radiates (no pun intended) for 30 km on all sides of the accident site, though it is not as “exclusive” as we may think. Just under 7000 workers still pull shifts either at the reactor site or in the Zone itself, with a few hundred squatters illegally taking up residence in the contaminated area. These consist of former residents determined to live in their homes come what may, vagrants, or those embracing a “naturalist” existence in what is now declared one of Eastern Europe’s biggest nature reserves. It seems that although the flora and fauna couldn’t exist in the same space as humanity, radiation is fine.
There are current efforts to complete a second layer of protection: the New Safe Confinement, a giant steel arch to be slid over the existing Sarcophagus before its concrete deteriorates to the point of releasing yet more radioactive material. Full decommissioning is not due for completion until at least 2020. The last of the reactors (Reactor 3) was shut down on 15th December 2000. Yes that’s right, Chernobyl was still functioning until nearly 2001. These things take time. Number 2 closed after a fire in 1991, and Reactor 1 closed in 1996.
So is there any real chance of me taking a Chernobyl vacation in the near future? And of posting some snaps here, all in the name of research? Not bloody likely.
[Photo by Cavin]