Andrew Osborn








The Resurrection: Chernobyl 20 years on

The Sunday Herald , 9th April 2006 09:29

By Andrew Osborn

ARMED guards, a round metal danger sign, and a disturbing radiation map mark the entrance to Chernobyl's eerie dead zone, site of the world's worst nuclear accident.

For the first-time visitor, the map is a powerful reminder that this remains a dangerously polluted corner of Europe. It shows how radioactive the area's mushrooms are (extremely), how radioactive meat from wild game and fish is (very) and how irradiated the zone's rivers are (dangerously).

The message is clear: you can look but you can't touch. Two decades after Chernobyl's reactor number four exploded on April 26, 1986, the dead zone, a piece of land in modern-day Ukraine with a radius of around 18 miles, remains heavily irradiated and is regarded by widely as a post-apocalyptic no man's land. Beyond a red and white barrier, a straight road flanked first by silver birch trees, and later by a thick pine forest, stretches into the distance for as far as the eye can see. You could be anywhere in the former Soviet Union, except that the road is utterly devoid of traffic. There are no pedestrians.

 Passing through the checkpoint is anti-climactic. A guard scrutinises our passports (visitors need special permission from the Ukrainian government) and nonchalantly waves us through. After a few minutes the forest ends, giving way to abandoned villages, farmhouses, and wooden peasants' cottages on either side of the road; sometimes they are hard to make out because they are entwined by dark trees which blend into the woodland behind.

 Untouched for the past 20 years, the area resembles a war zone: windows are smashed, roofs collapsed and there is not a human soul in sight. Patches of snow melt slowly on the plains.

In the dead zone, visitors are never left to their own devices. Our guide, a man called Sergey Franchuk, exudes cheerfulness and boasts that you need to be as fit as a cosmonaut to work here. He has been associated with Chernobyl since 1982 and lives in a small village with his family just outside the zone, spending four days working here and three days resting at home.

Franchuk explains that 337 people live permanently within this supposedly uninhabitable region. Called "samosely" they left the area immediately after the accident, only to return within a few weeks or months. Most are elderly: the youngest resettler is said to be 63; the oldest 93.

Apart from these apparently masochistic indiciduals, the zone hosts a 4000-strong army of temporary workers employed to repair the cracked sarcophagus that covers the remains of reactor number four. Others work for the local forestry company, the police force, the handful of hostels that accommodate employees or, bizarrely, in the tourist industry.

Chernobyl, it seems, is a popular destination among a small band of intrepid tourists. Most come in the summer, explains a smiling Franchuk, who adds that the disaster zone is especially popular with Dutch, Japanese and American tourists. "The first thing people think of when they think of Ukraine is Chernobyl. It's a curiosity thing. It has a special pull for Japanese people because of Hiroshima."

Slightly unnerved that Franchuk makes no mention of safety precautions, we enter the zone. The landscape is bleakly beautiful. As we drive along empty roads at breakneck speed (speed limits seem to have little value here), the scenery is uniformly flat and forested. Wooden poles supporting power lines have collapsed as if hit by a cyclone and there are frequent signs warning of the risk of forest fires. "Fire is the forest's most bitter enemy," reads one.

Fires, Franchuk explains, are particularly unwelcome since they send plumes of radiation-soaked smoke high into the atmosphere and possibly out of the zone. During the 1990s, the authorities imported wild Przewalski's horses to the region. By nibbling the grass, they help reduce the risk of fire.

Our first stop is the village of Illintsi and the home of Maria Shaparenko, an 82-year-old peasant woman, who refuses to leave the area despite the obvious danger to her health. "I was born here and I will die here, " she says as she ushers us into her small cottage. Outside in the yard, hens scratch the earth and a cockerel crows, as a weak spring sun beats down. The scene is deceptively normal.

"It [the Chernobyl disaster] happened on a Sunday," says Shaparenko in a matter-of-fact way. "But during the week that followed we didn't know that anything had happened. We were only told the following Saturday." In fact, the Soviet government waited almost three days - until the drifting radioactive fallout triggered alarms in Sweden - before publicly acknowledging that an accident had occurred. By the evening of April 27, however, local people were being bused out of the area. Maria Shaparenko's small, lively eyes flash as she remembers being told that she would only need to leave for three days. As a result, she took little luggage. "We sensed that something had happened when we saw people who worked in the local administration evacuate their families. They just took everything they owned and left."

In the event Shaparenko was only away for two weeks before she crept back to her home, hiding from soldiers stationed along the way to prevent people returning. "The soldiers kept saying, 'Why do you want to go back? There's nothing there any more.' But I told them my home is here, and so are my apple and pear trees."

Though she admits she has felt lonely since her husband died three years ago, she does not feel sorry for herself and seems happy. "I have a lot of relations [outside the zone] and they keep asking me why I live here by myself. But I tell them I will be here until I die and that I don't want to bother anyone."

Before the accident, the village was full of life; nostalgically, she remembers Sunday lunches with relatives and friends. She seems to have no real grasp of what radiation is. "It's very nice here in summer, everything blooms. In fact, nothing is wrong here, it's just that people have been scared off by the radiation."

In a cottage a few doors away, the picture is starkly different. Katerina Yushchenko, 74, and her husband Roman, 76, appear to be barely surviving. Roman has cancer and his skin is drawn tightly across his bony face as he lies inert on a corner bed built above a stove. He groans intermittently, each time he tries to move. His face is wracked with pain; his eye sockets are almost hollow.

"He's turning black now," whispers Katerina . "He's going to die soon."

Like many of the resettlers, she makes no link between the area's high radiation levels and health problems. "Oh, Roman had heart problems a long time ago," she says quickly. "I don't think it's connected."

The tiny room is filled with the stench of decay and hopelessness. Asked what kind of cancer Roman has, Katerina says something about his bladder. To underline her point she produces a tin chamber pot full of his urine, full to the brim. It is blood-red.

Katerina, too, has happy memories of how the village used to be but admits the reality today is less appealing. "I don't know what I am going to do. In the summer the land needs to be worked [many settlers grow their own vegetables]. If I'm really bored I do embroidery. Otherwise I just watch the walls."

A short drive takes us to the source of her troubles - Chernobyl's hulking and infamous nuclear power station. Planned as the largest such plant in the world, Chernobyl's fifth and sixth reactors were still being built when the fourth reactor exploded during an ill-fated test, in the early hours of the morning of April 26, 1986. A plume of radiation equivalent to 400 Hiroshimas was blasted into the atmosphere.

Some of the 176 staff on duty that night were killed instantly; others would die later in hospital. In the immediate vicinity, dozens of fires were ignited. The reactor core burned for 10 days, and the resultant pollutants - including plutonium isotopes with a half-life of 24,360 years - drifted around the world, raining toxicity as far as the lakes of Japan and the glens of Scotland.

The clean-up operation brought its own casualties. Some 20 firefighters died immediately, while hundreds more became seriously ill as a result of exposure to radioactivity. The reactor-core itself was eventually sealed off with a cement mixture, dropped from the air. There is no public record of the radiation doses received by the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and reservists charged with cleaning up the contaminated landscape of Ukraine and neighbouring Belarus.

Today, cranes stand stock still around Chernobyl's half-built fifth and sixth nuclear reactors. Visitors, who are permitted to get surprisingly close to the fated fourth reactor, peer silently at it through an observation window, or from the nearby car park. Covered by a giant metal and concrete sarcophagus designed to stop radiation leaking out, it is not unlike an enormous bus station. The sarcophagus itself is riddled with holes and the authorities admit that at least 100 square metres are open to the elements; a new sarcophagus is planned in the next few years.

The Chernobyl visitors' centre is tiny - though the zone is popular with a trickle of 'extreme tourists', large tour parties clearly never come here. Julia Marusich, a guide, is unexpectedly open , admitting that "hazardous risks remain and there is still a lot of irradiated fuel inside the reactor. Our information [on the situation] is not complete".

Radiation levels within the reactor unit are still so high that only 25% of the rooms are accessible and repair workers are allowed to operate inside for just minutes at a time.

As Marusich talks, an electronic geiger counter flashes on the wall behind her: it registers 1.25 micro roentgens per hour, a level that is apparently perfectly safe in short bursts.

Nearby in the dead zone's so-called Red Forest, a pine woodland that took the brunt of the radioactive explosion, levels can be as high as one roentgen, more than 50,000 times normal background levels.

Our final stop is Pripyat, an eerie husk of a town which remains frozen in time: the hands of the municipal clock are fixed at six minutes to 12. Built in 1970 to house the nuclear power plant's workforce, the town's 50,000-strong population was evacuated one grim afternoon in 1986. Long afterwards, the streetlights continued to come on each night.

Located just two miles from the reactor, Pripyat is sealed by high fences and watched over by armed guards at a checkpoint. Radiation levels here, in the heart of the dead zone, are too high to support human habitation. Not even stubborn settlers such as Maria Shaparenko have dared return.

For a long time, the furniture and possessions that had been left behind in the apartments remained undisturbed. Then 10 years ago, says Franchuk, many were mysteriously stolen and, presumably, sold outside the dead zone despite the fact that they would have bristled with radioactivity. Nobody knows who did it, though ironically, it is suspected that it was the handful of armed guards left behind to keep out the curious and the looters.

Before the accident, Pripyat was a model Soviet town populated by power station workers and the men and women who built Chernobyl. Back then, its shiny concrete tower blocks represented the Soviet Union's bright atomic future.

Tower blocks were, and remain, crowned by giant steel Soviet emblems, and the town's facilities, its creches, its shops, and its apartments, were regarded as the best the USSR - and by definition, anywhere else - could offer.

Two decades on, Pripyat's central Lenin Square is a shadow of its former self. Each year, trees encroach further into its space; the steps are carpeted with moss; and tall yellow grass abounds. As the winter snow melts, the paving stones become a shallow river bed carrying rivulets of water into a drainage system that has long ceased to be serviced.

The square's Palace of Culture, its hotel and what was once the town's main restaurant, are open to the elements and, as the concrete cracks, nature is pushing in.

In one of the town's children's play areas the only sound is cheerful birdsong. Strong branches have spread across what used to be an enclosure for bumper cars, a giant ferris wheel stands idle, apparently never inaugurated, and trees and weeds press in on every side.

For 20 years, the town of Pripyat has been slowly rotting. In a further two decades, it may be hard to discern its central features as nature continues to make inroads.

Less than a mile from the stricken fourth reactor, not far from Pripyat, we come upon an extraordinary spectacle. In a copse of silver birches a pair of wild elks graze quietly on irradiated grass.

In the background the brightly coloured metal cranes of Chernobyl crowd the horizon and the power station's red and white ventilation chimney juts menacingly into the evening sky.

Franchuk believes that, in some inexplicable way, radiation has purified the soil. "We think that the land has been cleansed," he says. "Nature is flourishing here, even more so than it was before the accident. When Viktor Yushchenko [Ukraine's president] came here last year he even suggested turning the area into a nature reserve. "

Like many locals, Franchuk believes that animals can sense whether the land they inhabit is poisoned. He views their return to Chernobyl as evidence that the ecosystem is recovering, a state of affairs he believes could see people moving back to parts of the zone within 15 years. Others, perhaps more realistically, think that it will be centuries.

Astonishingly, most of the animals, with the notable exception of the herds of wild Przewalski's horses, appear to have returned to the zone of their own accord.

The last 'animal census' carried out by the authorities showed that the zone is home to 66 different species of mammals including 7000 wild boars, some 600 wolves, 3000 deer, 1500 beavers, 1200 foxes, 15 lynx and several thousand elk.

An ornithologists' paradise, the area is reckoned to contain 280 species of birds, many of them rare and endangered. Wild dogs are in evidence though their numbers have dwindled as they are prime targets for wolves, a quirky detail that prompted American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith to call his latest novel, which is partly set in the zone, Wolves Eat Dogs. Biologist Mary Mycio, who is an American foreign correspondent in the area, was one of the first people to begin cataloguing nature's unlikely comeback in Chernobyl. She has made 24 separate trips to the dead zone. "On the surface," she says, "radiation is very good for wildlife because it forces people to leave the contaminated area which opens it up to wildlife. They removed 135,000 people from an area twice the size of Luxembourg. The people there now carry out very localised activities and in vast regions of the zone there are no people."

"It is a radioactive wilderness and it is thriving."

As for the effects on people, despite the passage of time, no consensus has been reached on the scale of the human tragedy linked to the accident. Estimates of fatalities, both direct and indirect, vary wildly, from 41 in the immediate aftermath to 10s of thousands in the years that followed.

More broadly, it is estimated that five million people were exposed to radiation in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia and that the radiation fallout triggered an epidemic of thyroid cancer that has yet to abate.

Doctors claim convincingly that cancer rates are far higher than they were before 1986 and that thousands of Ukrainians and people in neighbouring Belarus (which was worse affected than Ukraine because of the wind direction) may have died prematurely as a result.

As we prepare to leave, a man with a geiger counter takes radiation readings from the tyres of our vehicle and we are forced to step through an archaic-looking radiation detector that resembles a piece of airport security machinery.

A light on the device turns green and I am declared 'clean'. With some relief we drive off into the evening, leaving the dead zone behind.

Deep in the forest, the elk and the wild boar roam free: unhindered, and unobserved, by humankind.