Inside the Exclusion Zone

Russia was burning, and northern Ukraine was blanketed in smog. As the day crept on and the temperature exceeded 40 degrees we drove further from Kiev on roads that seemed topped with treacle.

Beside me, Mark – a PhD student, so obsessed by the Chernobyl disaster that he'd chosen it for a dissertation topic- remarked on the weather.

“Did you know that radiation increases when it's like this?” he said, casually, as we stopped at the first exclusion zone checkpoint, “heat makes the particles more active... and, the fires in Russia might have stirred up clouds of nuclear dust” he added, with relish.

At the gatehouse Yosyp- our small, merry guide- distributed release forms.

“Just a formality” he assured us, “there is no danger- just look at the wildlife” he said, with a flourish towards the forest outside, “it is thriving!”.

We stopped, first, beside a jungle of grass.

“Come, come” Yosyp beckoned, ducking neatly beneath a fence and leading us towards a small flock of Soviet tanks that nested in the shrubbery, decorated in yellow hazard signs. Excitedly he waved a Geiger counter around, showing us proudly as the numbers shot up and the alarm rang shrilly out, as if panicked.

Warily I hung back as others clustered around him, waving their own devices over the ground and around the vehicles, shrieking like echoes of their alarms as they located sites of buried radioactive waste.

Setting off again, we approached Prypiat city; once home to 50,000 people, empty now.

We crossed a bridge. Spanning a narrow gorge it held the crippled power station suspended in its view. For the first time we saw the imploded reactor, looming behind the treetops.

In the city centre we loitered obediently in the shadow of a hotel and several blocks of flats. Everywhere trees had smashed through the concrete.

“Well,” Yosyp beamed, “off you go!”.

And so we scurried freely through the buildings, scrambling over the debris of life and business: into the grand hall of the hotel, and through the shattered remnants of its kitchens; into once decadent bedrooms, crumbling bathrooms and- dozens of floors later- out onto the expansive roof.

Standing in the scaffolding supporting several immense Cyrillic letters, I observed the entire desolate city.

Spirit bottles and cigarette ash littered an indent in the roof; I wondered how many Ukrainian teenagers had sneaked up here during the many quiet nights since 1986.

Just out of town, plants had smashed the vast windows of a leisure centre, twisting inside over faded linoleum and towers of dust. Inexplicably, photo negatives were spewed across the floor of an enormous swimming-pool; I held them up to the light, chasing firemen and construction workers across the plastic strips.

Outside, Prypiat fairground was consumed by moss. A Ferris wheel that had never spun spanned the skyline and broken bumper cars lay beneath the bones of an enclosure, draped in vines.

We passed a scrapyard, heaving with abandoned cars.

“Most are gone now,” Yosyp explained, proudly “they were sold for pieces. To China”.

As we approached the power station itself- at last- tension built in tandem with the numbers creeping up across our Geiger counters.

Nervously we exited the bus into an industrial desert. I stood before the concrete eggshell that enclosed the angry remains of reactor four, and I marveled at its flimsiness; cracked in several places it caved in over the bubbling power station.

“The sarcophagus is broken” Yosyp announced, cheerfully, “It was only built to last twenty years and now it's cracked and crumbling and soon will collapse. It's very hard to replace, see...” he brandished his Geiger counter “the radiation is very high, construction workers cannot get any nearer”.

Subdued, we drove back into the forest and this time every tree was dead and orange, as if they'd rusted along with Prypiat.

We left the exclusion zone through clunky, climb-in contamination detectors. I asked what would happen if I were too radioactive.

“One man was stopped once,” Yosyp admitted, ponderously “some moss was stuck to his shoe...”. He shrugged. “If your radiation is too high you cannot leave”.

However I needn't have worried: no one was held back because all the machines were broken.

“It's OK” Yosyp assured me, as I stepped down, uneasily, on the other side “I've worked here many years and I'm so healthy; I think that radiation doesn't exist at all!”.

C England

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