by Joyce Heard
I am delighted to introduce my good friend, Joyce Heard. A fellow Harvard grad, Joyce worked in journalism in the US, then moved to France after meeting her husband Jean-Marie while on a Rotary International fellowship. Now a long term European observer, Joyce and Jean-Marie divide their time between Aix-en-Provence and southern Morocco. When they travel farther afield, it is often to unusual destinations, this time Chernobyl. Joyce agreed to share her post with us.
Sitting in our garden in Belgium in April 1986 worrying about whether the radiation cloud from Chernobyl would head our way I never imagined that 33 years later we would be visiting the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster as a tourist attraction. But that’s what we did in September 2019. Today, radiation levels in much of the exclusion zone are just as low as elsewhere. We wore Geiger counters during our day tour and periodic checks showed levels well below legal levels in Ukraine and the rest of the world. There are of course hot spots where debris has been buried and near the number 4 reactor which exploded and caught fire releasing at least 5% of the radioactive reactor core into the atmosphere.
There are two exclusion zones surrounding the nuclear site where all of the reactors have now been shut down. No one is allowed to live within 10 kilometers of the reactor, which is now encased in a multi billion dollar shell designed and mostly funded by Western donors. A first concrete casing hurriedly installed quickly proved inadequate. In the 30 kilometer radius zone there are presently about between 4,000 and 8,000 people who live and work, the majority of them firefighters and people still working on decontamination in rotating shifts of days or a week. Complete clean-up of the area is expected take until 2065.
Our guide, Victoria, a young lady who learned her French at University in Kiev, explained that firefighters are extremely important in the zone since many trees have been planted. The trees have drawn up radioactive elements from the soil so if they burn the radioactivity will be released. Although the Ukrainian Communist government ordered all of the 163,000 inhabitants of the exclusion zone to move out taking barely anything with them, some of the peasants have quietly slipped back into the 30-kilometer area and have moved into their previous homes.
I read of one study that found that these hardy folks, who survive on small pensions, handouts and whatever food they can produce in their possibly irradiated gardens, have had better health outcomes than many of the residents who were uprooted and placed in shoddy housing blocks in the city away from their lifelong connections.
Since just the two of us went with a driver/guide we were able to visit one of these peasants, whom our guide Victoria has befriended. The woman is 85 years old. Her husband died just a few months ago. We bought a bag of groceries for her at one of the small shops in the exclusion zone catering to the few residents and tourists.
One of the saleswomen at the shop asked Victoria if Jean Marie was single. Apparently tourists are a temptation for get-away marriages for some of the few women working in the exclusion zone. At the babuschka’s we smiled and shook hands and gave her our gift in the cheerful courtyard of her dacha where much to my amazement her pet dog, a plump striped cat named Marquise, and a bevy of hens were all running around together in perfect harmony.
Touring the area is a window into a frozen era of the 60s and 70s when the Soviet Union believed its way of life could accomplish anything. The town of Pripiyat, nearest the reactor site, was custom built for the 50,000 engineers and other technical workers creating the reactor complex. Gradually falling apart it still boasts of modern luxuries in stark contrast to the simple homes of the local peasants. Modern apartment blocks are scattered in green spaces and workers could dine at a cafeteria with stained glass windows worthy of a cathedral. I couldn’t face going into the hospital but my husband, Jean Marie, said the operating rooms are still there.
The eeriest sight is that of the amusement park where the wind was moving the Ferris wheel chairs as if the wheel was about to swing into action.
About Visiting Chernobyl
The trip was instructive, and the pork we were served for lunch at the Chernobyl restaurant was some of the most tender we have ever tasted. However, I would say Chernobyl is only worth a visit if you already plan to be in Kiev. Local agencies offer day tours for both groups and individuals. It is not possible to access the site without signing up for a tour.
Chernobyl has already become over-touristed due to the HBO “Chernobyl” series and having been featured in the video game “Call of Duty.” The kindergarten, with white boards, a few toys, and its cast iron beds for napping gathering dust, feels staged when the next group of tourists comes in right as we leave. Approximately 10,000 tourists per month come to visit the site and take selfies. When we stopped at the best spot to take photos of the sarcophagus covering the reactor a van load of tourists was already there including two wearing fake white anti-radiation suits.
Chernobyl may be interesting for HBO fans, video gamers, and nuclear historians, but it’s not for everyone.