Apocalypse Still?

All images ©Doug McKinlay

First published in The Times

Who out there has seen Hot Tub Time Machine with John Cusak? I watched it for the third time the other night. I know, I know, not the most highbrow piece of cinema, but funny nonetheless, especially if the 1980’s was your formative decade. We had Ronald Reagan and his crew of miscreants – remember Don ‘the Bomb’ Rumsfeld, and who could forget that old party gagster Dick ‘the Dick’ Cheney – of course these two hacks would pop up 20 years later to become the architects of our current mess. On the other side of the 1980’s Iron Curtain though we had the up-and-comer Mikhail Gorbachev and his camera-hungry wife, Raisa. Arguably – no matter what the Americans say – it was Mikhail who saved our collective bacon back in the day.

I don’t know about the rest of you children of the ‘80’s, but I didn’t think we were going to see 1990. Alas though, we are still here to enjoy politics in the 21st Century. What fun.

Why the trip down memory lane? Well in Hot Tub Time Machine the boys go back in time to the early 80’s after spilling the fictitious energy drink Chernobly into the workings of the tub. It got me thinking about the real Chernobyl and a story I did there for a national newspaper awhile back.

On approach to the site it’s a bit of shock. After miles of rolling corn and wheat fields, all looking like scenes lifted from a Tolstoy novel, the road into Chernobyl turns to a deserted fragmented strip of tarmac with Day of the Triffids-sized weeds growing between the cracks. On either side, behind rusting barbed wire, are radiated helicopters and trucks left to decay in front of groups of derelict buildings that would have made Stanley Kubrick salivate. The dystopian film making potential is enormous; there is just that little problem of the radiation.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

My guide for the day is Yuri – go figure right – and his driver Whats’isname. I never did catch what he was really called. He always seemed to be mumbling into the collar of his shirt, perhaps because we were entering an area that could pretty much right off any chance of having offspring.

With Jim Morrison’s lament ‘This is the End’ blasting out of the car’s crackling speakers and Whats’isname pushing the battered Lada well beyond the manufacturers recommended limits we drew near Reactor Four – the scene of the crime, ground zero. This is where it all began on April 25, 1986.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

The reactor was shut down for routine maintenance; plant officials thought it would be a good time to test the emergency equipment for the cooling pumps in the reactor core. At 1:00 am on April 26 it all went totally wrong. The emergency equipment failed and as the system began to break down the reactor was starved of water pushing temperatures up dramatically. Operators couldn’t prevent a power surge, estimated at over 100 times normal levels. The increase in temperature caused part of the nuclear fuel to rupture, fuel particles then mixed with water vapour triggering a steam explosion that destroyed most of the core, a second explosion two minutes later finished it off.

The result was thousands of tons of radioactive dust and debris escaping, sending a deadly radioactive cloud over most of Ukraine, parts of Russia and Belarus, Western Europe and eventually the whole northern hemisphere. Soon after, the government of the day evacuated the area immdeiatley around Chernobyl, resettling people near Kiev, the captial.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

Although more than 25 years later the radiation levels have dropped significantly and vegetation and wildlife has returned to the area, ironically creating a thriving ad hoc wilderness area, the region is still depressed, especially economically. And according to recent investigations the concrete sarcophagus encasing the reactor is beginning to break down. Who knows what kind of dodgy concrete supplier the Ukranians used – probably the vodka-swilling uncle of the plant manager.

So with this in mind why not advertise the place as Ukraine’s next big tourism destination. And it’s not just the Ukrainians who envision tourists taking mid-night strolls basking in the green glow from Reactor Number Four. No, the UN is firmly behind the idea too, especially the UNDP and UNICEF.

Apparently Chernobyl fatigue among donor nations has firmly set in and the UN says its time to stop viewing the area as a crisis zone and start helping it to help itself. It’s an interesting idea and maybe they’re right, especially if seeing the gutted workings of a Command Economy outpost is attractive.

Currently the radiation levels are almost normal. As I explored the derelict buildings of the abandoned town of Pripyat - where most of the facility's workers lived - the avant-garde film Delicatessen came to mind. Everything was decaying; water damage was rampant; the ceilings leaked like rivers in places. Floors were sodden and mushy; paint was peeling in clumps. All the windows and doors were broken and kicked in, some creaking spookily in the breeze. Broken and rotting children’s toys were pushed into the corners of rooms, dolls' eyes frozen open staring blankly in an accusing way. At the school, ice skates rusted on the gymnasium floor while basketball hoops barely clung to the wall. In the classrooms blackboards were still covered in writing, the chalk faded but still visible. Desks were scattered haphazard, bleached white with age, often broken like so many bones. Students’ exercise books were open to the last lesson; while in the hall lay hundreds of unused gas masks next to piles of skipping ropes.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

A short walk from the school is the city’s amusement park. Unused and never opened, it was under construction at the time of the accident. Rusting bumper cars sit nose to tail looking like a car wreck on the M25. A decaying yellow Ferris wheel stands in near silence except for some eerie movement in the compartments generated by a prevailing wind.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

At this point Yuri knelt down at the edge of the tarmac and called me over. I could here the staccato rat-ta-tat of his Geiger Counter as it picked up radiation.

“Moss is like a sponge,” he said. “It soaks up radiation from contaminated topsoil. You have to be careful not to walk on it because too much exposure can be dangerous.”

Fantastic. I wish he had told me that earlier. I just spent the last hour tiptoeing through the tulips without a care – so much for my new pair of Nikes.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

Hopscotching around the moss we walked to Pripyat’s Central Culture Club, a broken time capsule of Soviet-era entertainment. There is a disco, which, ironically, forbade dancing as well as smoking, drinking and of course the most corrupt symbol of western decadence, women in long trousers. In the basement a theatre slowly rots into oblivion, the floorboards warped and swollen and the stage collapsed. At the back is the costume department, now just a dead room full of scattered clothes and large paintings of forgotten communist apparatchiks.

But the most striking feature of Pripyat though is simple: no people. It’s a ghost town, the real tomb of Chernobyl.

Still, it’s not all decay and evacuation. Some people refused to leave or returned after only a few months away. In the tiny village of Parishev, Maria Urupa is a survivor of Chernobyl. She is a sprightly 80-year old with a big smile and a warm heart. After the accident she and her family left the village, but only for a short while.

All images ©Doug McKinlay

“When the police told us to leave we knew we would be back,” she said. “That’s why we left all the food in the cupboards and the animals in their pens. After three months of the evacuation it was time for us to go home. Along with 15 other families, we returned and have been here ever since.”

Although the village was without electricity for a year, Maria never entertained the idea of leaving for good.

“We have a well for water,” she said “It was covered with a concrete lid during the accident so it wasn’t contaminated. Plus the land provides us with what we need. There are wild boar and deer, and we grow plenty of fruits and vegetables.” Looking at me with a twinkle in her eye she adds: “This is the Motherland. We love this place. I’m happy here and will never leave.”

As much as Maria loves her home, other factors have changed Parishev. Although the prevailing winds blew most of the radiation after the accident in the opposite direction the village is still dying. With the power plant slowly being decommissioned most of the work has dried up. Now the village population totals only eighteen, mostly people of Maria’s generation. Sons and daughters have moved on, primarily to Kiev in search of new sources of work.

As we left Yuiry showed me the Geiger counter again. The radiation level is negligible – normal. But in a field on the way back to Kiev it’s a different story.

In the weeks and months after the accident hundreds of vehicles and dozens of helicopters were used to fight the fire and build the sarcophagus. All were highly contaminated with radiation. Still too hot to handle they are now abandoned behind a double fence of barbed wire. No one knows what to do with them, so they sit in the open while the radiation level slowly dissipates, a constant reminder of the continuing cost of Chernobyl.

Like many countries with chequered pasts, Ukraine is trying to capitalise on the changing nature of tourism. People in our world now want more than the Costas or the all-inclusives can provide. Whether visiting places like Chernobyl is a sign of a growing sophistication in the way we travel or an adolescent adrenalin rush, I don’t know. Maybe both. Whatever the cause, the fact that Chernobyl is slowly becoming a viable tourist destination puts it up there with Cambodia’s Killing Fields and the rebirth of the Balkans.

How mainstream Chernobyl will become is anybody’s guess. But one indication that it is coming in from the cold is it even featured in the 2005 low-budget horror flic, “Return of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis.”

How fitting…


Photo comment By David Bremmer: You're a braver man than I, that's for sure. There is no way I would ever go there, but I enjoyed your story though. More pictures perhaps.

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