Thirty-two years after an accidental nuclear explosion reduced Chernobyl to rubble, Emma Thomson discovers the reality of life—and radiation—in this remote Ukrainian region as it begins to come alive again.
Ivan’s back is bowed as if the falling snow, gathering on his threadbare coat and Cossack fur hat, were leaden. He leans on his branch-whittled walking stick, trying to load splintered firewood onto a small sleigh. He’ll need it. Evening is falling and the mercury already reads -17° Celsius (1.4° Fahrenheit).
Eighty-two-year-old Ivan Semenyuk is a samosely, a self-settler; someone who chose to return to their village inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone after the 1986 explosion. The 18-mile radius was set up after reactor number four of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant overheated, surged out of control, and generated an explosion the equivalent of 500 nuclear bombs on April 26, 1986. Situated 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev, it’s touted as one of the most polluted places on Earth.
Sitting in his sparse living room, Ivan recounts the events of that night. “We could hear the glass shaking in the window frames before the explosion,” he says. “We asked what it was, but were told they were just cleaning the chimneys. In the morning, we were told it exploded, but I wasn’t scared. We went in my neighbor’s car to get a closer look and saw the fires. I remember them handing out lots of alcohol to guard against the radiation.”
Indeed, it took 36 hours before the first buses turned up to evacuate residents of Pripyat, the town closest to the reactor. People were told to take only necessities because they could come back in three days. “I wouldn’t have left,” admits Ivan, “but on May 6, the army forced us out with guns.”
It would be another eight days—a full two and a half weeks after the event—before President Gorbachev admitted to the world’s worst nuclear disaster on the national news.
Incredibly, authorities said it was safe after a year, and those with good houses (around 140 families) returned. “I came back with my wife in the winter of 1988,” says Ivan.
Today, there are around 200 samosely or self-settlers spread among the 162 villages that fall inside the Exclusion Zone. The population of his village, Parishev, 13 kilometers (eight miles) from the nuclear power plant, was once 600. It now totals three. Two other elderly women live nearby. I ask Ivan if he ever socializes with them. “Rarely,” he shrugs. “Especially when there’s snow.”
“I always find something to do—cook food for the chickens, chop firewood, but it’s difficult and there’s no choice for me now.”
Chernobyl resident Ivan Semenyuk
Marya, his wife, passed away last year and his house is littered with evidence of a man living by himself. The corners of the room are colonized by pickle jars, bottles of oil, and wicker baskets bulging with sprouting onions and potatoes. The kitchen table is cluttered with cracked teapots and grease-smeared vodka glasses. He levers himself into a chair set beside it.
Above his head hang framed family photos. I ask him about his children. “I have two sons,” he says. His calm blue eyes grow dim with sadness. “One has a drinking problem, the other lives in the city and visits once a month.”
Life inside the zone can be lonely. “I always find something to do—cook food for the chickens, chop firewood,” he says, “but it’s difficult and there’s no choice for me now.” I ask him if he regrets the decision to return. “It was still the right choice to come back. I didn’t like the noise in Kyiv. If I need fish, I go fishing; if I need mushrooms, I go foraging.”
He still grows potatoes, cabbage and beetroot in his modest plot of earth. “Are they extra big?” We joke, hinting at the effects of radiation. “Only when it rains!” he laughs, referring to the fact that rain washes radioactive material from the trees.
Nowadays, Ivan doesn’t have to wait too long for company. Since 2010, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has been open to tourists. I ask what he thinks of the increasing flow of travelers that do make it?
“It’s good you visit and see the truth about the radiation levels—it’s low,” he says, his wind-cherried cheeks scrunching into a smile. He’s not lying. Inside his living room, the Geiger counter reads a negligible 0.11 millisieverts (unit measuring radiation doses) per hour.
But this isn’t the case everywhere and the clutch of operators offering tours here take visitors to specific sites, even within 250 meters of (the now covered) reactor number four, where people still work on a strict on-off basis cleaning debris.
Our first stop is Duga-3, a top-secret radar antenna built to detect and interfere with ballistic missiles from the USA and China during the Cold War. Known as the ‘Russian woodpecker’ because of the clicking sound it emitted, this mammoth tangle of metal was marked as a children’s summer camp on official maps to mislead everyone. Around it, faded radioactive warning signs lie skewed in the snow.
We drive between the villages, everywhere glimpsing signs of lives stopped in time. In Zalissia, where Ivan was born, the ‘Ma’ of ‘Magazin’ is all that remains of the local shop sign. And the pathos of a banner reading “Long live communism, the future is bright for all mankind,” above the theater stage isn’t lost. In Kopachy, the fractured floorboards of the kindergarten are strewn with books and dirt-blackened dolls. The small bunk beds are empty of bodies.
Finally we reach the town of Pripyat, just over a mile from the nuclear plant, well-known for its impressive Palace of Culture—a mammoth community center with a boxing ring, theater and gym— and the Ferris wheel that never turned. Scheduled to open just a week after the disaster, today its yellow cabins rock eerily in the breeze, as if comforting an imaginary child.
Those lured by curiosity or an interest in history will be wondering: Is it safe? So it might help to know an X-ray exposes you to 10 times more radiation than a visit to Chernobyl.
We weave through the trees towards the hospital where the first casualties (firemen) were brought for treatment. A rag from their stripped clothes lies discarded on a sideboard. Suddenly, the silence is cut by the shrill alarm of the Geiger counter signalling a spike in radiation levels. It’s a sobering reminder that danger still lurks here.
And yet a positive story is emerging. Minimal human impact has led to badger, wolves, white-tailed eagle, short-eared owl, red deer, wild boar, beaver and even the endangered Przewalski’s horse flourishing here, giving rise to suggestions the zone even has a bright future as a nature reserve.
For now, those lured by curiosity or an interest in history will be wondering: Is it safe? So it might help to know an X-ray exposes you to 10 times more radiation than a visit to Chernobyl. But ‘tourist destination’ is the wrong label for the Exclusion Zone. It’s a place for people to pay their respects and to acknowledge that sometimes the cost of a mistake can be high.