Last summer, adventurer Ash Bhardwaj travelled the length of Russia’s European border, from the Arctic Circle to Ukraine for The Telegraph’s Edgelands podcast.
In the final episode, he explores Chernobyl and meets a “self-settler” who returned to his home after the evacuation, then visits the unrecognised country of Transnistria.
Listen to the sixth episode of Edgelands using the player below. Click here to hear all of the previous episodes.
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In pictures and videos: minute-by-minute
00.08 “An accident has taken place at the nuclear power station in Chernobyl”
03.12 “Chernobyl is right up in the north of Ukraine”
09.47 “There’s a 10-kilometre exclusion zone and a 30-kilometre exclusion zone”
22.17: “How quickly nature takes back over again once humans leave”
23.10: “The breakaway republic of Transnistria”
25.03 “Like going back in time to the Soviet Union”
Behind the scenes of episode six
By Ash Bhardwaj
“Welcome to the exclusion zone,” said Tetyana.
“Is it dangerous?” I asked
“Wear long clothes, don’t put anything on the ground. Don’t touch anything, especially anything organic and definitely don’t touch any water.”
Not what you’d expect from the start of a tour. But Chernobyl is an unusual destination. On April 26 1986, Reactor Number 4 at the nuclear power station exploded. Radioactive fallout landed as far away as Sweden and everyone within 30km was evacuated. More than 30 years later, the exclusion zone has become an accidental haven for wildlife.
At the exclusion zone road-block, dozens of other minibuses waited to be cleared through, and tourists perused a souvenir kiosk selling mugs plastered with radiation signs.
“There’s no official tourism here,” said Tetyana, “But people want to see it. On a busy day, there can be as many as 1000 visitors to the exclusion zone. Most of them have seen Chernobyl Diaries or played the computer game Stalker.”
Don’t Ukrainians find that tasteless?
“No,” she said, “The Soviet authorities tried to hide what happened here. We want everyone to know how it affected Ukraine, and to stop it happening again. But there’s positive stories, too, of human determination.”
Our first stop told one of those stories. The “Monument to those who saved the World” is dedicated to the firemen who put out the initial fire, stopping the disaster from being even worse.
“They knew their suits wouldn’t protect them from radiation,” said Tetyana “but they knew there was no-one else. The next day they were flown to Moscow for treatment. Their bodies were so radioactive that their eyes had changed colour, and the hospital floors above and below them were evacuated. They were buried in lead caskets below two metres of concrete.”
Engineers then built a temporary containment structure over the damaged reactor, which did such a good job that Reactor Number 3, right next door, continued to operate until the year 2000.
North of the reactor is Pripyat, where many of the plant’s workers lived. The wind blew the fallout straight onto the city, and it was evacuated within 36 hours. Residents were told they could come back in three days, but they never returned. It still lies empty, reclaimed by the forest like pyramids in the Mexican jungle.
“140,000 people were evacuated,” said Tetyana, “and 600,000 people from across the Soviet Union were forced into the clean-up. The top 50cm of soil was removed and every vehicle used in the clean-up was buried in mounds like that one.”
I looked at the small hill, topped with a radioactive warning sign, and approached it with a Geiger counter. The reading climbed from 1.8 micro Sieverts per hour (about 8 times the level in London) to 10 and then 20, when the meter began blaring alarmingly.
“Don’t worry,” said Tetyana, “That’s still well within safe levels. But out in the Red Forest, where the trees died from the radiation poisoning, it easily gets to 100 micro Sieverts per hour. Don’t go wandering around.”
We then drove up to the see the infamous reactor, now covered by a vast silver hangar, and surrounded by cranes.
“The original sarcophagus wouldn’t last forever,” said Tetyana, “So two years ago they built a new one, and rolled it over the old one on rails. Inside, they can safely decommission the old reactor.”
Beneath the reactor is a lump of Chernobylite. This mixture of reactor fuel and concrete (formed during the meltdown) is one of the most radioactive substances known to man. But the Geiger counter where I stood read 1.4 micro Sieverts per hour, so the cover was doing its job.
The exclusion zone is not all doom and gloom, however. On the way out, we visited Ivan Ivanovic, one of the self-settlers who chose to return to the exclusion zone after the evacuation. We found him hoeing his garden, removing weeds from his potato patch.
“I can feel radiation,” he says, “It makes me thirsty and gives me a headache. The government tried to keep us away, but this was the house I built with my bare hands, the house that I raised my children in. So I moved back here as soon as I could.”
Self-settlers statistically live longer than those who permanently left the exclusion zone; perhaps the trauma of being uprooted is more damaging than the radiation.
Tetyana carried a box from the van, with toilet rolls, butter and other basics. The only visitors that Ivan gets are tourists, who bring him supplies in return for a story.
“This is the part of my job that I love the best,” Tetyana says, “Ivan can talk for hours. He tells me about his wife, about being young, and I think that makes him feel young again.”
Chernobyl is rightly held up as a warning to mankind, but hearing the stories of people like Ivan reminds me of man’s capacity for hope and resilience.