Toegevoegd: donderdag 6 mei 2004

Tourists flock to the dead zone of Chernobyl

Nearly 20 years after the world's worst nuclear disaster, the Chernobyl power plant and the poisonous wasteland that surrounds it has become an unlikely tourist destination.

Day-trippers armed with Geiger counters take guided tours from Kiev through military checkpoints to the doorstep of the reactor. Increasing numbers of adventurers are finding their way into the irradiated zone, seeking the eerie thrill of entering family homes unchanged since they were evacuated at a few minutes' notice, two decades ago. They sift through the abandoned homes of 48,000 workers and their families, whisked away as a veil of plutonium settled over the city. Family photographs, telephones, furniture upturned in the hasty departure, shoes, clothes and other belongings lie scattered through apartments. Naturalists come to explore Chernobyl 's "Garden of Eden" - the proliferation of greenery and wildlife that has sprung up in the exclusion zone around the ruined power station since the local population fled. More than 3,000 visitors go to the site every year, and hundreds more explore the abandoned villages in the 20-mile evacuated "dead zone".

"Strange as it may sound, people visit here from all over the world - the United States, Australia, Japan, the UK," said Yulia Marusich, an official guide who leads visitors to a viewing platform overlooking the concrete sarcophagus that encloses the remains of Reactor Four.
As she spoke, standing beside the sarcophagus, a Geiger counter began to tick frantically. It registered 50 times the natural background level of radiation - apparently a "tolerable" level of exposure for a short visit, officials say. Engineers say that there is a serious risk that the sarcophagus could collapse, exposing hundreds of tons of unstable nuclear debris. The Chernobyl catastrophe took place 18 years ago today, on April 26, 1986 , when a powerful explosion destroyed the reactor, expelling a huge plume of radioactive dust that drifted across Europe .

Some 31 firefighters who fought the blaze were killed by massive doses of radiation, and thousands of civilians are thought to have died since from radiation-induced cancers. About 200 tons of concrete and other debris mixed with nuclear fuel are still trapped under the hastily-constructed concrete shell. Now, travel companies in Kiev are cashing in by charging day-trippers $190 for a tour of the disaster area in northern Ukraine . Tourists can enter the dead zone, visit the ruined fourth unit, talk to villagers who returned to live in the area and see a graveyard of hundreds of trucks, helicopters and armoured personnel vehicles which, according to brochures, are "so soaked with radiation that it is dangerous to approach". Towns and villages that were evacuated in the days following the disaster are the biggest attraction - a time capsule from the late Soviet era. At Pripyat, two miles from the nuclear plant, communist banners painted for May 1 - a date the city never greeted - are stacked in the back of a ruined theatre.

Tour agents say that there is no health risk from taking the trips. Areas of high radioactivity are marked off with triangular yellow signs. The journey involves passing through a series of military roadblocks. Last week, officials from the nuclear plant led a group of foreign journalists and aid workers on a tour of the disaster zone. The concrete sarcophagus is to be covered by a new steel shell in 2008. Mrs Marusich said that debris stacked against the inside of the existing shell's southern wall is slowly shifting and "could result in the entire structure collapsing". Parts of the concrete shell are criss-crossed by cracks.

As preparations for the new structure advance, several thousand employees are working to dismantle the plant's remaining reactors and process the leftover nuclear fuel. Each night they are taken by train to Slavutich, the town built outside the dead zone especially for workers. Visiting the skeleton of the city that Slavutich replaced is the most poignant moment on the Chernobyl tour. Pripyat was a model town with elite apartments, shops, swimming pools and kindergartens. A day and a half after Reactor Four exploded, the entire population of the city was loaded on to buses and taken away. "There was a forest nearby that turned red from radioactive dust," remembered Nikolai, a driver who was a traffic policeman overseeing the evacuation that day. "People begged us to get past it as fast as we could."

Today, Pripyat is a ghost town where time has stood still. A fairground ride, finished days before the disaster, is enveloped in weeds and contorted vines. Birdsong is clear in the total silence. Many locals are surprisingly unconcerned by the legacy of Chernobyl . About 600 people have returned to live inside the dead zone. Maria Dika, 42, leaning from a balcony in Chernobyl town, said she had suffered no long-term ill effects after three months of treatment for acute radiation sickness. She was working as a security guard at Reactor Four on the night of the disaster. "We're fine," she joked. "No health problems. The radiation has got used to us." Tatiana Khrushch, 66, agreed. "The air's clean, the water's lovely and the mushrooms are great," she said. "This is a fine place."

Tom Parfitt/The Daily Telegraph

26 April, 2004

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