Being married to a nuclear engineer, related topics arise occasionally at the dinner table; and Tony’s involvement in the post-Fukushima Daiichi disaster is reason, in part, why we are now living in Vienna. That aside, the proximity of Kiev to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the opportunity to participate in one of the official tours of the zone to learn more about the social and cultural aspects of the event is likely not an opportunity we will ever have in the future, so Jack and I decided to devote a day of our holiday to the tour.
Bright and early one morning we met our group; one can not walk up and join, however; advance registration (and passport information) is required for this official tour. There were 15 of us, some Ukrainians, some Aussies, a couple of Brits, and the two of us plus the driver and guide. The drive from Kiev to the 30km exclusion zone checkpoint is a little under two hours. That is, unless the tour van breaks down in rural Ukraine. 
After about a 45 minute delay until a new van rescued us we arrived at the first checkpoint. There is a 700km fence around the zone; the zone is approximately the size of Luxembourg!  Let’s just say that if America took border security as seriously as is done at the exclusion zone, there would be nothing for the current slate of presidential candidates to dicker about. 

All in all, 96 villages were evacuated in the days and weeks following the disaster at the power plant. The villages had been largely intact until the end of the Cold War; in the difficult economic period for all of the former Soviet states that followed, looters stole any and everything of value from most of the villages, sadly.  We toured two villages within the 30km exclusion zone, both appearing like movie sets of abandoned cities. (This is a former grocery market.)

This is an abandoned primary school; most evacuees were given just two hours’ notice to gather one bag of personal belongings before leaving.  Just off the worn paths are dozens of radiation hot spots; those on the tour who had rented Geiger counters seemed to derive weird enjoyment from taking photos of the devices showing the radiation levels. At least no one took selfies.

The second village we visited was occupied by a lone resident, an 87-year old woman who was among the first “resettlers” following the accident. A spinster teacher at the time, she demanded to return to the house her family had built and where her parents were buried, and to live and farm as before. (Tony knew about her, as well!)  There are a few hundred “resettlers” scattered across the zone; the government allowed their return if they signed a waiver to never sue the government for health problems.  Their families are allowed to visit, with special permission.

Rather camera shy, she did however make a big fuss over preparing a bag of apples for our group to snack.  For the last 29 years she has lived without running water or electricity, and has turned the farm into her home.  She is also writing a book that she hopes will be published posthumously.

Our next destination was the village of Chernobyl itself, inside the 10km exclusion zone and requiring a second ID and first radiation check.  Approximately 5.000 people live and work in Chernobyl in 15 day shifts (to manage radiation dosages), undertaking various clean-up and security procedures involved with building the sarcophagus that will entomb Reactor #4 by 2017.

In the village square there is a memorial path listing the 96 villages that were evacuated.

At the firehouse from where the first responders (or, “liquidators,” a rather disturbing term) departed there is a memorial that the Soviet government to this day refuses to acknowledge.  None of the first responders survived more than a couple of weeks.

Transportation around the village is both antiquated and modern, if a 1970’s bus can be considered modern.

We stopped at a small “memorial” park to the robotic devices employed during the accident to measure radiation levels in areas where personnel simply could not venture.

Nearing the site of Reactor #4 we paused at the cooling pond to feed the carp that have lived in these waters since before 1986. Scientists had been conducting research with fish in the pond, but for obvious reasons the fish could not be moved after the accident. 

Some of the fish are over two-meters in length, having no predators and a daily supply of bread from workers and the tour groups. Did you know carp can live up to 80 years?

Shortly thereafter, Reactors #3 and (the remainder of) #4 came into view. 
Security and photo-taking near the site is heavily restricted, understandably. One member of another group decided to “go rogue” and leave the boundaries to capture a snap, and was made to delete the photos by the authorities.  The radiation levels at this spot were high, though only about the same as the dosage we received on our two-hour flight from Vienna to Kiev.  

After Chernobyl we drove to the nearby town of Pripyat, constructed to house and serve the families of the men working at the plant. The average age of its citizens was 26; the town boasted top-rate housing and facilities, and the employees at the plant earned wages more than triple the average Ukrainian. Life was good.

Shortly after 13:20 on 26 April, 1986, all of that changed.

This is the former Lenin Avenue leading into Pripyat’s main square.

Lingering bits of the “Social Times” awkwardly pose above empty buildings.

Pripyat was a young, and still developing town, when authorities set celebrations on 1 May 1986 (May Day) as the perfect setting to launch the city’s new amusement park.

Communist propaganda kiosks tilt awkwardly throughout the town.

The town boasted a sports complex including a basketball court and a half-sized Olympic pool. The pool was used by responders until 1990, then left to the looters.

A cold war leftover, the stockpile of gas masks for the elementary school children in Pripyat.

At the end of the tour we were permitted to walk up the 16 flights to one of the apartment complex roofs for a view of the surrounds. In the background, the sarcophagus and reactors can be seen.

Roughly 25km to the north, just beyond the body of water, lies Belarus. The largest radiation cloud following the accident floated across that border toward Minsk, to where thousands of evacuees were being relocated.

The day was long and mentally exhausting, but before we returned to Kiev we were treated to dinner at the Chernobyl Canteen. All of the food prepared is brought in from outside the exclusion zone.

Jack and I shared a table with the two Brits, funny guys who were surprised to meet Americans who had traveled “so far afield.”  Just as we started to share what we thought was supper, the first of two additional courses appeared. Ukrainian Borscht, naturally, followed by roast pork and vegetables. Dinner, and our dinner mates, rounded out a memorable day.

But there was one final and unexpected treat. Between the 10km and 30km checkpoints a small herd of Przewalski’s horses bounded along the road. I recognized them from the many, many, many horse books that have graced our home, though it was Anna Grace who told me that this breed is believed to be the very first horses ever to walk the Earth. Nature has a way of healing itself.

One more ID and radiation checkpoint to clear, then back to Kiev. An incredible tour, but certainly not one for the average “Bucket List” tourist.