Tree branches on both sides of the desolate, two-lane road hang low with melting slush as we approach the Chernobyl exclusion zone in northern Ukraine on an unseasonably non-frigid late December day in 2003. Heavy, gray clouds press down on the damp, white landscape. Cars are nowhere to be seen, freeing our rickety old Skoda station wagon to swerve away from the deepest of the plentiful potholes.
Before long, a small, wooden hut comes into view with a metal gate blocking further progress. A guard emerges, checks my driver's papers, checks my permit allowing me in to the zone, raises the gate and we are in -- free to explore the site of the worst civilian nuclear disaster ever to befall mankind.
Just past the entrance, a sign indicates we are entering a village, but not a house is to be seen. The forest, just as before, presses right up to the shoulder of the highway. The driver slows down and then points to the right and left. There, nestled into the forest, are the soggy, snow-covered farmhouses of an abandoned village. Save for the trees that have grown wildly for 20 years and rooted their way into the foundations, the village looks as though it could have been abandoned yesterday. An elk wanders across the road in front of us.
Just after midnight on April 26, 1986 -- almost exactly 20 years ago -- reactor No. 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, located on the Prypiat River some 130 kilometers north of Kiev, exploded. The meltdown and ensuing fire spewed vast quantities of deadly radiation into the atmosphere -- and it spread swiftly. Nearby forests quickly died, fields and orchards became unusable as the soil sucked up radiation, particularly beneath the numerous spring showers that fell from irradiated clouds that day. The invisible cloud of radiation eventually spread across the Soviet Union, Central Europe, Scandinavia and beyond.
An image of decay
While the rest of the world clamoured for information from the reticent Soviet authorities, a massive, emergency evacuation got underway in the villages, towns and cities near the stricken reactor. Buses pulled up to the entrances of the concrete block apartments in Prypiat -- a purpose-built industrial city for Chernobyl workers with a pre-disaster population of almost 50,000 -- and ordered people to board. Some 12,500 were evacuated from the centuries-old town of Chernobyl and a further 100,000 had to abandon their family homes, property and belongings in villages located within the hastily established exclusion zone, radiating 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) -- an area of some 2,826 square kilometers (almost 1,1000 square miles) -- outward from reactor No. 4. They would never be allowed to return.
Today, the exclusion zone remains almost entirely empty of human life. The fruit orchards are heavy with unpicked, radioactive fruit that is left rotting on the branches. Picket fences are slowly succumbing to entropy and collapsing. Vegetation is taking over the streets. The city of Prypiat -- once a bustling Soviet city -- is now an image of absolute decay, its wide boulevards empty but for the wind and the occasional wild boar or feral dog.
At one end of its once ostentatious main street, the city's cultural center still stands, debris spilling out of its front doors and down the stairs, wild rose bushes pushing through the cracks in the pre-fab, cement square outside. After the accident, it didn't take long for looters to discover Prypiat as a great source of furniture, windows and, in the case of the cultural center, stone tiles -- tons of the radioactive bounty was carted away. When the disaster struck, the city was preparing for its annual May Day celebration. Hammer and sickle decorations installed two decades ago still hang from the lampposts; and behind the cultural center, an amusement park -- Ferris wheel rusted, bumper cars overturned -- is still waiting for children who will never come.
A wager against cancer
Dangers still lurk within the exclusion zone. A short visit poses little health risk -- it takes years for radiation to build up in the human body to a degree that will cause cancer, and radiation maps of the exclusion zone clearly highlight no-go areas. Visitors are equipped with an official government guide and a handheld Geiger counter; all food and water consumed in the zone is shipped in from the outside. Produce grown in the area's radioactive soil makes for an especially effective method of delivering radioactive isotopes directly into the bloodstream and bone marrow. But the dangers can't be seen. And other than the eerie desertion of the cities and villages in the exclusion zone, the disaster and contamination the Chernobyl disaster visited on the area remains completely invisible.
There are people who live within the exclusion zone. A number of older residents, unwilling to move away from the villages they lived in their entire lives, have returned. They receive food delivered from outside the zone along with regular medical checkups. For many, living inside the zone is a macabre wager -- that old age will do its damage before cancer takes hold.
Today, the town of Chernobyl itself is likewise home to some 4,000 residents. Radiation from reactor No. 4 still leaks in dangerous amounts through substantial cracks in the makeshift cover installed in the months after the disaster. And scientists, geologists and workers are temporarily stationed in the less-irradiated buildings as they construct a new sarcophagus to safely cover the radioactive substances that remain. But the vast majority of those temporarily living in Chernobyl are forestry workers. Should the forests around Chernobyl catch fire, a new radioactive cloud would be set free.
The town does have at least one permanent resident though. An Orthodox priest has taken charge of the Chernobyl church -- a centuries old place of worship -- to serve the souls who work there. It now sports a fresh coat of cheerful blue and white paint. As I walk through the doors on my visit, the priest is installing new heaters to keep his flock warm during the bitterly cold winter. It's easy to forget how risky the posting is, he says. "You can't see the dangers that lurk all around."
The drive back out of the exclusion zone follows the same empty highways we came in on. Back past the empty villages hidden in the dripping, snowy forest. Back to the guard hut. This time, two guards come out carrying radiation detectors. The car is swept; we are swept; the trunk is searched. Given a clean bill of health, we drive off into the gathering dusk toward Kiev, leaving the nuclear disaster zone behind us.