The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered a catastrophic accident on April 26, 1986 – thirty years ago. Within days, more than 100,000 people were evacuated, never to return. But tourists are now welcome. The Ukranian government wants visitors to come so the world can better understand the disaster and what still needs to be done.
I visited twenty years ago as part of an organized tour, and I wrote this haibun, which is a combination of prose and haiku that often tells of journeys.
A military checkpoint marks the entrance to the Exclusion Zone, the contaminated area roughly 30 kilometers around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. At the Chernobyl Interinform Agency, in a room filled with maps, we met our tour guide, a cheerful, square-built young man who could answer any question in Ukrainian and fairly good English. He gave us an overview of the continuing problems in the Exclusion Zone, and we returned to our bus to head toward the areas marked red on the maps.
his pocket dosimeter
ticking ever faster
our smiling guide leads on
The plant itself, symbol of so many failures, looked like a large, abandoned old factory, but a new building and parking lot stood beside it.
women in face masks
The cesium and plutonium spewed out during the disaster has washed into the soil. Plants pull radioactivity back up through their roots, as a Geiger counter set on pavement and then on a lawn can prove.
keep off the grass:
twice the dose
We moved on to Pripyat, a city built for the power plant’s workers and families. Its 50,000 inhabitants were told they were only leaving for three days, although authorities knew it would be effectively forever: the radiation will subside to liveable levels in a thousand years.
do they notice
the city is empty?
It was a model Soviet city, with lovely tree-lined boulevards and many amenities. Its designer even had one rose bush planted for every inhabitant.
among the weeds
still a few
We visited the day after Palm Sunday. With no palm trees in Ukraine, the faithful use willow catkins and bring bouquets of them to churches to be blessed. There were pussy willows in Pripyat, too.
willows in bloom:
980 unholy springs
The tour company owner had been a boy in Pripyat when the disaster happened, a third grade student at School No. 1. It had partially collapsed, spilling books, furniture, and students’ possessions across the cracked and mossy sidewalk.
a string of beads
on the ground: everyone looks
no one touches
We got back on the bus and passed through the “Red Forest,” the pines next to the power plant directly under the path of the worst fallout. After the accident, the pine cones and needles turned red overnight: the trees died, were cut down and buried. The radioactivity there can still reach 1 roentgen, 50,000 times normal, the most radioactive outdoor location on the planet.
dust to dust…
Geiger counters wail
Our guide pointed out a tall metal grid: the early warning radar screen for Chernobyl II, a top secret nuclear bomb missile site. An American spy satellite passed the area 28 seconds after the explosion, and at first U.S. analysts thought a missile had been fired. Then they thought a missile had exploded in its silo. Finally they realized it was the nuclear power plant.
the bigger danger next door:
And so we left, with one final stop at a Ukraine Army checkpoint to test our radioactivity. We all passed. Our exposure had been slight, equal to the radiation of a routine medical test. No tee-shirts, no souvenirs. Just memories.
like a small x-ray
but with nothing