Peter Heywood visited Chernobyl on the ‘Ukraine & Moldova: Europe’s Wild Frontier’ tour in July 2019.
A visit to the Chernobyl 30-kilometre exclusion zone during the dog days of summer can be an enlightening experience. Over thirty years after reactor number 4 at the nuclear power station exploded, the plant and its environs are now safe to visit. How do I know? Well, a week before I was due to visit, a new artisan vodka branded “Atomik” was launched on the market made from grain and water from the zone. Not only that, Professor Jim Smith from the University of Portsmouth told the BBC that, although the level of strontium-90 radioactivity in the grain was “slightly above” the “cautious” Ukrainian limit of 20 Becquerels/kilogram, Atomik was “no more radioactive than any other vodka.”
Then, of course, there’s the Chernobyl souvenir shop which, after I’d been issued with a personal radiation dosimeter, I was able to browse before entering the zone proper. The usual mugs, fridge magnets, key-chains, baseball caps and t-shirts were on offer, almost all of which were advertised as glowing in the dark, although, I suspect, not dangerously. I did note that it was also possible to buy full-body radiation suits and gas masks although I assumed that their availability was intended to cater mainly for those of a nervous disposition.
Last, but not least, were the dogs. During my afternoon tour of the zone, I spotted two of them emerge from the trees to see who was trespassing on their patches. The dogs are descended from those left behind by residents of the nearby town of Pripyat, evacuated hours after the reactor explosion. Soviet troops were sent into the area to kill all abandoned pets to prevent them from spreading radiation. Naturally, many escaped. Now, having avoided predation by wolves, the dogs are being cared for by an animal charity and, in some cases, sent for adoption outside the zone. So far, there have been no reports of any of them glowing in the dark. I think that’s something worth celebrating.