By J. Michael Willard
The scariest place on the planet at the red dawn hour is a ghost town called Prypiat not far from Chernobyl in Ukraine, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
You can stand in the street, next to a playground, and imagine the sounds of small children playing. You can visit a school, and see the dusty pictures of Vladimir Lenin still hung.
Broken pieces of chalk and erasers are still at the blackboards. Fading soft clay figures are on a child’s desk, molded into various shapes.
But there are no children playing. There are no cars honking. The school shut down in April 26,1986 when the entire town of nearly 50,000 fled. Today Prypiat’s population is zero.
With a breeze wafting through the broken windows of an apartment building, you can peer out and see in the distance the iconic skeleton of a Ferris wheel. That oft-photographed and colorful symbol of gaiety is emblematic and perhaps could be considered the logo for this dead and deserted city.
April 26 will mark the 33 anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. It is not a celebratory day. It is the day music — often blared through speakers in Soviet times — was silenced in a 20 mile corner of the world.
Eight years after the meltdown, I visited Chernobyl. My then driver refused to take me to the town near the Ukraine-Belarus border. He said his wife forbid him, fearing radiation.
However, I was determined and curious.
I assembled a film crew to tell the Chernobyl story, pegging it back then on the fast approaching 10th anniversary. We commandeered a van. We were, officially, not supposed to be in the exclusion zone, sometimes called the “dead zone” around Chernobyl.
When we arrived at the check point, I was told by others to be as inconspicuous as possible, or we would be refused entry. As an American who didn’t speak Russian or Ukrainian, I was an obvious interloper.
We had managed to pick up a veteran of the Chernobyl disaster from the Interior Ministry to guide us. We were told to replace the tag on the van before entering the zone.
The visit back then, though, was not exactly hush-hush.
The documentary would run on a Ukrainian national television channel, and we were hopeful a version could be picked up for wider distribution.
We spent the day filming, but also shared a lunch with people who worked at Chernobyl but travelled by train out of the zone each evening. It was an hour of toasts and camaraderie.
We drank vodka, and then, with Geiger counter in hand, foolishly went to look for “hot spots”. We visited the graveyard of contaminated equipment used after the disaster. We were warned not to touch the radioactive machinery.
The official story was that an experiment designed to test the safety of the power plant on that fateful day went haywire, causing a fire which spewed radiation for 10 days.
As we approach the next anniversary this month, much of the mystique surrounding Chernobyl and Prypiat has melted away since my visit.
Trip Advisor lists an all-day tour into the “exclusion zone” for $114 from Kyiv. There is special deal for a two-night stay and a big sign welcoming visitors.
Other than a passport, tours require people to wear pants, long-sleeved shirts and closed-toe shoes, as if that would do much good. An HBO feature called “Chernobyl” is coming soon.
In 2012, a horror film, “Chernobyl Diaries” was released. It garnered only 18 per cent rating on the Rotten Tomatoes site, which was generous. It was awful, and I found myself pulling for the fictional mutant humanoids.
The disaster has a long-tail.
It is still illegal to live in the exclusion zone, though more than 100 individuals do and are not hampered by authorities. I visited with one village family 25 years ago. This was their home, and they had no intention of leaving.
While the radiation levels are considered dangerous to people, flora and wildlife have come back. In fact, due to unintended consequences and isolation, it has become a wildlife sanctuary of sorts.
Officially, only 36 people died of acute radiation poisoning or in accidents related to the cleanup, including a helicopter crash. They were called liquidators.
But that is only part of the story.
Overall, estimates of deaths directly related to the disaster range wildly from 4,000 to nearly a million who later died of various cancers that possibly could have been related to Chernobyl.
There is no way of knowing.
The recent entombment of Reactor 4, where the meltdown occurred, should last for 100 years. Estimates are that it will be 20,000 years before the area is free of harmful radiation.
Or, put another way, only 19,967 years from now until it will be suitable for human habitation.