Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chernobyl - not the usual daytrip

Yesterday, I found myself reading about Chernobyl. I hadn't realised that it was now a tourism destination.

If it hadn't been for an ill-conducted safety test, it might not have spat radioactive material across Europe, and it might still be chugging along, feeding electricity to the Ukraine.

(It's a little surprising to learn that there were still functioning nuclear reactors until 2000 - after the incident one would expect people would want nothing to do with it, but needs must...)

Of course, if it was still a functioning nuclear powerplant, it wouldn't be so notable. I don't think many people are fascinated by the idea of visiting Sellafield.

Although that's an unfair comparison. Sellafield had its own radioactive accident, which wasn't bad enough to justify closing it down and covering it in concrete, but which was bad enough to justify changing the name, possibly in the hope that this would assuage any fears about future safety.

But few people want to go to Sellafield for a look around. I considered it, but then I did happen to be in Morecambe at the time.[1]

Also, Chernobyl was near the 'Russian Woodpecker' - an enormous early-warning radar array, which required lots of electricity, and probably would have made it harder to visit on holiday because of security concerns..[2]

But now, after two decades of people not being able to live in Chernobyl, there's a lot of wildlife there, which flourishes - strangely, in a place thought to be inimicable to life because of the radiation. I'm not saying you should visit the place for the good of your health, but it's an interesting side-effect that with no humans around, the animals do return.

Whether you should visit for a holiday or not is up for debate. Never mind the potential health risks (well, they do scrub you down, and it doesn't sound like the writer was wandering around gobbling up lumps of stray uranium), this was a place which contributed to the deaths of at least 20,000 liquidators, the people unlucky enough to have to sort out the mess at the time. It does seem at times voyeuristic to go and look at a place like this. Not all the time, but when the writer mentions that it's 'unfortunate' that he can't go and visit a site full of decaying helicopters used to deal with the disaster, I found myself thinking it was more unfortunate for all the people who were directly involved, than for somebody with camera. But I can't be too censorious; the guy has gone and taken a look and I haven't, after all.

As well as animals, people come back. Not just for decommissioning the reactor, or ensuring the concrete sarcophagus doesn't collapse. Also for spraying artistic graffiti on the walls. Well, the French equivalent of Banksy does. I can't help feeling there might be something better to do with your time than wander around tagging a radioactive site. But that's just me. It's not like there's any inhabitants to be annoyed by a bit of spray paint, after all.

What's disconcerting is that various things have been looted - people have been stripping Priyat, the nearby town, of wire, and faucets, and toilets, and all sorts of things. Looting is never a wonderful thing, but I'm not sure what the consequences would be of using a toilet that had been doused liberally with radioactive material. Could that really be that healthy?

So that's some worry and doubt spread to all users of second-hand Russian toilets. Best not to purchase any form of plumbing from a man with an eastern-European accent that you don't know, ok?

1 I visited Morecambe the summer I finished school, before going to university. As I remember it, it was a depressing town, with a beach entirely covered in dog turds, and Sellafield visible further up the coast. If this sounds depressing, that's because it is; Morecambe was also famous recently for the drowning of some unfortunate Chinese cockle pickers.
The only cheerful things that I've heard of happening in Morecambe was the time that my friend with a tin plate in his head was chased along the promenade by a policeman and truncheoned to the ground for having the temerity to ask for a lift home. And the time that he covered a lurcher in blue emulsion paint. If you haven't visited, that should give you some idea of how pleasant Morecambe might be.
>2 Unless the Russians considered enormous radar arrays to be an essential part of a proper tourism infrastructure, that is. Practice during the Cold War suggests otherwise.


Unknown said...

Weird...a radioactive toilet...makes me think of ginger ale

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