April 20 2020 0comment

Tourists give Chernobyl new life

In 2006, I traveled to Kyiv, Ukraine to conduct a health and human performance study for a major university.  While in Ukraine, I stayed at the home of a friend who is a retired nuclear scientist.   The majority of his career was spent in support of secret nuclear programs sponsored by the U.S.S.R.  One evening, I asked him, “Can you tell me what happened at Chernobyl?”  Bowing his head and shaking it slowly he said, “It was a big mistake.  Should never have happened.  The warning signs were there, but nobody obeyed.”

I was riveted.  There I was, in the home of someone who once was in the inner-circles of the Soviet nuclear intelligentsia.  He shared what he could (or wanted) about Chernobyl, which was enough to keep the conversation going well into the night.

As he spoke freely about his time working for the Soviet nuclear arm, I couldn’t help but marvel at the geopolitical changes that had transpired over the past several decades which made it possible for such a conversation to take place.  There were we were, an American with a Ukrainian (formerly of the U.S.S.R.) sitting comfortably and speaking freely together in a small high-rise apartment—about Soviet nuclear projects.

The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl occurred 36 years ago this month and is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history.  What began as an effort to conduct a safety test tragically devolved into a series of failures triggering an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction that resulted in a total failure of the facility and the propagation of harmful radiation all over Europe.  To make matters worse, the U.S.S.R. waited several days before alerting the western world of the disaster.

Immediately following Chernobyl’s “meltdown” Soviet authorities ordered the evacuation of every resident in Pripyat, Ukraine.  Altogether, over 100,000 people were evacuated from Pripyat and the surrounding area—and never returned.  In an instant, Pripyat was transformed into a ghost town—and it remains so today.

Just like the Phoenix rises from the ashes as a new creature so has Chernobyl, and its hometown of Pripyat, taken on a new purpose.  In 2019, Ukraine’s president announced that the site would become an official tourist attraction. “We must give this territory of Ukraine a new life,” President Zelensky announced.  “Until now, Chernobyl was a negative part of Ukraine’s brand.  It’s time to change it.”

Of course, tourists have been trickling to the infamous site even before Ukraine’s president made the announcement.  However, his official nod of approval coupled with a recently-produced HBO mini-series about Chernobyl, tourists have been flocking to the site for a front-row view of the world’s most disastrous nuclear mishap.

For my friend, though, there is nothing happy about Chernobyl.  Nothing to flock there for.  For him, it was one of the biggest plunders and deadly embarrassments ever witnessed in his industry.

We finished our chat and turned in for the night.  There was no guest bedroom, so I slept on the couch.  I marveled at the incredible conversation I had just experienced.  Not wanting to forget it, I pulled out my journal book, and jotted down every detail I could remember.  My journal book is one of many Melaleuca products I pack when globetrotting.  If you don’t have a journal, I suggest getting one!  In addition to Melaleuca’s travel-friendly journal, you can also find similar versions at Barnes and Noble and Staples.  It is a great way to escape the digital world and serves a great purpose preserving memories for many years to come.