Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nuclear Life & Death

Man-Made Disasters

A Room in Pripyat, Ukraine: Johnson writes: “And that is what drew me, along with the wonder
of seeing towns and a whole city—almost 50,000 people lived in Pripyat—that had been abandoned
in a rush, left to the devices of nature.”
Photo Credit:
Gerd Ludwig
Source: NatGeo

An article (“Nuclear Tourism”), by George Johnson, in National Geographic discusses the human fascination of Chernobyl, which 28 years ago suffered a nuclear disaster. The name of the town in Ukraine is synonymous with the threats that nuclear reactors in particular, and nuclear energy in all its forms in general,  pose to human civilization. Such threats, not surprisingly, also act as a draw to people, who are fascinated by its serious implications.

Chernobyl has become a tourist attraction, Johnson writes in this essay, with photos by Gerd Ludwig:
Then there is the specter of nuclear meltdown. In 2011, Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst catastrophe at a nuclear power plant, was officially declared a tourist attraction.
Nuclear tourism. Coming around the time of the Fukushima disaster, the idea seems absurd. And that is what drew me, along with the wonder of seeing towns and a whole city—almost 50,000 people lived in Pripyat—that had been abandoned in a rush, left to the devices of nature.

Sixty miles away in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital city, weeks of bloody demonstrations had led in February to the expulsion of the president and the installation of a new government. In response to the upheaval Russia had occupied Crimea, the peninsula that juts from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea. Russian troops were massing on Ukraine’s eastern border. In a crazy way, Chernobyl felt like the safest place to be.

The other diehards in the van had come for their own reasons. John, a young man from London, was into “extreme tourism.” For his next adventure he had booked a tour of North Korea and was looking into options for bungee jumping from a helicopter. Gavin from Australia and Georg from Vienna were working together on a performance piece about the phenomenon of quarantine. We are used to thinking of sick people quarantined from the general population. Here it was the land itself that was contagious.

Of all my fellow travelers, the most striking was Anna, a quiet young woman from Moscow. She was dressed all in black with fur-lined boots, her long dark hair streaked with a flash of magenta. It reminded me of radioactivity. This was her third time at Chernobyl, and she had just signed up for another five-day tour later in the year.

“I’m drawn to abandoned places that have fallen apart and decayed,” she said. Mostly she loved the silence and the wildlife—this accidental wilderness. On her T-shirt was a picture of a wolf.

“ ‘Radioactive Wolves’?” I asked. It was the name of a documentary I’d seen on PBS’s Nature about Chernobyl. “It’s my favorite film,” she said.
The aftermath of destruction and death is often silence; perhaps visiting such places gives people an idea of what they have escaped, the silence speaking in a particular language. I would like to elucidate this point by telling a personal story. When I was an engineering student, I worked one summer (in 1980) at a nuclear research reactor in Ontario (Chalk River); we also wore dosimeters on our belts to measure our exposure, in millirems, to the background radiation (notably gamma); we all were tested as to our total exposure before we left the facility; we were all told the amount of total radiation we students were exposed to fell within normal limits. I enjoyed my summer there, and I have not thought much about my time at Chalk River until I was diagnosed with cancer almost two years ago; is there a correlation? I can't say with any certainty, but I wonder. More important, I am glad to be alive.

You can read more and see more images at [NatGeo].