Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.
You could tell from the online application form that this was no ordinary day-trip: “Name and surname? Vegetarian? Geiger counter?”
Thirty-five years ago in northern Ukraine, a bright spring day gave way to a clear night. At the V I Lenin nuclear power plant outside the village of Chernobyl, the late shift in charge of reactor number four were conducting a shutdown test. But design flaws, random events and fatally poor decisions combined to trigger the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
At 1.30am on 26 April 1986, the reactor exploded, killing some people instantly and many more over the following years. Radioactive material laid waste to territory both in Ukraine and across the border in Belarus, while the wind carried debris across Europe.
The clean-up after this unprecedented disaster involved hundreds of thousands of people and many acts of heroism as soldiers and engineers battled to prevent an even bigger disaster.
The reactor is now guarded within an exclusion zone. But Ukraine’s nuclear nightmare has become the nation’s prime tourist attraction.
At 8am you board a secondhand German coach outside Kiev’s main railway station. A two-hour drive through the capital’s suburbs and tranquil countryside takes you to the first checkpoint, 30km from the Chernobyl reactor.
During the journey, the guides run through the rules, starting with: “Do not act as at an amusement park. It is a place of nuclear disaster.”
The bus diverts to a military oddity: the Chernobyl-2 radar array, a rudimentary and largely ineffective early warning system intended to detect incoming ballistic missiles. A nuclear threat lurked much closer to hand, as you discover in the ghost town of Pripyat.
The citizens were unwittingly in the radioactive frontline for over 24 hours until an evacuation began – whereupon they were given two hours’ warning of their “temporary” departure.
Day-trippers can pick their way through the painful evidence of how lives collide with disaster. Personal possessions from discarded dolls to exercise books are scattered on the decaying floors of homes and schools.
The settlement was built as a “model city” to accommodate the best engineers and scientists in the USSR and their families. Today, nature is devouring its amenities and apartment blocks.
At the nuclear power plant itself, the building that once housed reactor number four is now encased in steel and concrete, and contained within a security perimeter. You can get to within 200m of the structure, at a location where a memorial mourns those who died in the immediate aftermath.
Further disaster was averted through the dedication of “biorobots” – mainly reservist soldiers – who sacrificed their health to clean up Chernobyl.
This weekend, Ukraine International Airlines will operate a joy flight over the reactor site. The carrier promises an onboard raffle with a top prize of a day trip to the disaster zone – which it describes as “one of the most popular tourist locations in the world”.
Victims of Chernobyl are still suffering. So is it morally acceptable to visit the scene of a profound tragedy? I believe so.
From the trenches of the Somme to the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York, history tells us that tragedy, plus time, equals tourism. Yet as you discover on the Chernobyl day trip, another equation prevails: being there, plus curiosity, equals enlightenment.
You can watch Simon Calder’s film on the Chernobyl day trip here.
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