If you watched Chernobyl (and you really should have) then you will want to catch tonight’s episode of Foreign Correspondent in which reporter Linton Besser takes the bus tour deep inside the exclusion zone.
It’s byword for disaster and contamination. A lasting reminder of the devastation of nuclear meltdown, government-sanctioned cover-up and radiation sickness.
Now, thanks to the wild success of the HBO series dramatising the world’s worst nuclear accident, the site of Chernobyl in Ukraine has become a global tourist hotspot.
Geiger-counter in hand, Europe correspondent Linton Besser explores the enduring impact of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
He joins the hordes of tourists who arrive each day to wander around the ghost towns and near the abandoned reactor. “I heard a lot of stories…there are mutants there, there are creatures inside,” says Australian tourist Nick, one of hundreds visiting the site from around the world.
Besser goes where tourists can’t, beyond the decaying town of Pripyat, into the contaminated exclusion zone where he meets the secret communities who have defied evacuation orders to return home.
The ‘babushkas’ – grandmothers – continue to grow their own food and drink water from their wells, despite the persistent presence of radiation.
“This is our motherland, it cannot be replaced,” says one babushka, sipping homemade vodka. “We want to die in our village. It’s our most cherished dream,” says another.
Foreign Correspondent uncovers the strange sub-culture of Stalkers, young rebels attracted to the dangers of the zone – the threat of police, wild animals and radiation. “Life among death, is the main philosophy of Stalkers,” says one man who’s made a niche business smuggling thrill-seekers in by night.
And we meet the disaster’s youngest victims – the children from the fallout zone who are suffering from radiation-related illnesses. “The soil should have been removed from the contaminated area,” says one nurse at a children’s hospital. “But that wasn’t done. Everything was left as it was.”
Thirty years on, Ukraine still has 15 nuclear reactors providing the nation’s energy and many are operating despite reaching their designed lifespan. Local anti-nuclear campaigners say another disaster is a real possibility.
While some locals see this tourism boom as exploitative, many are glad their story is being told. “Everyone should know what had happened here,” says 73-year-old Sofia, standing barefoot in her garden. “It’s hard to remember. Very hard,”, she cries. “Radiation is an invisible enemy”.
Tuesday 3rd September on ABC at 8pm.