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Chernobyl Wallpaper Star (Photo credit: Timm Suess)

{Published in the Colorado Springs Gazette, July 8, 2011}

What do you wear to the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster? Well past my 50th birthday, it’s nice to start a day with a question I’ve never faced before.

Shorts and sandals, apparently, are forbidden. Ditto with tank tops, although the literature for visitors to Chernobyl says short sleeves are OK. I’ve got a hat to cover my thinning hair, and I’ll need sunblock. How much SPF, maybe a billion? Alas, the stores in Kiev don’t carry that. I go with 25 and head out to join my tour group.

The reactor itself isn’t in Chernobyl, but in Pripyat, about 20K further north. Built in 1970 to house workers at the power station, it’s your basic Soviet-era planned community. Abandoned in 1986, it doesn’t look all that different from the dozens of still-populated concrete metropoli that cover the former Soviet Union.

But abandoned it is, and it is definitely creepy. It’s not the quiet that seems so strange, but the noise. In a concrete square surrounded by concrete buildings, you don’t expect to hear chirping birds. But they’re everywhere. The birds, and the bugs. The air is thick with them, the ground carpeted. It’s as if the only things that can’t live here are humans.

Or maybe I’m confusing the chirping of birds with the chirping of our Geiger counter. All tour guides in the Exclusion Zone carry them, and Yuri knows how to make his howl like a banshee. In the ruins of a hospital, he finds a charred rag in a bucket. 7,000 beta particles per hour, compared to a normal reading of twenty. I can barely hear Yuri over the screaming yellow box.

In the ruins of an abandoned school, under the poster “Quality in your lessons today means improved work later in life!” the floor is littered with child-sized gas masks. Poignant as it might be to imagine heroic teachers helping screaming schoolchildren don their hazmat gear while fallout rains down upon them, what actually happened is in some sense much worse.

It turns out gas mask filters contain small amounts of precious metals. A few days after Chernobyl’s evacuation, residents were allowed to return briefly to retrieve personal belongings. During that time, they ransacked the place. Their neighbors’ apartments, the hospital, the school, anything they could get their hands on. Including gas mask filters.

Chernobyl’s giant catfish are also not what you might expect. Near the end of the tour, we toss bread over a railroad bridge into the still water below. In about three seconds, some of the largest catfish I have ever seen (well over six feet) come to the surface to feed. Apparently they were always that size, in an artificial lake with no predators, but now people think they’re mutated monsters.

Toward the end of the day we leave Pripyat, stepping through Soviet-era radiation detectors and settling down for a meal (flown in from outside the Exclusion Zone). Post-apocalyptic desolation definitely gives you an appetite. I’ve never had bad food taste that good.

Chernobyl is a vast monument to the tragedy of human folly. The memorials to the dead are the most poignant I’ve seen anywhere, dedicated to decontamination workers flown in right after the accident. They died from radiation sickness in a matter of weeks. They died senselessly, so that others would not.

There is something in us, I think, that makes us search for evil outside ourselves. Depending on who you talk to, you’ll learn that drugs are evil, atheism is evil, guns are evil, capitalism is evil, religion is evil, socialism is evil, pornography is evil, or in this case technology is evil. They’re all wrong.

The only causes for misfortune in the world that we will ever find, I suggest, are within ourselves: Human weakness, human error, human stupidity, and human arrogance. All of these played their parts in the tragedy of Chernobyl. If we wish to truly honor the memory of those who died here, we would do well to remember that.

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