Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Among the ghosts of Chernobyl

  • 15 August 2018


The foliage has taken over at the village of Pripyat, deep inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It swallows whole buildings, invades open doorways and windows, encloses playgrounds in a strangling mesh.

The branches of the apple trees bow to the ground, heavy with radioactive fruit. Vines and trees grow lush and uncontrolled. Ants scurry across hot cement paths, while bumblebees suck nectar from the bright yellow daisies squeezing from their cracks. Out in the forest, foxes and boars, deers and wild cats are said to have mutated into giant beings.

Such is the irony of the abandonment of this area following the world's largest nuclear accident on 26 April 1986: while the man-made edifices have gradually crumbled, nature is re-claiming their poisoned remains.

You must book early to get a seat on one of the shuttle bus tours to the exclusion zone, around 130km north of Kiev in Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union. They've become increasingly popular since 2016; it was then that the crumbling concrete sarcophagus built after the disaster to contain the spewing core of the Number Four Reactor was sealed with a highly engineered, stainless steel dome.

Known as the 'Arch' and built with the help of multiple donor countries at a cost of around US$800 million, the structure has been designed to last 100 years. Within its shell, robots will begin to extract and securely store radioactive waste from beneath the old sarcophagus. But 100 years is a mere blink of time's eye. What will happen when this structure decays?

The Geiger counter is behaving itself as we pull up beside the dome and check out the memorial to the first responders who came to fight the initial inferno and ended up dying weeks later of radiation sickness, their skin melting, their innards liquefying.

It barely registers any radiation, unlike the flaring measurements we'd recorded at one of the burial mounds earlier in the day, a place where earth (ravaged trees, soil, the insects that inhabit it) had been buried within earth in an effort to limit the contagion.


"We find them haunting its hastily-fled streets, lurking in the corners of looted shops and schools strewn with gas masks and stripped of their innocence and dignity."


The earthworms and the bees were the first to know, writes Nobel laureate and Belarusian native Svetlana Alexievich in her stunning book Chernobyl Prayer. The bees stayed in their hives; the earthworms buried themselves deep in the