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In Ukraine, a radioactive nuclear ghost town near Chernobyl is a hot destination via The Washington Post


This base in Pervomaysk, Ukraine — about a four-hour drive from Kiev — once had 86 intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of destroying cities in Europe and the United States. Though the nuclear warheads have been removed, the command silo with much of its equipment, giant trucks that carried the rockets to the base and an empty silo were preserved so that people could see what had been secretly going on at nuclear missile bases in the former Soviet Union. The museum’s collection includes the R-12/SS-4 Sandal missile similar to those involved in the Cuban missile crisis and the RS-20A/SS-18 Satan, the versions of which had several hundred times the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

“This is what the tourists come to see,” said Igor Bodnarchuk, a tour guide for Solo East Travel, a Kiev company that specializes in tours of Soviet ruins. “What else do we have to offer?”


Here, they stand outside an exploded nuclear reactor at Chernobyl and rifle through the remains of a nearby abandoned city — Geiger counter in hand. In Chernobyl’s shadow, they marvel at the giant “Moscow Eye,” an anti-ballistic-missile detector that rises 50 stories high and looks like a giant roller coaster.

Every day, a handful of travel companies ferry mostly foreigners to Chernobyl’s 19-mile “exclusion zone.” In 2016, Solo East Travel hauled 7,500 people there, up from only one trip in 2000.


Ivanchuk insists that people who go to Chernobyl are not morbid. “They are intelligent people who want to learn something new, and are often interested in nuclear power,” he said.

Likewise, people who venture to the missile base at Pervomaysk are interested in the Cold War. “It’s a place to remember — like the Holocaust — about a dangerous time in history and what it means to have nuclear weapons,” he said.


In 1994, three years after Ukraine became independent, it joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty and agreed to dismantle its 1,900 Soviet missiles. At the time, Ukraine boasted the world’s third-largest stockpile of nuclear warheads after Russia and the United States. Ukraine shipped its nuclear warheads to Russia and dismantled its silos, often blowing them up or filling them with cement. The control silo at Pervomaysk was the only one spared — so it could become a museum. The 46th Rocket Division, part of the 43rd Rocket Army, was disbanded in 2001.


The city of Pripyat was once a secret Soviet city, closed to anyone but workers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and their families. Now the city, an hour-and-a-half drive from Kiev, is a nuclear ghost town. Forty-nine thousand people were forced to evacuate the day after Chernobyl’s Reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986.

Nearly all the first responders and soldiers died from radiation poisoning while trying to contain the graphite fire and the radioactive particles spewing from the destroyed reactor, explained Bodnarchuk, our tour guide. Officially, only 31 firemen and soldiers were killed. But some believe that the disaster claimed at least 10,000 lives as wind carried radioactive material into Belarus and Northern Europe.

Even though critics have said that the designs of Chernobyl are outmoded and inherently unsafe, Russia reportedly is still using 11 similar nuclear reactors.

Today, visitors can stand across the street from the damaged reactor at Chernobyl, which recently was covered by a huge, $2.3 billion shield. But the highlight of the tour is, by far, the crumbling city of Pripyat. Though tour operators are warned to stay out of Pripyat’s buildings, tourists routinely stomp through the city, including the hospital where dying first responders were taken.

Tourists stick their Geiger counters against tatters of clothing in the hospital lobby and watch their machines shoot up to shockingly high levels — 85 microsieverts per hour. The normal range is .09 to .30 microsieverts per hour, according to the tour company. Most guides carry their own Geiger counters; many tourists come with their own.

Tour operators claim that a visit to Chernobyl is no more dangerous now than a flight from Ukraine to North America. This calculation includes spending 10 minutes in front of the burned-out reactor and no more than two hours in Pripyat.


Our Geiger counters went crazy as we drove through the new-growth forest, registering 26 sieverts per hour.

Our guide tried to calm fears about our exposure to radiation by assuring us that any high levels on our body would be detected by the machines we had to pass through on the way out of Chernobyl’s exclusion zone. Those machines — old Soviet steel contraptions that look like retro airport metal detectors — hardly inspire confidence.

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