The World Nomads Podcast: Chernobyl

In this special episode we explore the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station explosion in 1986, the attraction to the ghost town of Pripyat and plans to turn it into a theme park.


Photo © Getty Images/ Lukas Pernicky

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The World Nomads Podcast: Chernobyl

With the world fixated on the HBO series ‘Chernobyl’ about the Nuclear Power Plant explosion in 1986, we explore in this special podcast episode, the attraction to the ghost town of Pripyat, plans to turn it into a theme park and ask, could there be another accident like it again?

Note: If you intend to follow in the footsteps of these Nomads, think carefully before you go and understand that our travel insurance plans do not cover exposure to radiation, and doubly so if you deliberately expose yourself by entering a known contamination exclusion zone. Read your plan/policy wording carefully so you understand this. If you are unsure please contact customer support to clarify. Get it? We're really serious about this, ok?

What’s in the Episode

01:04 Chernobyl beats Game of Thrones

02:41 TV Host Scott Wilson visit Chernobyl to film

06:22 Scott's fascination with post cold war Soviet era

14:56 Kate Brown is an historian of environmental and nuclear history

18:35 Kate's research

23:15 Coal fired and nuclear energy versus clean energy options

26:54 Could Chernobyl happen again?

29:19 Tim joins a tour to Chernobyl

32:50 Tim gets the cold shoulder during the tour

38:00 Photographer David McMillan

42:15 The story of the tree

49:37 Next week

Quotes from the Episode

" is unnerving to go into a place that, again, without a ton of understanding of radiation and how it works and what its effects are." - Scott Wilson

"Having that place become a big disaster tourist amusement park, where young people, who are going to hopefully go on and procreate, visit in the hundreds of thousands, that's a terrible idea". - Kate Brown

 "I looked over and this big, rough, middle-aged Ukrainian bloke is in tears, he's very emotional, and it's his wife that's consoling him. It turned out that he was actually evacuated from Pripyat." - Tim McGlone

"So, increasingly over the years, I have to say, I can tell things have been moved." - David McMillan

Who is in the Episode

Departures TV Host Scott Wilson has filmed in Chernobyl and Pripyat visiting the last man living in the radioactive zone in Chernobyl.Watch the episode here.

To learn more about Scott and hear about his love of travel, we featured him in this Amazing Nomads episode.

Boat in Pripyat River, 1998. Photo by David McMillan.

Kate Brown is an historian of environmental and nuclear history at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is also the author of Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future.

Tim McGlone is a freelance travel writer, his story on Chernobyl was a shortlisted finalist in the 2019 World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship. You can follow Tim on Instagram @mcglone7.

Lobby of Children's Hospital, 2012. Photo by David McMillan.

David McMillan is a photographer who has taken his camera into Chernobyl and Pripyat no less than 21 times since the 90’s. He has published a book Growth and Decay. Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone providing a fascinating historical timeline.

View of the Nuclear Power Plant, 1994. Photo by David McMillan.
View of the Nuclear Power Plant, 2017. Photo by David McMillan.

Resources & Links

Scholarships Newsletter: Sign up for scholarships news and see what opportunities are live here.

Read our article on visiting Chernobyl and how to stay safe.

SoloEast Travel runs tours to Chernobyl led by a Ukrainian-husband-and-Canadian-wife team.

Check out this article featuring a photo taken by Artur Korneyev of the “the Elephant’s Foot”, a cooled molten mess of radioactive material.

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About World Nomads & the Podcast

Explore your boundaries and discover your next adventure with The World Nomads Podcast. Hosted by Podcast Producer Kim Napier and World Nomads Phil Sylvester, each episode will take you around the world with insights into destinations from travelers and experts. They’ll share the latest in travel news, answer your travel questions and fill you in on what World Nomads is up to, including the latest scholarships and guides.

World Nomads is a fast-growing online travel company that provides inspiration, advice, safety tips and specialized travel insurance for independent, volunteer and student travelers traveling and studying most anywhere in the world. Our online global travel insurance covers travelers from more than 135 countries and allows you to buy and claim online, 24/7, even while already traveling.

The World Nomads Podcast is not your usual travel Podcast. It’s everything for the adventurous, independent traveler. Don’t miss out. Subscribe today.

You can get in touch with us by emailing [email protected].

We use the Rodecaster Pro to record our episodes and interviews when in the studio, made possible with the kind support of Rode.

Speaker 1: Welcome to the World Nomads Podcast, delivered by World Nomads, the travel, lifestyle and insurance brand. It's not your usual travel podcast, it's everything for the adventurous, independent traveler.

Kim Napier: Hi, it's Kim and Phil with you delivering a very special edition of the World Nomads podcast as we explore a significant world event from 1986. In fact, Phil, that was a huge year globally. There was a disease commonly known as Mad Cow that hit UK cattle and that caused major reform in farming practices.

Kim Napier: The space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off, watched by people live on TV around the world, including myself. Did you see that footage live?

Phil Sylvester: Yes, I did. I was working in news at the time.

Kim Napier: And the worst ever nuclear disaster happened as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station exploded, causing the release of radioactive material across much of Europe and the evacuation of thousands of people in a race, literally, against time.

Phil Sylvester: Yeah. It's Chernobyl that we'll be exploring in this episode, with the world fixated currently on the HBO series, Chernobyl, which depicts the disaster of April that year, and the unprecedented cleanup effort. The series has even broken a Game of Thrones record, being rated the highest fan scored TV show in history on IMDB.

Phil Sylvester: But prior to the series, many travelers, you know, they do visit that area each year, and at the time that we're recording this, Kim, the Ukraine's president says he wants to attract even more visitors by turning the radio-active area around Pripyat and Chernobyl into a tourist site.

Danny Eberhard: Site of the world's worst peacetime nuclear catastrophe might appear an unlikely sell, but Volodymyr Zelensky is brimming with optimism. Chernobyl, he admitted, had been a negative part of Ukraine's brand, but now he believes the region is due a new lease of life.

Danny Eberhard: "It was," he said, "A unique place to show how nature can revive after a global manmade disaster," adding too, that it had a real ghost town. "We have to show this to the world," he said, "Scientists, ecologists, historians and tourists."

Kim Napier: That's the BBC's Danny [Eberhard 00:02:10], and in this episode our guests range from a photographer who's collated a book of pics after around 21 visits, an Aussie guy, like many in the world, as you said, people visit, he booked a tour there, and Kate Brown, an historian of environmental and nuclear history, among other things.

Kim Napier: Our first guest though, is Scott Wilson, host of the TV show Departures, who has filmed at the site. Scott, were you apprehensive going to Chernobyl for the first time?

Scott Wilson: Yeah. Yeah, a little bit. A little bit apprehensive. I mean, you put a lot, as you do, as anyone who travels often does, you put a lot of trust in a lot of other people very quickly, on a whim sometimes. This one was, maybe, a whole whack of trust.

Scott Wilson: People say, "This is how it works, and this is what you should do, and this is how you remain safe," but yeah, no, there was certainly some apprehension going into one of the most radiated parts of the world without any education on how radiation works and all that ahead of time. Yeah, certainly.

Phil Sylvester: I know, yes, you do put trust in people, but did that give you any instruction at all, apart from handing the Geiger counter and saying, "Let me know if this goes off."

Scott Wilson: Yeah, well. The other thing, too, was, anyone who's seen the episode where we're there, they give us these clean suits that basically keeps the dust off, and I'm thinking, "Well, what does this really do?" And literally, it is to keep the dust off because it's a lot of the soil that's the most irradiated, and that dust being kicked up and being on your clothes and breathing it in and everything is, supposedly, the worst part of it there. So that's what it's supposed to do.

Scott Wilson: But it is unnerving to go into a place that, again, without a ton of understanding of radiation and how it works and what its effects are, et cetera, to go in and putting on a suit that looks like a costume a painter would wear, is a bit unnerving.

Kim Napier: Yes. Now, did you watch the HBO series?

Scott Wilson: You know what? I haven't. It's on my to-do list. So yeah, I've heard amazing things about it. I do know, though, I guess it's a bit of a catch-22, and we're partly responsible, too, that the tourism of Chernobyl has sort of gone through the roof with the dawn of, obviously, that series, and the interest that's been generated. So, you know what? It's always a double-edged sword for guys like us who are trying to spread the good word of travel and to go out there and explore, but it is a double-edged sword because you're bringing more people to a place that, it's always questionable, can it be managed properly, and all of that? Yeah.

Scott Wilson: And, selfishly, these are pretty amazing places that hold a special place in our heart too. So, if it becomes the kind of place [inaudible 00:05:04] say, "Oh, everyone goes there. My grandma went to Chernobyl last weekend and she had a great old time," and so, it's like, "Aw." Kind of takes some of the buzz out of it, doesn't it?

Kim Napier: Well, we'll explore that a little further, but once they went back into Chernobyl to get rid of all the animals that may have been, that would have been contaminated, the boys put on these, like, nappies around their crown jewels, so that the radiation wouldn't affect, obviously, their sperm count. Did you take that into consideration when you were putting on your paint suit? Your Geiger [inaudible 00:05:37]?

Scott Wilson: No. It's so funny, too. You have the paint suit, you think, "Oh, can I double it up around that area? Or, yeah, is it better to put the ventilation mask over the genital region, or the face? What do I value more here?" Yeah. No, no.

Phil Sylvester: What is it that's so fascinating about it?

Scott Wilson: Yeah. For me, and I'll go out and kind of speak for us, for Andre and Justin and I. Yeah, there's sort of that dark cloud mystery about the place. I can't really put my finger on it, but I've always had a fascination with that post-war Soviet era in tourism. Even myself and my now wife, at the time girlfriend, did tour through a lot of former Soviet [inaudible 00:06:32] countries, Eastern Europe, and much to her chagrin I was dragging her through the woods looking at a declassified red army maps trying to find abandoned missile silos in the forest, and she thought we were nuts, and we kind of were.

Scott Wilson: There's always been an interest there. I think because, to me, I'm a baby of the 1980s, in fact 1980, I just escaped the '70s, and growing up in the '80s, all of the movies the bad guy was the Soviets and all of that, you know? You look at, what was it? Rocky IV and all of that. There was a pop culture thing, at least for North America, where the dark side, the evil access thing was Soviet Russia. So, I think that there's a whole portion of that that became deeply ingrained, and always had a fascination.

Scott Wilson: So, Chernobyl ticks that box as well and really had an interest, but obviously, the horrifying reality of it and the mystery of not understanding, and I think, even a lot of people then, up until now, the very weak understanding that we have of radiation, the long term effects and how we can clean it up and all of that, it just became a very enticing place to go look at.

Kim Napier: Such a great episode, which we'll share in Show Notes the entire episode, I didn't get a chance to get the whole way through it, but you met a guy that stayed there and all he seemed to do was talk.

Scott Wilson: I think the poor guy was a bit starved for attention. He was a bit lonely. Certainly, living where he did, within that 10 kilometer exclusion zone, I don't blame him. But yeah, he was a lovely man. [inaudible 00:08:28], I believe was his name, and yeah, incredibly interesting man, but yeah, kind of a sad story at the same time.

Scott Wilson: For those who haven't seen it, he and his wife decided to stay behind, and against everyone's wishes and everyone, the government forcing an evacuation, it was his wife who said, "You know what? We've built our whole life here," and they were elderly people, even at the time in 1986 when the issue happened, and said, "We've built a life here, where are we going to go?" Basically broke down in tears saying, "I'm not leaving." Talk about a true love story, he just sort of said, "All right, then we'll stay. I'll stay. You're not going to leave, I'm not going to leave." And they stayed behind.

Scott Wilson: Not just the 30 kilometer exclusion zone that a few hundred people decided to either stay behind, or move back into a few years after, but within that 10 kilometer exclusion zone, which was a really frightening area to be in, because as we now know a little bit about, having gone there and talked to the people who do know a lot more about radiation than I do, is that the dangerous part is that accumulation. It's the longer you're there, the longer you're exposed to it. So going in for small doses isn't really the issue, it's days, weeks, months, and in their case, years on end being exposed to it is really the danger.

Phil Sylvester: I forget, did you go into Pripyat, the town? The abandoned town?

Scott Wilson: Yes, yeah.

Phil Sylvester: How close is that to the reactor?

Scott Wilson: Pripyat's very close. I don't want to go out on a limb and say exactly how, but it's-

Phil Sylvester: But it's definitely inside the 10K zone?

Scott Wilson: Absolutely. Absolutely, yeah. And moreover, it's sort of to the west, north-west of reactor 4 that exploded, and that is the way the wind was blowing. So, I mean, it was directly in the line of fire, so to speak. So, yeah, that was why ... And because it was a sizable town that was housing most of the workers, and the workers' families of that power plant, and it took them, I don't know, again, I don't want to speak out of turn for fact check side of things, but I think it took them at least 12 to 24 hours to say, "Uh, we should probably evacuate all these thousands of people." And for a lot of them it was well too late.

Kim Napier: So, what do you think of the Ukraine president wanting to open this area up to tourism? He pretty much thinks it's an ideal theme park.

Scott Wilson: Yeah. Again, I guess, the way my heart and my gut feels is contradictory because we went there. And not only did we go, we filmed a show there to sort of show it off, so, I mean, one can make the argument we're just part of the problem as well. For a country that may very well need tourism money badly. It's not my country, who am I to say what they should do best and how they should handle their resources, as bizarre of a resource for tourism as an irradiated, exploded nuclear power plant might be.

Scott Wilson: I don't know. I mean, I think if it's done in a controlled manner, if it's done where, maybe, they can control the amount of people going in, and that people truly realize what they're exposing themself to and how to do that, you know what I mean? It's not a theme park, and I don't think it should be viewed as a theme park. It's a memorial to a lot of people who, either immediately, or over years later, lost their lives. It's a tragedy.

Scott Wilson: So I don't think anyone should go there with the idea that it's just an urban exploration, fun outing of, "Oh, let's crawl through abandoned places," this, that and the other thing. I think, if you can go there to truly learn something and to try to experience the horror that went on there, and take something away from it, then I think that's the importance of it, I think that's how it should be done and viewed.

Phil Sylvester: I think this is a recent development, because of the problems with over-tourism, but at the time that you were shooting that documentary, were you having those thoughts about, "Oh, we're part of the problem," when promoting something that may end up being a tourist development?

Scott Wilson: Well, I don't think specifically for visiting Chernobyl and Pripyat, but the further we went on into the series, and again, in the first season it was like, "Oh, yeah, let's do these places and these things." And the more we were exposed to different situations, the more we were exposed to different people, cultural sensitivity, all of that sort of stuff, and just the way things have gone, as silly as it sounds, but even in the 10 years, the awareness of cultural sensitivity, cultural reappropriation, et cetera, et cetera, the further in we went, the more sensitive we were to that sort of thing.

Scott Wilson: And I mean, we did make certain decisions not to go to certain places because we felt that while we could go here, there, or another place that might have been a hotspot at the time, and we might get out without having sustained any damage, or being kidnapped or whatever, ourselves, it was irresponsible for us to show.

Scott Wilson: I think a lot of people looked at our show as a touristy, or a tourism, like a backpacker's kind of show, and there was a certain amount of truth to that. We didn't want to lead people to believe that we got through a place unscathed, when in fact, somebody else might go there and it wasn't safe at the time. So we made conscious decisions not to do that.

Scott Wilson: But the more time goes on, the more I think back of some of those places, not the least of which Chernobyl, where, yeah, we were, or essentially are, part of the problem, to draw attention to a place that people say, "I want to go there."

Phil Sylvester: Thanks, Scott. A link to that episode in Show Notes. I loved it, there's lots of vodka drinking going on there. Vodka and pickles, there you go.

Kim Napier: At the very start of that chat, Scott did mention heading to Chernobyl without any real education of radiation and its effects. That's why I thought I should bring in the big guns, Phil, to explain.

Phil Sylvester: Okay.

Kim Napier: Kate Brown, an historian of environmental and nuclear history at Massachusetts ... Have I say that correctly? Probably not.

Phil Sylvester: Massachusetts.

Kim Napier: Institute of Technology.

Phil Sylvester: You can just call them MIT, if you want.

Kim Napier: Yeah, yeah. At MIT. Kate have you watched the show?

Kate Brown: Yes, I did watch the show.

Kim Napier: Thoughts?

Kate Brown: My thoughts on it is that, you know, it's fascinating to watch. I thought that the producers did a really good job of making it look Soviet and sound Soviet. People are driving in Soviet vehicles, and they have a Soviet speak. They did a really wonderful job, and this is amazing for a fictional drama, is, spending a lot of time describing and explaining how a nuclear reactor works, in particular this RBMK reactor, and then explaining, in this big courtroom drama scene, how it blew up. I was really, I was like, "Wow, they're really going into a lot of technical detail."

Kate Brown: I think what happens when they, what they did by doing that, is it kind of became like a truth legitamizer kind of aspect, so that people like, "Whoa, it seems so real. It seems so factual. This isn't a fictional drama, this must be history."

Kim Napier: Well, I have read your name mentioned in the same articles as the show, as the HBO show, suggesting that you, somehow, and we'll get to your book, is contributing to scaremongering.

Kate Brown: Oh, yeah. Well, see, you know, that's what's really become interesting since I've published this book. Which is not so much about the accident itself, because I think the accident itself is a bit of a distraction, and so is the Chernobyl zone, it draws all kinds of tourists, but that the real drama played out, not seconds after the plant blew, but in the months and years that followed. And it didn't play out inside the depopulated Chernobyl zone, because nobody was left there, but it played out in the territories that were contaminated with Chernobyl radioactivity, but were fully populated.

Kate Brown: Some of these places were as contaminated as the Chernobyl zone, and people lived there for 15 years after the accident. And that's really, that is a dramatic story that's been overlooked by the accident narrative.

Kate Brown: So, one of the things that happened, why we don't know this story is that pronuclear lobbyists and industry scientists came in and said, "This is all overblown. These people who claim to be sick aren't really sick. The people who do claim to be sick have something called radiophobia," which is a stress-induced [inaudible 00:17:42] from fear of radiation. "And the people who say that there are problems are fearmongerers and they're really causing all the harm."

Kate Brown: So, I wrote about all this in my book. I wrote about the scientists who took evidence, you know? Biopsies of children with cancers, and tested them and found, indeed, that they were cancers, and then they hid the evidence. And about scientists who were threatened with being fired and were fired because they spoke about these problems. This is all in my book.

Kate Brown: So, suddenly, I published my book and the same thing starts to happen to me. I became, basically, a character in my own history.

Kim Napier: I haven't read your book, and apologies, but obviously I reached out because it just seems to be, goes hand in hand with the commentary surrounding this series. Have you mapped the right of cancers and birth defects and other radioactivity illnesses through prevailing wings, I guess, and time, through outside of that exclusion zone? Places like East Germany and Scotland. We know in the news that they were affected.

Kate Brown: So, my book, it's such a big topic and there was so much archival information that I only dealt with the territories inside the former Soviet Union. So, mostly territories of the Ukraine, Western Russia and Belarus. I didn't work on the bigger European story, and European territories like Scotland and Bavaria and Austria, Italy, Greece also got hit with Chernobyl contamination.

Kate Brown: But the territories, especially in southern Belarus, really got a big dose. And I didn't map the contamination, and the growing illnesses, and the contaminated food. Soviet doctors and radiation monitors and scientists did in the years after the accident. They started right away, that very summer of 1986. The went in, they sent in 9,000 doctors, they looked at hundreds of thousands of people, the took millions of tests of food and air and water and ground and all that kind of stuff. They sort of mapped it all out.

Kate Brown: What's interesting about the records I found, and I was usually the first to check these records out, is that they were doing this all as classified documents. And you know the way the Soviet Union works, they were a very secretive country, and the people who were logging all this data into the file thought that they were having a private conversation, that this information would never be made public. They couldn't imagine, in 1987, the collapse of the Soviet Union just four years later.

Kate Brown: This is why this record is so interesting, is we don't have anywhere, really, in the world, an accounting of what happens to people when they're exposed to, chronically, to low and medium doses of radioactivity. We know what happens when people are exposed to acute doses of radiation, that's what happens in the show. People get, start to throw up, and then their sperm count disappears, they start to have problems, you know? Blood disorders, anemia, they start to bleed from the inside out, their organs start to fail, and they die. Or they're very sick for a long time and maybe they die later, 12 years later with cancers.

Kate Brown: But we don't really have a record of what happens to people who have lesser, you know, lower doses and less, not acute symptoms. And that's exactly what the Soviets recorded, clandestinely, in the years after the accident. And that's what my book talks about. It's an amazing story.

Kate Brown: So I'm not, I myself not a fearmonger, I'm just, I guess I'm reporting on people who were fearmongers, or they were people who were realistically calling out what was happening around them.

Kim Napier: Well, let's throw something else into the conversation, and that is the idea of the coal-fired power stations that everyone is rallying against because of its effects, carbon dioxide, I'm guessing, contributing to climate change. How much more dangerous is that compared to nuclear power?

Kate Brown: Well, the first organization that I've ever found to write the study that compares the safety of nuclear power versus the safety of coal, was the US Atomic Energy Agency in 1972. They did this because they were facing a lot of angry Americans, who were worried about the growth and the spread of nuclear power plants in the United States.

Kate Brown: So, one tactic is to relativize things. It's either nuclear or coal, and coal kills more people than nuclear. The first people to make that case were industry scientists within the US Atomic Energy Agency. That's the same agency that produced nuclear bombs for the Cold War. So, they weren't a disinterested party.

Kate Brown: I think, to try to make that choice, it's either coal or nuclear, is a false choice. We have lots of options for energy outside of fossil fuels and nuclear power. We're presented with these two choices, neither of which are very good, neither of which are very healthy or safe, when there's all kinds of other choices that our great, creative human brains are coming up with every day. Geothermal, solar, wind, you name it.

Kate Brown: I work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and their, scientists there are creating just incredible means to heat and to cool and to cook and to do all kinds of things that are outside of the two options of fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Kim Napier: Well, let's zoom back into that Chernobyl zone, because the Ukraine president has come out in recent weeks and said that he would like to transform the radioactive area around the reactor into a tourist site. What would your reaction to that be?

Kate Brown: Well, the Ukrainian president is president because he was an actor who played a president on TV. He held auditions for citizens to audition for different positions in his cabinet. So, I just, I want that to be out there first.

Kate Brown: This is a very new president, he's extremely inexperienced president. There have been some pretty good ideas about what do to do about that Chernobyl zone, that they've been putting up, they've been using it as a big ... Ukraine is a very sunny country in Central Europe, and they've been building a big solar power generating plant there. That's a wonderful use for that space. It'd be a great place to let a lot of trees grow, and the trees eat up a lot of carbon.

Kate Brown: Having that place become a big disaster tourist amusement park, where young people, who are going to hopefully go on and procreate, visit in the hundreds of thousands, that's a terrible idea. It's also a pretty disrespectful idea. I mean, people suffered greatly from that accident, and then to make it a form of entertainment and tourism, is, I think, a little unconscionable.

Kim Napier: What do you think is the attraction, then, for people wanting to go and visit and photograph? And then, they do, we're going to be chatting to someone later that's been there 21 times to take photos. What do you think is the attraction?

Kate Brown: Well, I've been there many times myself, in order to follow biologists who are working in the zone and to interview workers who are there and to write this book. I've gone there as part of a job, and I've gone there taking all kinds of precautions as I go.

Kate Brown: I think part of the attraction, and so, I know this place quite well, and it is fascinating, and I invite people to go visit it through, you know? Virtually, through Google Earth, and by looking at other people's photographs, but I think part of the attraction is that Chernobyl is not only our past, but I think people worry in the back of their minds that it's potentially our future. That as we're in this extreme state of ecological crisis, that people are thinking more and more about disaster and ruins.

Kate Brown: Maybe because they fear that Pripyat, the city that was abandoned next to the plant, will become the entire planet Earth. That we'll all have to somehow jettison off this place if we keep going in the direction that we're going.

Kate Brown: And you notice, as a consumer, global consumer, capitalism speeds up, that we produce and consume at faster and faster paces. We produce things and then we throw them out, and we produce things and we throw them out. That includes throwing out, now, whole places, whole city, and even people are sort of tossed off as disposable.

Kate Brown: So I think that people a fascinated because this is a trend that might not just be part of the past.

Kim Napier: So, nice segue then into my final question, which is, Kate, could a Chernobyl-like disaster happen again?

Kate Brown: Oh, sure. I mean, any kind of disaster can happen, and nuclear power plants, like everything else, are run by humans, and humans are, unfortunately, we're not all perfect, we're fallible. We lose attention and we make mistakes.

Kate Brown: The biggest problem we have in the United States, and in other parts of Europe too, is that we have nuclear power plants with, that [inaudible 00:27:26] also a lot of radioactive waste, and there's no place. America's nuclear waste is homeless, we do not have a nuclear repository. There's been no community willing to host the national repository for the great amount of radioactive waste that the United States has produced. So, that waste is all stored right next to the nuclear power plant.

Kate Brown: So, if the nuclear power plant does have a fire, an explosion, something like that, the radioactive waste is also there, which contains a lot more radioactivity than just the nuclear reactor itself. We have more extreme weather now in the United States, so if a hurricane, a typhoon, a flood hits one of these ponds that is storing all this radioactive waste, and that pond drains, that waste will heat up and it could also burn or have an explosion.

Kate Brown: So, we're in it because we don't really know, we don't have the technology, we haven't figured out what to do with radioactive waste. We've put ourselves in a far more precarious situation than just merely the problems with, and the complications of, running the nuclear reactor plant itself.

Kim Napier: Look Phil, Kate had so much more to say that we couldn't fit it in to the podcast, but if you'd like to know more about her research, you can buy the book, Manual for Survival.

Kim Napier: By the way, Kate does argue the official death toll from the disaster. It ranges between 31 and 54 people, but she says, in reality, radiation exposure from the disaster could have caused between 35,000 and a 150,000 deaths in Ukraine alone.

Phil Sylvester: No, that's just tragic, and the longterm consequences we still don't know about.

Phil Sylvester: As we said at the beginning of the podcast, travel to Chernobyl is not new. Tim is an Australian freelance writer who [inaudible 00:29:16] in the Ukraine decided to take a paid tour to visit the site, and he's watched the series too.

Tim McGlone: I did. We absolutely loved it here. It was great.

Kim Napier: Who's we?

Tim McGlone: Me and my three housemates, we signed up to a Foxtel 10 day trial, to watch the six episodes. We watched them in two days, we didn't need the last [inaudible 00:29:37].

Phil Sylvester: Well, you wasted four days of Foxtel subscription.

Tim McGlone: Yeah.

Kim Napier: You did better than me. I went on to Apple TV and I paid $14.95, but I got through the whole series in the day.

Tim McGlone: Yeah, okay. Yeah, yeah. No, it was a really good series, I reckon.

Kim Napier: Well, someone that has visited Chernobyl, how did it resonate in terms of, I'm guessing when you're on the ground you had your own imagery happening, imagining what it must have been like on that day in 1986?

Tim McGlone: Yeah. I think the thing that the HBO series did really well was that it didn't completely glorify the radioactivity parts of it. So, it sort of showed what the incompetencies of a Soviet Union government in its main light, and I think that's probably the most respectful way that they could have done it because there's a lot of ways that they could have gone wrong with it and they didn't do that.

Tim McGlone: The other thing that they did really well was, it's the most eerie place when you're there, and it just, that whole TV series was, it just felt cold and eerie when you were watching, and that's something that I think they got really, really right.

Phil Sylvester: What was it that motivated you to go? Why did you want to go?

Tim McGlone: Pretty good question, because I think a lot of people go with a different reason. I think, the one for me was that I was just, I was in the Ukraine and I was really curious about this tour that I'd been told you could go on. I heard something the other day, someone say that it's the closest mankind have ever come to their own mortality, and I just felt like that was, while I was there, it was something that I couldn't really pass up.

Kim Napier: You're absolutely right. The whole of humanity really hinged on some of very brave local people. The guys that had 90 seconds on the rooftop to get rid of the graphite. The miners that came in and dug in the nude. And they were told, quite honestly, the future of this planet relies on your work. This is, basically, a suicide mission.

Tim McGlone: Yeah. The one that sticks out is those three blokes that went underneath to turn all the [inaudible 00:32:01] off. Apparently, I read somewhere that those three guys actually survived. It's incredible to think that the lives of tens of millions of people depended on less than 100 people, or whatever it was, that it was initially helping out.

Kim Napier: Now, this tour that you did was with a Ukrainian couple as well, and took a bit of time for them to warm to you?

Tim McGlone: Yeah. Yeah, you can say that, to put it lightly. So, we were in a pretty small group. There were two buses. We got picked up in Kiev at about seven in the morning, and the one we were on, we sort of stayed away from the other bus. There was only about nine or 10 of us on there.

Tim McGlone: So, when there's not many of you, and you're with each other for 12 hours, you hope to have a bit of conversation, I guess, with the other people. But initially, yeah, this Ukrainian couple, they weren't really too interested in having a chat, they sort of kept to themselves. They didn't know a lot of English, and I know zero Ukrainian, so we weren't a good match.

Tim McGlone: Throughout the tour they were arguing with the tour leader. The bloke in particular, his name was Oleksiy, he just wanted to get a move on with things, he was really impatient. It was a little bit annoying to the rest of the group when we'd all paid a decent amount of money to be there and we just sort of couldn't work out why this couple would pay all the money and they just wanted to hurry through the day and get home.

Tim McGlone: Anyway, as we, in the end of the tour, you conclude, you're on top of used to be a hotel and you're looking out over the town. I looked over and this big, rough, middle-aged Ukrainian bloke is in tears, he's very emotional, and it's his wife that's consoling him. It turned out that he was actually evacuated from Pripyat, and I guess, it that [inaudible 00:33:54] sort of explained his behavior throughout the day, that it must have been a pretty tough thing for him to go back there.

Tim McGlone: We didn't ask anymore. We didn't find out if he'd lost, I assume he'd probably lost people, or relatives or whatever in the, from the evac, or knew people that passed away, but we didn't find out any of that, we just let him be. We felt quite guilty actually. It was a crazy experience.

Phil Sylvester: And what about your own safety? Were you concerned about that?

Tim McGlone: Not really. I'd read that, before going I'd read that about 10,000 people go every year, so if it was good for 10,000 people every year since whenever it opened, which I think was, maybe about 2007, or something like that, then it was good enough for me.

Tim McGlone: I think the thing you need to consider about this is that we're always going to be curious about a site like this. I think it's better to be open with it than to try and shut it away. I think a reasonable comparison might be Auschwitz in Germany where it was just, I think, thousands of tourists every year.

Tim McGlone: I think two things need to be done. People running the tours need to do it respectfully, and people who are on the tours need to be respectful about it as well. So long as it's considered, by scientists, safe, then I don't really see too many problems with it.

Phil Sylvester: If you think you can learn something about human nature from that then that's probably the right thing, and I think you did with the Ukrainian bloke.

Tim McGlone: I will say that I don't think they've found the right tone for it just yet. When I was there, there was a big focus on the radioactivity. You know? That yellow symbol with the black dashes, the radioactive symbol, that was everywhere. And there was people selling that sort of stuff outside, just outside the exclusion zone. There was the radioactive ice cream, apparently, or Chernobyl ice cream or something that you could buy on your way out. I just think that's a little bit ... It's just not the right way to go about it.

Tim McGlone: Another thing that they did actually, when I was there, was to sensationalize it a bit. So, you'd walk into the school and there'd be a book open with a pen there, sort of mid sentence sort of thing, as if that's when they were evacuated, or a teddy bear placed really deliberately in someone's house where you would walk, and it was as if they'd left it there just then, which really didn't happen. The place is so, to be honest, interesting and fascinating by itself that you don't really need these excessive things to make it any more than what it is. It's fine as it is, and before they open it up any more than they already have to the rest of the world, I think they need to get that right.

Tim McGlone: Probably something that you need to consider is, before you go to those places, I guess, it's the question you asked me at the start, Phil, is why are you going there? If you're going there just to say that you have been there, then I think you probably need to consider if that's the right thing to do. If you're going there because you're genuinely curious and you want to know more and you can enhance the place, rather than take value away from it, then maybe it's worth going.

Tim McGlone: But I saw the other day that there's an Instagram model for taking photos in Chernobyl half nude, and I saw a Tweet that if anything describes 2019, it's that people are doing this. I think we'll be talking about this dark tourism stuff for a while and the ethics of it.

Kim Napier: Yeah. Very true, Tim. Now we will get an answer to his concerns of staging very shortly when we speak with a photographer who has visited the area no less than 21 times. But Tim went with a leading tour company, SoloEast Travel, and they come highly recommended. We'll have a link to their page to their page in Show Notes because it's full of fantastic information, including the lengths of time that you should spend in any one spot based on radiation levels.

Phil Sylvester: Photographer David McMillan has been there, as you say, Kim, 21 times. Right inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. He's put together a book called Growth and Decay, featuring more than two decades of incredible photos.

Phil Sylvester: So, David, when was the first time you went to the exclusion zone?

David McMillan: 1994. It was October of 1994.

Phil Sylvester: Wow, it was all still pretty fresh then?

David McMillan: Yes. Yeah, it was. Being in some of the cities, et cetera, was as if people had just left.

Kim Napier: What prompted you to go there?

David McMillan: There were several things. The most immediate prompt was an article in a magazine by a guy called Alan Weisman, who subsequently wrote the book, The World Without Us. He described what Pripyat, the city of Pripyat, was like, which is where the workers lived for the nuclear power plant. It really sounded interesting given the kinds of photographs I had been taking, and with an interest in the tension between the natural world and, let's say, well, culture, you know? That sort of tension. What was happening there sounded very, very interesting, and possibly something that would make sense to me if I could get in.

David McMillan: Another motivation was actually an Australian ... Well, I think he was English, but lived in Australia when he wrote the book, Nevil Shute. On the Beaches is the one that I read as a teenager and it was really frighting for me. I'm sure for many people. Just the idea that what could happen, a city would be intact, there'd be no human life, but nothing would be destroyed because of nuclear fallout.

David McMillan: And that's essentially what I found in Pripyat. I mean, of course it was the consequence of an accident rather than a war, as described in Nevil Shute's book, but nevertheless, it was this kind of realization of a fear I had as a child, or at least a young person. I don't want to make it sound overly pessimistic, I went because I thought I could make interesting photographs, and I didn't have any particular plans to return, initially, because I really didn't know what I'd be allowed to photograph, or if the photographs would be interesting to me.

David McMillan: But they were, and I felt I hadn't seen enough, so I went back the next spring in April, and I've gone back now, well, I've gone back 21 times after the initial visit, so I've been there 22 times all together.

Phil Sylvester: One of the major points of going back so often is to see how it changes-

David McMillan: Yeah.

Phil Sylvester: And I'm fascinated by this aspect as well. When you remove humans from the environment, what happens to the nature?

David McMillan: Yes.

Phil Sylvester: And how has it changed?

David McMillan: Well, I think, as you'd expect. I mean, I didn't know if, let's say, the natural world would thrive. I wasn't sure if radiation would have, you know? Had a negative impact. Apparently it has on some species, certainly pine trees, but in the city of Pripyat, again, this is the city where the workers lived, it's dense with vegetation.

David McMillan: In the book that came out recently, which is called Growth and Decay, I have a number of, not 'before and after', but let's say eight years after the accident, which is the first time I was there, until most recently, about 32 years after the accident, and the changes are really pronounced.

David McMillan: At certain times of the year it's very difficult to walk outside in Pripyat because of the density of the vegetation. So I've chose to go, generally, in October, when some of the foliage, you know? The leaves have fallen, it's easier to see. Now vegetation is appearing inside of buildings in addition to where you'd expect it to be outside.

David McMillan: In the book there are three photographs of a tree growing in a hotel room, and the very first photograph is from 1996. The tree is, maybe, perhaps half a meter high and there's some ferns and other vegetation on the floor of this hotel room, which I thought was extraordinary when I found it. It's the only hotel in the city of Pripyat and I went through a lot of it and there wasn't very much. Most of the bedding and the furniture had been taken out.

David McMillan: But in this particular room, there had been a burst water pipe, it seemed to me, which flooded the carpeting, and someone must have walked through, or a bird or something, dropped seeds. There's this whole sort of little environment, green environment, growing out of a carpet. Then there are subsequent photographs, one where the tree has reached the height of the room, and in the third photograph, it's sort of finished the life cycle and you can see the extent of the roots that, in some cases have come out of the carpeting, and in some cases are still enveloped by carpeting, but yeah, it's pretty extraordinary.

Kim Napier: We spoke with Tim earlier in the podcast, an Australian, a young Australian guy who went on a tour to Chernobyl, and into Pripyat, the city. This isn't a leading question, but he felt like, that there was a sense of staging?

David McMillan: Well, it's sometimes difficult to tell. I mean, in some cases, for example, if there's a gas mask on a doll, definitely someone's been fiddling around. There has been vandalism, there's been a lot of looting, and lately there have been tourists. So one really never knows what they're seeing, how authentic it is.

David McMillan: So, increasingly over the years, I have to say, I can tell things have been moved. I'd say, in my case, most of the buildings I go into, I suspect, at least they're off limits to tourists, although I'm sure tourists have gotten in them, but generally, what I'm photographing is probably, what happened occurred naturally. I guess I feel that, in a way, I'm tourist, and if I'm allowed, why shouldn't anyone else be allowed? But it does get in the way of the work.

David McMillan: Subsequently, I guess because of the series, there has been a huge influx of tourists and I'm not planning on going this year, but if I were, I think I'd be distressed by an increase in the number of people. Initially I'd encounter the occasional scientist, maybe a journalist, when once there was a Swedish television crew. You know? People, just small scale, a few people, maybe landscape architects in one instance, but rarely tourists. You know? People that were there just to look and take a few selfies.

Kim Napier: Dark tourism I think we call it, Phil?

Phil Sylvester: Yeah, that's right. You know? Making sure that it doesn't become Disneyfied, in a way, that it, the risk?

David McMillan: Well, yes.

David McMillan: Yeah, I think it runs that risk. In fact, even on my very first visit the people, the interpreter/guide and the driver would take me to places, you know? Here's where they're burying vehicles, and here's where they've stored helicopters, and it did seem like kind of a black Disneyland. But now, because of people being charged to take a tour, it's becoming codified, in a way. There'll be certain highlights on the tour on their itinerary, and yeah, it will be Disneyfied in a way that it hadn't been, sort of officially, formerly.

David McMillan: But I can understand the motivation.

Kim Napier: What about health-wise? I mean, you've been there 21 times, and we will share in Show Notes a link to the most popular tour company, that takes around nine to 10 people each time in a bus. They list on their web site the amount of time that you should be spending in any particular area. From Chernobyl town for one hour there's no extra radiation, but once you get to reactor No. 4, you should only really spend 10 minutes in that area. How have you coped with taking photos 21 times and exposing yourself to potential, well, obvious, not potential, to radiation?

David McMillan: Well, the first time I went, there was no-one with a dosimeter. So, there was kind of folk knowledge, let's say, that right in front of the reactor was more contaminated than further away. I mean, there were obvious places and, on my first visit, for example, I did want to take a few photographs in front of the reactor and was told, "Maybe you should only spend about five minutes."

David McMillan: Interestingly, on my first visit, the vehicles that I was taken around in were those that were too contaminated to leave. They had received a certain amount of radiation, and although they were deemed safe enough to take people around, they were too contaminated to leave the exclusion zone.

David McMillan: The next visit, I rented a Geiger counter, dosimeter thing, and it was very interesting for the people that were taking me around to find out, actually, what the levels of radiation were.

David McMillan: I've been going for 25 years and although, I suppose, one doesn't know some of these cancers and things take time, as far as I know I've had no negative effects whatsoever. I think it's clean enough, certainly it's clean enough. So, I have no concerns about that.

David McMillan: My real concern, actually, lately, has been the stability of the buildings. Some of them have collapsed, and in some cases the floors are kind of unstable, and in some cases I'm the only person to have been in that building since the last time I was there. You know, that's something more tangible than something you can't feel, or see, or smell, or anything like that.

Kim Napier: Well, for somebody that had never intended to re-photograph those places, you've certainly given us a fantastic time lapse, or piece of history that people will appreciate, David.

David McMillan: Well, thank you.

Kim Napier: No, we must thank you. David has given us permission to use his images in this episode, and we're very grateful.

Phil Sylvester: Pripyat was home to about 45,000 people at the time of the explosion. Mostly employees of the nuclear power plant and their families.

Phil Sylvester: Is it safe to go? At the moment the Ukraine government has permitted entry into surrounding areas of Chernobyl, but with strict conditions. To enter the 30 kilometer exclusion zone, that's about 18 miles, you'll need a day pass, and they're only available from several established tour operators, and you must apply, at least, 10 days in advance.

Kim Napier: You have written a story, actually, on how safe it is to go. With a little more detail, which we'll share in Show Notes.

Kim Napier: So we hope you enjoyed this special episode. In a way, we're going rogue again next week, Phil, delivering a podcast dedicated solely to van life. In the meantime, you can get the World Nomads podcast from wherever you grab your favorite podcasts. Please feel free to share, write and subscribe [crosstalk 00:49:55] feeling the love.

Phil Sylvester: Thanks very much to those people who have already done so. If you'd like to email us, you can get us at [email protected]

Kim Napier: Bye.

Phil Sylvester: Bye.

Speaker 1: The World Nomads Podcast, explore your boundaries.

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