Thirty years after the world’s most catastrophic nuclear accident, the abandoned Ukrainian town of Pripyat, home to the infamous Chernobyl nuclear reactor number four, has been transformed.
From the ashes of the site has emerged a $US200 per person “extreme tourism” theme park.
Each week more than 1,000 tourists are taken through security and radiation checkpoints, before being allowed to walk through the abandoned buildings, including the swimming pool complex, kindergarten and police station.
Guides in army fatigues use their Geiger counters to summon the visitors to radiation hot-spots so they may record their brush with “danger” for social media.
In the early hours of April 26, 1986, a dangerous safety test became a disaster, with the reactor exploding and incinerating a plant worker whose remains have never been found.
A further 30 first-response firemen died excruciating deaths in the following weeks from radiation exposure after they had rushed in without protective gear to put out the fire.
The accident put 400 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, as a massive carcinogenic cloud of radiation billowed across Europe.
Chernobyl survivor Olexandr Syrota was a child living in the town of Pripyat at the time of the accident. He recalled the confusion as people realised something serious had occurred, but were denied any official information.
“It wasn’t possible to see anything, just a fog. There were no physical marks of a big disaster. But I was 10 years old and it all seemed an adventure,” he said.
Mr Syrota detailed the chaos in the days after the explosion, as over 100,000 residents were evacuated from an exclusion zone when authorities finally decided to act.
“Police were knocking on doors in nearby villages asking for people to adopt residents for a few days. Nothing was organised,” he said.
The Battle of Chernobyl, as it is sometimes called, deployed an additional 500,000 workers, called “liquidators”, in the subsequent containment and clean-up.
One of them, engineer-turned-politician Vladimir Usatenko, was drafted by the military as a reservist at the time.
“They dressed us in military uniforms and delivered us to military units stationed around Chernobyl,” he said.
“We worked for 62 days, including three to five minutes per day in highly radioactive fields.”
‘It is too dangerous … because of the wild animals’
Today, around 5,000 people are employed within the exclusion zone, with 2,500 workers directly involved in decommissioning the nuclear power plant.
They are paid the equivalent of a month’s average salary every week, as an incentive.
My guide Sergei laughs about one of the oddities that has arisen for new Chernobyl residents in the wake of the disaster.
“It is too dangerous for the workers to go into the forest — not because of the radiation, but because of the wild animals,” he said.
“Nature takes everything back very quickly.”
This was highlighted late last year, in a study showing a strange victory emerging from the tragedy in the form of a dramatic resurgence of wildlife in the exclusion zone.
For instance, the wolf population is now seven times higher than other similar, uncontaminated nature reserves and large increases have also occurred in other animal numbers such as horses, elk and wild boar.
According to local human rights advocate Viktor Tarasav, Ukraine’s post revolutionary struggles and economic downturn has meant today’s Chernobyl clean-up workers are better off than the former residents of Pripyat.
“Through this difficult economic crisis, the Ukrainian Government has tried to limit or artificially complicate the payments and benefits for Chernobyl survivors, which they had previously legislatively guaranteed,” he said.
They’re just symbolic payments: survivor
Mr Syrota’s mother lives with a permanent illness from radiation exposure.
“There are laws that say we are supposed to receive benefits, but they never worked in either Soviet or Ukrainian times,” he said.
“They’re just symbolic payments and it’s very difficult to prove you deserve them.
“In order to recover a big pension, she would have to bring lawsuits against the government for years. For now, she gets $US70 per month.”
There have also been scandals involving companies and corrupt government officials profiteering from the disaster, as low quality, over-priced food is delivered to a region which cannot grow its own due to soil contamination.
Local school director Zoe Galician recounted a visit from French authorities to the cafeteria where her students eat.
“They looked at it all and said, ‘In our prisons, they are fed better than in your schools’,” she said.
Olexi Pasyuk, from environmental advocacy group Bankwatch, said neglect extends beyond the human tragedy of the disaster.
“Twelve out of 15 nuclear reactors in Ukraine will have passed their 30-year lifespan between 2010 and 2020 and the Government now has to extend them,” he said.
“The Government commissioned a paper which outlined all of the problems with their policy [of extending reactor life spans], so they dismissed the paper and had a new, more favourable one written.
“It’s a political issue — they don’t want to be seen to be buying gas from the Russians.”
Mr Usatenko sees a more sinister side to the ongoing regional tensions and conflict with Russia.
“The state of the Ukrainian nuclear power plants, thanks to government corruption, are considered by the Russian military as well-located nuclear bombs in enemy territory,” he said.