The Trouble With Chernobyl Stalkers

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A small sub-culture of tourists known as “Chernobyl Stalkers” are paying for guided journeys into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It’s a form of Dark Tourism;  a several decades-old travel niche of touring places associated with death, tragedy, and the darker side of human behavior. To assume that all “dark tourists” are voyeuristic would be a mistake. Many go for the educational aspects of its history.  

But, most Chernobyl Stalkers fall into a different category. Most of them are actually thrill-seekers who enter the Exclusion Zone illegally. There are four unique motivators that draw these “stalkers” to covertly tour the exclusion zone (also called the dead zone). There is the danger of radioactivity, the thrill of evading police, security patrols and tower sentries, the threat of being attacked by wild boars, bears, moose, wolves, and wait for it – – to see what the post-apocalyptic world will look like.

The self-adopted moniker Chernobyl Stalker is derived from a series of video games popular in Russia and Eastern Europe called S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (Scavengers, Trespassers, Adventurers, Loners, Killers, Explorers, Robbers). These cyber games take place in a simulated Chernobyl Dead Zone where players face many virtual threats including those from radiation-induced mutants that defy the known laws of physics. 

The main goal of the game is to navigate through the forest and abandoned towns to reach the center of the Exclusion Zone. Less than two miles from the destroyed reactor lies the abandoned town of Pripyat, the former “real world” home of Chernobyl workers. Once introduced to the game, some players found themselves actually wanting to go to the real Exclusion Zone and hide out in Pripyat for a day or two. The size of the real Exclusion Zone is a little more than 1000 square miles (for comparison, a square 32 miles by 32 miles is 1024 square miles). 

For younger men and women, the appeal of entering the authentic “Dead Zone” plays on their thrill of risks and danger, of defying authorities, of testing one’s abilities, and by vicariously mastering one’s own destiny. Chernobyl Stalkers carry food supplies, cameras, global positioning systems, vodka, barbed wire cutters, and Geiger counters. The HBO mini-series “Chernobyl” gave a big boost to the demand for Chernobyl Stalker tours.

But what happens in the Dead Zone, doesn’t always stay in the Dead Zone. Stalkers have taken radioactive items home with them. Just this month a “stalker” admitted starting a forest fire causing radionuclides to be dispersed over the greater region once again as radioactivity from the 1986 reactor disaster is being set free from the burning forest and vegetation. 

In April 2020, Radioactive Cesium-137, most likely originating from the fire, was detected 1200 miles away in Norway. The International Atomic Energy Agency says that there is no threat from the airborne radioactivity, but environmentalists disagree. They say ingesting the particulate matter in the smoke could cause health problems. Cesium, strontium, and plutonium ingestion are among their concerns. Strontium and plutonium would be 250 times worse than the threat of cesium ingestion.

The stalker told police that he started the fire “for fun” and that “it got out of control.” The ongoing fire at Chernobyl (burning for nearly a month) is the worst one ever. So far more than one-fifth of the Exclusion Zone has burned. It has destroyed thirty percent of the “tourist attractions.” Some of these attractions were part of legalized tours which began ten years ago. Several abandoned villages were burned down completely. 

On Sunday (April 26, 2020) an organization called “Cultures of Resistance” held a web meeting to discuss their latest film – Stalking Chernobyl. The purpose of the film is to bring attention to the problems of Chernobyl and nuclear issues generally to a younger crowd. The film interviewed many stalkers with scenes of their activities in the Exclusion Zone. A couple of the stalkers also took part in the web meeting. 

The film did show the disastrous consequences of the 1986 reactor explosions. But, I did not care for the manner in which the filmmaker goes about attracting a younger audience to the nuclear issues.

The film glorifies the adventures of being a “Chernobyl Stalker.” One stalker admits that for the youngest of them, going into the dead zone is a show of strength and a “cool” photo opportunity from atop an abandoned building.   Another stalker talks about how at night, the brightly illuminated sarcophagus covering the destroyed reactor #4 looks like a giant spaceship from his rooftop perch on a building in Pripyat.

All stalkers like the adrenaline rush. Stalkers, many with their faces blurred, were filmed hiking, camping, exploring abandoned buildings, measuring radiation levels, and partying. One stalker says his group uses one liter of Vodka for every three miles of walking. Another stalker told a journalist “It’s a post-apocalyptic romance.” Incidentally, the film’s subtitle is “exploration after the apocalypse.” 

The host of the web meeting was film director Iara Lee. While a few nuclear experts were on hand that for the meeting, the majority of the time seemed more like a promotional event for dark tourism at Chernobyl. The host used a “green screen” set-up behind her to show a stalker on top of a 500 feet tall and nearly half-mile-long radar antenna in the Exclusion Zone. This antenna was used as a missile detection system similar to the United States’ old “DEW” systems (distant early warning) and looked over the horizon for airborne attacks. I saw the enormous antennas that the U.S. had in Thule Greenland in 1979. It is quite an impressive sight.

Near the end of the 58-minute film, we see a stalker climb up the antenna and jump off to parachute to the ground. He’s a BASE jumper! These thrill-seekers parachute from very low altitudes. (BASE stands for buildings – antennas – spans – earth (or cliffs.) One man died a few years ago at this antenna when he fell off.

There are several BASE jumpers shown in the film. The jumpers are also filming themselves. The final footage before the credits roll shows bungee jumpers and urban gymnastics or free running in Pripyat (look that up on Google). This is how the film ends. It looks like a commercial for illegal thrill-seekers.

The Chernobyl Stalkers are not doing us any favors. I’ve been involved with drawing attention to nuclear power plant security issues and to lost and stolen nuclear materials in the U.S. I have never “crossed the line” or broken any rules;  although NBC’s Dateline said I tested security. I never did anything that should have set off an alarm or draw a security response or put anyone at risk. Most of my time was spent trying to work with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to close the gap on security vulnerabilities. 

Some of the Chernobyl Stalkers are turning the exclusion zone into an illegal playground and a film that depicts that serves a dark purpose. To literally stir up radioactivity is a thoughtless form of entertainment.   I don’t see any good that comes from promoting Chernobyl Stalkers or the film Stalking Chernobyl.

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