Or it might be the 39th. I stopped counting in 2005, after the publication of my book "Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl". I was last there in 2012, with the filmmakers of the Babushkas of Chernobyl documentary (that you may have heard about on NPR today and you should see it if you can). I will be going again next week and I'm very excited. Here is the Wormwood Forest Facebook page with an announcement of this AMA. https://www.facebook.com/Chernobyl.Wormwood/

I have travelled throughout both the Ukrainian and Belarusian exclusion zones, very far off the beaten paths at times. Ask me anything!

Comments: 158 • Responses: 65  • Date: 

nomadbishop40 karma

Do you glow in the dark yet?

ChernobylWriter31 karma


SwedishFish12320 karma

I read about some of the biological differences among the wildlife in Chernobyl, such as birds with deformed beaks, and insects that have adapted to the radiation levels there.

What are some of the most unique biological phenomena that you have come across in your travels?

ChernobylWriter5 karma

Small creatures and those that live in radioactively-laced soil are among the most vulnerable to radiation because any internal radioactive decay is more likely to hit a vital organ. There are fewer insects like Maybugs, which develop from larvae that grow in soil. There are other examples. Some bird species show deformities but a big problem with those studies is that there is no pre-chernobyl baseline to compare them with. It could be that Chernobyl swallows, for example, always had albino spots. But one of the most unique biological phenomenon was a former potato farm in Belarus that had been re-flooded into into a swamp where I saw what seemed like millions of water birds: egrets, herons, ducks, swans and dozens of endangered black storks. They took off when our van drove up and the racket was deafening. It was a very, very radioactive area. A moose stood in the bushes and watched us the whole time.

BROWN-5210 karma

What's the creepiest thing you've run into while in Chernobyl?

ChernobylWriter22 karma

A family of drunks.

420Hookup11 karma

In case you weren't aware, being drunk actually reduces the effects of the radiation. (Not joking)

Crobb7 karma


Escatologul2 karma

Literally the first link, how lazy are you ? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12518984

ChernobylWriter5 karma

That's an interesting article I haven't seen. Thank you. But the blood was irradiated in vitro. It would be easy to do in vivo experiments with people who work in the zone, though. Last time I was there, there were three bars in the town of Chornobyl (I use the "o" to distinguish the name of the town from the disaster and the nuclear station, which I spell with the commonly accepted "e".)

Bah_Allah_Kay10 karma

do you ever fear for your safety or health while visiting? If so, what makes it worth it to keep coming back and risking your safety/health?

ChernobylWriter23 karma

It's a question of relative risk. A day in Chernobyl exposes you to less radiation than a trans-Atlantic flight.

TheJonesSays17 karma

That sounds like a Charlie thing to say from Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

ChernobylWriter4 karma

Thanks. Love the show.

starlinguk5 karma

I'm not so sure. Cows outside the danger zone are still giving radioactive milk. The air might be OK, but things you touch aren't.

ChernobylWriter1 karma

I don't eat the local food, though one time isn't going to kill you (literally). That's why the exclusion zone isn't safe for habitation, even if a lot of the radioactivity has decayed. The bigger problem is the formerly "grey" area where people were/are allowed to live but poverty (and corruption) make it hard to observe the regulations needed to do it safely. For example, the test of milk in Belarus couldn't test for plutonium or americium, only strontium. While plutonium isn't as much of a problem biologically as the scare stories would have it -- it can get inhaled or swallowed but not absorbed through food -- americium is one of plutonium's decay products and is very biologically active. It will pose an increasing health risk in the future.

IAmBecomeGay9 karma

What is the point of going so much? Do you take scientific readings of radiation levels each time? As a writer do you think being there so much might change your opinion or something?

ChernobylWriter10 karma

Chernobyl is multidisciplinary, so there is always something new to see or learn. This time I'll be exploring its similarities to the war zone in the east.

ChernobylWriter7 karma

Yes, it's in the plan.

SpinyPants7 karma

Whats the most beautiful part and worst part about Chernobyl?

ChernobylWriter5 karma

The most beautiful part is nature's revival. The worst is the fact that people had to be forced from the region entirely for that to happen. The enemy is us.

wisertime076 karma

Wormwood is used to make absinthe, correct? You should look into marketing some Chernobyl absinthe, with an extra green glow. For some reason, I feel like this should be a thing.

ChernobylWriter5 karma

It should. Chernobyl Absinthe in the bright green bottle.

PoofyZeus6 karma

What is the most jarring thing about going there?

ChernobylWriter3 karma

Here is the first article I did about it for the LATimes in 1996. I expected a moonscape and found a wildlife sanctuary. http://articles.latimes.com/1996-02-26/news/mn-40313_1_chernobyl-area

natek116 karma

How close to the actual reactor have you been?

ChernobylWriter9 karma

I have been inside the reactor building, but at the far end from the No. 4 reactor. I've been to the viewing area, about 600 feet away from the No. 4, many, many times. It is a very radioactive place.

DC12V5 karma

I remember reading years ago that people still live inside the exclusion zones. Have you come across them and what are they like?
Are there any new people?

ChernobylWriter9 karma

Yes, there are a few hundred people who still live there, mostly elderly women and I have met many of them. A great documentary is out about them "The Babushkas of Chernobyl".

justscottaustin5 karma

Do you find it's easier to do AMA-s with those extra fingers that sprouted, or are they vestigal?

ChernobylWriter12 karma

Yes! The extra fingers really help!

jimmymcperson4 karma

How's the food there?

ChernobylWriter2 karma

In terms of taste or radioactivity?

NerdyBiscoots1 karma

Why not both?

ChernobylWriter4 karma

The canteen for visitors serves decent food. If you're vegan, bring your own.

Master_of_gaming4 karma

Besides yourself, who has been traveling to Chernobyl, and to what end?

What is the current local perception of the area vs other parts of the world?

I have only read Voices of Chernobyl on the subject and interested in exploring your work and discoveries.

ChernobylWriter10 karma

Chernobyl has its own sub-culture. Within it are people who work there, people who used to live there but were evacuated, scientists, naturalists, devotees of STALKER, poets, makers of very bad films like Chernobyl Diaries.

ChernobylWriter1 karma

Voices of Chernobyl is a fantastic book about the disaster.

falken963 karma

I love abandoned places and urban exploration, and Chernobyl is at the very top of my list of places to visit.

What basic advise would you give to a first-time visitor? Should I go with a tour, or is the independent experience better?

ChernobylWriter2 karma

If you have the budget, go with a tour the first time, then return with a private trip after that. See everything on the beaten track before going off it.

frenzex221 karma

I do not believe you can go alone, but I'm not entirely sure.

ChernobylWriter1 karma

You cannot travel around the zone alone. But you can have an individual tour with a guide.

keithsells3 karma

Any pics or writing to share?

ChernobylWriter3 karma

Here is link for a story I did for Slate after the 2012 trip. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/nuclear_power/2013/01/wildlife_in_chernobyl_debate_over_mutations_and_populations_of_plants_and.html. I also post a lot of pictures on the Wormwood Forest Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/Chernobyl.Wormwood/

Scalills3 karma

I heard that wildlife is coming back to the area. Is that true?

ChernobylWriter6 karma

Yes, at least for large animals and most birds. The diversity and abundance is much greater in the exclusion zone than outside it.

WeAreNeededMrsPeel3 karma

Are things better on the Ukrainian or Belarusian side of the Zone?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

In terms of radiation, not all that much. But there many other differences, starting with how the two halves of the zone are managed.

Charlie19513 karma

What draws you back so many times? Is there still that much more to learn?

ChernobylWriter7 karma

It is a symbol of human folly and the incredible resilience of nature despite it.

Rivertold1 karma

Watchinig photos from Pripyat was a mind-blowing experience for me. The insides of buildings, the nursery, the amusement part and other "human" parts looks incredibly creepy, but when you look outside, nature seems to be thriving.

Made me think a lot about how we can never truly hurt nature, but only our species, and how maybe nature would be better off when we eventually go extinct (as statistics point out its inevitable at some point in history).

ChernobylWriter2 karma

We can hurt nature. Species extinction is one way. But nature doesn't actually "care".

Thomas_6332 karma

What's it like in the sense of what do you see at night and hear? Is it quiet? Does it have that little hum nature does? Is it pitch-black at night, or can you see the lights at the construction site?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

If you stay in the zone at night, you are doing it in the town of Chornobyl and I have never noticed any lights from the construction sites near the nuclear plant. But I haven't been there overnight since they began building the arch. As a rule, it is very quiet in the evenings.

gleaner382 karma

What is the biggest thing that you have seen change from your first visit to your most recent?

ChernobylWriter2 karma

So many, it would take another book to list them all. But the radiation controls have become less stringent over the years as the risk from dust has decreased.

RazingAll2 karma

Do you feel like descriptions of the hazards in the area have been exaggerated? As in, is the exclusion zone really that unsafe for human habitation?

ChernobylWriter2 karma

The zone has been patchy from the first days. Parts were always safe for habitation, especially by the Kyiv Sea. Other parts will never be safe, like the 6-mile zone directly around the reactor. But the half lives of cesium and strontium have just about passed, so other areas are theoretically open to habitation. But I'm against the idea.

falken962 karma

Do you think perhaps the safe areas have not been redeveloped so that they can serve as a kind of nature sanctuary, or have they just not gotten around to rebuilding yet? A little of both, maybe?

ChernobylWriter2 karma

The zone's future is being hotly debated. One side wants the whole thing declared an official nature reserve. Another side wants to use at least part of the zone for storing spent nuclear fuel. There are already facilities for the spent fuel from the other three Chernobyl reactors. But some want to store spent fuel from other power plants in Ukraine. Currently, Ukraine sends spent fuel to Russia, so the debate has a national security element.

PooleParty2472 karma

How much radiation are you exposed to during your visits? How long do you stay?

ChernobylWriter2 karma

I usually stay a day or two. I wrote my book while living in Kyiv, so I drove up there whenever I needed to do research. I roughly calculated my exposure from those trips for my book. It was about equivalent to a trans-Atlantic flight.

Leolele992 karma

I am probably way too late but I wanna ask one thing: What are your tips and tricks for Chernobyl travelling?

ChernobylWriter2 karma

Wear shoes that you wouldn't mind leaving there if you have to. If you get funky dust on your shoes, you can usually wash it off. But not always.

Leolele991 karma

Thats a good one. But I also wanted to know where to start. Where do you go on the internet to book a trip there? What special papers do you need? Is there any danger you might not be aware of at first.? I really wanna go there just to look at it but I am also kinda afraid since it still is a rather hostile enviroment in a country so different. Im sorry if you already answered those questions :)

ChernobylWriter1 karma

You could try asking on pripyat.com. It's a website run by people who were evacuated from Pripyat and there is (or used to be) an English-language forum. Maybe they can recommend reputable agencies. Some of them work as guides, too.

Giama2 karma

It might be stupid but.. Habe you ever find rest of humans? (Like bones)

ChernobylWriter2 karma

I have not. But a few murders have been committed there, plus deaths of unidentified people. Not a huge number. Maybe a few dozen.

oryna2 karma

You're incredibly knowledgeable! Where has your book been distributed? Where have you spoken? Are there any new scientists planning to do a more thorough study (not just in the Red Forest)?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

Thank you! I'll be speaking in Kyiv the second week of May.

Mr-Marshmallow2 karma

What would you say your most exciting experience inside Chernobyl was? What do you normally do while inside?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

Seeing roe deer, elk, moose and wild Przewalski's Horses all in a single day of off-roading was the most exciting. For each trip, I have a different goal. The last time, in 2012, I spoke to the elderly women who still live there for the Babushkas of Chernobyl documentary.

Slick_Grimes2 karma

1) If I gave you a glass bottle of Coca-cola could you take it with you and bring it back as a Nuka-cola?

2) Can I come with you?

ChernobylWriter2 karma

I'm a Pepsi person myself.

Slick_Grimes3 karma

I actually am too but it would be much easier to change Coka to Nuka than it would be for Pepsi.

And I take it that means no on letting me come with.....sniffles....no, that's fine....

ChernobylWriter2 karma

There, there. Some day ...

Slick_Grimes1 karma

I just took a screen shot of this, loaded it onto 2 usb sticks and deposited one in a safety deposit box on a military base. The other went to my lawyer who has assured me that this counts as a binding legal contract. The word "maybe" would have rendered your comment legally ambiguous but you failed to word it as such. The fact that you make your living as a writer and should possess a fair command of language demonstrates further that you indeed intended this as a promissory statement.

I thank you and will be eagerly awaiting dates and an attached itinerary. These can be sent care of my attorney's office for final approval. OMG can't wait!!!!!! SOooo excited!!

ChernobylWriter3 karma

Ah, but there is no promise to bring you back.

Melzeebub921 karma

I was planning to take a trip there next year because it recently dawned on me that Chernobyl will one day be consumed by nature and it'd be a real shame not to see it before that happens. Which airport do you suggest I fly to? Is it still a good idea to avoid the Ukraine and travel from Belarus instead?

ChernobylWriter2 karma

The Belarus zone is very far from the capital, Minsk. The Ukrainian zone is much closer to Kyiv. Also, you'll only see the reactor and Pripyat on the Ukrainian side. You can see the reactor from the Belarus side but it is very distant. Outside the Russian-occupied zone in the east, Ukraine is safe for travel.

TitanicJedi1 karma

Hey man, i gotta say this is amazing stuff to read.

what and how in every way possible, how did you get a pass to go through there? i'm a budding photographer and my plan is to travel there in the next 10 years.

been to those places like that pool and the ferris wheel?

why don't you step on the moss?

give me all the info, just for everything, i wasn't even alive when this happened yet i am so keen to see it.

edit: sorry this is late, just got on.

ChernobylWriter1 karma

The easiest way to go there is on a tour at one of the travels agencies in Kyiv It you want a custom program, it's a little more complicated. My book will answer a lot of your other questions. http://www.amazon.com/Wormwood-Forest-Natural-History-Chernobyl-ebook/dp/B004R9Q1LC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1461788921&sr=8-1&keywords=mycio

GoCubsGo231 karma

I have heard that the wolves are not affected as much by the radiation, and their populations have spiked. Do you hear/ see them? And if so do you have to keep an eye out or do they just mind their own business?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

Wolves are at the top of the food chain, and so they concentrate radionuclides. But their populations are healthy. I saw a wolf in broad daylight once and was glad to be inside a van when I did.

lilshawn1 karma

What is the "hottest" thing you've found so far there?

ChernobylWriter3 karma

The hottest thing would be inside the No. 4 reactor building. But I've been to all the "hot" places other than that.

MB381 karma

I've been wanting to visit for ages. Do you have any recommendations for taking a trip specifically to visit? How many days would be appropriate, given the access available?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

Don't go around the time of the anniversary. I can't recommend any of the tourist agencies but my understanding is that it is easy to sign up for tours from Kyiv.

eli39021011 karma

How long do you normally stay in the area for and where are some of the parts of Chernobyl that you wish you could visit but couldn't due to the amount or radiation?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

The inside of reactor 4.

Jungletouch1 karma

When you say people work there, what do they do?

ChernobylWriter3 karma

Even no man's lands have to be administered. People also still work on the decommissioning the Chernobyl nuclear plant. Many people are working on the new arch covering. Forestry workers. The water systems need to be maintained so radionuclides don't spill into the Kyiv water supply. Fire departments are very important, too.

SonicCharmeleon1 karma

Have you been to the hospital basement?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

No. I've not been in any hospital basements in the zone. What am I missing?

19chickens1 karma

The Pripyat hospital basement is where they chucked all the radioactive firemen's clothes. It's really radioactive.

ChernobylWriter1 karma

Oh, I think I've seen video of that. No, I haven't been there. The buildings in Pripyat are getting too rickety for me to want to go inside at this point.

Ellend8211 karma

My friend and her family used to host a young girl from Belarus who would come over to the UK for Summer/Christmas/Easter and live with her family/ go on holiday etc. Since she turned 18 she has got married and as far as I'm aware is now unable to leave the country. I am unaware of how the legal practise is in Belarus, are adults unable to leave the country/ emigrate or is it just very very difficult? What are the prospects for young adults there?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

I don't know about Belarus. I have been to the zone there but I am not an expert on the country.

MayorMcCheese7491 karma

Is anyone else there usually?

ChernobylWriter2 karma

There are (relatively) a lot of people in two places -- the town of Chornobyl, which is the zone's administrative center, and the nuclear plant. Otherwise, no. You can travel all day in some places and not see anyone else.

Jaytime1 karma

Okay. Is it as inspiring as I think it is for writing dark stories? I am an aspiring writer and always thought of it as one of THE places to come up with dark premises for story lines? I apologise if this question comes off as insensitive.

ChernobylWriter1 karma

It is inspiring for many kinds of stories. Not only dark ones. But dark ones, too.

Hamza_331 karma

I heard people still live there ,i.e. they refused to move. Can you please elaborate on that?, thanks.

ChernobylWriter3 karma

After the nuclear disaster, about 1200 people returned from the evacuations and refused to leave their homes. They have been gradually dying off. Today, I think there are only about 200 left, the vast majority are elderly women. The Babushkas of Chernobyl is a great documentary about them.

Undeadgamr191 karma

What was the most surprising thing other than it being a tourist attraction instead of a ghost town when you first went to Chernobyl?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

Are you quoting me?

LunaticNik1 karma

Is there anywhere near by where I can buy the safety posters from the schools in Chernobyl?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

I have never seen any.

LunaticNik1 karma

If you ever see anything like this for sale, then I would LOVE to purchase a few of them.


ChernobylWriter1 karma

I see. Interesting.

sethrogenssausage1 karma

What kind of precautions do you have to take? How do you clean up afterwards?

I have always wanted to hike Chernobyl, any advice?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

No particular precautions. I just wear shoes that I wouldn't mind leaving behind if I had to. No particular clean up, either. Just a shower and laundry.

ChernobylWriter1 karma

But if you're hiking off road, then you need a good dosimeter and map.

Yaniv011 karma

What kind of people, who live in the Zone, have you met? (if you have met someone)

ChernobylWriter1 karma

I've met many people, from biologists to the elderly women who still live there. That's one big difference with the Belarus side of the zone. No one lives there.

big_duo36741 karma

How did the 21st time go and how would you compare it to the 11th?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

The 1st time was an eye-opener. The 2nd was for a story debunking KidofSpeed (the women who supposedly rode her bike in the zone). After that, until the 23rd time, it was all research.

the_essay1 karma

Does growing a third eye affect your depth perception?

ChernobylWriter2 karma

You don't grow a third eye. You have to be born with one.

korolial1 karma

Have you seen the elephant foot?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

Only in pictures. I saw a recent photo showing it covered in what looked like hardened foam, probably to keep the dust down as it disintegrates.

Robin_Kuhls1 karma

How is it to travel to like one of the most toxic areas in the world ?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

Cooler than you'd expect.

ApertureBrowserCore1 karma

If, like in comics and movies, the radiation mutates you and gives you super powers, which ones would you want to have and why?

ChernobylWriter2 karma

The kind where you don't need glasses.

OrphanMeat3381 karma

About how many microsieverts of radiation are you exposed to, on average, each trip?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

The average radiation exposure the zone was 47 micro-Roentgens when I research my book. So, an 8 hour day outdoors gave me an average 400 per trip. Give or take a lot for the patchness of contamination.

pachinkoe-3 karma

You are qualified to find out the age old question through the power of radiation...

Which is worse: A horse sized duck, or 100 duck sized horses?

Also what interested you in Chernobyl?

ChernobylWriter1 karma

I am a Ukrainian-American, so I was riveted by it from the moment news leaked out. I write about it in my book.