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JournalistI'm a nuclear journalist and visited Chernobyl. Ask me anything!

Mar 19th 2018 by Julie_McDowall • 15 Questions • 25 Points

I write about the nuclear threat, and also produce nuclear podcasts called THE ATOMIC HOBO

Here's my website with links to my nuclear journalism www.juliemcdowall.com and my Twitter is @JulieAMcDowall

Q:

With everything going on in the world right now; what are your thoughts in relation to nuclear threat? How do the international conditions today compare with times in the past? Are we at grave risk for a major nuclear incident?

A:

I think the majority of us in the West have become complacent. We seem to think the Cold War is over (arguably, it isn't) and that war is something which happens in disaster movies or in distant war zones. The nuclear threat is still with us, and is arguably getting sharper as the weapons and their control systems age, and as politicians with no understanding of deterrence take charge. I'm worried - but then I've been worried since 1983!


Q:

Hi Julie. I'm just making my way through "The Doomsday Machine" - on your Twitter recommendation - and having trouble sleeping at night now. So thanks for that...

I've been of the opinion for a wee while now that, statistically, the longer nuclear arsenals are maintained then the odds of the balloon going up due to accident or miscalculation approach one. Ellsberg's chapters on launch order delegation offer little comfort. You reckon we stand a chance? Anything in your travels that offers hope?

A:

I agree that the longer we go, the greater the risk of accident or incident. We've survived so far just on luck. I know I'm a pessimist but I think it'll surely run out one day. My travels have actually made me more pessimistic, as so many nuclear bunkers/Cold War memory is being presented as a fun day out, or tourist attraction. I think the threat is still real - arguably the Cold War is not over - and yet we're already looking back at it with James Bond-tinged nostalgia.


Q:

What was the atmosphere of the whole place? Is it as creepy as it looks in the pictures and videos?

A:

Hi, I assume the atmosphere is VERY different depending on when you visit. In summer it can be busy with tour groups. I went in winter, mid-week, and I was literally the only visitor there (plus my tour guide, of course). So the place was silent and empty when I visited. Often the only sound I could hear was the snow dripping from trees, and the crackle of the geiger counter. So yes, very creepy if you're there alone in winter. But stronger than creepiness was a real feeling of sadness. Especially in the empty, overgrown villages.


Q:

I am Canadian. On a scale of 1-10 how much effort is needed to plan a tour?. I always thought I would need to find a sketchy lookin dude and pay him to get me into the "zone" and it would be super dangerous. I would absolutely love to go tour Chernobyl.

A:

It's easy. I went with the tour company Solo East. I just booked my chosen day on their website, paid the fee online, and that was it. I chose a private tour so the guide collected me at my hotel and off we went! I blogged about the journey here: https://atomichobo.wordpress.com/2018/02/18/chernobyl-2-the-road-to-chernobyl/


Q:

What was the most unexpected thing you saw, or experienced, while you were at Chernobyl?

A:

I didn't know there were so many dogs! The Exclusion Zone has hundreds of stray dogs who're descended from pets who were abandoned during the evacuation in 1986. They're surprisingly friendly and run up to any visitors. I was afraid when one of them first ran at me, but they just seem like pets: they want to cuddles and play. I was also surprised to see so much "ordinary" life going on in Chernobyl town. People still live and work there. We often picture it as a ghost town, but Chernobyl itself has people in it. It is Pripyat and the villages which are empty. Chernobyl town, although it has a very subdued atmosphere, has people working living and working there.


Q:

What made you pick the name hobo?

A:

I do a lot of nuclear travelling. I visit nuclear bunkers and nuclear sites across Europe and then blog/write/podcast/make YouTube vids about it. I just thought "Hey I'm a nuclear hobo, ridin' the rails!"


Q:

How did you get started in nuclear journalism?

A:

Hi. Through luck and obsession! I've been obsessed with the idea of nuclear war, and the nuclear threat since 1983 when I saw the film Threads on TV. I did a history degree at university and ended up in lots of miserable, low-paid jobs. I started blogging for a local newspaper in Glasgow, The Herald, and this gave me a tiny foot-hold in journalism. Due to sheer good luck, the editor then asked me to take on a newly created job as online TV critic. This gave me a more secure place - and confidence! - in writing, so I began to ask why I was writing about TV etc when my obsession was nuclear war? So I simply made myself into a nuclear journalist...I began visiting nuclear bunkers, interviewing people, writing book reviews on nuclear topics...I began to acquire more and more nuclear work. So, it was a mix of luck and my own total obsession with the topic.


Q:

Did you have to do anything special in order to visit? Like, do you need to get a medical certificate to say you’re healthy enough to go or sign a waiver? Or can anyone go into Chernobyl?

A:

You can't go if yo're under 18. You also need to have reasonable physical fitness as there's lots of hiking through abandoned villages, walking over loose and creaking floorboards, navigating holes in the floor etc. You can't visit alone; you must sign up with a tour company. They arrange the necessary permission and insurance, and you are asked to sign your agreement with a list of safety rules. Illegal visitors, ie those who enter without guides, are known as "stalkers". The authorities often place people in the empty buildings to catch them. One actually died the week before I arrived. It's dangerous to go in alone without an expert guide.


Q:

Hi, How is the local fauna and flora? Did you notice anything? Did trees old enough to have experienced the disaster show any signs of trouble?

A:

I was there in December so there was heavy snowfall and it obscured most of the trees, plants etc. It is very obvious, though, that nature is rampant. It has totally reclaimed the villages. There were even trees spouting from rooftops. I've got a few videos of the villages on my YouTube channel, The Atomic Hobo, so you can see for yourself. The most famous aspect of nature destroyed by the disaster was "The Red Forest", a patch of trees beside the plant which were heavily irradiated and turned a sickly orange-brown colour. The entire area had to be chopped down and then buried. When we drove through it our geiger counters began beeping furiously!


Q:

While you were there, did you have the opportunity to meet and speak to any of the people who have returned to the area and started living there again?

A:

I didn't, but there's a great documentary on this topic called The Babushkas of Chernobyl.


Q:

Are the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games accurate in their depiction of Chernobyl and other nuclear things?

A:

I don't play computer games, but I know the authorities really try hard to catch stalkers. When I was there, they found one in one of the tower blocks in Pripyat. My guide says the authorities often send security guys into Pripyat to lie in wait and try and catch them. Stalkers usually come in from the Belarus side of the border - which is very dangerous as that is the most contaminated area.


Q:

Great list. I would add "Testament" to the films (even though I haven't re-watched it since 1995, could be crap); and "War Day" by Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka to the novels.

A:

I don't know War Day. I'll try it. Thanks! I watched Testament a few weeks ago. It has a few good points, but I found it very lacklustre and tame.


Q:

How Mary Celeste like was Piprayt? Does it look like everybody just vanished?

A:

Pripyat is not entirely empty. I was surprised at that! There's a guard at a checkpoint who sits in his cabin with his pet dog and cat. And inside the town there is a working garage and laundry. When we arrived it was dusk, and starting to get gloomy, and I spotted a light through the trees. It was the laundry! I was amazed, but I suppose it makes sense to launder the uniforms of the nuclear plant workers in a place which is already contaminated. There's also now a "staged" feel to parts of Pripyat. Entering a room you instantly know that a thousand tourists and photographers have been here before you, as there are so many creepy dolls and gasmasks laid out on desks etc. They've clearly been put there for a photo opportunity. So I felt the "Mary Celeste" feeling more strongly in the abandoned villages than in Pripyat.


Q:

Can you give me me a little description/summery of what your podcast is like?

A:

Sure. It's a weekly podcast where I look at how we prepared for nuclear war. So it's popular history, I suppose. First week I looked at plans to dispose of the dead after a nuclear war. For example, Britain proposed dumping bodies in disused mines, or out at sea. Second week was about how Govt planned to keep people calm in nuclear bunkers. Some American Govt bunkers reportedly had stocks of riot gear and sedatives, and one had a padded cell in case anyone went crazy! Every week is something different about how we planned for nuclear war.


Q:

Were you a nuclear jourbalist before visiting Chernobyl? Can I become a nuclear journalist by visiting a local radioactive zone?

A:

Yes. No.