After a couple of hours in a minibus, you get to the checkpoint for the First Exclusion Zone; at once the road becomes less well-maintained, and the fields themselves are filled with young silver birches. Twenty more kilometres to the Second Exclusion Zone to pick up a guide and head up to the power plant itself.
Radiation levels are a bit above ambient - three microsieverts an hour at the plant visitor centre, fifteen for a minute or so as the bus drives past a place where it rained at a particularly inopportune time on 26 April 1986. The visitor centre has a fantastic fold-out model of the current state of the plant's interior, as far as it's known - only 60% of the rooms have been explored since the accident, since several of them were hurriedly filled with concrete in the first days of the clean-up without seeing what lay beyond.
What is known, and what the guide described with some terror in her voice, is at least two hundred tons of melted fuel rod mixed with molten rock; at the start of the accident these glowed white hot with nuclear decay, they're now 40 degrees above ambient and the worry is that water can now get in and leach soluble fission products out. The sarcophagus is not watertight; there is a plan to build a huge sealed structure to cover reactor and sarcophagus alike, but the last time I saw that plan the completion date was 2007, and the completion date on the plan on the wall of the visitor's centre is 2012.
The plant sits there under its sarcophagus, square and grey apart from some new yellow steel reinforcing-buttresses which keep the west wall from falling over under the weight of the hastily-installed beams which hold up the hastily-installed roof. The sarcophagus took 206 days of 24-hour work to build, and apparently 90,000 workers: I can't see how they'd fit in, though I imagine all the concrete parts were prefabricated in parallel throughout the Soviet Union, and that an enormous number of workers came in, got their lifetime's permitted radiation dose in a single construction procedure and then left.
There is a never-commissioned fuel storage facility a few kilometres down the road; apparently nobody told the French company building it in the Nineties that Chernobyl's fuel rods were twenty centimetres longer than the standard. You can see the nearly-completed Reactor Five and the start of work at Reactor Six; had all gone to plan and the Soviet Union not fallen, there would be twelve reactors at Chernobyl by now.
Then to Pripyat itself. It's a ghost town, you've seen the documentaries, you've seen the children's play-park rusting away and the secondary school with books discarded on the door, Soviet posters warning you not to swim in unknown waters hanging on the wall, and a copy of a twenty-year-old Pravda browning gently in the corner. It's still pretty striking to see it yourself.
They check you before you leave the Second Exclusion Zone; so for the first time I *know* that my shoes are not radioactive.