A new first-person shooter video game has just been released, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl. Because I visited Chernobyl on April 17, 2006, I looked into the game.
The developers say they designed the game using extensive photos they took in the Exclusion Zone around the nuclear energy plant, which blew up due to excessive steam pressure during a stupid experiment on April 26, 1986, and caused a huge radioactive disaster. The screen shots of the game do look hauntingly real.
In fact, anyone can visit the Zone -- after obtaining government permission and if accompanied by a licensed tour provider and an official guide. You can take pictures of anything you want, except for the security installations around the plant itself, though you can see them from the windows of the visitor center, which overlooks the plant.
Although the plant is a disaster and off-limits to non-scientific visitors, the Zone is safe a day of sightseeing. That silly paper blue suit I'm wearing in the photo merely serves to identify me as a part of a Pripyat.com organized tour group. No protective clothing is needed.
The plant is undergoing constant repairs and monitoring, and a huge protective structure will be built over it during the next few years. Four thousand people work in the Exclusion Zone, doing tasks that include taking periodic photos of the slag in the basement of the plant that used to be the reactor core to inspect it for changes, monitoring the surrounding forest for fires, and patrolling the city of Pripyat for looters and poachers.
The game departs from reality in a strange way.
According to the official description at its website:
"The background story for S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is built as a hypothesis of real events to have taken place in the 1980s. Back in Chernobyl there functioned an immense antenna, which, as acknowledged by many specialists, radiated psychoactive waves. On some of our photos, taken during the trips to Chernobyl the body of the antenna can be vividly seen on the horizon.
"According to the unverified rumours, the emission was directed onto Western Europe -- as a part of a long-term military experiment on psychotropic influence on humans. Those are semi-documentary facts and rumours.
"The storyline of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is built around similar experiments, propped by conspiracy theory and opposition of special services. With our game we as if think up what could happen in reality." (The game creators are Ukrainians and not native English speakers.)
I saw the antenna looming over the trees, too. It's part of a site was officially known as Chernobyl II. The truth about the site is totally different -- but not reassuring.
According to the book Chernobyl Record by Dr. R. F. Mould, published by the Institute of Physics:
"An American satellite had passed over the Chernobyl area only 28 seconds after the accident on Saturday 26 April 1986. This was pure chance. The reason for such a monitoring orbit was to take in a nuclear missile site. An early warning radar screen 132 meters high by 96 meters wide can still be seen on the road to Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
"America's initial assessment was that a nuclear missile had been fired, then when the image remained stationary, opinion changed to a missile had blown up in its silo. It was only when a map of the area was consulted that it was realized that it was the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
"There are various confirmations of this story, one of the most interesting being that of an International Atomic Energy Agency official in Vienna who was attending a British Embassy reception on the Sunday evening being asked about the nuclear accident which had just occurred. 'What nuclear accident?' 'You don't know? Well, go and check at the agency.' "
The video game speculates that on April 12, 2006, at 2:33 p.m., Chernobyl II exploded in some sort of intolerably bright light, followed by strange energy disturbances. Many people fell over dead. Radioactive clouds covered vast distances, and scientists failed to explain what had happened.
In the game, you venture into the Zone in 2012 to search for treasure amid horrible mutants and an invisible force that tears living beings apart.
The reality, the Zone is nothing like that. During the first few years after the accident, some plants and animals suffered from the radioactivity, and the trees very near the reactor still are stunted or grow a little strangely, but there were almost no mutants, and now the radiation level has diminished. Some isotopes have very short half-lives. Others have sunk deep into the soil.
The ecology has recovered because the existing radiation is far less damaging to nature than human activities like agriculture and industry. A United Nations report puts it this way:
"Without a permanent residency of humans for 20 years, the ecosystems around the Chernobyl site are now flourishing. The 30-kilometer zone has become a wildlife sanctuary, and it looks like the nature park it has become."
Another UN report proposes promoting ecotourism at Chernobyl to bring economic activity back to the region.
The Exclusion Zone is now home to wild boar, deer, lynx, fox, beaver, bison, more than one hundred wolves, 250 different kinds of birds, and several endangered species, including black storks, white-tail eagles, and Przewalski wild horses, which I saw.
Mutants and invisible killer energy pockets are just what you'd expect from a nuclear disaster. But you'd be wrong.