Some people prefer to go on holiday to a sunny beach, and others choose to visit the scene of the worst nuclear fallout in history. What is it that makes Chernobyl so enchanting?
On Saturday 26th April 1986 the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine (62 miles north of Kiev) went under a routine safety test. Just minutes later the reactor exploded polluting the air with millions of tons of deadly radioactive isotopes such as Uranium, Cesium-137, Iodine-131, and Strontium-90.
31 people lost their lives whilst 50,000 people lost their homes and were displaced from the nearby city of Pripyat In one of the largest displacements of people in a European country since WW2. At the time Pripyat was relatively new, it had only been built specifically for the workers and their families of the power plant some 16 years earlier in 1970.
The rest of the world was notified 3 days later when Sweden declared that they had signaled unusually high levels of radiation blown in from the direction of the Chernobyl Power Plant.
In the days after, 50,000 people were evacuated and told they would be able to return to their homes in 3 days. It never happened.
The city of Pripyat will be highly radioactive for the next 20,000 years. It’s as though everybody left but someone forgot to turn the lights out.
There are many conspiracies surrounding Chernobyl. One is that it ultimately led to the end of the Soviet Union. When the world descended on Chernobyl in the wake of the accident, the US found the Duga-1, A gigantic missile defence early-warning radar sitting nicely in a remote area a few kilometers northwest from Chernobyl. Its primary source was to detect missiles fired from US bases heading for Moscow.
You can visit this on your tour of Chernobyl.
What is it like today?
Chernobyl and of course Pripyat have changed in the years since the accident. In 2010 the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) started work on building the new safe confinement. Its job is to keep out radioactive waste as well as dismantling and decommissioning the Power Plant. It is the largest moveable object ever built on earth. It is able to function and withstand the elements for the next 100 years.
The popularity of Chernobyl and especially the town of Pripyat has risen considerably since the release of Fallout 3, Call of Duty Modern Warfare and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
30 years on wildlife and animals have taken over. The city’s central boulevard has been overtaken by trees.
Animals are thriving, bears and wolves outnumber humans around the disaster site, endangered wild species such as the Przewalski horse are making a comeback as well as thousands of stray dogs, you will see them on your tour without question.
Is it safe?
Anyone would think you’re crazy for even thinking about traveling to the scene of the largest nuclear fallout in history, and maybe you are, so we are obliged to try and help alleviate any fears you may have.
High levels of radiation only remain within close proximity to the reactor itself. The tours will not take you into the sarcophagus. Even after all these years there are still approximately 200 tons of radioactive materials still inside the reactor meaning the doses are too high without specialist equipment. The routes the guides will take you on will be perfectly safe, the closest you will get to the reactor will be around 500 meters.
You will of course be exposed to radiation in Chernobyl, around the same amount of radiation you would receive from a standard chest x-ray at your local hospital. We were exposed to 0.003msv
Guides will use Geiger counters to monitor radiation levels, they will ensure that you are safe and not in a high-level area for too long. Geiger counters are available to rent or buy as part of your tour, but if you want to go prepared or are maybe thinking of visiting more than once, then we’d recommend this one.
It is worth noting though, that Chernobyl is not Disneyland. You will be required to go through not one but two checkpoints. You will not be permitted entry without your Passport and it is an illegal offence punishable under Ukrainian Law if you have found to have taken a “souvenir” from within the exclusion zone. Do not be tempted to touch anything, some of the material such as old newspapers, dolls in the kindergarten or chairs in the hospital are still radioactive. If you stick to the rules, a visit to Chernobyl and Pripyat is perfectly safe.
Remember, this was the scene of devastating consequences for many people. Many of those who lost their homes are still scared by the events of 26th April 1986.
Tours depart from outside Kiev train station around 8:00, Registration opens at 7:30. From there you will take a 2-hour bus ride to the outskirts of Chernobyl to the Dytyatky checkpoint which is the official entrance to the 19-mile wide exclusion zone.
You’ll stop off in the village of Zalissya where you’ll have time to wander around the abandoned houses, barns, shop, and the house of the only remaining settler Rozaliya Ivanivna.
As mentioned earlier you’ll visit the DUGA-1 radar in the secret town of Chernobyl 2. You’ll see lots of no entry signs and ones that will say “Trespassers will be shot”. This was highly top secret at the time.
You’ll pass through the red forest. In 1986 the liquidators buried large amounts of radioactive waste in the ground. The land around this area is still highly radioactive. The trees died following absorption of the high levels of radiation turning them ginger-brown, hence the name “The Red Forest”
After that you’ll make your way to Pripyat where you will visit the hospital which treated the badly injured firefighters and power plant workers in the hours after the incident, You’ll see the Town Hall which was used as the first headquarters to mitigate the consequences of the fallout and the Polissya hotel which was used a correction point for the helicopters dropping lead bags over the burning reactor.
No visit to Chernobyl is complete without a visit to the famous fairground and Ferris wheel. You’ll also be able to see the dodgems to the left. Your camera will not be out of your hand as you then take in the Azure swimming pool complex theatre and Energetic Palace.
Before you sit down for a refreshing drink and bite to eat in the worker’s canteen, you’ll be driven to the closest viewing point of the Reactor and New Safe Confinement. You’ll visit a memorial and you can take pictures whilst being inundated by dogs who want stroking. (You might want to refrain from doing so though)
Before making your way back to Kiev, you’ll be able to see the “still working” Fire Station that was first to respond to the fire on the 26th April 1986 along with the touching memorial for the firefighters who were on duty and helped contain the explosion. They were unaware of the dangers and most died within a few days.
You’ll get to see the giant catfish in the cooling ponds (although this depends on the season – Spring is best) and a small exhibition of transport vehicles and robots used in the clean-up.
The last leg of your trip will entail visiting a memorial aptly named “To those who saved the world”. If the gates at Auschwitz are meant to be used as a poignant reminder of the atrocities that happened between 1940-1945 then this should be a reminder that without the interference of the “Suicide Squad” preventing a second steam explosion, 70% of the European continent would have been inhabitable for hundred of years.
How much does a tour cost?
Tours start from $99 per person
Anything else I need to know?
- Only persons over the age of 18 will be permitted to the exclusion zone. You will need to sign a waiver accepting liability on the tour.
- The best time to visit is between April-September. Winter months can see temperatures plummet to below -8°C.
- Kiev is the closest major city to Chernobyl, It will take around 2 hours via coach to reach the first checkpoint. You can find flights here
- It is advisable to wear comfortable clothes, long sleeves, trousers, and socks. You may want to think about walking or hiking boots if you are taking the trip in winter. You are free to bring your own sandwiches and bottles of water. Believe it or not, there aren’t any shops you can buy water from when you’re there.
As you can imagine, there isn’t much left of reactor number 4. However Chernobyl Tours offer a study tour where you can go inside the new safe confinement, visit the control panel, stand in a twin of the reactor hall, and visit the memorial of Valery Khodemchuk. Tours start from around $99.00. If you want to make the most of your trip then why not stay overnight at the designated Chernobyl hotel. You can pack much more into a private 2-day tour with prices starting from $244.00 per person based on 10 people on the tour. A private tour 2-night tour for 2 will cost $551.00
Top Facts about Chernobyl
- The famous Fairground never actually opened, it never welcomed any visitors. It was due to open 5 days later on 1st May 1986 in time for the May Day celebrations.
- The death toll is unknown; estimates range between 30,000 (World Health Organisation) to 737,000. The WHO estimated that over 7 million people were exposed to radiation in the years later. The initial blast killed 2 people.
- The first person to die at Chernobyl was Valery Khodemchuk, a plant operative who was monitoring the water pumps to the nuclear core. You can see the memorial to him underneath the reactor on a Study Tour.
- To give you an idea of the devastation Chernobyl caused, the radioactive fallout was over 400 times more than what was unleashed on Hiroshima in 1945.
- The elephant’s foot is a large, dense mass of black corium and graphite that leaked and formed under reactor room 217. What emerged looks like an “Elephants Foot”. When it was discovered 8 months after the incident, radioactivity near the elephant’s foot was approximately 8,000 roentgen delivering a lethal dose of radiation, killing you within 5 minutes.
- Although the accident occurred in Ukraine, because wind direction, Belarus actually received 70% of the contamination.
- Chernobyl has a big sister called Ignalina located 677km away in Visaginas in Eastern Lithuania. It is where the HBO hit series Chernobyl was filmed.
- The New Safe Confinement completed in 2018 is the largest moveable land object in the world.
- The only statue in Ukraine of Vladimir Lenin is located within the 19-mile exclusion zone.