The first thoughts anyone may have about visiting the Chernobyl area is safety; is it really safe to visit a location that was subject of a nuclear disaster 33 years ago? On 26th April 1986 reactor core, 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant ruptured during safety testing, resulting in a highly explosive steam explosion and a subsequent open-air reactor core fire which lasted for approximately 9 days. During this time the fire caused a release of radioactive contamination which precipitated upon parts of the USSR and Western Europe before finally being contained on 4th May 1986. You can read more about it here.
From prior information gathering on the internet, it appears that Ukraine has been welcoming tourists to the area for a decade but under the strict supervision of regulated tour operators. It appears from perusing various articles including this one that due to weather conditions and changing winds locations further away became radioactive hotspots rather than the nearby villages which had relatively low exposure. Safety measures have also been implemented to ensure the safety of visitors including dosimetry control and 2 radiation checkpoints on the borders of both the 10km and 30km checkpoints. Visitors are also not allowed to wander into unauthorised areas. Given the safety measures in place, although slightly anxious we decided to go ahead and visit whilst in Kyiv.
Booking a tour
There are several companies in Kyiv who claim to organise the best Chernobyl tour; We travelled with SoloEast and can recommend them; we booked using Viator a few weeks in advance and were required to provide our passport details and informed we would also need to bring our passports on the day. If you want to visit Chernobyl, some forward planning is necessary; visitors can only enter the exclusion zone with a permit, which will be obtained by the tour company on your behalf but which can take 2 weeks to secure. Chernobyl trips are therefore not something to be decided on the spur of the moment; make sure you book well in advance.
Also in our booking confirmation, we were informed that arms and legs needed to be covered, no open-toed shoes were allowed and any passport updates since booking needed to be provided in advance or entry would not be permitted. The tour included lunch, the services of an English speaking tour guide and visits to permitted zones within the Chernobyl region. No drinks are included in this tour so it is wise to bring at least some water and snacks with you and there is an option of booking a Geiger counter to carry around with you. This wasn’t clear on Viator, but we managed to pay 200 UAH (approximately £6) to hire one on the day. The pickup point was outside a hotel called Kozatskiy located in Independence Square. A note of warning was that there was another similar hotel of the same name and therefore not to get them confused. We arrived promptly just before 8am for the tour and checked in.
How far is Chernobyl from Kyiv?
The edge of the 30km exclusion zone is about a 2-hour drive approximately 81 miles north of the capital. On the tour we took, we travelled by comfortable minibus and were shown a documentary about the disaster and cleanup operation on the way, which meant that even those who knew little about the accident beforehand had a good appreciation of what they were seeing. It also showed that the recent HBO Mini-Series, Chernobyl had a high degree of accuracy, although the Russians disagree with that and are allegedly going to make their own version. We had a rest stop on the way before arriving at the first border stop at the edge of the first exclusion zone. All visitors are strictly prohibited to take pictures of the actual border crossing but there were a couple of stalls and information boards available to read.
Once our electronic tickets had been scanned we were given a dosimeter each to wear for the duration of our trip to determine our exposure to radiation throughout our visit. Additionally, we were given clear instructions by our guide not to touch anything, sit on the ground or place any tripods or camera equipment on the ground. We were also not permitted to eat anything outside.
First stop was some abandoned buildings a short distance into the exclusion zone. English health and safety law would not allow any visitors to this type of place, raised floorboards/trip hazards and in some cases completely missing floorboards and big holes in the floor to jump over. It passed without incident, but you need to be steady on your feet to go there, and extremely careful.
Next up, the city of Chernobyl. Or is it Chornobyl, the Ukrainians seem unsure how to convert Чорнобиль into the English alphabet and you’ll often see it spelt either way. We learnt that the power plant itself isn’t actually based in Chernobyl but named after the nearest town; it is actually 22 kilometres from the plant and a half-hour drive and interestingly the power plant was originally called the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Station but was renamed after the accident. Due to the distance, this meant that Chernobyl was in the outer area of the exclusion zone.
Something we were surprised at was the fact Chernobyl has inhabitants, approximately 500 people live there day-to-day and it is self-contained and fully functional. We stopped at an old hotel where we had lunch (you are not allowed to eat in the open air inside the exclusion zone and we were informed the food was ‘imported’). Noticeably all the pipes in this town were above ground, the ground being the most radioactive part of the entire area still. Children under 18 are not allowed in the exclusion zone except for special occasions such as christenings at the rather beautiful church below.
Due to the Decommunization of Ukraine programme, you will also find the last remaining monument of Lenin in Ukraine here in Chernobyl. There are currently no plans to demolish this despite the bill signed in 2015 ordering the removal of all communist monuments.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
After a short drive, we passed through the border of the 10km exclusion zone and stopped approximately 150 metres from the nuclear power plant. There’s a big moat, a bit of countryside, but most of the view here is taken up with the huge, ugly, industrial buildings. Our Geiger counter showed a reading of around 0.85 – 1.0 here, having been 0.14 at the 30km exclusion perimeter. Randomly, we then went and fed bread to the catfish in the moat just under an old steel bridge. At the start of the tour Constantin asked if there were any special requests for things to see and do, and feeding the catfish was someone’s dream, so Constantin made it happen. Due to security restrictions, we were only allowed to take limited pictures in this area.
We drove around to the other side of the plant where we were able to take pictures in front of the sarcophagus. The sarcophagus is the metal structure which covers reactor 4 and replaced the initial structure which was failing in 1996. It took 8 years of construction and many years prior of complex planning to devise it and it was finally manoeuvred into place in November 2016. The structure contains 740,000 sqm of contaminated debris and outside here our Geiger counter read a surprisingly low 0.12 showing the structure is doing its job!
Pripyat is a city which was created in February 1970 to serve the staff of the Nuclear Power plant. The city was populated with just under 50,000 people when it was evacuated on April 27th 1986, 36 hours after the nuclear explosion. It took 3.5 hours to evacuate the residents who were mostly moved to the Kyiv region. In order to avoid mass panic residents were requested to take important identification documents, some food and essentials and informed they would return in 3 days. It was not safe for this to happen and the residents never returned with the city remaining abandoned as it was. Pripyat was home of plant workers and their families and had a train station, hospital, sports stadium, schools and copious blocks of residential homes.
Our coach stopped at the Pripyat sign where we took pictures and we were also introduced to our first ‘hotspot’; an area on the ground on the opposite side of the road. We were informed that some of the hotspots on the ground were caused by helicopters used to help put out the reactor fire, landing there.
We arrived at the border control for Pripyat where we met local wild dogs. It is recommended not to touch the dogs due to radiation but we did see people petting and feeding them. We were advised to drink some water on the coach before heading out on our tour of Pripyat.
We started our tour at the central square, and it was unrecognisable from the promo video we had been shown on the journey in. The video’s message was “Come to Pripyat, a new city with the best of everything the USSR has to offer. New, modern buildings, leisure facilities and most of all secure employment opportunities”
The entire area is very lush and green. Whether you believe in man-made climate change or not, there is no doubt mankind is destroying the planet, with Chernobyl a prime example of that. Having said that, Chernobyl is also a prime example of how nature can and does fight back when human interference is taken out of the equation. One reason for the area being so lush, green and overgrown, is perhaps the lack of pesticides and herbicides applied by humans for the past 30+ years. We were shown pictures by our guide to see what the area looked like originally.
Next was probably the most famous part of Pripyat we had seen in pictures; the fairground. As with many places we’ve visited previously, we had done our research and we were met with familiar scenes; The rusting bumper cars, some swings, and the iconic Ferris wheel. There is always a sense of personal achievement when we finally get to visit somewhere of interest that has long been on the bucket list of places we want to visit together. Sadly this fairground was never actually opened to the residents of Pripyat; it was due to be opened on 1st May 1986 but the town was evacuated before it was commissioned.
We are no nuclear physicists, so can’t explain the radioactivity we found there. e.g. Someone had helpfully made an x-marks-the-spot on the underside of one of the Ferris wheel carriages. Put your Geiger counter exactly on the x, and you’ll get readings of 300-400. Readings in excess of 500 have been recorded there. Move your sensor a mere 6 inches and you’ll get readings of 2 or 3. Radioactivity hotspots are mysteriously (to us) specific! We also found high readings near discarded items found on the ground here, some kind of corrugated material, and I’m not sure if they were plastic or metal. We were good and obeyed the instructions not to touch.
Since April 1st 2019 (not a joke) entry to the dilapidated old buildings in Pripyat has been forbidden, but we were told that if we behaved ourselves, “acted as one unit” (meaning don’t wander off on your own, and imagine this being spoken with a Borat style accent) and if the Police or Security weren’t around, these things “may be possible.”
Next stop was the Avanhard sports stadium. It really was not recognisable as a sports stadium except for the stands for observers. We were surprised to find out we were actually stood on the running track and that the area of forest we walked through was actually the football pitch and the ground was home to the team FC Stroitel Pripyat. We were allowed to climb the stands to get a better idea of how it may have looked and were informed 3 of the 4 floodlights had now collapsed over the years with one remaining.
A short walk through a wooded area brought us to Middle School number 3, one of 5 secondary schools in Pripyat. The school is located on Sportivnaya Street and houses the most photographed collection of gas masks. When it was in use it is clear the school was a modern establishment with extensive music and sports facilities. After a quick ‘security check’ by our guide, we were allowed to enter the main school building. This was particularly eerie with original books and wall posters still in place; despite the condition of the building, it was quite easy to imagine the hundreds of children attending the school. Caution really is needed here due to the hazards and poor condition of the building and we had to be very attentive to our footing due to trip hazards.
We next headed to the sports facilities next door which included a basketball court and a swimming pool. We had also seen copious pictures of the abandoned swimming pool and diving boards so again it was good to see these for ourself. The building again was pretty dilapidated and the stairs covering was really worn away. We couldn’t help again thinking how we wouldn’t be allowed within metres of this building and forbidden to enter in the UK; never the less it was interesting to see.
Leaving the school and sports facilities we headed back to the bus and on to our next stop. When asked what we wanted to see by our guide the Chernobyl Claw or ‘scoop’, was one that was requested. It had been in the news at the beginning of the month due to concerns about how contaminated with radiation the claw was. It was thought to have been used to clear up the granite from the explosion and left abandoned in a forest. When we arrived it did have radioactive signs next to it and it was made clear that we were to move away quickly after taking pictures; the reading was very high.
The last request by the group was to see an abandoned scrap yard or vehicle dump. There were several vehicles in the location just dumped in a forest. The readings were surprisingly low here. There is another military vehicle scrapyard also in the area but this one was on a smaller scale and safer for tourists to visit.
It was now time to start our journey out of the Pripyat area and head to the next location; Chernobyl 2. On the way however we were ‘treated’ to a drive through the Red Forest, the name coming from the colour of the dead pine trees following their exposure to radiation. Whilst driving through one particular stretch our Geiger counters reached high levels of 6 and beeped for a period of 20-30 seconds before we exited. This was with the protection of the vehicle we were in and it is certainly somewhere you would not want to break down!
Chernobyl – 2
This area was unknown to us and we had never heard of this and for good reason; during the soviet era this area was unmapped and housed a military community in the woods of Polesia. Civilians were not allowed within miles of the base and until the Chernobyl explosion, its existence was unknown. It was only after the area was evacuated that its existence was realised. The area also housed ‘Duga’; a huge soviet over-the-horizon radar system. The system allowed monitoring of ballistic missile launches around the world and given the size of it clearly needed a large amount of personnel to maintain it.
The receiver was massive and it was nearly impossible to get a picture which could get the entire structure in it. It is difficult to gauge the actual size but it is thought to be about 150 metres high and 500 metres in length. There were two lifts for workers to use; we managed to take a picture of the grafitti at the bottom of one of the lifts. After leaving this area we headed for some of the old military houses; they were cold, dark and damp so we didn’t enter the buildings but did enter the old fire station which had a scaled model of the area. It is thought that 1000 people including military personnel and their families lived in Chernobyl 2 prior to being evacuated.
Leaving the exclusion zones
When we reached the exit of the 10km exclusion zone we were required to exit the vehicles and go one by one into a radiation checkpoint. This involved standing in a machine which would check whether decontamination was needed. We both passed with a green light as did the rest of our tour party. We repeated the process at the 30km exclusion zone exit as well and were able to take pictures again we were relieved again to pass with a green light with no decontamination required and handed in our dosimeters and headed back to Kyiv.
Thoughts on the day
It was a long day, approximately 12 hours with travelling and we couldn’t say it was an enjoyable experience but most certainly was interesting. Pripyat itself was the place we spent the most time and in some respects this abandoned city is unremarkable, I mean, if your hometown was abandoned at such short notice so long ago, with very little human interaction in the intervening years, would it really look so different? Trees and other vegetation would have fought back similarly, the buildings would be just as dilapidated with no maintenance having been carried out, and probably today’s technology would perhaps also be considered antiques far into the future. Instead of radioactive wolves roaming the Red Forest, we’d maybe have foxes ruling the area. Subtle differences but really not that different to the picture Pripyat shows us today.
We learnt a lot about the events here and the impact it had on the local community, the environment and also how the impact of the disaster is still going to be affecting the areas for thousands of years to come. We saw apricots and apples growing in the 10km exclusion zone and although we had no desire to eat them and were advised not to this showed the environment is indeed resilient and is fighting back.
In respect of safety we are not scientists and therefore do not fully understand radiation or different types but we were assured from the beginning that we would be perfectly safe if we followed the rules which we did; our internet research also indicates this and I am sure with the 1000’s of visitors to the site each year if it wasn’t safe this would be apparent by now. We were somewhat reassured by the safety measures in place and the knowledge of our guide who was clearly very experienced. It appeared we were more at risk from entering the crumbling buildings and potential dangers there and I can see why in the future the buildings will not be accessible.
We were glad we went and given the popularity of the HBO show, we can only see tourism to the area booming in the future. What was apparent however was that Pripyat does not actually remain untouched, there have been looters in every single building, there is grafitti everywhere (although mostly tasteful) and there have been recent reports of antisocial and disrespectful behaviour including inappropriate selfies in hazmat suits and illegal raves. We only hope that future visitors are respectful, acknowledge the loss of life both immediate and long term, the environmental impact and continue to preserve this piece of history.