Early on the morning of April 25th, 1986, the world experienced the worst nuclear disaster ever seen, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The fourth reactor at Chernobyl reacted badly during a test and, what should have been a routine shutdown to prevent damage, resulted in absolute disaster. The resulting (and unexpected) power surge, caused an explosion of steam that caused unprecedented damage to the reactor housing, exposing the core to the atmosphere – all with devastating consequences.
As the Chernobyl power station was behind iron curtain of the Soviet Union, recognition of the disaster within the socialist state was slow to eventuate and international news of the disaster was shrouded in secrecy and slower still to come to light.
Today though, tourists frequently make the 2-hour trip from Kiev to Chernobyl (in Ukraine), to explore the abandoned town of Pripyat and the area surrounding Chernobyl.
Eerie, intriguing, disconcerting and mysterious; we’ve never been anywhere quite like the Exclusion Zone.
Can You Visit Chernobyl? Getting Inside the Exclusion Zone
Though for years, tourism into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone would have been unfathomable, it is now possible to visit the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
With a number of areas within the Exclusion Zone permanently off-limits to humans, for your own safety, it is absolutely essential that any visit to Chernobyl and the surrounding city of Pripyat is carried out under the strictest of terms.
This is not do-it-yourself tourism, nor should it be.
What Can You Expect to See on a Tour of the Chernobyl and Pripyat Exclusion Zone?
Should you decide to visit Chernobyl (and we recommend you do), you’ll leave Kiev first thing in the morning with your tour group. Approximately two hours later you’ll find yourself passing through the first checkpoint (the 30km Exclusion Zone), followed by the second (the 10km Zone).
Over the course of the day, you’ll explore the small towns that once surrounded the area (all of which are now abandoned, left as they were back in 1986) and a massive Soviet radar station. Doing so is genuinely like taking a step back in time – made all the more interesting considering it is a place, that even at the time, would have been largely hidden from the rest of the world.
A kindergarten, school, rec centre, homes and more – each and every one was left, residents expecting to return in the days following. Many, of course, would never make it back to their homes.
As expected, you’ll also pay a visit to the exterior of the nuclear station, where you’ll see the New Safe Confinement (NSC) housing, covering up the old concrete sarcophagus; these two coverings have both played essential roles in helping to keep this area safe following the 1986 disaster.
Radiation levels near the power plant itself are surprisingly low (thanks largely to the lack of inorganic matter and success of the coverings) but to stand so close to the site of such a tremendous tragedy is absolutely surreal.
The size of the NSC is hard to appreciate in photographs, but if you take a look at the size of the external staircase, winding its way up the outside of the housing, you’ll begin to understand just how monstrous this lifesaving structure is.
Next, you’ll make your way around Pripyat on foot. Home to the power plant workers and their families, this city was considered a model of perfection throughout the Soviet Union. Organised and supported with fantastic infrastructure (including a fun fair, swimming pools, movie theatres and more), dignitaries and international visitors were toured through its streets – a real sight considering the intense secrecy that surrounded this part of the world in the ’80s.
Now infamous, the fun fair was due to be opened on the 1st of May 1986. Owing to the initial confusion and disbelief that a core explosion was even possible (the technicians and politicians believed it was simply a roof-fire), the decision was made to push ahead and open the fair ground early.
It is unfathomable to think that, instead of evacuating Pripyat, young children and families were encouraged to stay and enjoy carnival rides – all as toxic, nuclear ash rained down on them.
Finally, you’ll make your way out of the Exclusion Zone, via the ‘welcome’ sign and the Red Forest – more on the significance of this soon.
Is it Safe to Visit Chernobyl Now?
For short durations, a guided visit to the Exclusion Zone is considered safe.
Within the Exclusion Zone, there are still a number of areas where unsafe levels of radiation exist, but these are known to the government and tour companies give them a wide berth.
It is worth noting that the impact of radiation exposure depends on three key variables:
- The strength of the radiation source itself
- The duration of your exposure
- The distance from which you are from the source.
As you will be aware, high levels of exposure can result in radiation sickness, mutation, cancer and death (all of which were observed in the period following the Chernobyl disaster), however there is no risk of this to visitors.
On the main parts of the tour, the total radiation you experience should not be any more than that received on a trans-Atlantic flight.
Yes, areas within the Exclusion Zone are considered extremely unsafe but on a guided tour, you’ll only visit spots that have a manageable level of radiation (plus, you’ll only be visiting them for a short period of time).
To put radiation levels into context, guides return back day after day, for years on end, and workers actually live within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone now (on a shift-basis).
You’d be hard-pressed to find many that would argue that there’s no risk from exposure like this, but the levels that tourists are exposed to, by comparison, are very slight.
You’ll also be given specific instructions to guarantee your safety and limit radiation exposure:
- Don’t touch anything within the Exclusion Zone.
- Don’t walk off of the concrete pathways (especially onto moss, grass and vegetation) – organic matter holds radiation for longer.
- Don’t eat whilst within the Exclusion Zone (including your own food).
- Limit time spend inside buildings – again, radiation levels are higher there.
- Wear long pants and long sleeves (limiting skin exposure) and covered shoes (with good grip).
- Follow the instructions of your guides.
What Levels of Radiation Can You Expect at Chernobyl?
Armed with a geiger counter, we were able to effectively monitor radiation levels throughout our tour.
Whilst exploring Chrenobyl and Pripyat our geiger counters fluctuated quite significantly but not to a level at which we felt uncomfortable – with one exception…
When we passed through the Red Forest in the van, where we experienced levels over 10.0 µSv/h (micro-Sievert/hour), at which point, I must admit, we were very pleased simply to be driving through!
With that said, when venturing right into the Red Forest (which is not actually allowed), you’ll see numbers absolutely skyrocket.
Take it from us and steer well clear – this is one of the most contaminated areas in the entire world.
Can You Visit Chernobyl Without a Guide?
No, you cannot visit Chernobyl without a guide.
A number of guided tours leave Kiev each day so joining a group is a straightforward process, but without a guide (and the proper documentation), you won’t be allowed inside the Exclusion Zone.
This rule is hard and fast, so, if you’re interested in seeing Chernobyl, be sure to organise your tour ahead of time.
How Much Does it Cost to Visit Chernobyl?
Tour prices vary significantly based on the company you choose, how long you wish to spend within the Exclusion Zone and the tour inclusions.
We toured Chernobyl with ChernobylTime and have no hesitation recommending them.
Our tour cost €89 (USD99/NZD145) and included the following:
- Transportation with AC and TV (used to play a documentary)
- Preparation of permits required to visit the Exclusion Zone
- Permits to visit the 30-km zone
- Permits to visit the 10-km zone
- Permits to visit the town of Pripyat
- Permits to visit the radar station “Duga-1”
- A professional English-speaking guide
- Photo and video permits
What Do I Need to Do Before Visiting Chernobyl?
Once you’ve paid your deposit, you’ll be asked to supply a copy of your passport.
Using your information, the tour company will request an Exclusion Zone permit on your behalf, allowing you to enter Chernobyl at the time of your tour.
On the day of your Chernobyl tour, you’ll also need to take a change of clothes and shoes with you. Upon leaving the Exclusion Zone, you’ll be scanned for radiation, and though it’s incredibly unlikely, should high levels of contamination be found on you, you’ll be expected to leave the clothes/shoes that you’ve been wearing behind.
Our visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was amongst the most interesting and memorable experiences we’ve ever had.
Though it was a long (and fairly emotional) day, it’s an experience that I’m grateful for and would whole-heartedly recommend.
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