Visiting Chernobyl — Touring Inside a Nuclear Disaster Zone
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On 26 April, 1986 at 1:23am local time, a catastrophic nuclear accident occurred in the No. 4 nuclear reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the now-abandoned town of Pripyat, in what was at the time known as northern Soviet Ukraine.
Dozens of people in the area died, though the exact number is disputed. Thousands were affected, many with lifelong health problems. An exclusion zone was established while the damage was cleaned up, and it’s now the subject of a major new mini series showing on Sky TV. More than 30 years later, I had the chance to visit the area.
The area is located around two hours north of Kiev/Kyiv, the capital and most-populated city of Ukraine. Getting to Kiev was an easy three-hour flight from London — British Airways, Ukraine International Airlines, Ryanair and Wizz all fly nonstop between the UK and Kiev’s two airports.
There are various companies that offer tours to the Chernobyl area. Most are one-day group trips, though you can also choose private tours and multi-day excursions.
Our group met at a central train station in Kiev at 8am for the bus ride to Chernobyl. Uber is available in Kiev, which made the early start more bearable. You absolutely must bring your passport with you — this is checked several times and is non-negotiable. Also remember to wear long trousers, a long sleeve shirt, socks and fully enclosed shoes, regardless of the weather.
The tour guides were surprisingly relaxed given what we were about to do, making all sorts of good-natured radiation jokes (if there is such a thing). This may have been to put the collective group’s mind at ease. On the bus ride, a short Discovery Channel video documentary was shown with background on the incident from more than 30 years ago. The guides also explained how radiation levels would be measured and that the total radiation we would be exposed to would likely be less than the radiation a passenger would be exposed to on one-hour flight.
We were given our own devices to measure the radiation around us at all times.
We reached the edge of the exclusion zone called the ‘Dytiaky’ checkpoint, where passports and tickets were carefully checked. This area is around 30 kms/19 miles from the power plant where the accident happened. There were unique souvenirs and outfits available to buy.
There are a lot of rules that must be followed. Some of them were pretty obvious like don’t remove anything from the exclusion zone and don’t enter under the influence of drugs or alcohol. There were also other rules which made us more fully realise the seriousness of the environment we were entering. You could not: sit down outside; consume food or drink in the open air (on the bus was fine); expose arms or legs to the outside air; or touch anything outside.
Since 2011, it’s been forbidden by law to enter abandoned buildings, though our guides turned a blind eye at some points to this. This rule was understandable when we saw how dilapidated they were — floors were literally caving in, so it was clearly not safe for groups to be trudging through.
Our first stop once we entered the zone was the now-abandoned town of Zalissya.
We then headed to the village of Leliv with its eerie, abandoned kindergarten facility. We started testing our radiation-reading device. The amount shown below — 0.17 — is around the same as a chest X-ray.
From there, we headed to one of the most recognisable sights from the area — Radar Duga-1. This was once one of the most powerful military facilities in the Soviet Union’s communist empire and was designed to stop long-range missile threats.
The structures are enormous.
It was then on to another abandoned town, Kopachi. The abundance of children’s toys and decrepit dormitories were eerie.
Our guides pointed out various ‘hot spots’ of radiation along the way, and underneath a tree at Kopachi was one of them. At times, the radiation reading shot up to ten times what it was in most other areas.
From there, we drove past the power plant itself. I was surprised to learn that the nuclear power plant was now fully operational again with 3,000 staff working there. It was closed for decades while the radiation was treated and the wider area cleaned up, but sufficient time has passed that it’s deemed safe enough to operate.
The actual No. 4 reactor where the explosion occurred is completely covered to stop more radiation from leaking into the air.
Lunch was provided as part of the tour at a factory canteen. While I appreciated the authenticity of experiencing a typical Ukrainian factory worker meal, it was… not great.
I had some fantastic meals while in Kiev but this was definitely not one of them. If I was to do the tour again I would probably bring my own food.
The other downside of the tour was the bathrooms. Bring your own toilet paper, hand sanitiser and a very strong stomach. Or, ideally try and avoid using them. The port-a-loos just before the entrance to the exclusion zone (at Dytiaky) were especially unpleasant.
After lunch, we got to experience what was probably the highlight of the tour — the town of Prypiat. In its heyday, it was considered one of the most beautiful towns in the Soviet Union. The town wanted to attract the best minds to operate the power plant, so it built the best facilities for them and their families to live. Our guides had photographs of various areas before the accident and it did indeed look beautiful.
While the area is now overgrown and abandoned, you could still recognise the old features of the town such as a supermarket and movie theatre.
We finished this area with another of the most famous images of Chernobyl — the abandoned amusement park.
Out tour ended with a quick stop in the actual town of Chernobyl/Chornobyl where people still live, located more than 10kms from the power plant. The town featured tributes to those who had sacrificed their own health and safety in order to contain the disaster and limit the loss of life.
We arrived back in Kiev around 8pm. Overall, it was a long day but an amazing experience that I would highly recommend. I felt safe the entire time — the guides were knowledgable and on the ball. Everyone in the group acted appropriately and respectfully, though I avoided taking smiling selfies inside the exclusion zone like I saw some of our group do.
As we returned our radiation-reading devices, the total exposure for the day was measured — ours was 0.002 mSv, the same as a one-hour flight.
All images courtesy of the author.
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