When you first think of Chernobyl, we can’t say we blame you if it’s not high on your list of holiday destinations, but there is just something interesting and enticing about a city and powerplant that have stood abandoned for all these years. Alright so it’s slightly radioactive but we’ll get to that. Believe it or not, you can in fact now visit this fascinating place with a guided tour and telling your friends that you have visited is definitely a great conversation starter.
Address: The abandoned city of Pripyat, Ukraine.
Price: From $149
Opening hours: By tour only
A Brief History
It was April 26th 1986, a test was carried out on reactor number 4 to see how much power they would need to keep it running during a blackout. As you may know, the test was some way from a success and during this test, reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Power Plant exploded. causing vast and incredibly dangerous amounts of radioactive chemicals to leak into the air. Chernobyl had become known as the worst nuclear disaster that the world has ever known with millions of square miles in various European countries being affected by the explosion. It is believed that thousands of deaths can directly be attributed to the explosion at Chernobyl, whilst far more people than this suffered terrible illnesses due to the exposure to radiation. Indeed, Chernobyl is one of only two nuclear power plant disasters in history to be classified as a level seven. The other being the much more recent Fukushima disaster in Japan in March 2011.
The closest town to Chernobyl at the time was Pripyat. Pripyat was a relatively small city of around 49,000, mainly housing those who worked at the power plant and their families. The city is located very close (only about 3 km) from the plant and the entire population was forced to evacuate after the explosion. Today, Pripyat still stands today, trapped in time as a kind of bizarre freeze frame of the 1980’s Soviet Union. It really is quite fascinating. There are still various bits of communist propaganda hanging on walls and personal belongings a childrens toys lie abandoned on the streets and in the buildings from the time residents were forced to quickly evacuate. The hammer and sickle logo still decorated lamp posts around the city, leading up to the May Day celebrations that obviously never happened. Another slightly creepy fact is that all the clocks throughout Pripyat are frozen at exactly 11:55 which is the moment that electricity was cut off to the city.
Ironically, the wildlife population surround Chernobyl and Pripyat has actually flourished since the humans moved out all those years ago, and today, the wildlife population is said to more closely resemble a national park than a radioactive disaster site. Although animals don’t seem to have suffered many problems from the radiation levels, there have certainly been some weird and wonderful plants growing at the site, with even some example of plants glowing from the radiation.
So can I just walk in?
No sadly not, and probably for good reason! The Chernobyl Power Plant has several wide exclusion zones surrounding the site, and to get in you are required to get a day pass from the government. These can be obtained by going through one of the well known tour companies now operating out of the Ukrainian capital Kiev, around 110 km away. With at least five well known companies, now operating tours to Chernobyl, it is relatively easy to go and visit, although these days many of the buildings are beginning to crumble away and as such many tour companies will no longer allow you inside for safety reasons.
If you’re thinking “Wait a minute, crumbling buildings are the least of my worries, what about the radiation?”, we can’t say we blame you. However, surprisingly the tours that operate to Pripyat are relatively safe in terms of radiation. It actually takes as much as 300 to 500 roentgens of radiation per hour to deliver a fatal dose to a human, whereas during the tour you will typically only receive between 15 and several hundred micro-roentgens per hour so it’s quite a long way off. Panic over!
What do I get to see whilst I’m there?
Chernobyl Reactor No 4
Surely the most infamous part of any Chernobyl visit is bound to be the reactor where the actual accident happened all those years ago. You’re not allowed too close for obvious reasons but you can still go to an observation point that is 200 meters away. While radiation levels are a little higher here than elsewhere on the tour, they will not reach harmful levels. There is also a very interesting visitor centre with a model of the reactor showing you future plans for the sarcophagus that will cover the damaged reactor.
Chernobyl Power Plant
The power plants is a very interesting insight into Soviet nuclear history and is home to four decommissioned reactors. Standard tours do not normally grant you entry into the power plant and normally will not go further than the 200m observation point. If you do wish to enter the power plant you need to gain permission from the plant’s general director by letter, outlining the reasons you wish to visit and what you would like to see.
If you do manage to get in then security is taken very seriously as you would expect in a fuelled nuclear power plant. You will be given coats, caps and booties and will have to pass through a modern security checkpoint before you are allowed entry. You will need to follow instructions at all times and do not place or rest anything on the floor due to contamination as it could actually be confiscated. Visitation access to different parts of the site can vary due to radiation levels and you many find that in some years different parts of the site are accessible than in others.
Chernobyl has a cafeteria and bar that serves up freshly prepared food that is safe and brought in from outside the zone.
Vehicle scrap yard
This site is home to all of the emergency vehicles that responded to the disaster including, fire trucks, ambulances, helicopters and other trucks. Sadly the whole graveyard has now had to be buried underground due to potentially lethal doses of radiation. Tours of the scrap yard stopped in 2008 and since then visitors have been shown abandoned ships on a lake near the city instead.
Considered to be one of the most famous parts of a Chernobyl visit is Pripyat. A city that once was home to almost 50,000 residents, many of whom worked at the power plant. The city has been abandoned since the aftermath of the explosion and is a rare freeze frame into the 1980’s Soviet Union. There are plenty of things to see in Pripyat including public buildings, schools and a kindergarten along with the well known cultural palace. The cultural palace contains the swimming pool, gymnasium and cinema, famously overlooks the ferris wheel. Sadly, the amusement park including the ferris wheel was never actually used as it was due to open just six days after the disaster. The majority of tours will not let you enter the buildings these days for safety reasons because of their structural instability. Be very careful when walking around due to the large amount of hazards left lying around such open manholes and broken glass to name but a few. It had been left abandoned for many years after all!
Standard daytrips to Pripyat from Kiev typically only allow you to walk around on the pavement at ground level. If you are looking for a little more freedom to explore Pripyat, it is recommended that you go on a more in depth tour that can take place over several days.
There are plenty of deserted villages to see within the exclusion zone. You can see all kinds of buildings including small cottages and farm houses. Be careful though as vegetation carries far more radioactivity than is normally found in concreted parts.
Things to buy, eat, drink and places to sleep
There is only one shop in Chernobyl and believe it or not it actually stocks a wide range of alcohol including beers and spirits. If you do get to visit then it is always recommended that you stock up on bottled water as you never know when you may need it. Tap water in the area is absolutely not safe for drinking and not even safe for washing so make sure you always have plenty of the bottled variety.
Within the town of Chernobyl, there is a canteen that is mainly used by workers who work in the exclusion zone and it also caters for tourists providing that demand is high enough. If the canteen does happen to be closed, your guides will normally take you to the shop to purchase food from there. If you decide to bring any of your own meals, drinks or snacks then it is advised to keep them well sealed and to not open or consume them within the 10km exclusion zone. It goes without question that you should always wash your hands thoroughly before touching any food.
If you are staying overnight in Chernobyl (yes you can do this!) then there is actually only one legal option for this. The ChernobylInterinform Agency Hotel is operated by the government and requires pre booking through your tour operator. The hotel is surprising well equipped for the price charged and many of the rooms are actually suites although there is no air conditioning or wifi. Guests are not allowed to leave the hotel without a guide and the police will pick you up if they catch you on your own. Food here is fairly good and excellent value with very large portions of traditional Ukrainian dishes.
Just how safe is it?
Building are now quite dangerous due to their state of disrepair to take care if you are allowed to enter any. It’s typical to see plenty of broken glass and debris, plus flooring is rotting away in many of the buildings. An accident actually occurred in April 2012 where some flooring collapsed and injured several tourists.
The levels of radiation are actually not as bad as you may think with some experts saying that you may well be exposed to more radiation in an aircraft flying at 30,000 ft. The best answer is to use your common sense and stick to the roads as the contamination risk from more vegetation heavy areas is far higher. Follow all instructions your guide gives carefully and if you see a radiation sign somewhere then obviously do not enter. Simple!