To this day, the disaster at Chernobyl on the 26 April 1986 is one of the worst nuclear disasters the world has ever seen. A combination of factors during a late night stress test of the reactor resulted in an intense explosion. An open-air graphite fire burned for 9 days spreading radioactive material across 13 European countries (162,000 square kilometres).
Two people died as a direct result of the explosion within the facility. Over the following months around 30 firefighters, first responders and employees would die from acute radiation poisoning. However, the long-term effects of cancers and shortened lifespans are still being investigated.
There are exclusion zones surrounding the power plant. These extend for a radius of 10km and 30km. Around 300 residents live inside the 30km exclusion zone. Employees of the exclusion zone (office workers, firefighters, security, tourism etc.) are only permitted to work around 50% of the time. The remainder of the time they must live outside the exclusion zone.
What does Chernobyl look like today?
Where is Chernobyl?
When planning your visit you will go to two completely different cities:
Chernobyl is a city located about 12 km from a nuclear power plant with a population of about 14 thousand people before the accident.
Pripyat is located about 2 km (straight) from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and in it at the time of the accident in the city lived almost 49 thousand people of 134 nationalities of the USSR. The average age of residents was 26 at the time of the disaster.
Both cities were located on the territory of the Chernobyl district of the Kiev region, and it was by the name of the district that the station got its name. Now the district is completely abandoned and will remain that way for many lifetimes to come.
Is it safe?
To determine if it is safe we need to understand what happened. The explosion at Chernobyl was not like a nuclear blast in which nuclear energy is converted into the explosion and immediately released. It was a much slower, and longterm release of radiation. As the fire burned, radioactive particles were released into the air, they then stuck to dust particles and were blown throughout Europe.
“Compared with other nuclear events: The Chernobyl explosion put 400 times more radioactive material into the Earth’s atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima; atomic weapons tests conducted in the 1950s and 1960s all together are estimated to have put some 100 to 1,000 times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the Chernobyl accident.”
After the disaster, they removed (and replaced) the top 150mm of top-soil from access routes and up to 10 metres (30 feet) away from the road. The topsoil was then buried in a giant pit away from town. This area is perfectly safe to walk on and contains little radiation. However, outside this “clean zone” or next to trees (areas where they couldn’t remove the soil) the radiation remains.
You can see the edge of this zone by the small radioactive signs seen off either side of the road. Because of this, tightly controlled exclusion zone surrounds Chernobyl and Pripyat. It is only permitted to enter this area with an experienced (licenced) guide.
Pictures Of Chernobyl Today
Chernobyl tour cost
I recommend booking a tour (a long time) in advance. Some of my recommendations for the tours that we took are linked below. All of the tours begin in Kiev and cost between $100-$500 USD per person. The cost depends on how many people you have in your tour group and how long you want to stay in the exclusion zone.
We had a private tour for one day departing from Kiev with a private driver and a tour guide. Prices vary between companies and is dependant on what is included in your package. You can expect to pay around £80-90 p/p including lunch. Putting this into perspective, in Kiev, a beer in a bar costs around £1.50 and a night’s accommodation for 4 people was around £20. So the tour was relatively expensive, but a truly memorable experience.
- It is advised that you wear long sleeves and “keep your hands to yourselves”, as our guide mentioned. Especially when in a 10-kilometre zone.
- When travelling during the wet season make sure you have a good waterproof jacket. Umbrellas are not a good idea!
- Within the Exclusion Zone, expect rubble, stones, branches, rusty metal, barbed wire, etc.
- In summer all of these wonderful things are hidden in the grass. Make sure you have some sturdy hiking boots like this.
- In winter, they are frozen in the snow (and ice). I recommend some warm winter boots like this.
- Inside the buildings, there is a lot of broken glass, tiles, bricks, etc.
- In the wet season, it rains a lot and the ground will be very muddy and slippery.
Basically, wear only sturdy closed shoes with a very grippy sole. Even on a short day trip you will need to be walking for a minimum of 5 hours, so make sure those shoes are comfortable (and not brand new boots).
It makes sense to take replacement shoes. It can come in handy if you suddenly irreparably smudge the main one and do not pass the checkout on the road.
What can’t be taken with you:
- Alcohol in ANY KIND. Before travelling, during the trip and before leaving the Zone, you must be sober. I’m not too sure how strictly this ie enforced, but this isn’t the kind of place you want to mess around in.
What to remember when booking a tour
- Not all tours are created equal. You’ll have a much better experience if you book a private tour. Large tour groups will leave you with very little time to take photos etc.
- Make sure there is a transfer from Kiev included. Chernobyl is around 1.5 hours drive from Kiev. Therefore, not something you really want to organise.
- If you really want to ensure you can get great photos then I recommend booking the multi-day tours. I really regret not taking this opportunity in hindsight. It’s always 20/20 right?
- Before booking you need to provide proof of travel insurance. Make sure every member you are travelling with has this prior to departure.
What did Chernobyl and Pripyat Look Like before?
Where to Stay in Kiev
You will need to spend (at least) the night before your tour in Kiev. I am certainly no expert in this region and recommend you do your own research on Booking.com (check prices) or Airbnb.com (Get $50 credit). However, I can share with you what I learned on my trip. The accommodation overall is extremely cheap. Ukraine is one of the cheapest places in the world to live. But, do your research, the quality varies greatly!
For the budget traveller, Dream House Hostel is a clean low-cost hostel with very helpful staff. It had a great bar, the food in the restaurant was very nice and they even had lockers to store your camera gear! From here it is walking distance to a lot of the main sights that Kiev has to offer. Take a look at the map below, if you don’t want to stay in the hostel, check the areas around it. This is the area that you want to be based!
Chernobyl Disaster Documentary