Visiting Chernobyl and the rigorously maintained exclusion area around it is to step into a Soviet time capsule, where time stopped on 26th April 1986 and mankind stared unwillingly into the nuclear abyss. Our Chernobyl travel guide explores one of the defining events of the 20th century, as well as the practicalities and safety of visiting an area still tainted by radioactive material.
Why would anyone want to visit Chernobyl? Is it not a form of unsavoury ‘disaster tourism’? And is it even safe to go there, even today? Read on to find out why Chernobyl can make for a fascinating and moving excursion on any Ukraine holiday.
The making of a ghost town
On the 26th of April, 1986, a scheduled test at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant went terribly wrong, resulting in an explosion and fire in Reactor 4. Clouds of radioactive material were ejected over the surrounding area and, in the ensuing days, over swathes of Europe. Two workers at the plant died instantly, nearly 30 firefighters perished from radiation poisoning during early efforts to control the blaze, and research indicates that many people living in the area suffered from high rates of thyroid cancer in the following years.
In the days after the accident a 30km exclusion zone was created; some 130,000 people were eventually evacuated permanently, leaving behind them towns and villages that remain deserted to this day. The best known is Pripyat, a town close to the power plant and built for its workers and their families. Once home to around 50,000 people, it has now been reclaimed by nature. Over time, some 1,000 people, known as ‘self-settlers’, were allowed to return, but forced to live off-grid. Many villages now have just a handful of people living in them.
One legacy of the tragedy was that it led directly to Glasnost, a new era of openness in the Soviet Union. The Chernobyl Museum in Kyiv is a useful companion visit to a tour here, with exhibits that illustrate the scope of the world’s worst nuclear accident, and seek to ensure lessons from it are never forgotten.
Is it safe to visit Chernobyl?
In 2011, it was deemed safe for people to visit Chernobyl and the surrounding area again, and a place that was once almost entirely off-limits to the outside world has now become a grim tourist attraction. Organised and guided tours with a minimum age of 18 require permissions to enter the exclusion zone, and itineraries are subject to change. You, or your guide, may carry a Geiger counter, but the risk is actually very low – you would be exposed to more radiation on a plane flight. Day trips are common from Kyiv, 130km to the south, but you can also actually spend several days at Chernobyl, staying in a nearby hotel, and eating a meal at the workers’ canteen – all food is of course brought in from outside.
It’s now possible to explore Pripyat, its buildings and vehicles; the ‘Red Forest’ (so-named because of the colour of the trees killed by radiation); the Chernobyl docks, and even up to Reactor 4, now covered by the world’s largest movable land structure as workers continue to make the reactor safe.
The most striking part of the experience when touring Chernobyl and Pripyat is the eerie stillness. It’s a place that seems frozen in time, the residents evacuated from their apartments with only minutes to gather a few belongings: half-eaten plates of food can be seen on tables, shoes left by the bed, toys scattered on the floor. A once thriving community was completely hollowed out by the Chernobyl disaster, as you will understand when you take in haunting sights such as the fairground, the hospital, the fire station, football stadium, schools and kindergarten, the church and the swimming pool.
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Life finds a wayYou may also visit the top-secret Soviet Duga Radar Facility, part of an early missile detection system, also abandoned, as well as vehicles and robots that were used in the immense clean-up operation. At any time you might encounter some of the local wildlife; contrary to expectations the biodiversity here flourished following the incident. Przewalski’s horse, once close to extinction, is found here in large numbers, and the woods are full of moose, deer, brown bear, wolves, beavers and owls.
But most affecting of all, if you have the opportunity to do so, will be meeting some of the last surviving residents that chose to return to the area. Tourism here provides them with much-needed companionship and food supplies, and your guide will be able to relate their stories.
Visiting Chernobyl and Pripyat shouldn’t be seen as disaster tourism. It is instead a stark reminder of the need for safety in the nuclear industry, and also a way to support the people that stayed behind after the world’s attention had moved elsewhere.
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