What is “Chernobyl”?
Let’s start with a brief history of Chernobyl. The ‘Chernobyl incident’ is the worst nuclear incident in human history.
Chenorbyl is actually the name of a small Ukranian city situated about 200km North-west of Kiev which was founded at least 1000 years ago. In 1978, the Soviet Union began construction of a 4 reactor, nuclear power plant in the wilderness about 30km from Chenorbyl and the town, being the nearest at the time, lent the plant its name.
Shortly after construction of the plant, a small purpose-built town called Pripyat was constructed beside the reactor to accommodate the power plants workers and their families. Therefore whilst “Pripyat Nuclear Power Station” would perhaps have been more accurate, the ‘Chenorbyl’ name stuck.
Plans were constructed to build a further 8 reactors which would have made Chenorbyl the largest nuclear power station in the world by far. These plans were however, never realised.
The Chenorbyl Vladimir I. Lenin nuclear power plant shot to world wide infamy when in the early hours of April 26th 1986, one of the nuclear reactors exploded. The towns of both Pripyat and Chenorbyl were eventually evacuated on 27th April 1986 (37 hours after the explosion) and then abandoned owing to severe radiation.
Because of the severity of the explosion and the subsequent mismanagement of the crisis by the authorities, the incident has gone down in history as the worst nuclear accident ever. Whilst the official death toll is 29, it is estimated that more than 30,000 lives have now been lost either directly or indirectly owing to the incident. To this day, the surrounding municipalities continue to report higher than average incidences of cancer and genetic defects amongst their populations.
According to both historians and some senior sources in the former Soviet Union, the Chernobyl incident was one of the leading causes of the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The economic cost of the clean-up had caused a massive financial crisis in the Union from which it never recovered. Moreover, the mismanagement had caused a major loss of face and trust in the regime in the eyes of both Soviet citizens and the international community.
Why Do people visit Chernobyl?
Chenorbyl opened to tourists in 2002, 16 years after the evacuation. As the setting of a major world event it has an obvious appeal and has proven to be very popular with both domestic and international visitors.
Many visitors to Chenorbyl are perhaps “dark tourists” attracted by what some would call a morbid curiosity. Others are interested in the history of the incident and the history of the Soviet Union in general. For me, the major appeal of Chenorbyl was the opportunity to experience a ghost town and get an idea of how a post-apocalyptic world might look.
A visit to Chernobyl also serves as a stark and sobering reminder of what can happen when humanity overstretched itself, and how wielding such powerful forces as nuclear energy can sometimes backfire on us catastrophically.
How To Visit Chernobyl
You can now visit Chernobyl as part of an official, guided tour operated from Kiev. There are 1 day, 2 day or multi day Chenorbyl tour packages available. The costs vary depending on how many days you wish to visit, group size and between agencies. The typical costs for a 1 day Chenorbyl tour is $100. We will discuss various tour options and pricing in more detail further in this post.
Tours generally take around 12 hours departing Kiev at 7.30 – 8.00 and returning at 18.30 – 19.30.
Do I Need a Guide To Visit Chenorbyl?
Officially speaking, yes you need a guide to visit Chernobyl. Entrance to the exclusion zone is strictly regulated and you can only enter with a registered guide as part of an official Chernobyl tour. There are several checkpoints around the exclusion zone and you will be asked to produce your passport and tour ticket a number of times during your visit.
This is mostly for health and safety reasons. The tour guide’s primary job is to ensure your health and safety by ensuring you stay in the Chernobyl “safe” areas and do not touch anything. They also make sure you don’t bring any contaminated material out of the exclusion zone with you which would risk endangering others.
Note that if you do pick up any contamination, you risk having your possessions confiscated and destroyed.Chernobyl guides are required to take radiation safety exams every month. They are also very knowledgeable about the incident and about life in the USSR. Without a guide, it would be difficult to appreciate the context of the site especially if you cannot read Russian.
The tour cost also contributes to the maintenance of the area.
Can I visit Chernobyl Alone?
Notwithstanding the above, it is still technically possible to visit Chernobyl alone. Unauthorised explorers known as “Stalkers” (from the Andrej Tarkovsky film of the same name) have been illegally entering the site for at least the last 20 years and continue to do so. Most of the artworks & graffiti in the site was created by Stalkers and they have also contributed to the exploration and documenting of the site.
Many former Stalkers now work as official tour guides owing to their considerable, first-hand experience of the area. Personally, I find that former Stalkers make the best guides although many guides may simply not wish to admit they ever entered illegally.
Entering Chernobyl illegally is not advisable as there are penalties & health risks. For a Ukrainian citizen caught entering Chernobyl illegally, the penalty is a fine 400UAH ($20). Whilst this is a considerable sum for many Ukrainians, it is not high enough to serve as a major deterrent. In fact, a popular joke amongst Stalkers is that handing themselves into the police in the exclusion zone is significantly cheaper than taking a taxi back to Kiev.
For foreigners caught entering Chernobyl illegally, the fine is substantially higher and they also face a possible lifetime ban from entering Ukraine.
If anybody (native or foreigner) is caught trying to take any material or artefact out of Chenorbyl, they face up to 5 years in jail.
Aside from the legal penalties, entering Chenorbyl alone also carries health and safety risks including radiation exposure, dangerous buildings and wild animals.
I have no personal experience of entering Chernobyl without an official guide. Furthermore, because of the very real legal and safety risks, I absolutely cannot recommend it.
Is Chernobyl Safe?
It is now quite safe for tourists to visit Chernobyl. Whilst there are some very real dangers, you are unlikely to encounter them on any organised tour as long as you adhere to the health and safety instructions and do exactly as your guide asks.
Dangers of Visiting Chernobyl
Let’s look at the main dangers of a visit to Chernobyl.
- Radiation at Chernobyl
Chenorbyl is still one of the most radioactive sites in the world today. Whilst this may sound scary it is all about context. The dose of radiation the average visitor to Chenorbyl collects in a one day trip is a “safe dose” of radiation. It’s similar to a short haul flight or an x-ray. The average, healthy-adult human body can deal with it without too much trouble.
Some areas are far more contaminated than others and do pose serious risks. However, these areas are mostly sealed off or are off-limits to tourists. Whilst some are not sealed or clearly identified, your guide will point them out to you and advise you to stay away from them. Even so, in a day trip it is still unlikely you could do yourself much harm.
The hospital for example, is closed to visitors. This is because the uniforms of the first responders were left in the hospital basement and still carry a dangerous radiation risk. My guide estimated that even in 2019, even 30 minutes in the hospital building could be fatal
In order to reduce your radiation risk you need to dress appropriately and follow some basic rules.
The rules are;
- Do not touch anything
- Do not enter buildings. If you do, not touch anything and do not disturb the sedentary dust.
- Do not eat outside of the cafeteria area.
- Only drink from a bottle and seal the lid.
- Avoid high density areas. Your guide will show you these or you can use a Geiger counter.
- Radiation Checkpoints
There are a number of radiation checkpoints around Chernobyl and you cannot leave the site without passing through them. If for some reason, your radiation level is over the acceptability threshold, you will be given a chance to clean the affected area and your possessions. If they cannot be sufficiently cleaned, then they will be seized and destroyed. It is not unprecedented for a visitor to have to leave Chenorbyl barefoot after their boots were confiscated. This is however, exceptionally rare and should not happen if you do as you are instructed by your guide.
- Dangerous Buildings
Note that it is no longer permitted to enter any of the buildings at Chernobyl. This is because they are now becoming unsafe after 30 years of neglect and exposure to the elements. The dangers include falling debris, collapsing floors and collapsing roofs. If it is not possible to preserve the buildings as the conservation works would release radiation into the atmosphere.
Whilst it is not permitted to enter buildings, they are not actually sealed off. Some visitors have reported that some guides may discreetly allow you to enter. If they do, please respect their instructions to the letter – if you disobey them, you risk costing them their job and ruining this extra-curricular bit of the tour for all future visitors. Don’t let your desire for the ultimate selfie ruin Chenorbyl for everybody.
As well as the structural issues, there is of course a radiation risk from left terms and dust. Once again, if you enter a building do not touch anything and do your absolute best not to disturb the dust too much.
- Wild Animals
Man-kinds loss is nature’s boon it seems. Since the evacuation, the wildlife has thrived* in the exclusion zone. There are now deer, rabbits and foxes in the area as well as packs of Wolves and Brown Bears. You are however, very unlikely to encounter any of these on a guided tour.
*Whilst wild-life numbers have multiplied since the evacuation, they have not been spared the effects of radiation and incidences of cancer are very high amongst the animal population. That said, animal life is still brutish and short (like life in Ukraine :)) and most of them die long before cancer has a chance to get them.
As if radiation, wolves and bears were not enough to worry about, the area is also plagued by ticks. You will reduce your risk of being bitten by adhering to the strict dress code and sticking to the established paths and trails. Spraying your garments with tea-tree oil or bug spray may also help.
Make sure to check yourself for them once you arrive home and if you have been bitten, carefully remove the little fucker by twisting and pulling counter clockwise with tweezers. Also seek medical advice.
- Weather at Chernobyl
Note that Ukraine can get very cold in the winter and you will be spending quite a bit of time outside. Do ensure you check the weather forecast and dress accordingly. Bring hats and gloves and extra layers if you need to.
Summers can get hot so bring plenty of water.
What Should I wear to visit Chernobyl?
For health and safety reasons, visitors to Chenorbyl are required to adhere to a dress code. Basically, it just means long pants and long sleeves with closed shoes. Vests, shorts, sandal shoes and beach/backpacker where are not permitted.
If you do not adhere to the dress rules then you will not be allowed to enter the exclusion zone and your tour agency will not be obligated to return your fee.
In winter this should not be a problem but the summer can get hot. Plan ahead and make sure you have some light-long pants (ie, Khaki or trekking pants), sneakers and a t-shirt with a long sleeved light shirt over the top of it.
This is to protect your skin from radiation but will also help against biting ticks. If you are visiting in winter, you also need to remember that it can get cold and the north winds can be vicious (remember – you are practically in Russia!)
You will be doing a bit of walking so pack comfortable shoes. It can also get muddy underfoot in winter so do bear this in mind. We visited Chernobyl in Dr Martens boots which were fine.
Is there food at Chernobyl?
There are a few points at Chernobyl where you can buy food. The souvenir shop at the entrance/exit sells sweets and snacks at inflated prices. There is also a little shop in the cafeteria building selling sweets and snacks at inflated prices.
The cafeteria does decent enough hot meals and you can buy one as an extra part of your tour.
I recommend buying food for the day back in Kiev – there are plenty of sandwich kiosks and coffee shops open early in the morning.
Food in Chernobyl
There is a staff cafeteria in Chernobyl which was once used by the power plant workers. You can have lunch here but it is not included in the price of the tour.
These days, the cafeteria is used by the scientists, conservation workers and security forces around the site. It is the only area in Chernobyl where eating is permitted for health and safety reasons – do not eat outside!
You may wish to bring a packed lunch which will work out cheaper than paying for lunch through your tour guide. You can buy sandwiches at pretty much any Kiosk in the streets of Kiev. Kava Aroma (Ukrainian Starbucks) has chains across Kiev and unlike Starbucks it does good quality sandwiches at decent prices. It also opens at 7am so you pick up a sandwich here before meeting your tour group.
What Should I Pack To Visit Chernobyl?
Firstly, you cannot visit Chernobyl without your passport. You will be required to enter your passport details when booking your tour and will then need to show it to your guide before you leave Kiev. You will then need to go through a Police passport checkpoint at the exclusion zone.
Please do not forget to bring your passport with you as you will not be allowed onto the tour without it. If you do forget your passport, you will also lose your tour fee as the provider is not obligated to return it as they have arranged the guide and transport.
Remember to bring enough bottled water to last you for the trip. You can buy bottled water at the entrance or the cafeteria, halfway point but it is expensive. I do not recommend drinking tap water in Chernobyl.
You can hire a Geiger counter to measure radiation hot spots for 200UHA. These are good fun to play with and well worth taking (one per group is enough). Also make sure you have enough to pick up any extra water you need and maybe a few hundred UHA to tip your guide. There are souvenirs for sale but I found them a bit tacky (except the condoms of course – 2 for 120UHA).
As well as the above, also bring a hat and gloves in Winter, a Camera, sun screen, bug spray, Wipes in summer.
How Do I Get to Chenorbyl?
Most Chenorbyl tours start at various locations around Kiev. You will be taken to the site in either a mini-bus, van or car.
There is no public transport to Chernobyl as the site is not open to the public. You will most probably not be able to find a taxi driver willing to take you to the site and hitch-hiking will most probably not be possible.
The nearest “open” town sits right at the Principe of the containment zone and you can take the bus here from Kiev. I have no idea how to get from here to Chernobyl other than on foot. The only people headed to the exclusion zone are the guides, security forces and researchers none of whom will assist you in reaching the site unless you are booked on a tour.
How Much is a Chenorbyl Tour?
Day tours typically cost about $70 person.
What Will I See on a Chernobyl Tour?
On a Chenorbyl tour you will visit the Pripyat “model Soviet town”, visit a military base and see the mighty “Russian Woodpecker” – a huge, expensive and ultimately futile Soviet missile detection system.
Note that the exploded reactor itself is now covered up in a radiation proof tomb. If you wish to visit the “control” room, then this is accessible on a private tour only
Another highlight, is the “Russian Woodpecker” -an enormous Soviet era weapons detection system.
Prices vary depending on the agency and what kind of tour you book. If you join a group tour then expect to pay around $70 per person for the 12 hour return trip.
Do I need to book in advance?
You should book in advance. We booked about one week in advance during winter when demand is lower. If you are visiting Ukraine in the simmer then I suggest booking your Chernobyl trip as early as possible.
Can I stay in Chernobyl?
You cannot stay overnight in Chernobyl although plenty of “Stalkers” and legitimate researchers have done and continue to do so.
How Long Should I spend in Chernobyl
Personally I found the one day tour to be enough. It offered about 8 hours on site. However, if you are especially fascinated then you can book multi day tours.