Visit Chernobyl and Pripyat: Nuclear disaster tourism in Ukraine

On April 26, 1986, Reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located in Ukraine, exploded. Nearly nine tons of radioactive materials - 90 times as much as the Hiroshima bomb - were hurled into the sky. The explosion took place at around one in the morning while the neighboring town of Pripyat slept. Only forty hours later, the residents of Pripyat were ordered to evacuate, and most never returned. The exclusion zone of 30 km (19 mi) that was set up around the reactor is still in place today. Long term access to the zone is forbidden, but short term visits for tourists are allowed.

The accident

The accident happened during unauthorized reactor tests. A sudden power output surge took place, and when an attempt was made at an emergency shutdown, a more extreme spike in power output occurred which led to the rupture of a reactor vessel as well as a series of explosions. This event exposed superheated internal reactor components to the air, causing them to ignite. The explosions and fire created a huge plume of radioactive fallout to float up into the atmosphere and out over an extensive area. The plume drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union, Europe and elevated radiation levels were recorded as far as the west coast of the United States and Canada.

chernobyl reactor control room

The first day after the event the Soviet Union told nothing about the incident to the rest of the world. Only after radiation levels set off alarms at a nuclear power plant in Sweden over one thousand miles from the Chernobyl Plant did the Soviet Union admit that an accident had occurred. Nevertheless, authorities attempted to conceal the scale of the disaster.

The zone of alienation

Only after a soviet investigation team from Kiev had reached the site and reported very high radioactive values the people of Pripyat were informed about the accident. The evacuation began at 2 p.m. on 27 April. To speed up the evacuation, the residents were told to bring only what was necessary since the authorities said it would only be temporary and would last approximately three days. As a result, most of the residents left most of their personal belongings which can still be found at Pripyat. An exclusion zone of 30 km (19 mi) remains in place today. The zone is controlled by special units of the Ukrainian ministry of internal affairs. It is partly excluded from the regular civil rule. Any residential, civil or business activities in the zone are legally prohibited and punishable. The only exceptions are the functioning of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and scientific installations related to the studies of nuclear safety. Everyone employed within the zone is monitored for internal bioaccumulation of radioactive elements. Access to the zone for brief visits is possible, through guided day-tours available to the public from Kiev or by applying directly to ChernobylInterInform, a department of the zone administration.

Visit Chernobyl

The guided tours offer a safe passage trough one of the most dangerous places on earth. Forbes magazine has Chernobyl named one of the most unique places to visit and more and more people then find their way into the hastily abandoned houses and weathered buildings. As a tourist you pay around 115 Euros for a visit to the site. Visitors are driven by bus to the ''forbidden zone'' to where only people with special permission are allowed. Most of the surface covered by the zone is relatively safe but there are also places like the red forest and the vehicle scrap yard were radiation levels are still very high. Be sure to follow the guide’s advice at all time and do not leave the roads.

We show you some highlights of the tour:

Reactor nr 4:

The place where it all began. The reactor is now covered by a concrete sarcophagus to contain the radioactive materials from what’s left of the reactor core. A new sarcophagus is being constructed and will be placed over the existing one, which was constructed very hasty and not meant to last forever. It will be the largest moveable construction ever made by man measuring 100m high, 150m long and 200m wide. When it’s finished the construction will be rolled over the reactor and then sealed off. It should last for another 100 years. In this time span the government hopes to remove all of the radioactive materials that are still in the reactor. You can get as close as 200m from the sarcophagus.

chernobyl reactor 4

The Red Forest:

While the reactor was burning, the adjacent pine forest absorbed most of the released heavily radioactive dust. 10km² of woods were affected by the radiation and died, turning the forest to color red. The radiation levels here are several times higher then near the reactor core. Don’t go for a walk there, as you will be inhaling the dust into your body.

red forest chernobyl

Chernobyl and Pripyat:

The emptiness prevails in the village of Chernobyl: Long, poorly maintained roads without traffic, lush vegetation and chaotic fields without cattle or machinery. Houses and streets are overgrown by nature. Be careful entering any of these areas, as vegetation always carries far higher levels of residual radioactivity than concreted areas. Guides will always tell you not to step on the moss, and the dust in dried-out puddles tends to concentrate radioactivity.

chernobyl abandoned house

With the city of Pripyat where once the personnel of the nuclear facility were housed, it is not much better: an empty backdrop of weathered buildings, interspersed with empty playgrounds, schools and a hospital. This abandoned city once housed 49.000 residents. The numerous signs of a hasty departure are still clearly visible: a toy, a bag, countless books, furniture, a gas mask are all left behind and lay scattered over the floors.

pripyat swimming pool

The Pripyat amusement park was scheduled to open only four days after the Chernobyl accident, but this never happened. The ferris wheel, swings, bumper cars and the merry-go-round were never used and are now rusting away.

pripyat amusement park

Vehicle scrap yard:

The scrap yard is a collection of irradiated emergency vehicles which tended the disaster. There are a number of fire tenders, ambulances, trucks and helicopters in the vehicle graveyard. You will no longer be able to gain entry there, but as some of the vehicles are still carrying lethal doses of radiation, this isn't a bad thing. Tours nowadays take you to a collection of abandoned ships in the city harbor instead.

chernobyl rescue vehicles


Another highlight to visit in the exclusion zone is the Duga-3, a Soviet over-the-horizon (OTH) radar used as missile detection system. The system was built just a few miles away from the power plant due to its high power consumption. The enormous steel construction measures over 100m (300 feet) in height and is 460m (1400 feet) long.

The Duga-3 system was extremely powerful, over 10 MW, and broadcasted in the shortwave radio bands. It appeared without warning, sounding like a sharp, repetitive tapping noise disrupting other radio communications worldwide, which led to it being nicknamed the Russian Woodpecker.

After the nuclear incident the antenna was deactivated, and transmission equipment was moved to other locations. The antenna still stands, however, and has been used by amateurs as a transmission tower.

Stay safe

The levels of radiation on guided tours are relatively small. A lethal dose of radiation is in the range of 300 to 500 roentgens when administered within an hour. Levels on the tour reportedly range from 15 to several hundred micro roentgens an hour. A micro roentgen is one-millionth of a roentgen. The main danger is not in the radiation itself, but in particles of radioactive materials that may remain on your clothes or items. Radiation levels measured at the power plant are 1.7 microsieverts per hour (170 micro roentgens per hour) and they vary between 0.4 and 9.5 microsieverts per hour (40-950 micro roentgens per hour) in the Pripyat amusement park. Thus, risks are pretty much non-existent as long as you don't get yourself contaminated.

Stay on roads; the radiation levels on areas covered by vegetation are significantly higher. Even more important, the risk for contamination when walking amongst vegetation is higher because it is more difficult to avoid touching or inhaling anything. Radiation ends when you leave the place, but you don't want radioactive elements inside your body. Follow common sense, if you see an area marked with a radiation sign, the meaning is clear: DON''T GO THERE.

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