“There’s nothing funny about Chernobyl,” my friend Olga told me when I asked her what Ukrainians thought about tourism to the nuclear disaster site.
As a child, Olga walked in the May Day parade in Kiev just five days after the explosion in 1986. Radioactive clouds were floating overhead, she told me, and she’ll deal with the health consequences of that radiation exposure for the rest of her life.
This short conversation was a grim reminder of just how far-reaching the effects of the explosion are in Ukraine even now, 33 years after the event. The area closest to the power plant – the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – bore the brunt of the nuclear fallout and is still littered with radioactive dust and decaying ghost towns. Access is heavily restricted, but still possible through guided tours.
I went and found a post-apocalyptic patch of earth only two-hours from bustling Kiev. This is what it’s like inside Chernobyl today.
Decaying Soviet Ferris wheel in Pripyat, never used because it was set to open five days after the disaster
Where is Chernobyl?
If you’re anything like I was before I came to Ukraine, you probably can’t find Chernobyl, or even Kiev, on a map. The capital city is located in a northern but central part of the country and Chernobyl is two hours further north from there, located only 12 miles from the Belarusian border.
How to Visit Chernobyl in 2019
The only way to get inside Chernobyl is with a guided tour. There are plenty to choose from online and there’s no need to be very picky – each one is exactly the same because each one follows a very specific route through the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to only the areas deemed safe enough to visit.
This zone encompasses 1,000 square miles but the 30 km circle around the Chernobyl power plant is the most restricted, requiring two police checkpoints just to get in. The first is at the entrance to the 30 km zone and the second is at the more dangerous 10 km mark.
To pass through these checkpoints you need your passport and an electronic ticket from your tour company that matches it exactly. No one is allowed in on their own.
I used what seems to be one of the most popular operators – simply called Chernobyl Tour – and their tours cost $100 per person, increasing to $150 per person if you book on short notice (three days out). Because each visitor needs to be registered with the police before arrival at the site, tours close the day before they depart.
Overgrown home in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Do people still live in Chernobyl?
Yes, but only illegally. A couple of hundred resettlers have returned to their homes inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone despite orders not to. Other than that there are also people who work at the Chernobyl power plant (but live outside of the zone and enter by train every day) and some workers who do actually live inside the town of Chernobyl, but only on 15-day shifts.
Is Chernobyl safe to visit?
Yes. Every person on our tour was given a dosimeter to wear around their necks to track radiation exposure during the tour. At the end of the day, our guides collected them and reported that our group, on average, received only .002 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation during the eight hours we spent inside Chernobyl. That’s similar to the dose we’d receive during 24 hours in Kiev or on a one-hour airplane flight.
During the clean up after the explosion teams of men called “liquidators” tested and washed everything inside the exclusion zone. Anything deemed too contaminated to be washed – like the entire Red Forest (given its name because the pine trees absorbed so much radiation they turned red) and all of the houses in the town of Kopachi – were razed and buried beneath the ground instead.
Of course, there are other areas inside Chernobyl that we couldn’t visit because the radiation levels are still too high, like the basement of the Pripyat hospital where the original 30 liquidators left their clothes after fighting the fire at the plant. Because of their proximity to the reactor, the liquidators’ clothes were so contaminated that the basement is still one of the most dangerous places inside Chernobyl today.
Homes left in disarray inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
Inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – Tour Itinerary
Our tour started with a two-hour drive from Kiev to the first checkpoint at the entrance to the 30 km Exclusion Zone. On the drive we were given a run-down of the rules – no eating outside of the bus, smoke only in designated areas, touch as little as you can, don’t take anything (duh) and wear long sleeves, pants, and close-toed shoes. We watched a quick 30-minute documentary about the event and then we were at the gates.
We went on a Saturday in May, the busiest day of the week, and our guide told us that there were about 800 other people on tours inside Chernobyl that day. In the high season that number jumps to 1500, so getting through the checkpoint was a bit time-consuming. We drank some coffee, picked up our dosimeters, and then we were off to our first stop inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Abandoned grocery store in Zalissya
Zalissya is an abandoned Soviet town just inside the borders of the exclusion zone. We hopped out of the bus and were given 20 minutes to walk around the now heavily forested town. I was surprised we were allowed to go into the collapsing buildings, but I took advantage of the freedom to go inside houses, barns, a doctors office, and a grocery store. Completely alone in a silent room, surrounded by overgrown trees, I tried my best to feel the weight of the home’s heavy history around me.
2. Second Checkpoint
Next, we arrived at the second checkpoint, called Leliv, where we entered the 10 km zone. Our tickets and passports were checked again but by then the many tour buses were more spread out and it went faster than the first.
Abandoned Soviet radar system
3. Radar Duga-1
This massive abandoned radar is actually completely unrelated to the Chernobyl power plant but was one of the most memorable stops on our visit. The Soviets built it to bounce radar signals around the earth to the US to see if we had set off any nuclear missiles.
Because the signals went over the North Pole there was a lot of interference and it never quite worked (although our guide insisted it was getting close). It was abandoned after the explosion when the computers’ ventilators sucked in contaminated air and were deemed too dangerous to use.
The most impressive part of the radar was the sheer scale of the thing, which rose 443 feet above our heads and was 984 feet long, and the great lengths the Soviets went to hide it by growing an entire forest around the site.
Listen to this video clip with the sound on to hear the Geiger counters reporting high levels of radioactive contamination.
4. The Underground Town of Kopachi
The town of Kopachi was so highly contaminated that all of the homes had to be bulldozed and buried underground. All that remains today is a decaying kindergarten, which we were able to go inside, and some radiation hotspots. Listen to the video above to hear our groups’ Geiger counters going off the rails from the increased levels of radioactive contamination.
Hearty lunch on the Chernobyl tour
5. Panoramic Photo Stop + Lunch
Next, we got our first glimpse of the power plant itself. Our bus made a quick stop on the roadside for panoramic photos of the Chernobyl power plant and the two cooling towers. One was abandoned while it was still under construction and is still surrounded by the rusting cranes and building equipment, left untouched for 33 years.
Then it was time for lunch in the cafeteria. I had read some ominous reviews but the food was fine – soup, salad, chicken, rice, juice and a dessert – and filled me up. It wasn’t gourmet, but it did the job. You can add lunch to your tour when you buy it online for $5 extra or pack your own and eat it on the bus.
In the cafeteria, we also had our first radiation check, where we got into a device like a metal detector one by one to ensure nothing was contaminated before we ate.
New Safe Confinement cover over the radioactive ruins of Reactor 4
6. Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
After lunch, we finally visited the plant itself. It felt a bit ironic that something that had caused so much decay around it was the only thing in the area that was actually well-kept and modern.
People still work on the site maintaining the area and clearing out the nuclear waste. Reactor 4 – the one that exploded – is covered by a New Safe Confinement system that was installed in 2016 (at the steep cost of 1.5 billion dollars) to cover the deteriorating sarcophagus. Below this utterly unassuming front is a deadly mess of radioactive debris and it’s a true testament to today’s technology that I was able to stand feet away from it in the warm sunshine, unable to truly wrap my head around the true threat the building posed to me.
Our tour guide told us that reactors one through three were actually reopened and used only a few months after the explosion all the way up until the last one was finally decommissioned in 2000. They had to remain in use because Ukraine was so dependent on nuclear energy then and still is today – 40% of the country runs on it in 2019.
New growth over the buried remains of the Red Forest
7. Red Forest + Pripyat Welcome Sign
Our tour had a quick stop at the Red Forest, which is now buried and covered with new (and green, this time) growth. It was also the site of the Pripyat city welcome sign, built when the town was established in 1970.
You may notice that most photos and stories about the ghost towns around the power plant feature Pripyat much more heavily than Chernobyl, and that’s because Pripyat was closer and larger than the town of Chernobyl. The power plant only got its name from Chernobyl because Pripyat didn’t exist yet – it was built entirely to house workers at the nuclear site and only 16 years old when it met its untimely demise.
Kindergarten classroom in the Pripyat ghost town
8. The Pripyat Ghost Town
In my opinion, this is the most compelling site inside Chernobyl. Pripyat was home to around 50,000 people who were kept almost completely in the dark about the dangers they faced by remaining in town, even while radiation levels were measuring at thousands of time their normal numbers.
When the population was finally evacuated – an unforgiveable 1.5 days after the explosion – they were given only two hours to pack their bags and told to leave everything behind because they’d return in a few days.
Now walking through the ghost town is an eerie experience because the buildings are so badly weathered and decayed. The interiors look like a tornado ripped through them and in some sense, one did – in the aftermath of the explosion officials went through the homes one by one, throwing everything they found out into the streets to be tested. Anything salvageable was washed while the rest, deemed too contaminated, was taken outside of the town and buried. The family pets, with their fur coated in radioactive dust, were killed and buried alongside it.
The overgrown town square in the center of Pripyat
In Pripyat we visited the town square with restaurants, a hotel, and a grocery store, the iconic amusement park (never used because it was set to be opened to the public five days after the explosion), and a kindergarten school. Wandering along among the silently decaying classrooms, watched only by a dead-eyed baby doll, I really felt like I was in a post-apocalyptic world.
We were also given free rein to wander through the decomposing apartment buildings and then visited the deteriorated track and stadium before stamping our feet on the ground to get rid of the radioactive dust and boarding the bus to leave Pripyat behind.
Monument to the Liquidators in the town of Chernobyl
9. Monument to the Liquidators
Our final stop on the tour was the Monument to the Liquidators in the town of Chernobyl. The liquidators were the teams of men who cleaned up the radioactive contamination, but this monument is in memory of the first 30 men on site after the explosion. Six firefighters and 24 workers at the plant contained the fire and prevented a second explosion that would have wiped out half of Europe. All of them were killed by radiation poisoning, but their selflessness saved the lives of millions of people.
Radiation detection machine before lunch, similar to those in the security checkpoints.
10. Returning to Kiev
We went through the first 10 km checkpoint before visiting the Monument to the Liquidators and then crossed through the second 30 km checkpoint soon after. We were all tested for radiation once again – one carpet on our bus failed and had to have the radioactive dust shaken off before we could continue – and then it was a short two-hour drive back to Kiev. Our tour left from the Kiev Railway station at 8 am and returned around 8 pm, making it 12 hours total from start to finish.
Why Visit Chernobyl?
I saw the tour as a learning opportunity (I knew very little about the disaster and its effects beforehand) and felt that visiting the area was like visiting an open-air museum. Whether we like it or not the disaster played a transformative role in world history and I think the impact is best understood when we physically stand on the site.
What was impressed upon me most inside Chernobyl, that I wouldn’t have gotten from a book or documentary, was simply the scale and longevity of the disaster.
The statistic of 50,000 displaced people in Pripyat was just a number to me until I physically walked down street after street of empty buildings, stores, and apartment blocks. The urgency and panic of the two-hour evacuation period was much easier to grasp while standing among scattered, still-messy paint palettes left out in a kindergarten classroom. Normal levels of radiation clock in at .2 CPM on a Geiger counter, so watching them jump suddenly to 420 CPM at the worst hotspots in Chernobyl was a stark reminder of the staggering staying-power of radioactive fallout, even 33 years after the explosion.
If you do choose to go, just remember that people were killed and tens of thousands of lives were upended both during and after the explosion, so try to keep that in mind and be respectful when you visit.
Abandoned apartment buildings in the Pripyat ghost town
Inside Chernobyl in 2019
Thousands of people visit Chernobyl every year on tours and this year I was one of them. It was a chilling experience and felt extra profound as our population now faces destruction in a similar way, but from climate change this time rather than nuclear fallout. I learned a lot about the devastating effects of the explosion and I won’t forget the site of the abandoned, decaying town of Pripyat for the rest of my life. If you ever find yourself in Kiev, take a day to visit Chernobyl to walk the ruined earth and see for yourself the kind of destruction that humans are truly capable of.
If a trip to Ukraine isn’t in your future travel plans, you can watch The Battle of Chernobyl documentary or the new HBO mini-series, simply titled Chernobyl, to learn more. Then, plan your trip with the complete Ukraine Series for more articles on what to do, see, eat, and drink in the country!