Chernobyl (Ukrainian: Чорнобиль, Chornobyl) is a town in Central Ukraine, and known infamously for the accident in the nearby nuclear power plant on 26 April 1986. The scale of remediation efforts (officially the liquidation of the accident aftermath) and subsequent engineering challenges such as construction of the iconic reactor sarcophagus, have drawn the interest of many curious travelers over the last 32 years. Nowadays Chernobyl is visited by ca. 60,000 tourists annually. Radiation from the accident remains around the site, making access severely restricted, and leaving no doubt that the area is a dangerous place and decidedly not an amusement park. A visit to the area is a unique experience however, and offers an insight into the scientific, technological and humanitarian aspects of the disaster.
The name Chernobyl refers to the area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (often abbreviated to ChNPP) in the north of Ukraine bordering Belarus. Chernobyl is a town 15 km south of the power plant, and was the closest settlement known to exist by the Western media in 1986 when a catastrophic accident occurred in one of the power plant's 4 reactors. The city of Pripyat, built to house power plant employees, is actually right next to the power plant and thus much closer than Chernobyl, but was a closed city at the time and thus not known in the West. The accident thus became known as the Chernobyl disaster instead, and the name stuck.
The accident contaminated a large area around the power plant with radioactive fallout, and these areas were subsequently evacuated. This Zone of Alienation was expanded several times when the magnitude of the accident became clear, and eventually covered an area of 2,600 km², roughly the size of Luxembourg. Special procedures were put in place to minimize spreading of radioactivity, and access to the area was restricted. It became known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The exact borders of the Exclusion Zone have been adjusted several times to align them better with actual radioactive contamination levels, but the are remains roughly the same as in 1986. A lot of the fallout fell in Belarus rather than in Ukraine.
As radioactivity naturally decays away over time, radiation levels have been dropping over the past 32 years. In the town of Chernobyl itself, for example, radiation levels are about the same as in Kiev, and the once abandoned town is now inhabited again. Most of the Exclusion Zone remains deserted, however, a largely forested area with lakes and rivers, dotted with abandoned settlements and industrial installations. Although not nearly as dangerous anymore as it once was, it remains a nuclear wasteland that draws curiosity from travellers from around the world. The Exclusion Zone has been featured in popular media, most notably mainstream computer games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Call of Duty, which spread the mysteries of the Exclusion Zone to the broader public. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is probably the closest any place in the world gets to the digital game worlds seen in the Fallout series, which explains its popularity as a tourist attraction.
Although access to the Exclusion Zone is still restricted, guided tours are organized, most including transport from Kiev to and from the Exclusion Zone. It was visited by 72,000 tourists in 2018.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was constructed between 1972 and 1977 on the shore of the Pripyat river, about 100 km north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev. Its location was selected because of the safe distance from the capital, the thinly populated area, and the proximity of water for cooling purposes. The plant has 4 massive nuclear reactors of the RBMK type, with a total electricity output of 4 GW — enough to power roughly 4 million microwave ovens. The plant design was innovative for the time, featuring hydrogen cooled generators with integrated electrolysis cells to generate the necessary hydrogen on site, as well as advanced computer systems. The machine hall housing the turbines and generators is one of the longest buildings in Europe with a length of 600 m.
Aside from nuclear and electronic innovations, the plant also implemented automatic control and safety systems, which needed to be field tested in a live production environment, as was common with all Soviet technology at the time. Of particular concern was the safety system handling a so called station blackout, a situation in which external factors lead to a complete loss of electrical power to the power plant. The reactors, each with a thermal output of 3.2 GW, must be actively cooled in such a situation to avoid their cores from melting, and to do so powerful pumps are installed to pump cooling water to the reactor cores. Backup diesel generators were available to generate the required electricity to drive the water pumps, but due to their sheer size, they took over a minute to get up to speed — a minute during which the cores would remain uncooled. This was considered an unacceptable safety risk. Engineers came up with a clever solution, and proposed to use the residual momentum of the massive turbines and generators, acting as giant flywheels, to keep pumps running until the backup diesel generators produce enough power to take over the responsibility of cooling the reactors. The idea worked in theory but had never been tested, and Reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was selected to verify the theory with an experiment.
Engineers devised a test scenario in which the output power of Reactor 4 would be decreased to a much lower level, at which the steam pipes between the reactor and its turbines would be closed off to let the turbines flywheel down. Measurement equipment was installed to log the output power of the generators, and the crew in the reactor control room was briefed on the technical details of the test. Because closing steam valves were interpreted by the electronic safety systems as fatal incursions which caused an automatic reactor shutdown, it was decided to disable these safety systems and transfer manual control to the operators in the control room. Calculations showed safe operations at all time, the test was approved, and scheduled for the evening of 26 April 1986. As Ukrainians went to bed and power consumption dropped, the test began and the output power of Reactor 4 was throttled back according to plan.
An unexpected failure in another sub station elsewhere in Ukraine required the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant to take over power generation however, and electrical grid controllers demanded Reactor 4 to be brought back to full output power. Execution of the experiment needed to be postponed. By the time the issue was resolved and the experiment could resume, shifts in the control room staff had changed: the day shift had long gone home, and the evening shift was preparing to leave and hand over reactor control to the night shift. Because of the unexpected delay of the test, night shift operators had not been briefed, and instead of having to monitor decay heat in an otherwise shut down reactor, they were tasked to execute the test instead of their evening shift colleagues.
A series of human errors from the relatively inexperienced night shift operators resulted in the reactor being almost shut down completely, again causing the experiment to be postponed. It was decided to disable the last remaining automatic safety systems to get the reactor back online as quickly as possible, and all control rods were retracted manually. This left the reactor in an extremely unstable state that was not allowed by operational procedures. When the experiment finally started, shutting off the steam valves caused a positive feedback in the reactors output power, but alarms were ignored by the operators in the control room. With no automated safety systems counteracting reactor power fluctuations, the its output power soared exponentially to over 11 times its rated maximum power level.
Reactor 4 explodes
The enormous heat produced by the reactor in a short time caused the remaining cooling water in the reactor core to flash to steam. The resulting shock wave blew the cover off the reactor, and the extremely hot reactor core caught fire when exposed to outside air. Volatile radioactive materials and small reactor particles were carried into the air by the fires updraft and started to rain down in a large area around the reactor. Pieces of reactor core were ejected from the reactor and landed in its vicinity, including the roof of adjacent Reactor 3, starting fires everywhere. The roof of Reactor 4 was completely destroyed, leaving the burning reactor core exposed to the environment and emitting deadly levels of radiation.
In the middle of the night, it was difficult to assess the exact magnitude of the accident. The fire fighting brigade of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the brigades from Pripyat and Chernobyl were rallied to the burning reactor in an attempt to put out the fire. No one expected the reactor to be damaged, being the first accident of its kind in history. Few radiation detectors were available, and none had a range sufficiently high to measure the radiation levels emitted by the burning reactor core. Firefighters only knew there were high radiation levels, but nobody new exactly how high they were. Only when the situation was assessed in the morning by a helicopter, it became clear what had happened when helicopter crews saw the burning reactor core from the air.
With nothing to cool the reactor core, it melted and mixed with concrete, steel, and other parts of the reactor, in what is now known as a meltdown. The highly radioactive mass, having a lava-like consistency, started to melt its way through the bottom of the reactor. An immediate concern was this radioactive lava, now dubbed "corium", making contact with water in the flooded basement of the reactor building. In such an event the water would instantly flash into steam, causing a second steam explosion potentially sending even more radioactive materials into the atmosphere. A team of volunteers was assembled for a suicide mission, with as objective to find the valves in the basement and open them to drain the water. With only limited radiation protection and basic diving gear, the engineers managed to find the valves in the darkness of the flooded basement and successfully completed their mission. Contrary to media reports at the time, the team returned alive, and soon afterwards the corium melted its way into the basement as predicted. With nothing to stop the lava flow, contact with ground water would be inevitable. Engineers came up with a plan that has never been tried before: freezing the earth under the reactor building. A team of coal miners was called in and tasked to tunnel under the reactor, installing pipes to inject liquid nitrogen (at -196°C) into the earth to freeze it. As the corium spread out however, the decay heat alone was no longer sufficient to keep it liquid, and most of it solidified in the basement. The structure became known as the Elephants Foot after its shape. It is so radioactive that it has never been observed by humans directly; the only pictures made were taken around a corner with a mirror because intense radiation instantly destroys any camera equipment. With looking at it meaning certain death, the Elephants Foot was referred to as the Medusa of Chernobyl.
When it had become evident that the burning reactor kept spewing radioactive materials into the atmosphere and could not be closed off from the environment in any way, authorities commanded the evacuation of all cities, towns, and villages around the power plant. At first the perimeter was only 5 km, but was quickly expanded to 10 km and then 30 km in the days after the accident. With winds initially favourable and directing the most radioactive fallout away from populated areas, conditions deteriorated rapidly after 3 days and threatened the city Pripyat with 50,000 inhabitants just 3 km north of the power plant. A large scale evacuation was ordered, with trains and over 1,000 buses arriving at the city to coordinate the evacuation efforts. It was initially thought that a method to contain the radioactivity would be found quickly, and the residents of Pripyat were told the evacuation would only be for a few days. Expecting to return swiftly, all but the most precious personal belongings were left behind, and when the evacuation became permanent, Pripyat and all other towns and villages were frozen in time.
To put a stop to plundering, the military took over security of the evacuated areas which were part of the Exclusion Zone. Hunting squads were dispatched to cities and towns to eliminate left behind pets, and cleaning teams went door to door to collect left-over food to prevent the outbreak of epidemics and pest infestations. Most former residents of the Exclusion Zone were resettled elsewhere in the Soviet Union, and with almost zero economic opportunities within the Zone, few ever returned. The Exclusion Zone remains a desolate nuclear wasteland today.
The immediate surroundings of what remained of Reactor 4 had become extremely radioactive. Highly radioactive debris, among which parts of the reactor core itself, had been flung hundreds of metres away by the steam explosions, and volatile radioactive compounds vaporized by the intense heat of the burning reactor had rained down in a wider area. Excavators, diggers, bulldozers, and specialized robotic vehicles were rallied to the site to aid in the cleanup efforts. Many of the tasks still needed to be done by humans however, especially in areas with the highest levels of radioactivity where even robots were disabled by the intense radiation. The most notorious work to be done was the cleanup of the roof of Reactor 3, littered with lumps of smouldering graphite moderator and pieces of nuclear fuel. Volunteers from the army were dressed up in lead armour as crude protection against radiation and then sprinted over the roof to shovel debris over the edge back into the gaping void where Reactor 4 used to be. Intense radiation limited work time on the roof to only 40 seconds, after which radiation sickness kicks in. The actual doses were much higher than those measured, and many of these Liquidators — the unofficial name given to personnel tasked with the liquidation of the accident consequences — contracted radiation induced illnesses some time afterwards.
In an attempt to stop the chain reaction, the best helicopter pilots of the Soviet Union piloted the heaviest cargo helicopters in existence at the time over the burning reactor. They dropped sand, concrete, and boric acid into the reactor to shut it down, and exposed directly to the shine of the reactor below, most of the air crew received lethal doses of radiation. One of the helicopters struck cables from a nearby construction crane and crashed into the reactor, killing the crew. Aside from reactor control room operators killed by the steam explosions, these were the only recorded direct deaths caused by the accident — hundreds more fell ill in the days and weeks after their cleanup shifts, and eventually died of radiation poisoning. Although not all liquidators died, the term became a synonym to suicide missions in an attempt to contain the radioactive contamination. Tragically, it was revealed years later that most of the payloads dropped by helicopter crews missed their target, making the pilots sacrifice in vain.
To remediate the contamination surrounding the destroyed reactor, the areas with the worst contamination were bulldozed. Trees received such high radiation doses that entire forests died, turning them red. These so-called Red Forests were bulldozed and the trees buried in trenches. Buildings were razed and the rubble also buried, the most radioactive areas were concreted over to prevent radioactive materials from escaping. On the outskirts of the Red Forest, directly west from the Pripyat city sign, many concrete patches can be found in the grass as tombstones sealing off their dangerous burials. Vehicles used in the liquidation efforts such as trucks, APCs, bulldozers, helicopters etc. were collected at a vehicle cemetery at Buriakivka. The cemetery could be visited until 2008, when authorities deemed it as too dangerous. Some of the vehicles remain lethally radioactive even as of 2019. Some of the vehicles have since been scrapped and recycled. Some vehicles were buried with haste, and parts of them can still be seen sticking out of the ground. Personal protection equipment used by liquidators, mostly wellies and gloves, were dumped all over the place and remain radioactive hot spots today.
With the remains of the extinguished reactor exposed to rain and wind, radioactive materials continued to be released into the atmosphere. Preventing further release of contamination was a priority, and by 20 May 1986, a mere 20 days after the accident, engineers had completed the design for a containment building to seal off the reactor remains from the outside world. A massive civil engineering project ensued, in an effort to quickly construct what was soon called the Sarcophagus. Construction took 206 days in extreme conditions, with builders exposed to lethal radiation levels. Over 400 000 m³ of concrete and 7 300 tons of steel were used in the construction of the Sarcophagus, designed to entomb 250 tons of reactor debris and radioactive dust. By the time the Sarcophagus was nearing completion, its inside had become too radioactive for welding, and thus not all the voids could be properly sealed. The Sarcophagus was designed to last at least 30 years, giving engineers ample time to come up with a more permanent solution. Together with the adjacent chimney, the Sarcophagus became the most iconic sight associated with the accident, and the single most photographed structure in Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
The Zone of Alienation
Little is known that the other 3 operational reactors of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant kept producing electricity long after the accident, because the Ukrainian government could not afford to lose the production capacity. After the independence of Ukraine in 1991 however, countries bordering Ukraine and European Union member states became concerned about the state of the 3 operating nuclear reactors and the possible lack of maintenance they received after the withdrawal of Soviet scientists from the site. Political pressure was increased to shut down the reactors, and Reactor 3 — ironically the one next to the destroyed Reactor 4 — was the last one to be taken offline in December 2000, over 16 years after the accident had occurred. The last remaining staff was evacuated, and the Exclusion Zone staff was reduced to a skeleton crew consisting mainly of firefighters and security guards. With almost everyone else left, the 2 300 km² Exclusion Zone became truly deserted, and referred to as the Zone of Alienation.
The New Safe Confinement
When visiting the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant today, visitors get to see neither the iconic chimney nor the Sarcophagus, the latter now encapsulated in a giant some 100 m high arch called the New Safe Confinement building, often referred to as the NSC. Its construction was a joint international effort, finished late 2018. Unlike the Sarcophagus, the NSC is designed as a permanent solution with the explicit purpose to provide facilities for future dismantling of existing structures and final remediation of the site — whenever that will be. The chimney was demolished to make space for the NSC, and with it, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant has lost its most famous and recognizable points of interest. The NSC was constructed 140 m west of the Sarcophagus, and was pushed over the Sarcophagus on rails using hydraulic pistons. With a length of 270 m and width of 150 m, the NSC is the largest land based movable structure on the planet.
Guided tours still stop at a monument about 200 m from the NSC, dedicated to the workers who sacrificed their health in the construction of the Sarcophagus. Much in contrast with 1986, the radiation levels around the power plant are very low nowadays (never exceeding 5 µSv/h), and thus very safe to visit.
The NSC includes robotic systems to help in the disassembly and decommissioning of the Sarcophagus and remains of Reactor 4, hence none of these cleanup efforts will be visible to visitors. With the exact magnitude of cleanup efforts still very much left to be determined, the shiny metallic shape of the NSC promises to dominate the landscape for years to come.
Pripyat is a freeze-frame of 1980s Soviet life. Propaganda slogans still hang on walls, and children's toys and other items remain as they were. Buildings are rotting, paint is peeling and looters have taken away anything that might have been of value. Trees and grass are eerily reclaiming the land. The Exclusion Zone is somewhat of a macabre tourist destination. In 2002, it opened for tourism, and in 2004 there were 870 visitors, a number that increased to 70 000 in 2018, up 20 000 from 2017. In an effort to evoke sentiment from tourists, guides have unfortunately been tempted by manipulating Pripyat history, for example by leaving behind half decayed teddy bears in certain locations.
Even 33 years after the accident, a debate about its total number of fatalities is still ongoing. Fearing bad PR, the USSR for several years forbade medical examiners from listing radiation as a cause of death. Estimates of deaths related to the accident range from 56 to a million. The World Health Organization suggests the final figure could reach 4,000 civilian deaths, a figure not including casualties among liquidators from the Soviet military forces. The numbers presented for consequential death from radiation exposure induced illness and cancer vary considerably, with Greenpeace giving estimates of more than 200,000. A Russian publication concluded that between 1986–2004 there were 985,000 premature cancer deaths worldwide as a result of radioactive contamination from Chernobyl.
The largest inhabited settlement in the Exclusion Zone in 2019 is the town Chernobyl, after which the nuclear power station was named. About 3,000 people live there, and almost all work in the Exclusion Zone on a 15 days in, 15 days off rotation schedule. Including tourists and officials (UAEA inspectors, engineers, scientists), the population count of the Exclusion Zone now varies between 5,000 and 7,000, so you will certainly not be alone anymore when visiting.
- Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster offers personal insight into the lives of residents before and after meltdown. ISBN 0312425848.
- UNSCEAR's assessments of the radiation effects.
Cities and towns
With the exception of the town Chernobyl itself, all cities and towns in the Exclusion Zone are officially abandoned. In reality, this is only enforced in areas within the 10 km Zone of Alienation around Reactor 4, and since radiation levels have naturally decayed away, some villages on the outskirts of the Exclusion Zone are being reoccupied by settlers.
- 1 Chernobyl (Ukrainian: Чорнобильська атомна електростанція) — The only inhabited town in the Exclusion Zone, after which the Nuclear Power Plant was named.
- 2 Pripyat (Ukrainian: При́п’ять) — Once a closed city built for employees of the Nuclear Power Plant, and completely evacuated in the days after the accident. Famously featured in many computer games, and a popular tourist destination within the Exclusion Zone.
- 3 Buryakivka (Ukrainian: Буряківка) — Town about 20 km from the nuclear power plant, and one of the settlements in the direct path of the radioactive fallout cloud. It was evacuated and abandoned. Several buildings remain, in varying degrees of decay. Radiation levels vary between 1 µSv/h on roads and 3.5 µSv/h in forested areas as of 2019. There is also an abandoned railway station 2 km north west of the town.
- 4 Poliske — Town near the Belarus border, officially evacuated but currently inhabited by ca. 20 settlers.
- 5 Opachychi
- 6 Vilcha — Abandoned town with a security checkpoint for visitors entering the Exclusion Zone from Belarus.
There are a few abandoned villages in the exclusion zone, and they are extremely interesting to view. Visitors can see farmhouses, small cottages and plenty of vegetation. 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. In addition, pay attention to where you are walking, as most buildings have been damaged due to a combination of neglect and due to being actively damaged by people.
To gain access to the Exclusion Zone, a permit is required. The easiest way of obtaining one of these is through a tour operator, of which there are many based in Kiev. If taking a tour, booking in advance is mandatory, but several tour operators allow online registration. Some tour operators effectively require booking at least a week in advance to avoid steep prices or no availability, but some tours may be potentially available a few days in advance.
Foreigners must have their passports on them to enter the exclusion zone, together with their permit printed out. Present passport and permit at the 1 security checkpoint, after which guards will scan the QR code on the permit and verify identity. During the verification process, visitors are required to wait outside their vehicle, so dress appropriately before arriving at the checkpoint. The larger checkpoints have information displays to help visitors, and may also include souvenir booths playing songs from the Fallout game series to make the immersive experience complete! Avoid making photographs of the security check points, officers, or soldiers, as this may result in cameras being confiscated and/or erased.
Government agency with jurisdiction over the site in regulation №1157 stipulates that a request for a Zone permit must be applied for at least 10 office days (which can make up to 14 calendar days) prior to the planned visit.
- Chaes-tour.com, 1/36, Bastionnaya str., Kiev, ☏ . ChAES-tour will allow you to know firsthand what happened in the now- closed zone of the Chernobyl NPP & Pripyat town, to touch its secrets and events, to find out what is an insidious radiation and learn how to win it. 1-, 2- or more day long scheduled group tours and tours on request, all types can be thematic. The price includes the maximum time in the Chernobyl zone (departure from Kyiv at 08:00, return at 20:00-21:00), an extensive program of visits of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the author's supervision of Sergei Mirnyi, a liquidator and writer, or by guides specially trained by him, learning how to survive at elevated background radiation, watching documentaries about Chernobyl, as well as insurance, a comfortable air-conditioned bus, route maps, personal certificates proving your visit of Chernobyl. From US$89 1-day trip to US$787 5-day trip per person.
- Chernobyl Tour, Polupanova str., 1, Chernobyl, ☏ . M-F 10:00-18:00. Trips are based on the most advanced knowledge about Chernobyl and radiation, and are user-friendly and enjoyable. They show in depth both rich Chernobyl history and nature of the Zone, and teach radiation survival skills. 1-, 2- or more day long scheduled group tours and tours on request, all types can be thematic. 1-day trip - US$116-160, 2-day trip - US$265-314 per person. The price includes official Zone access pass, an English-speaking guide, Kiev pick-up and drop-off, transportation, map of the route and Zone. Possibility to rent personal dosimeter-radiometer.
- ChernobylTrip.com. Ecological tours to Chernobyl zone and Pripyat. You will travel with professional English-speaking guide. Chernobyl Tour includes transfer to and from Chernobyl zone, lunch and excursion in Chernobyl, and hostel in case of the 2-day trip.
- Chernobylwel.com. These tours provide opportunities to see places that usually stay unseen including cooling towers 5 and 6, meeting with local citizens and visiting the cemetery of technicians. They also offer 2-day trips for €200-250 for tours from Kiev.
- Kiev Lodging Chernobyl Tours, 5 Pushkinskaya str., Kiev, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. The tour company has all legal documents required to conduct tours in a safe and correct way and is backpacker friendly. The tour includes an English speaking guide, Kiev pick-up and drop-off, official Zone access pass, transportation and food/drinks. Prices start from US$195 per person.
- Lupine Travel, ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. A UK based firm offering 1-, 2- and 4-day Chernobyl tours including optional airport transfers and apartment stays in Kiev. For overnight stays food requirements are brought in from outside the Zone. Cost to join a group tour is from €139/person.
- Pripyat.com. Organised tours to the Chernobyl exclusion Zone and Pripyat city conducted by former residents. Includes formal tours with testimonials, stories and memories about days of accident from people who lived in the region. They do very interesting, informative tours and everything is done legally.
- SoloEast Travel, office 105, #10 Proreznaya St., Kiev, ☏ . One of the first tour providers to Chernobyl. Mandatory insurance (US$10) and optional radiation monitor (US$10) are not included in the advertised price. US$79/person.
- Star Sky Travel, ☏ . Trips to Chernobyl zone for groups and individual tourists; airport and railway transfer; VIP service; tourist visa support, student invitation, business invitation.
- Tour2chernobyl.com, Illinska street 12, Kiev (They usually meet their groups at 09:00 at a meeting point in Kiev, get on a bus and leave for Chernobyl), ☏ , toll-free: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. M-F 09:00-18:00. You can check the available dates for group tours on our website. This tour includes the Chernobyl Zone, Ghost Town Prypyat and Radar Duga. This tour is official and was approved by the Ukrainian Ministry of Health. Skype: tour2chernobyl.com from US$49 per person.
- UkrainianWeb. A North America based firm offering all-inclusive, English speaking guided tours to the Zone. Tours include a Kiev pick-up and drop-off, Zone access pass, transportation and lunch. Friendly service, fast and convenient booking with various payment options.
All visitors are given a list of safety rules, which must be read and signed before entering the Exclusion Zone:
- Do not act as in an amusement park: It is the site of a nuclear disaster and still dangerous, so act reasonably and responsibly.
- Do not take pictures/footage of security measures: Police, guards, checkpoints, CCTV cameras and systems of physical protection are not the right place for cool selfies.
- Do not touch anything and do not sit on the ground: Try to avoid any contact with potentially contaminated surfaces. When you sit on the ground or any place, you significantly increase the risk of contaminating yourself.
- Avoid additional exposure: It is forbidden to wear shorts, t-shirts, skirts or other open types of clothing during a visit.
- Do not take items that originate from the Zone: It is not only very dangerous for your health but also strictly prohibited by the Law.
- Do not eat or drink at open air: You can swallow radioactive dust along with food, and they will remain inside your body.
- Do not consume alcohol and/or drugs: While in the Zone, you must be sober and in adequate condition. No exceptions.
- Do not smoke anywhere except designated places: Smoking often causes fires, and remains add trash.
- 1 Monument to the Chernobyl Liquidators (Робототехника участвовавшая в ликвидации аварии) (accross the street of the fire station). 24/7. A memorial inaugurated for the 10th anniversary of the disaster in 1996, dedicated to the liquidators -- firefighters who risked their lives in an attempt to put out the fire in the burning reactor during the days following the reactors explosion, and while dealing with the removal of its consequences. Many received deadly doses of radiation while trying to get the fire under control, largely unaware of the lethal radiation levels they were exposed to, and with no adequate protection against it whatsoever. The inscription of the monument reads "To Those Who Saved the World". Free.
- 2 New Safe Confinement (NSC). A 100-m-tall arch designed to replace the iconic sarcophagus as confinement structure to keep radioactive materials contained. It can be seen from a distance of kilometres away. You'll not be able to get too close, but the nearest 3 observation point is 200 m away. The only way to get closer is if you are a scientist or a film maker that has had months of preparation in advance. Although radiation levels here will be much higher than elsewhere in the region, you will not be able to pick up a significant dose during your stay.
- 4 Monument to the Constructors of the Sarcophagus. 24/7. A monument dedicated to the thousands of workers who put their lives and health at stake during the construction of the Sarcophagus. Free.
- 5 Bridge of Death. 24/7. Bridge between Pripyat and the Nuclear Power Plant. According to urban legends, on the night of the accident, people gathered on the bridge to watch the blue glow of ionizing air above the burning reactor, without knowing the dose rate was a deadly 500 R/h. The myth was propagated by journalists and stuck, whereas in reality the dose rate was much lower and no direct casualties were recorded among observers. Free.
- 6 Mechanic yard (МТС (машинно-тракторная станция)). 24/7. A mechanic workshop where agricultural vehicles were maintained, refurbished, and scrapped for parts before the accident. During the cleanup it was used for the maintenance of vehicles used by liquidators, and the site has been abandoned ever since. Fertilizer machines, corn harvesters, and numerous other agricultural vehicles are now rusting away in a birch forest that is overgrowing them. There is a pick up truck with a trefoil logo on its door, a great place for a souvenir photo. For those interested, there are numerous radiation hot spots in and around the workshop, which can be found with a Geiger counter. Free.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
The power plant, home to four decommissioned RBMK-1000 reactors, offers amazing insight into Soviet nuclear and architectural engineering practices for those able to arrange in-depth visits. Commercial tours stop only at the Reactor 4 observation pavilion. Visitors wishing to experience the interior of the plant must request permission via a letter faxed to the plant's general director (Igor Gramotkin) as outlined on the plant's website. The letter should introduce you or your group, and explain in detail what you want to see. Admission, by no means guaranteed, presumably favors professionals employed in relevant fields. Visitors are issued badges and indirectly-read TLD-type dosimeters at the power plant entrance, then pass through a modern security checkpoint in the ABK-1 administrative building, and thereafter are given cotton coats, caps, and booties in preparation for entering the radiological control zone. A higher standard of dosimetry and personal protective equipment may be issued for some areas, such as the "Sarcophagus." Visitors' own dosimetry devices are not allowed inside ChNPP. Always be mindful that this is a fueled nuclear facility and security is taken seriously. Strictly follow directions from plant personnel about photography, and never attempt to rest anything on the floor (it may be confiscated due to contamination). The exit portal monitors at ChNPP are thankfully much less sensitive than those found in most American nuclear plants, but still it's a good idea to wear fresh clothes and shoes rather than articles that may have been contaminated elsewhere in the Zone. In 2011, visitation was allowed to Unit 3 main circulation pump rooms, the live 750-kV switchyard control room, the Unit 1 control room, the Phase 1 dosimetry panel, and the memorial to engineer Valery Khodemchuk in the ventilation building between Reactors 3 and 4, among other places. The turbine hall was closed due to excessive radioactivity in 2011, but was accessible in 2010. A particularly interesting place is the bunker under ABK-1 that is used as an emergency response center (as it was in the 1986 accident).
The power plant has a cafeteria that serves freshly-prepared and appetizing Ukrainian food.
Some commercial tours may stop to feed bread to the monstrous catfish living in the condenser cooling channel that flows under the railroad bridge near ABK-1. Do not take pictures in the direction of the power plant from this location. (Your guide will probably make this rule abundantly clear.)
ChNPP has its own train station, 1 Semikhody. Trains travel without stopping between Semikhody and Slavutych. The service is free. As there are no stops while the train passes through Belarus, there are no border controls. Visitors exiting the Exclusion Zone via Semikhody must pass through a portal monitor and their personal belongings may be frisked for radionuclide contamination.
- 7 Cooling Towers. 24/7. At the time of the accident, 2 more reactors of the same type as no. 4 were under construction to the south east of the existing 4 reactors. Construction was efforts were suspended indefinitely after the accident, and the nearly completed reactors were never fuelled. The structure is being dismantled as of 2019, but its half completed cooling towers remain. The northern tower is about twice as tall as the southern tower and can be seen from a distance. The concrete rebar sticking out from the top rim is a silent witness of the abruptness with which construction was halted. Free.
- 8 Fish hatchery. 24/7. On the shore of the lake near the cooling water intake canal entrance is a fish hatchery with supporting buildings. Fishery was an economically interesting opportunity in the lake because it never froze over due to the elevated temperature of the water being used to cool the 4 operational reactors. This meant fishing was sustainable year round, and the fish caught were larger than elsewhere. The fish hatchery was abandoned after the accident, and one of the few buildings within a 5 km radius around reactor no. 4 that are not related to the power plant itself. The hatchery is not fenced off and can be visited, along with the remains of its floating dock. The shore offers a nice viewing point for the lake. Free.
- 9 Red Forest. 24/7. A strip of birch and pine forest that was contaminated with the worst fallout, killing off most of the vegetation because of the intense radiation and turning trees reddish brown — hence the name. Trees were felled and buried in trenches by liquidators, then covered over with soil and occasionally concrete slabs.
The Red Forest is still the most radioactive area in the Exclusion Zone, and marked with radiation warning signs but not fenced off in any way. As of 2019, radiation levels vary between 4 µSv/h (microsievert/hour) and 15 µSv/h, with local hot spots reaching 40 µSv/h. Spots where material is buried have considerably higher dose levels. It is recommended to stay no longer than 90 minutes around these hot spots (equivalent to a daily accumulated those of 60 µSv which is the threshold for radiation workers). As the most radioactive outdoor area in Europe, exploring the Red Forest is an experience on its own, but adequate safety measures must be taken. Wear protective wellies, carry an electronic dosimeter (PED) with warning threshold set no higher than 20 µSv/h, and do not touch anything. When leaving the Red Forest, protective wellies must be decontaminated (washed off).
If possible, take a geiger counter or similar radiation measurement device with you into the Red Forest to compare activity levels at different locations. Birch trees and lichen are particularly prone to absorbing radioactive Cesium (accounting to the majority of radiation after 32 years), and often read much higher radiation levels with peaks up to 3,000 counts per second not exceptional. Make sure the probe of the geiger counter does not touch any of the vegetation to avoid contaminating it! Free.
The famous abandoned city, which once housed 50,000 residents. Sights to see are the schools, kindergarten, public buildings and the amazing cultural palace which contains a swimming pool, cinema and gymnasium, and overlooks the famous ferris wheel. Hazards are the crumbling buildings, and decaying wooden floors in places – so be careful. The government has deemed all buildings in the town as condemned, so most tours will not let you enter the buildings.
Minibus day-trips from Kiev typically stop in the town's center, at the west end of Lenin Street near the Palace of Culture. Short-term visitors are confined to the pavement at ground level; if you join one of these tours, your risk exposure is minimal, but so too is your exposure to the vast cultural reliquary that is Pripyat. A more in-depth visit (several days, staying overnight at the InterInform hotel in Chernobyl, eating meals at the InterInform stolovaya) costs about US$200 per person per day in a group of four (2011). The long-term visitor is rewarded with considerably more freedom to explore, accompanied of course by an InterInform guide.
Decades of neglect have resulted in a physically-hazardous ex-urban environment in which radiation is of distant, secondary concern. Hazards include uncovered manholes in the middle of barely-recognizable streets, open elevator shafts, flooded basements, decayed wooden floors, collapsed roofs, large amounts of broken glass, challenging footpath obstructions in dark hallways, and quite possibly asbestos. Flashlights are essential to exploring interiors. Although radiation isn't a relatively major concern, the "hotter" spots in town would most certainly be off-limits to the public in the United States or Western Europe. As an example, the basement of the Polyclinic contains first responders' clothing (firefighters' clothes, boots, helmets, etc.) and presents external gamma exposure rates approaching one roentgen (R) per hour (June 2010). As of October 2017, the only access into the hospital basement is by crawling through a hole dug after the basement access was deliberately buried. Some other hot spots are well-known to guides and they can either help you avoid these places or find them if so inclined. The hot spots most commonly visited by tours are mostly marked with radiation signage. These hot spots are generally either places that were not decontaminated previously, contaminated objects, or locations where radioactive materials have collected together due to rain runoff. The most important precaution concerning radioactivity is to avoid ingesting loose contamination. Although your guide might eat snacks or smoke in Pripyat, you should not – particularly if you have been handling things or visiting places like the hospital basement. Buy an ample supply of drinking water at one of the magazines in Chernobyl before going to Pripyat (obviously there is not potable water there). Water can also be used to rinse contaminated shoes before re-entering vehicles.
- 10 Duga Radar. 24/7. Within the 10 km zone is a large former secret radar installation that the Soviet government used to detect missiles, the Duga 3 Radar. From Pripyat, it is easy to see in the distance, if looking from a point of elevation. Free.
- 1 Test a radiation detector. Although radiation detectors (Geiger counters etc.) tick at many places in the Exclusion Zone, most of the measured activity is very close to natural background levels or slightly above. There are however notable hot spots, where radiation levels are many hundreds or even thousands of times higher than background radiation. If you've never heard a Geiger counter tick, then these are perfect locations to test them out! If you're brave, a good location is this waste separation facility, with radiation levels of ca. 1 mSv/h close to the ground. The radiation is concentrated in an area of about 10 x 10 m. It's recommended to stay no longer than 5 minutes in the area, which should be more than sufficient to make a video recording of a ticking Geiger counter!
Your tour will probably include food, but you're advised to bring your own snacks and drinks. However, some tours let you visit the only shop in Chernobyl where you can buy a beer for your meal. By the end of the tour, you just might need it.
If you get access to the Chernobyl administration centre, you will be able to buy souvenirs, such as books detailing the disaster.
There are no formal restaurants or snack bars in the Exclusion Zone, so normally all food must be brought in from outside the Exclusion Zone. If you're looking for pizza, noodles, or sushi, then your only options are restaurants outside the Exclusion Zone. There are shops selling meats, dried fish, and canned vegetables as alternative to restaurants within the Exclusion Zone.
- 1 Desjatka, Bohdana Khmelnytskoho. Canteen for maintenance crews working in the Exclusion Zone, and occasionally also for tourists. Some guided tours stop here for lunch. When staying overnight in Chernobyl, the canteen is your only option for a warm meal.
Berries and fruits found in the forests within the Exclusion Zone all likely absorbed radioactive materials from the soil and are radioactive in varying degrees. Do not eat anything found in the Exclusion Zone. Mushrooms in particular tend to have a strong affinity towards radioactive substances and tend to accumulate respectable activity levels.
It is prohibited to consume food within a 10 km range around the power plant.
Tap water in the area remains unsafe for drinking or washing because of the radiation that leaked into surrounding dams, lakes and rivers, so stick to bottled water or mineral water - which in Ukraine is predominantly sparkling.
- 1 ChornobylInterinform Agency Hotel, Bohdan Khmelnytsky Blvd 1A (at the former intersection of Khmelnytsky Blvd and Polupanova Street). Check-in: (by arrangement), check-out: (by arrangement). ~US$40 (double occupancy), July 2011.
Visitors have one (legal) option for spending the night in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and it is the government-run hotel in central Chernobyl. Any of the tour companies mentioned elsewhere on this page can, in principle, make bookings for visitors at the hotel as part of the process of registering the tour with the InterInform Agency. Rules are constantly in flux; if you want to stay overnight in Chernobyl, ask your tour operator about it and make sure to plan early.
If you are accustomed to lodging standards in Kiev, you will find the InterInform Agency hotel surprisingly affordable for the level of comfort provided. The buildings are prefabricated structures installed after the 1986 accident. Many rooms are actually suites, some larger than others. Some rooms have useful amenities like refrigerators, dining tables, sofas, or dishes--luck of the draw. Each room has its own bathroom and shower. Tap water is potable. No WiFi (2011). The buildings are not air-conditioned, but (hopefully!) the windows will be unlocked and screened in the summer. The main Interinform office building has the largest suites, while the annex to the east contains more rooms and even a chapel on the first floor with faux-stained-glass windows. Radiation levels at the InterInform Hotel are close to Kiev background.
Hotel guests are not permitted to leave the premises without an authorized guide! This includes innocuously walking 500 m down the street to buy drinks, snacks or batteries at one of the magazins. If the very-abundant police catch you out on the town without your guide, you can expect a pleasant little march over to the police station near the Lenin statue and old Dom Kulturi, where they have an open-air gazebo set up with folks like you in mind. There you'll wait in contrition until your guide retrieves you.
The InterInform Agency canteen, located on the ground floor of the west building, offers prix fixe dining by reservation only. Reservations made when the tour is booked with InterInform are about US$10 for lunch or dinner, but if meals must be arranged on the day of service, higher prices are charged. The canteen serves three meals a day at fixed times. Dinner is a multi-course, freshly-prepared, traditional Ukrainian set meal with very large portions and typically paired with a traditional beverage like kompot; even after a day of strenuous exploration in Pripyat, it may be hard to eat all the food they bring you, at the pace they bring it. Chances are nobody will check you for contamination or remind you to wash up before eating, but that would be a very good idea to do on your own.
- See also: Urbex
If in Pripyat, exercise caution when entering buildings—the ground around entrances to, and inside buildings will generally be littered with broken glass, concrete and debris. Be sure to take care inside buildings as the flooring can be somewhat uneven (and sometimes unstable), handrails are missing, and elevator doors be left open with no elevator present. Watch your footing—a decent pair of shoes or boots would be a good idea. As of April 2012 tours are no longer allowed to enter the buildings due to an accident occurring involving a floor collapsing injuring several tourists. All visitors sign written acknowledgements of the Exclusion Zone rules, including the rules prohibiting structural access. However, it remains routine (2017) for in-depth custom tours to enter Pripyat structures and forested areas at the discretion of the guide.
Although some of the switch gear and power line infrastructure has been decommissioned after the shutdown of the 3 last reactors in the late 1990s, electrical power is supplied to the nuclear power plant site, Chernobyl, and many air quality monitoring stations from outside the Exclusion Zone. Do not touch electrical cables or other electrical infrastructure, even if they're laying on the ground, as many of these still carry live voltages.
Withdrawal of almost all human activity from the Exclusion Zone allowed nature retake the area. Boars and bears are common as evidenced by hoof and paw prints in mud, and might attack when they feel cornered and/or threatened. Bears particularly enjoy the shelter of abandoned buildings, so make sure to make lots of noise when approaching buildings and never obstruct the path to/from a door to provide an easy escape route for animals that feel trapped.
Packs of wolves also roam through the Exclusion Zone, have grown in numbers, and are not afraid to venture into human occupied territories like the Chernobyl town. Inhabited properties are often fenced off with tall walls to keep wolves out, and it is common for doors to be locked at night. If you decide to bring smaller dogs or other pets into the Exclusion Zone, do not leave them outside at night!
Rising political tensions with neighbours Belarus and Russia have increased security around the nuclear power plant, with armed guards at security checkpoints and patrolling soldiers a common sight in the direct proximity of the plant. Do not make photographs of the checkpoints or whoever guards them. When photographing the NSC or any of the former power plant structures, avoid putting the 1 spent fuel storage facility and its supporting structures in view, as this tends to make guards nervous. When caught, your camera might be confiscated or your SD card formatted.
- See also: Nuclear tourism#Stay safe
More threatening to visitors health than radiation are ticks, which can be encountered in abundance in grassy areas and grasslands. When bitten by a tick there is a chance of contracting Lyme disease, with severe permanent consequences such as paralysis of infected limbs if left untreated. When venturing into grasslands, cover as much skin as possible (long trousers and sleeves), and wear high wellies rather than regular shoes. If you spot ticks on clothes, wipe them off before they can reach down to your skin. If red concentric circles appear after 3 days up to a month after visiting, you might be infected and should consult a doctor immediately. Keep in mind that tick bites can not always be felt, so inspect your skin meticulously when undressing!
Most forested areas should be avoided. Whereas areas accessible to tourists near the reactor and Pripyat generally has low radiation in most areas (but notably not in the hospital basement), forested areas may have higher levels of radiation, in part because no decontamination was attempted in those areas. Do not ingest any material found within the exclusion zone as it may be radioactive. Food and drinks at the canteen do not come from the exclusion zone, so they should be safe.
Radiation hygiene is a very important consideration for in-depth visits, both for your safety and because radioactive contamination discovered on visitors at the Zone checkpoints is construed as prima facie evidence of rules violations (entering structures and straying from paved areas). If you go to the Zone with the goal of exploring and wallowing in the most contaminated areas (e.g. the Pripyat polyclinic or the "Red Forest"), pay attention! As of 2013, the Lelev checkpoint at the 10 km boundary is operational and all visitors must pass through the portal monitors while a police officer scans the vehicle and its interior contents with a scintillator; thus, it is no longer possible to plan on cleaning up at accommodations located in Chornobyl in order to pass inspection at the 30 km boundary. You must be radiologically pristine (well, almost!) before getting back in the vehicle after going exploring. Take the following hygiene equipment, which you should have in easy reach for when you return to your vehicle:
- Pancake thin-window Geiger-Muller survey instrument. Cover the probe with a plastic bag to avoid contaminating it.
- Disposable gloves
- An abundance of carbonated bottled water, purchased at one of the small stores in Chornobyl before you head out to explore
- A cleaning brush with long bristles
- Pocket knife for cutting contaminated spots out of shoe soles (disposable shoe covers are a nice idea but they always break)
- Scissors for cutting contaminated hair
- A change of clothes and/or a disposable Tyvek coverall
Wear gloves while exploring to avoid contaminating hands. After exploration in contaminated areas, remove any obviously-contaminated outerwear like coverall or gloves or street clothes and pack it out in your luggage like a good citizen (low levels of contamination on these articles will be detected by the personnel portal monitors, but will not be noticed in luggage by the wand detectors the police use). Pass the GM probe over your body slowly and identify any spots exceeding about 500 CPM. First, attempt to wash as much of the contamination in these areas off by means of water and brushing. Contaminated hair or shoelaces should simply be cut off, as washing these will prove futile. Shoe soles are sometimes resistant to washing, in which case the offending spots should be reduced by cutting off with a knife. Your goal during cleanup should be to eliminate any spots on your body where the count rate exceeds 500 CPM on the pancake instrument, with particular attention to feet and hands. Avoiding contamination in the first place would in theory be preferable, but if you're reading this, you probably didn't come to Chernobyl to sit around staying clean.
The levels of radiation on guided tours are relatively small; radiation levels in most places are less than those of being in an aircraft flying at 30,000 ft. The main danger is not in the radiation, but in particles of radioactive materials that may remain on your clothes or items. Those who actually follow the rules (stay on pavement, out of buildings) will almost never trigger the portal monitor alarms at Dytyatky and can safely ignore the in-depth "radiation hygiene" discussion above.
A lethal dose of radiation is in the range of 3-5 Sv (sieverts) (300-500 roentgens) when administered within an hour. Levels on the tour reportedly range from 0.15 to several microsieverts (µSv) per hour (15 to several hundred microroentgens an hour). A microsievert is one-millionth of a sievert.
Example: On a six-hour trip arranged in October 2008 the total dose was 4 microsieverts according to the meter (400 microroentgens). This was less than the total dose of the connecting two-hour flight, which was 6 microsieverts (600 microroentgens). Radiation levels by the power plant were 1.7 microsieverts per hour (170 microroentgens per hour) and they varied between 0.4 and 9.5 µSv per hour (40-950 microroentgens per hour) in the Pripyat amusement park. Thus, risks are pretty much non-existent as long as you don't get yourself contaminated.
The International Council on Radiation Protection has a recommended annual limit of 50 mSv (5 rem) (uniform irradiation of the whole body) for nuclear plant workers.
Clinical effects are seen at 750-2,000 mSv (75-200 rem) when administered in a short time scale.
Since the levels are microsieverts (10^-6) the exposure level is very low. But it is still possible to be in contact with some very hot surfaces, so caution should be stressed.
Note: One rem is equal to 1.07 R (roentgen), or 0.01 sieverts or 10 millisieverts.
There was no mobile communication infrastructure in the Exclusion Zone at the time of the accident, and none has been built ever since, so don't count on wireless reception. Notable exceptions are the area around the power plant and Chernobyl itself, which have 3G connectivity, and are the only places where you can get online.
There are no internet cafes, and there is no postal service in the Exclusion Zone. Post cards are for sale at the canteen in Chernobyl for 15 UAH, but you'll need to take them out of the Zone to post them.
When visiting the Exclusion Zone as tourist rather than for research or scientific purposes, keep in mind that this is still a disaster area that only just started its long way toward recovery. Some of the locals have lively memories of how the accident unfolded, and almost everyone has been affected by it: people have been forced to evacuate, and many have lost relatives due to radiation induced effects.
Do not expect to be welcomed warmly into the Exclusion Zone. Tourists are only tolerated because they bring revenue into an area where virtually all other economic activities have ceased since 1986. This is not a safari park but the site of the worst civilian nuclear disaster in the history of mankind, so behave accordingly when interacting with locals. Being interested and asking questions is okay, but excitement is misplaced.