Chernobyl is one of the most popular destinations among tourist in Ukraine. Let’s talk about its history for a second. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster began early in the early hours of Saturday 26 April 1986 within the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. An explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, which spread over much of Western USSR and Europe. It is considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history and is one of only two classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the other being the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011). The disaster began during a systems test at reactor number four of the Chernobyl plant. There was a sudden surge of power output, and when an emergency shutdown was attempted a more extreme spike in power output occurred, which led a reactor vessel to rupture and a series of explosions. These events exposed the graphite moderator of the reactor to air, causing it to ignite. The resulting fire sent a plume of highly radioactive smoke into the atmosphere and over an extensive geographical area. The plume went on to drift over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe.
According to official post-Soviet data about 60% of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus. The battle to contain the contamination and avert a greater catastrophe ultimately involved over 500,000 workers, known as liquidators, and cost an estimated 18 billion Rubles. Only after the level of radiation set off alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, over one thousand kilometers from the Chernobyl Plant, did the Soviet Union publicly admit that an accident had occurred. The true scale of the disaster was concealed. After evacuating the nearby city of Pripyat, the following warning message was read on state TV. The population of Pripyat, over 49,000 people, were not immediately evacuated after the explosion at the nuclear power plant in the early hours of Saturday the 26th April 1986. The majority of people, unaware of the explosion or its scale, went about their usual business the following day. Weddings were held, children played outside and gardeners worked on their plots. The smoke rising from the Power Plant, a highly radioactive plume, was explained away by officials as a routine steam discharge.
However, within hours of the explosion, dozens of people began to fall ill. Later, reporting severe headaches and metallic tastes in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting. A few residents gathered on bridges and rooftops in order to view the burning reactor exposing themselves, in some cases, to doses of radiation that would later prove fatal. The residents of Pripyat were asked to carry with them only what was required for two or three days away, some food, a change of underwear, and their identity papers. Dosimeters were confiscated. The evacuation of Pripyat’s residents took 3.5 hours and used all 1,200 buses. Residents recall that everyone was in a hurry, but nobody was panicking. No one would live in Pripyat again.
Nowadays, we can call Chernobyl an open-air museum. Today, the crumbling apartment blocks and overgrown streets of Pripyat are infamous across the globe as symbols of what can happen when nuclear energy goes wrong. Many tourists visit Chernobyl nowadays. The radiation levels vary a lot across the 30 km Exclusion Zone. The certified tour guide, who works for the Zone administration and who will accompany you at all times while on the tour, will guide you very carefully along safe and carefully charted routes. The radiation levels will be monitored at all times.
Tips before going to the Exclusion Zone:
1. It is safe
The first and obvious question people ask when they hear about tours of Chernobyl is whether it is safe to visit. The short answer is yes. Guides during the tour explained us that the level of radiation people are exposed to during a day tour of Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is the same as that of a medium hauls flight. Of course, it’s important to pay attention to what the guides say – is not touching anything (first and foremost the soil, but even not throwing snow balls), not eating anything, no sitting on the ground, wearing closed shoes, etc.
2. Take enough time
A day tour just isn’t long enough at Chernobyl, stay for as long as possible. We stayed for two days and the highlight was simply walking around the abandoned buildings and just exploring. A quick day tour just doesn’t give you the time to do anything other than look at the reactor and see a couple of key sites. If you really want to understand the enormity of what happened, you have to spend time there. I could happily spend a week just looking around.
3. Follow the instructions of your guide.
After entering the Chernobyl exclusion zone, you will be instructed as to what is and what is not allowed to do in Chernobyl during your visit. You will have to stick to these instructions and to the directions of your guide (envoy officer). During the stay in Chernobyl you are, for example, not allowed to smoke, eat and drink in the open spaces. You are also not allowed to sit on the ground, as well as put your belongings – mostly cameras and camcorders – on the ground. You are not allowed to eat any berries, drink water from open sources such as wells etc. (tap water or bottled water is OK), or touch vegetation and objects on the ground.
4. Take clothes to change
During the visit to the Chernobyl exclusion zone you will go through a dissymmetric control several times a day – at the checkpoints to the safety zones, as well as at the entry to the canteen. On top of that your group will be equipped with at least two Geiger-Müller counters which measure the radiation level constantly. The radioactive isotopes and radiation sources are sinking 1 cm/year into the soil. Comparing the radiation level at the time of the Chernobyl accident to the radiation level in the Chernobyl exclusion zone today, it is much, much lower. Most of the places visited in the Chernobyl zone contain radiation levels lower than natural, every day radiation – i.e. lower than in your living room but we suggest you to have an extra pair of shoes, pants and sweatshirt with you.