There’s a lot of misinformation about what went on at the Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine and what it’s like to visit it. The HBO miniseries on the subject has only added to the speculation as well as the popularity of the site. So if you’re thinking of visiting, you probably have a few questions. In preparation for a tour of the Exclusion Zone in Ukraine, here are some of the things you probably want to know about visiting Chernobyl.
Yes it’s safe.
Radiation is part of every day life. You experience radiation while flying, going to work, and sleeping at home. During a visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, you won’t be exposed to any more radiation than you are when you microwave a slice of pizza. Every site you’re allowed to enter has been decontaminated and is safe to visit. As long as you don’t touch anything or sit anywhere, you won’t be exposed to anything approaching dangerous levels of radiation. They wouldn’t be shuttling hundreds of tour buses into the zone per day if you could be.
What is Chernobyl anyway? The Exclusion Zone? Pripyat?
If you only have a cursory knowledge of the area, you probably don’t know exactly what the hell it is that you’re visiting. Chernobyl is the name of a town in the area, but not the large one you’ll visit that was abandoned in 1986 (that’s Pripyat). Though the city of Chernobyl is inside the Exclusion Zone, it’s actually partially inhabited by the people who currently work in the area.
The power plant was also named Chernobyl but the closest city to it was Pripyat, not the city of Chernobyl. Though you’ll spend the majority of the time at Pripyat because it’s the largest city, you’ll also visit some villages that had to be evacuated when nuclear reactor 4 exploded at the Chernobyl Power Plant. Everything within a 30 km radius of the plant is considered the Exclusion Zone. It’s not safe to live there and some areas, like the Red Forest, will have radiation for thousands of years to come. This is the zone you’ll see on a visit to Chernobyl, but you’ll be restricted to safely decontaminated areas.
You’ll need your passport to visit the Exclusion Zone
A tour to Chernobyl has to be arranged at least a couple of days in advance because you need to be registered by the authorities. That’s because as a power plant that is still in the process of being decommissioned, its contents (like plutonium) could be useful to foreign governments, terrorists, etc. After you’re registered, military police will check your passport on your way in.
You can eat in the Exclusion Zone
One of the unexpected parts of the tour was that we would be having lunch at the Chernobyl canteen. The food is brought in daily from outside the Exclusion Zone and prepared using the same recipes that cooks used to serve the plant workers back in 1986. Expect a hearty Ukrainian meal. You can also bring your own snacks. The only stipulation is that you eat only inside the bus and not when you’re walking around outside.
You can visit the inside of the Chernobyl Power Plant, but not on a day trip
Our small guided tour included a lot of stops but the inside of Chernobyl was not one of them. In order to be able to enter the control rooms of reactor 3 and 4, you need to submit a request in advance and be accompanied by a nuclear expert. The same tour company we took that does day trips also schedules mutli-day trips and will arrange all of this for you if you request it.
You can stay overnight at the Exclusion Zone
As long as you’re not venturing into unsafe radioactive territory, you can stay overnight on a multi-day tour. This also has to be arranged with a tour company because it’s impossible for tourists to visit the Exclusion Zone without a guide. You’d stay in accommodations in the city of Chernobyl which is sparsely inhabited by officials and researchers. Staying overnight is so safe, in fact, that several resettlers wanting to get back to their homes have lived to over 80 and 90 years old in their villages. On a two-day tour, you might get to have a drink with them.
You can expect to see the inside of many buildings
Part of the tour involves going into some of the abandoned buildings. They’re in very poor condition due to the passage of time, weather, and looters who came several years after the disaster to take artifacts. Former residents were also allowed to return for their possessions. But public places like schools or shops have a lot of original items left over from the day the inhabitants of the city left forever.
You cannot take anything from the Exclusion Zone
It should go without saying that anything you pick up there will be highly radioactive. If you’re thinking of going home with a page from a book or a doll someone left behind, think again. Aside from the fact that it’s incredibly stupid to touch anything, the radiation checkpoints you have to go through to exit will detect the object on you immediately.
You may encounter wildlife in the Exclusion Zone
Now that nature has mostly reclaimed the former cities and villages, so have the animals. It’s not uncommon to come across wild dogs, deer, elk and even bears that populate the area. Like any wild animals, you want to keep a safe distance, particularly because these animals may have gone around digging in highly radioactive parts of the zone.
You won’t have cell service for a lot of the tour
Obviously the government doesn’t have much of a reason to install cell towers and provide LTE network to an area that is uninhabitable. For a lot of your time visiting Chernobyl, you’ll be without signal. It’s best to put your phone on airplane mode to conserve battery and reconnect with the world when you return from 1986.
Visiting Chernobyl is recommended in the winter
Going to Ukraine in winter probably sounds miserable but if you’re visiting Chernobyl, it’s probably not such a bad idea. For one, winter clothing protects you from radiation. In the summer, you may be required to buy a suit if you come in skimpy clothes. Summer also sees a larger number of tours. But the fascinating thing about Chernobyl is that so many of these places are abandoned. The impact of that is somewhat dulled when you have to share the spaces with 50 other tour groups.
That being said, since so much of the day is outdoors, you should come equipped with warm clothes and a poncho or umbrella in case of rain or snow. You can’t just duck into any building you come across. At times, you have to just stand out there while rain, snow, or wind batter you.
HBO’s Chernobyl is pretty accurate but dramatized
Many Ukrainians would agree that the depiction of the events in the HBO miniseries is fairly accurate (unlike the bullshit Soviet version of events). However there are some instances where they played up the drama. This included changing some characteristics of real people like Anatoly Dyatlov who was painted as far less willing to order an evacuation than he really was. The scene where people came out to a bridge to see the beautiful nuclear explosion was also fake and would never happen because under Soviet control, Prypiat had a curfew. People weren’t out in the street in the middle of the night. In fact, many citizens were totally unaware of what had happened and the danger it posed for some days.
You should be respectful
Aside from safety concerns, visiting Chernobyl requires a certain degree of ethical consideration. The eerily quiet cities were once the homes of happy Ukrainians who were getting ready to inaugurate the city’s stadium and amusement park. People died during the Chernobyl accident and many died years later from the effects of radiation. So this is not to kind of place you want to take silly selfies or pose naked or whatever the fuck Instagrammers are doing these days. Have some respect.
As long as you keep these things in mind, you’ll enjoy visiting Chernobyl immensely. You should consider yourself lucky to have the opportunity.