One of the must-see attractions in Ukraine is the abandoned Chernobyl Power Plant and surrounding towns and villages. Known together as “the exclusion zone” – the area is only accessible through a tour agency. Since the release of the popular HBO series Chernobyl, ticket prices for these various tour agencies have increased. I purchased my tour online for about $120 through one of the highest rated tour companies: Chernobyl Tours LLC. The ticket price included a Geiger counter and a meal in the exclusion zone. On the day of the tour, we met near Kyiv’s central train station and boarded small buses. Each bus held no more than 20 people and once all were present, we began the two-hour drive to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
After two hours, we reached the first check point. The exclusion zone is highly controlled and only tour groups and workers are allowed to enter. In recent years, some individuals and thrill seekers have jumped the border and explored the zone illegally. These people are referred to as “stalkers,” after the cult film of the same name. The exclusion zone border police are extremely wary of stalkers and have been known to arrest tourists who wonder away from their group. So, it is for that reason that rule number one of the exclusion zone is always stay with your guide. After waiting about 20 minutes, the border guard finally arrived at our bus to check our passports. Once we got the go ahead, our bus crossed the border and we were inside the exclusion zone.
Our first stop was the abandoned village of Zalissya. The old houses were decrepit and falling apart, the floors caved in and foundations exposed. Rule number two of the exclusion zone was announced: watch your step and never walk backwards. Doors to cellars were left open and the floors were so weak that one wrong step could land you in a bit of trouble. This village is at the edge of the exclusion zone which meant that radiation levels were still low. After some careful exploration, we returned to the bus and began a short journey to Radar DUGA-1.
It is a little-known fact that within the exclusion zone and not far from Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 stands an old Soviet military base. This base housed a gigantic wall of antennae and wire designed to detect American nuclear missile launches. Today, the facility stands as a testimony to the Cold War and is used by many tourists as a backdrop for photos.
We then headed for lunch near Reactor 4, in a clean facility maintained for workers and tourists. In order to enter, you must first be scanned for radiation. Once it says you are clean, you may enter the facility and eat. They do not serve the most glamourous food, but it is edible. Following lunch, the real fun begins.
Reactor 4 is where the accident happened. It is now encased in a massive metal tomb. It loomed large over us as we stood at the monument to the sarcophagus builders who gave their own health to contain the danger posed by the destroyed reactor. It is eerie to think that we stood about 100 meters away from one of the most radioactive sites on the planet. Despite Reactor 4 being the core source of radiation, the Geiger counter only read low levels of radiation. The sarcophagus was recently reinforced and is apparently doing a great job containing the radiation and making the exclusion zone much safer to visit. The final stop on our tour was the abandoned city of Prypiat.
Prypiat was once a glamorous Soviet city for the workers of the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant. The city was built from the ground up complete with movie theaters, restaurants, and even an amusement park. Today, it is a ghost town populated only by the tourists who pass through. The amusement park rides still spin in the wind giving the sense that someone is still playing there. The bright colored mosaics stood out against the dark cloudy skies. This city truly was a beautiful place to live and raise a family. Now, the town remains as a reminder of the worst nuclear accident in history. When the tour was done, our guide calculated how much radiation we all received. Our group received a minimal 0.003 mSv, near an average daily dose. Aside from the radiation, I received a greater appreciation for those effected by this disaster which tore apart the lives of men, women, children, and families. My only hope is that these tours help to remind people of the sacrifice the people of Chernobyl made and that we continue to learn from the mistakes of the past as we strive for a more advanced future.