The town of Chernobyl, Ukraine is directly connected with arguably the most famous – or infamous – disaster in nuclear history: the explosion at Reactor #4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) on 26 April, 1986. During a scheduled test that Saturday, an explosion and ensuing fire in the reactor core sent a large amount of radioactive fallout into the air, which severely contaminated the nearby town of Pripyat and drifted over large areas of Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Europe. While the event had serious geopolitical consequences –forcing the Soviet state to slow its nuclear expansion and enact transparent reforms, as well as a crushingly costly cleanup operation – it is the terrible human and environmental impact of Chernobyl that is most often remembered. The disaster directly resulted in the deaths of at least 31 Soviet citizens, the radioactive contamination of thousands more, and the evacuation of the entire surrounding area, which was officially termed the “zone of alienation.”
More commonly known as the “Exclusion Zone,” this area extends 30 kilometers (19 miles) in all directions from the former nuclear power plant and has been almost entirely sealed off from the rest of the world since the disaster. As a result, the Exclusion Zone is largely wild, overgrown, and uninhabited, aside from a few stoic residents and workers busy constructing a new sarcophagus to better contain the radiation still leaking from Reactor #4. Yet, while officials estimate the area won’t be safely habitable for another 20,000 years, the Ukrainian government recently opened up the zone for tourism in 2011, giving visitors a chance to learn more about the tragedy that occurred in 1986.
Review by Jonah Helwig, Spring 2020
Cost: $120 of the day trip
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.
Review by Alexander Wilson, Fall 2013
One-day round-trip tour from Kyiv – $165
As soon as I decided to spend my summer in Kyiv studying through SRAS, I knew Chernobyl was an absolute must-see destination during my time in Ukraine. Growing up with an uncle who studied nuclear science and my own personal fascination with Cold War history, I learned about the design and function of reactors on one hand, and the historical and cultural significance of Chernobyl on the other. I even remember my brothers and I being fascinated with the Call of Duty video game mission set in Chernobyl and Pripyat. Little did I know then that I would have the chance to visit the area myself.
Arranging a tour to Chernobyl, Pripyat, and the Exclusion Zone from Kyiv can be done through any number of travel agencies, but all tours are ultimately handled by the official, government-licensed Chernobyl Tour company. Since my host in Kyiv, Oksana, ran her own travel booking agency, I was able to arrange my tour through her. A minimum of two weeks advance notice is required so Chernobyl Tour can process and approve your passport, so it’s a good idea to plan your excursion well in advance. The cost of the trip – around $165 as of August 2013 – includes formal authorization to enter the Exclusion Zone, air-conditioned bus transportation to and from Kyiv, lessons on radiation safety, a full-day guided tour of the Exclusion Zone, and a map, and a personal certificate that displays your tour route and the final dose of radiation from your visit. A “hearty and ecologically clean lunch” cost an additional $8, and renting a Geiger counter for the day was an extra $10. Souvenirs can also be purchased on the bus ride home at an additional cost.
My expedition to Chernobyl began early, with the tour bus scheduled to leave from the central Kyiv train station at 8:00am sharp. After putting on the required clothing – long pants, a long-sleeved jacket, and closed-toed shoes, all necessary for protection from radiation – I arrived at the departure point, showed my passport, signed some legal paperwork releasing the tour company from all liability, and clambered on board the bus. The trip from Kyiv to the edge of the Exclusion Zone took about two hours, which were filled with a documentary film about the Chernobyl disaster and important safety information from the tour guides. I was shocked to learn that the average dose of radiation received from a one-day tour of the Exclusion Zone is roughly equal to spending two days in Kyiv – partially a result of the natural decay of the radioactive material in the Zone, and partially due to Ukraine’s naturally higher background radiation. Having steeled myself for the potential dangers of radiation and caused both my genetic and host families no little anxiety over my trip, I must admit I was at once both disappointed and relieved that my trip would not be as dangerous as expected.
Upon passing through the border checkpoint and arriving in the Exclusion Zone, our group stopped first at a small village where one of the few remaining inhabitants of the area lives, but since she was not at home we continued on to an abandoned school building just off the main road. The dilapidated and dimly lit school was easily one of the most haunting places of the trip, despite the fact it was midday. Broken dolls and toys lay eerily scattered throughout the premises, lessons and coloring pages from 1986 were still pinned to the bulletin boards, and dust-covered cabinets and drawers littered the collapsing hallways. The stark contrast between the ideal image of a happy children’s school, and the effects of nuclear disaster and subsequent abandonment, was very unsettling.
Continuing along our tour route, we bypassed the actual Chernobyl Power Plant on our way to visit the town of Pripyat first, which lies to the west of the nuclear reactor complex. Since the wind was blowing that direction on the day of the disaster, it was Pripyat that actually received the bulk of the radiation, not Chernobyl, which is located to the east. As a result, Pripyat was transformed from a young, dynamic, and fast-growing Soviet city of almost 50,000 into a total ghost town. In fact, it is difficult to stand in the middle of Pripyat today and even feel you are in a town – the vegetation in the area has almost entirely consumed the rapidly decaying buildings. Entire walls of some structures have crumbled, making exploration of the buildings dangerous (and technically illegal in some cases), but our tour group made the trek up to the top of the Hotel Polissya, from where we were able to survey the entire area. Having signed the waivers, and feeling a bit adventurous, I proceeded to do some extra exploring of my own inside a partially collapsed school building, where I happened upon a room full of abandoned children’s gas masks. Together with our walk through the town’s amusement park – which never had its official opening because of the disaster – it was a scene I will not soon forget.
In contrast to the slow, haunted, inhuman decay of Pripyat, the scene we found upon doubling back to the actual Chernobyl NPP was one of relative order and containment. Security guards warily eyed our group as our guides gathered us together about 300 yards from Reactor #4 – the closest tour groups are allowed to get to the site of the disaster. From there, we took pictures and checked the radiation readings on our Geiger counters. Construction crews worked in the distance, busily trying to finish a new sarcophagus that is to be placed over the reactor in order to better contain the ongoing radioactive leakage from the core. Images from the documentary shown on the morning bus ride came back to my mind, and I tried to imagine the fear and anxiety of the Soviet firefighters who first responded to the scene and sacrificed their lives to contain the radiation.
Our return route to Kyiv took us directly through the actual town of Chernobyl, where we stopped to lay a bouquet of flowers at a monument to the Soviet firefighters who died from the incident, and also viewed some of the robots used to clean up the area around Reactor #4. Chernobyl itself seemed uncannily and deceptively untouched by the disaster, but the town’s only inhabitants today are workers assigned to the ongoing cleanup and containment operations inside the Exclusion Zone. The infrastructure may not be as collapsed as in Pripyat, but the original spirit and soul of Chernobyl has been similarly destroyed by the events of 26 April, 1986.
A similar feeling about Chernobyl was conveyed by the mother of Oksana (my host) in our conversations – one of emotional, psychological, and almost spiritual scarring as a result of the literal and figurative fallout of the disaster. She questioned my desire to want to visit the site of what was, for her, such a terrible and terrifying event in her life and the life of her family. She recalled the fear that descended upon Kyiv once refugees from the Exclusion Zone began arriving and people began learning of the full nature and extent of the disaster. She told me how afraid she was that Oksana, who was very young at the time, might grow up unhealthily or contract a terrible disease.
Her personal account of the effects of Chernobyl had a stronger effect upon me than any documentary, and highlighted the sometimes conflicting or contradictory views of Chernobyl in modern memory. To many Americans and Westerners, Chernobyl is a place of mysterious nuclear danger – an ideal setting for fictional video games and horror films such as the recently released Chernobyl Diaries (which is ridiculed by many Ukrainians), and the perfect destination for an exciting and expensive personal tour. But it is often far too easy to forget that, to Ukrainians and Russians, Chernobyl remains a disturbing, painful, and even personal memory, and a disaster that deeply affected their lives and their entire society. Visitors to Chernobyl – as to any controversial historical site – would do well to remember that while tourism is now allowed and even encouraged, any naïve gaiety or blissful ignorance of the seriousness of the Chernobyl disaster had best be left behind as early as possible.
For groups and faculty-led tours, a trip to Chernobyl, Pripyat, and the Exclusion Zone is a highly recommended and impactful option, albeit also somewhat expensive. As stated above, be sure to plan the trip well in advance, and budget accordingly for the relatively high cost.