Exploring the abandoned cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat was always a dream. I had hoped to find a guide (called a Stalker) to help me hop the fence into the Exclusion Zone but it takes time to arrange and it was straightforward to arrange a tour for my first visit.
So here we go…
Actually no, I’m going to start with the boring stuff. Adam and I chose Chernobyl Exclusive Tours for our trip mainly because they can cope with last minute bookings somehow (despite the rules being that you need to book 10 days in advance to get government permits). The tour cost $69 per person and we chose to hire a dosimeter for $10. There is an option to pay for lunch but don’t do that, $10 is expensive and we managed to buy everything we needed for breakfast, lunch and snacks for less than $10 between us.
We caught a Taxify from the hostel to some random building that wasn’t marked on MAPS.ME as the office for the tour company, but when we arrived there were people waiting outside which was a great sign.
We all went into a room and sat down all around on sofas. Adam sat with some different people and got told off for jumping the queue (in true charming Ukrainian style it seems)!! No idea how this could be considered a queue but it turns out that there was a woman (painfully slowly) processing people’s passports to sign in.
At 8am we are in the minibus and here we go… Oh wait, we’ve stopped again. Not sure what we are doing but we have been told it’ll take us an hour and a half to get there and our driver is having a lot of stuff explained to him. We took a diversion and picked up Lana, our guide from her Kyiv house (she lives half the week in Chernobyl).
We reached the 30 kilometre exclusion zone at 9:55 and there were a couple of groups ahead of us so it does feel a little like a circus but we will see. Lana has reasonable English and only rarely uses the wrong word.
At 10:25 we left the 30km Border Post to drive to Chernobyl City. Lana was telling us about the people that live in the exclusion zone. There is a population of around 3-4,000 regular residents in the zone, most work there so have regular trips out of the zone. But some people live there permanently in the “abandoned” settlements – they went home. The government had only announced that the evacuation would last for 3 days but it turned out to be permanent and many people started to return to collect their possessions. The exclusion zone was initially 10km but it was expanded to 30km after the government had a better understanding of the extent of the radiation fallout. Across both Belarus and Ukraine over 160 settlements have been permanently abandoned with many residents resettled in other cities by the government. The people that have gone back to their villages in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are dubbed “self-settlers” by the government and once a week a car goes around to deliver food and goods to them. Most are pensioners so there is also a service to take them their pensions! The car also does a meter reading to detect radiation levels across the region. The settlers all have an emergency mobile phone and they call for medical advice and a nurse or doctor is deployed forward to help, there is also a dedicated hospital in Kiev for the people who live in the Exclusion Zone.
The majority of the 3-4,000 people live in Chernobyl city (although the capacity was so much higher that it feels like a ghost town). Most people that are working in the Exclusion Zone are shift workers, living there for part of the week and leaving the zone to go to another home for the rest of the time. They have personal dosimeters that are checked every 3 months to ensure they aren’t exceeding tolerable levels of radiation exposure.
There are still people working at the Power Plant: Reactor 3 went offline in 2000 and is still being decommissioned, plus there are still many people working to remove the nuclear contaminated material from Reactor 4. The government has allowed until 2064 for all nuclear waste to have been cleared from the Chernobyl site.
We reached the outskirts of Chernobyl City and stopped off at a shop for coffee and water then at 11:05 we hit the road to the 10km Border Post.
We passed a monument to the firefighters who worked in the vicinity of the Nuclear Power Plant (not the one right near the reactor, the ones which went in to fight the fire, many of whom died in the months after the disaster). This monument was funded by the people, the workers and their families, not the government. The monument depicts life before and life after the disaster and features a pipe damaged by the reactor blast.
Chernobyl Death Toll
The disaster was directly attributed 30 deaths within the first two months, one plants worker died by falling, one had a broken back and couldn’t be moved and the rest of the 28 died of radiation sickness in hospital in Moscow within 2 months.
We drove through a village 2km from the Power Plant. Most of the buildings were so badly irradiated that they needed to be destroyed but the radioactive waste needed to be buried in a specially dug pit.
We then drove through a large area of the red forest, an area of trees that were killed by the radiation. It’s the only area of total destruction of natural environment caused by the disaster and the rest of the Exclusion Zone is doing very well from an ecological standpoint as it has been left for nature to run its course.
We reached Pripyat, the city practically at ground zero, and we could see the reactors and cooling towers on the skyline. The New Confinement of Reactor 4 is shining in prominent position. I’m very glad to be able to see this structure as I learned about it’s development while I was at university.
Then we went round to visit the monument outside Reactor 4.
Amongst the administrative buildings near the reactors there is a Prometheus monument which was moved from Pripyat town after it was abandoned as the authorities feared it would be stolen (the power plant was still operational so there were more people there). Behind the monument, Adam and I spotted the memorial to the 30 people whose deaths have been directly linked to the disaster.
A few times during the day the dosimeter would start wailing and the reading would show between 8 and 30 microsieverts. The background radiation levels in Kyiv and at other areas in Chernobyl City were around 0.12 microsieverts. The paths have generally got fairly low levels of radiation but if you go away from the path then it can spike quite high. Anywhere where rainwater can collect tends to be quite high as it concentrates the contamination. And metal that was exposed to higher doses keeps hold of it like a magnet keeps its charge. Within the 10km zone the level was around 1.1 for a lot of the time, so around 10 times the baseline. It’s not dangerous levels for short and even medium term exposure, in general, though kicking up the dust and dirt can release high levels of particles which can be inhaled or cling to clothes for wider contamination (not ideal).
Speaking of clothes; one guy on the trip turned up in shorts and sandals. Whilst the precautions of wearing closed shoes and trousers may be overkill for ensuring a safe trip, you can at least use your noodle and follow the rules about the trousers and shoes. He didn’t seem to have any idea why it might be important. If you’ve not got the slightest smidge of understanding about radiation (or the ability to read the terms and conditions) then maybe give it a miss. He would have been turned away if he hadn’t bought a ridiculous full-body suit which he had to wear all day in the blazing sun.
We were able to explore Pripyat on foot and a few of us kept winding Lana up by disappearing into buildings to see more. Myself, Adam and two other English guys, Seb and Jonathan were often poking around in the buildings. We saw the city centre with its derelict shopping centre, concert hall, school, swimming pool and the famous fairground.
This was probably the best part of the day as the overgrown ghost town is just fascinating.
After our stroll we moved away from Pripyat and drove down a 7.5km straight road to reach Duga 1, the former Soviet Ballistic Missile Detection Radar. Man that thing is huge! The main radar is 150m high and 500m wide and it’s incredible.
At about 4pm we headed back to Chernobyl to get some lunch. We had to pass through the first Radiation Control point at the 10km Border Post.
On the way back to Chernobyl town we visited a machine (robot) graveyard. These were used in the very first days to try to clean up the radioactive material and avoid human exposure as much as possible. They were dropped onto the roof to do the initial cleaning but after 17 days, the radiation had damaged them all so badly that they sent humans in.
We sat in the warmest, sweatiest room ever to eat our lunch but they served cold drinks thankfully.
During the break I took the opportunity to scout around the city a little bit more and I found this cool monument to Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
I walked down the Alley of Memories which has the name of all of the evacuated towns in Ukraine and Belarus. As you can see, this alley is long…
Lana explained that scientists from Fukushima had come to Chernobyl to learn from the people here after their disaster in 2013. They created the atom bomb monument here then. Interestingly, Lana said that the Fukushima plant had protection against cyclones and earthquakes but it couldn’t function in the case of both the tsunami and earthquake at the same time.
At 5:40pm we began the journey from Chernobyl town to the 30km Border Post where we left Lana and then continued the drive back to Kyiv.
Adam and I went for dinner with Seb and Jonathan, reminiscing about our day.