The Fascinating Tour To Chernobyl, A Trip Back To The Past

Nowadays is possible to visit Chernobyl from Kiev. Learn about radiation admissible doses for humans, some historic nuances and discover what’s in Chernobyl after more than 30 years from the accident. Would you dare?

Everything started when I found a new low-cost destination: Kiev. Initially, my plan was to visit the Ukranian capital for a weekend. However, I didn’t have Chernobyl in my plans, until 10 days before the trip. When I told a friend about Kiev, she asked me “are you going to Chernobyl!?” and my reaction was, “is that even possible?”

Views from far away from the Chernobyl Power Plant.

I figured out that there are tours that organize visits to the inside of the Exclusion Zone, stopping along the way in several places. But I couldn’t avoid having a combination of concern and curiosity about it. The tickets were close to sold-out and Kiev is not a destination I could repeat easily again, so I decided to go on a one-day trip without thinking much. 

Is it safe?

This was the question I had most part of the time. The answer is yes, following the instructions. It’s basically risk prevention. There are a few mandatory requirements to visit the area and recommendations. For example the clothing, it’s required to wear long trousers, shirts with long sleeves and closed comfortable shoes. So, I made sure of coming covered enough.

The rest is about common sense and avoiding unsafe actions, like not going to areas that are not indicated by the tour guides, avoiding touching the soil or any object in the Exclusion Zone.

What about radiation? 

I’m going to try to explain it in a very educational way. Visiting the Exclusion Zone you will receive a Geiger Counter, which is an instrument that measures ionizing radiation in the environment. When this instrument begins to detect radiation, it emits a sound indicating on the screen how much radiation there is in the area.

The radiation unit is in Sieverts (abbreviated Sv). 1 Sv represents a very large dose of radiation, that although is not fatal, could cause radiation sickness, including nausea and reducing the white blood cell count. But don’t worry, the dose received visiting Chernobyl today it’s almost 1 million times less. It’s less than the radiation you are exposed in a transatlantic flight (0.08 mSv).

A more in-depth explanation about radiation numbers and units

Maybe you would like to go to Chernobyl, but at the same time, you have concerns about your health. To understand better why you don’t need to worry (much) I’m going to explain more detail about the radiation units.

The dosimeter used to measure the radiation in Chernobyl. Values were given in Microsieverts (µSv).

Since 1 Sv represents a large dose of radiation, are used smaller units, being commonly used the Millisieverts (abbreviated mSv) and Microsievers (abbreviated µSv). 

  • 1 mSv is the thousandth part of a 1 Sv. In other words, 1.000 mSv is equal to 1 Sv.
  • 1 µSv is the millionth part of 1 Sv. It means, 1.000.000 µSv is equal to 1 Sv.

As a curiosity: If you watched the HBO mini-series of Chernobyl and paid attention to the units, you might remember they are given in Roentgen (abbreviated R). 1R is today equal to 0,00877 Sv or 8,77 mSv. On the TV show, the first value reported is 3.6R, the maximum that could read a low-limit dosimeter, and was the value used for the first hand involved people to “justify” that the accident in Chernobyl “wasn’t that bad”.

In the trip to Chernobyl was very interesting to learn that the global average exposure of humans to ionizing radiation in a year is between 2.4mSv to 3mSv. I wasn’t aware that constantly we are exposed to radiation. 80% of this radiation comes from nature, and the rest, from human-made radiation sources.

Then, how much radiation we can receive is a day visiting Chernobyl?

We receive between 0,002mSv and 0,003mSv, almost 1 thousand times less of the average dose humans receive in a year.

The Trip To Chernobyl

I landed to Kiev on a late Friday night. The next day, got up early to arrive at the meeting point at the time. We departed in a bus at about 8:00 AM. the tour guides give the welcome to the tour and lent us Geiger Counters to measure the radiation during the tour. The dosimeters I receive gave the values in Microsieverts (µSv), which I will add as a reference through this post.

The Exclusion Zone border

A little over 2 hours on the bus, we reached the Exclusion Zone border, where is the passport control. Just 30 km away from the catastrophe point. The border is it’s strictly guarded by the military. At first, you might think that it’s only you and your group visiting Chernobyl, but the reality is that there are many, many people that are coming too. So, at the passport control, you need to wait for a while until the moment they check your information.

In the Exclusion Zone border, it is not permitted to take pictures to the military and buildings. But I found this tank in the area before to pass the border.

When I booked the tour, the tour operators asked to provide my passport number. They need to send this information to the controlling authorities up to 10 days in advance. When the day comes, the authorities check if this information is right. Otherwise, it’s not possible to access. One everyone is verified and approved, it’s the moment to enter to the Exclusion Zone.

One thing that surprised me is that in the control area, while you wait for the passport control, you can find these stores to buy souvenirs…
The abandoned village of Zalissya

After passing passport control, a few kilometres inside of the Exclusion Zone, the first stop was Zalissya. It was one of the most distant villages from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. It was the first village to be abandoned after the accident in May 1986. 

Zalissya village is the first contact with the feeling of emptiness and abandonment. All you can hear is the dispute between the silence and the deafening sound of the wind hitting the trees’ leaves. The forest is advancing slowly and engulfing what finds on its way. Abandoned homes in the area can feel the pass of time and nature, while belongings are littered chaotically around, waiting for a return that never will happen.

Exploring one of the houses I saw a newspaper page and took a picture of it. At that moment I just thought it could be interesting to remember how it looked like. But, a while later, investigating a bit more in-depth, I would realize something. In the newspaper’s page were pictures of some members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), but also from some involved people post-Chernobyl accident.

The last 2 people in the newspaper’s page are Valery Legasov, the scientist responsible to investigate the accident of Chernobyl, and Boris Shcherbina, the politician that acted as crisis management supervisor.

As a curiosity: locals weren’t aware of the disaster that was happening just 25Km away and didn’t want to leave their homes. Some of these people returned to the village despite the disaster. About 180 elder residents have returned to their villages despite the warnings from the authorities. The Ukranian government has allowed them to return to their homes to die in peace.

Kopachi’s kindergarten

Second stop. The remains of the village of Kopachi are located about 7Km kilometres at the South of the Chernobyl reactor. As a result of its proximity to the disaster area, it was seriously contaminated. The area of Kopachi was used as a decontamination area in the months after the disaster. When all inhabitants were evacuated, wooden houses were torn down and the remains of the buildings, with the contaminated topsoil, were buried. 

The Kindergarten and other building are the only architectural structures that remain standing. The soil in the area is highly contaminated and it’s prohibited stepping out of the indicated. The Geiger Counter starts detecting radiation and emitting a sound more and more persistently. Walking in direction to the Kindergarten building, the dosimeter was showing a value of 0,92 µSv. If the device is put closer to the contaminated soil, it displayed values close to 30 µSv.

The Kindergarten is like a scenario of a horror movie. Dusty, dark and silent. I covered my face with a scarf just in case, to avoid breathing directly particles that might be in the air. Walking through the rooms, you transport yourself to the past and can imagine how it was on a normal day, with scattered toys, drawings and children playing around. Then, you transport back to the desolate and cold feeling of the abandoned place.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.

To stand in front of this place was quite impacting. As you might know, at 1:23 AM on 26th April 1986, in right here exploded the reactor 4. The explosion left the core of the reactor exposed and releasing radioactive contaminants. Today the reactor 4 is covered by the New Safe Confinement (NSC), an enormous metallic arch-shaped structure to confine the radioactive contaminants with a durability of 100 years.

The Ukranian government held an international competition for proposals to find a solution. The NSC was the winning proposal, a new structure that replaced the sarcophagus (the old previous structure). The amount of engineering behind it is incredible. It was chosen because the assembly process was advantageous and the distance between the reactor and workers, minimized their exposure to radiation, therefore greater safety.

Today in front of the Chernobyl Power Plant there is a monument that commemorates all those who lost their lives as a result of the disaster. The big metal arch-shaped-structure is the NSC.

The red forest

On the way to Pripyat, the bus stopped in the “Red Forest”. The name comes from the reddish-brown colour that the pine trees got after absorbing high levels of radiation. But I didn’t any red trees. In the post-disaster clean up the red forest was bulldozed and buried. The area today remains one of the most contaminated in the world. 

At the moment of getting off the bus, the Geiger Counter starts detecting radiation in the environment. When bringing the instrument closer to the soil, the sound intensified and the radiation number increased up to 2.900 µSv (0,0029 mSv), the highest detected during the tour.

Measuring the contaminated soil at the Red Forest area, value given at that moment was 2.944 µSv.

Since this area is very contaminated, we just did a short stop to check with the dosimeters the radiation levels. There is no trace of the red forest, or at least from that viewpoint. This place also was the entrance to Pripyat, the next stop.

At this point, it can be read “Припятв 1970” the name of Pripyat in Russian, and the year of its foundation, 1970.

Pripyat

It was one of the most expected places to see in the Exclusion Zone. The bus moved slowly in the very poor condition of the main street. The trees’ roots have cracked it, making somewhat difficult to access to the town. The road looks narrower of what actually is, being suffocated by a leafy and wild forest.

As the area is so wooded, it’s not possible to predict when you will arrive. Suddenly we arrived at Pripyat’s city centre, where we got off the bus and started to spot some buildings.

At the moment of getting off the bus, this was the first I spotted. The Soviet Union’s hammer and sickles still can be seen here, remains frozen in time.

Pripyat is a ghost town. It was the most affected town after the nuclear accident. It’s the closest from the Power Plant. The scenery is dismal, wildness. You observe the claim of nature against man-made things. Roots coming underground breaking the concrete paths, trees flourishing inside of the buildings and nature covering everything.

Cracked roads around Pripyat.

The silence is almost uncomfortable, interrupted by some broken glass I didn’t want to step in. The lack of soul product of abandonment provokes an obscure feeling.

We walked around the area, like if it was an adventure in the jungle, spotting little by little some buildings like a supermarket, a The Hotel Polissya, the Pripyat city hall building and the amusement park. 

The amusement park is probably the most famous spot of Pripyat. However, it was never inaugurated. The whole city was preparing for the celebrations for Labor’s day on the 1st of May, but these plans were cancelled on 26th April 1986. Still can be seen around the town some Soviet propaganda posters.

Chernobyl town

Once we finished our excursion in Pripyat, it was time to come back to Kiev, but not yet without stopping for a moment in the town of Chernobyl. Although we didn’t have enough time to walk around the town, it was quite an interesting visit.

Some of the robots used post-Chernobyl accident. At the right, the white robot is the STR-1. the “lunar robot”.

I had the opportunity to see some of the robots used in the Chernobyl disaster in the cleaning work. One of them is featured in the Chernobyl mini-series, called STR-1 the “lunar robot”. However, the frustrated “Joker” robot that was sent by Germans to clean the roof of the reactor 4’s building is not here.

On the other hand is the Monument to the heroes of Chernobyl, erected in front of the fire station at Chernobyl town. It’s a homage to all those who collaborated to control the catastrophe and highlighting the tragic victims of the accident: the firemen and the brave men that volunteered to dive under the reactor and release a critical pressure valve that could cause a second catastrophic explosion.

As a curiosity: the Chernobyl town is not deserted. There is a hotel, a bar, a post office, a supermarket and even a museum, which is never open. People that work in the Exclusion Zone has a strict rotation of 15 days in the zone and 15 days out, to keep the radiation levels at the minimum. In this place also there is a strict curfew at 8 PM.

Radiation controls

There are radiation controls in every checkpoint. I remember I passed for these controls at the moment of going to have lunch in a canteen and at the time of leaving the Exclusion Zone. We had to step in front of the screening sensors and check if the radiation levels are ok. If the levels are too high, clothes and boots might need to be left behind. Never someone has resulted contaminated by radiation visiting Chernobyl, even some ‘special’ one that once lied down on the ground… but just had to dispose of his clothes and shoes.

Radiation control checkpoint.
Bonus Track: The Duga-3 Radar

If the Kindergarten in Kopachi, or the town of Pripyat are creepy, the Duga-3 Radar is not far behind. I left it for the end because it was one of the things that surprised me the most. This massive engineering structure was one of the most secretive things of the Soviet Union.

In times of the Cold War, the 150m high x 500m long structure was pointing in the direction of the United States, detecting any incoming ballistic missiles or planes. The system was called “over-the-horizon (OTH) radar system” since it could detect ballistic missile launched from the other side of the world.

Recommendations before to go

  • Make sure of providing the right information at the moment of booking the tour, otherwise, it won’t be possible to enter to the Exclusion Zone.
  • Don’t forget your passport the day of the tour.
  • Take the right clothes, long sleeves shirts, trousers and closed shoes.
  • Make sure to take a scarf with you to cover your face when visiting closed spaces.
  • Take mosquito repellent if you go between May and October.
  • Take an umbrella if weather conditions predict rain.
  • Follow safety instructions. Don’t touch anything in the Exclusion Zone and don’t sit either in not indicated areas.
  • Avoid taking silly pictures in places where occurred the accident. Show respect.

Conclusion

Chernobyl is a visit totally recommended. It goes away from the usual and seeing it with your own eyes makes the difference. I went there at the end of the summer and got a shiny day. Most of the scenery was covered by leafy trees that don’t let to see further away. Chernobyl shows a different face depending on the season of the year. Now the question is, would you visit it? and in what season of the year would you go?

If you have liked what you read here, support me by leaving a comment or sharing it in social media, it might be someone else interested! See you in the next one!

Amusement Park in Pripyat Chernobyl