I never had imagined I would be going to Chernobyl. My initial plans were to go to Kiev for a long weekend, but in an almost improvised plan, on the edge, 10 days before of travelling, I booked my tickets to cross the Exclusion Zone.
I figured out that there are tours that organize visits to the inside of the Exclusion Zone, making some stop along the way to Pripyat.
I couldn’t avoid having a combination of concern and curiosity about Chernobyl. The tickets were close to sold-out and Kiev is not a destination I could repeat easily again, so finlly I decided to go on a one-day trip.
Is it safe?
What about radiation?
Visiting the Exclusion Zone I was provided of a dosimeter, which is an instrument that measures ionizing radiation. When the instrument begins to detect radiation, it emits a sound and on the screen indicates the value in radiation units. The one I used in my tour to Chernobyl gave the values in Microsieverts (abbreviated µSv).
To undertand better what it means, 1 Sievert (abbreviated 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. However, this value is huge and today the radiation dose that can be received in Chernobyl, it’s almost 1 million times less, even less than the radiation received in a transatlantic flight (0.08 mSv).
Since 1 Sv represents a large dose of radiation, dosimeters use smaller units, being commonly displayed in 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. If this not clear yet in scale, 1 µSv is to 1Sv what 1 mm is to 1 Km.
The dosimeter I used in Chernobyl was in Microsieverts (µSv).
In this trip I learned many interesting things, like for example to know that the global average exposure of humans to ionizing radiation in a year is between 2.4mSv to 3mSv. We are constantly exposed to radiation. The 80% of it comes from nature and the rest from human-made radiation sources.
Then, how much radiation we can receive is a day visiting Chernobyl? it’s between 0,002mSv and 0,003mSv, almost 1 thousand times less of the average dose humans receive in a year.
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 after the accident is 3.6R, the maximum that could read a low-limit dosimeter. That was the value used for the first hand involved people to “justify” that the accident in Chernobyl “wasn’t that bad”.
How much radiation in 1 day to Chernobyl?
It’s between 0,002mSv and 0,003mSv, almost 1 thousand times less of the average dose humans receive in a year.
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). 1 R is today equal to 0,00877 Sv or 8,77 mSv. On the TV show, the first value reported after the accident is 3.6 R, the maximum that could read a low-limit dosimeter. That was the value used for the first hand involved people to “justify” that the accident in Chernobyl “wasn’t that bad”.
The Trip To Chernobyl
The meeting point was at 8:00 AM somewhere in the Ukranian capital. To avoid arriving late I yook an Uber, which was fast and cheap.
On the bus there were 2 very animated tour guides that made the whole journey quite enternaining and informative. Suddently we had arrived to our starting point, The Exclusion Zone border.
The Exclusion Zone border
Basically here it’s the passport control. It’s just about 30 km away from where it was the center of the catastrophe. The border is it’s strictly guarded by military. At first, I thought it was to be only my group visiting Chernobyl, but the reality is that there were many people going as well, so, it was a bit slow.
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, in the border they check if this information is right. Otherwise, it’s not possible to access.
One thing that surprised me is that at the control border I found some stores with souvenirs about Chernobyl. To be honest I didn’t feel appealing to get a memory of a tragedy, but I got a map, which would be informative later.
First stop: the abandoned village of Zalissya
After passing passport control, a few kilometres inside of the Exclusion Zone, it was Zalissya. It was one of the most distant villages from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and was the first village to be abandoned after the accident in May 1986.
Zalissya was 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.
Second stop: Kopachi’s kindergarten
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 power plant, 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 dosimeters 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 this place 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.
Forth stop: Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Standing up in front of this place was quite impacting. As you might know, at 1:23 AM on 26th April 1986, right there 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.
Fifth stop: 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. 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 dosimeter started to detect 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.
At this point, it can be read “Припятв 1970” the name of Pripyat in Russian, and the year of its foundation, 1970.
Sixth stop: Pripyat
It was one of the most expected places to see in the Exclusion Zone. At the entrance to the town the bus moved slowly in the very poor condition 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. Suddenly we arrived at Pripyat’s city centre and in that moment I was in the past: The Soviet Union’s hammer and sickles still can be seen frozen in time in one of the buildings.
Pripyat was the most affected town after the nuclear accident, since it’s the closest from the Power Plant. The scenery is dismal, wildness and can be seen how nature claims its posetion against man-made things. Roots coming underground breaking the concrete paths, trees flourishing inside of the buildings and nature covering everything.
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.
Our group 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.
Last stop: 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 an mandatory stop.
Here it’s interesting to see some of the robots used in the cleaning work post accident in an outdoor museum. One of them is featured in the Chernobyl mini-series, called STR-1 the “lunar robot” (in the picture below, at the right side, the white robot). On the other hand, the frustrated “Joker” robot that was sent by Germans to clean the roof of the reactor 4’s building is not here.
Here also it’s the Monument to the heroes of Chernobyl, erected in front of the fire station. 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.
And if you thought that the Chernobyl town is deserted, that’s not true. There is a hotel, a bar, a post office, a supermarket and even a museum, which is never open. There are people that work in the Exclusion Zone and have 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.
Bonus Track, the third stop: 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 most impressive things spotted. 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.
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 were 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.
Recommendations before to go to
- 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 (all personal data and passport number)
- 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.
Chernobyl is a recommended visit because it goes away from the usual and common holiday trips. Listening the story from the guides and seeing it with your own eyes makes the difference.
I visited it at the end of the summer and got a shiny day. Most of the landscapes were covered by leafy trees, but Chernobyl shows a different face depending on the season of the year.
If you get the change to visit Kiev, give a try to this tour or if you prefer something handier, visit the Ukranian National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev.
Thanks for reading and supporting!