Visiting Chernobyl is high the list for anyone who is interested in dark tourism, but with its uniqueness and haunting images, it is drawing increasing curiosity among all travelers visiting Ukraine and nearby. Is Chernobyl safe? Can you take a Chernobyl tour? What can you expect?
Visiting Chernobyl – what you can see and learn on a Chernobyl tour
In 1986, the Chernobyl power plant disaster was the largest nuclear disaster in the world, killing and affecting the health of thousands (to millions – the data vary wildly) and creating a 19-mile exclusion zone that is expected to carry radiation for hundreds of years. Today, it sees up to 36,000 visitors annually.
Chernobyl is a modern-day monument to the need for intervention in the ever-increasing speed of human innovation. An example of the extreme consequences of bad design exposed to human error. While it certainly isn’t a relaxing way to spend a holiday, the educational benefits of visiting Chernobyl is well worth it, especially if you’re already traveling in Ukraine.
What happened in Chernobyl’s nuclear disaster?
In 1986, Pripyat was a booming city, home to workers from the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant. On August 26th, a power surge (caused by human intervention) created a steam explosion, destroying one of the reactors and billowing radiation into the atmosphere. The accident left the reactor core exposed and a fire burning for 10 days.
The contamination from the accident spread in the atmosphere over all of Europe, notably extending to Sweden, who first noticed something was afoot.
Following the accident, the Soviet Union worked to contain the fire and very urgently to prevent a second explosion, which was predicted to be more devastating than atomic bombs. Volunteers known as the “suicide squad” entered the site filled with radioactive water to divert the water and put a cooling mechanism in place. Once the second explosion was averted, “liquidators” worked to clean the site up as much as possible and reduce further consequences.
See the end of this post for additional resources about the disaster and fallout. If you find yourself with an hour and a half, this documentary is incredibly informative.
Is Chernobyl safe to visit?
Short answer, yes. It can be scary to think about visiting a site that was evacuated for radiation levels where no one lives anymore.
While a poorly designed nuclear reactor exploded, causing mass evacuations and radioactivity in the area that is predicted to remain for hundreds of years, the site starting allowing tourists in 2011 and a new containment structure was put in place on the site in 2016 for increased safety.
The damaged reactor was originally contained with a sarcophagus to keep radiation from spreading and a replacement was put in place, enveloping both the reactor and first sarcophagus.
While visiting the site, guides will help you measure radioactivity levels and you will be measured multiple times on your way out.
What to expect when visiting Chernobyl
The exclusion zone is massive, so you can create a visit to meet whatever your expectations are. But you should expect to be visiting abandoned cities and buildings. This means you aren’t going to find restrooms or WiFi; this means there won’t be guardrails or warning signs near dangerous steps; this means water is dripping from the roof above and you won’t know where it came from.
There will be no placards or anything with information – your guide is your only real resource while on site. You will pass through multiple radiation checks (most notably on the way out) to ensure no one is exposed to harmful levels of radiation, and to make sure nothing exposed to harmful levels of radiation is leaving the exclusion zone.
If you have knelt down on a highly exposed spot, or set your camera down on it, and picked up radiation – you, your clothes and/or your items will need to be washed before they’re allowed to leave. So be very careful with where you place anything or lean.
What to bring and wear when visiting Chernobyl
When visiting Chernobyl, you are going to be hiking and exploring buildings in severe disrepair. This means that you want to (have to) wear closed-toe shoes (sneakers or boots, not pumps), long pants and long sleeve shirts. If you’re visiting in the summer, it will be warm, but you will be happy to have your skin protected from the elements.
Bringing water and a snack is a good idea, but leave them in the bus as you probably don’t need the extra weight while trekking around.
And most importantly, a camera. Pripyat itself and the buildings in the area make for some epically haunting scenes. Surely some of the dolls and other items have been propped up by guides and other travelers to up the creep factor, but it is still a photographer’s playground.
Getting to Chernobyl
Chernobyl can easily be visited as a day trip from Kiev if you are visiting Ukraine, or you can plan multi-day trips. You can stay overnight (don’t worry, it’s safe – and your radiation levels will be checked). North of Pripyat is the border with Belarus, but no cities as close as Kiev.
Chernobyl tours – can you visit Chernobyl without a guide?
All visitors to Chernobyl are required to do so with a guide/organized tour. This is strictly enforced and the tour guides are closely monitored. Any violations of the rules by visitors are held against the tour guide, who might be suspended from guiding for a certain period of time, or no longer allowed to guide in the area. These rules are in place to ensure that extreme levels of radiation do not leave the exclusion zone and to protect visitors as best they can from exposure.
Many operators run tours from Kiev; I visited Ukraine with Cobblestone Freeway and did my Chernobyl tour with SoloEast Travel and was extremely pleased with the experience, from the informative videos we watched on the way to the site to our guide, who was extremely knowledgeable and ready to answer all of our questions.
Biodiversity in Chernobyl
The tiniest of silver linings related to the Chernobyl disaster is the thriving biodiversity emerging in the exclusion zone. Without human intervention, plants and animals are thriving, as they tend to do in places where humans aren’t allowed. This goes from bugs and the lush greenery to rare lynxes and brown bears.
What is dark tourism and is it really appropriate for visitors?
While most tourists look for destinations described with words like “relaxing”, every year, tourists are also interested in visiting the “haunting,” “eerie,” and “educational.” Note that “dark tourism” sites can be haunting, but are different from visiting haunted sites.
Chernobyl often ranks high in popularity for dark tourism sites, but the site receives only about 36,000 tourists annually (for comparison, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul sees over 91,000,000 visitors a year and Times Square in New York, 50,000,000; the Great Wall of China barely cracks 10,000,000).
Though it is the site of devastation for many, it feels different than war tourism locations. As it is abandoned, it serves as a place for people unfamiliar with the accident (and the potential for such serious consequences) to learn more from it.
“Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” Dark tourist locations call for travelers to behave differently than other sites. Selfies are frowned upon and it’s best to remember that you’re in a place that is a source of pain for many. Visitors should carry themselves accordingly.
Dark tourism is usually harder, but well worth the effort for the education alone.
Chernobyl then and now – podcast
I recently joined Stephanie on the History Fangirl podcast to talk about Chernobyl and Pripyat before and after the disaster, and what tourism is like now. You can listen to it on her site, or the whole podcast here:
Chernobyl and Pripyat before the disaster
Pripyat, the town built to support the Chernobyl power plant, is fascinating to look at before everything happened. It was 1 of 25 nuclear towns in the Soviet Union. These towns were sprouting up as the Soviet Union moved to use nuclear energy to power its countries. As a new nuclear plant was built (like Chernobyl), its accompanying town was as well (Pripyat). These towns are reminiscent of the towns built in the US as miners rushed towards opportunity.
They were filled with young families, looking to start their lives in a place that offered jobs and hope of prosperity that wasn’t always present in the rest of the Soviet Union. Pripyat itself had everything that would reflect those hopes and that forward movement – a town center with a pool and exercise facilities, movie theaters, schools, a lake and, of course, the amusement park area that’s become famous for its now haunting images.
This is especially interesting to think about, considering the tendency to think of Soviet times as cold and hopeless. Pripyat is a town frozen in its move towards prosperity and is worth looking at photos before 1986 (also in the video below).
Additional Chernobyl resources
The Chernobyl accident and its fallout is a hugely complicated topic. Here are some additional resources to those linked in this article for further research:
- Nuclear Energy Institute overview on Chernobyl
- Business Insider first-person accounts of the disaster and aftermath
- UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation
- Business Insider on volunteers who died
- The Atlantic explores the topic of dark tourism (in relation to its commercialization and war tourism)
- Documentary: The Battle of Chernobyl (1.5 hours – available on YouTube)
Pictures of Chernobyl: tour photo gallery
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