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On 26 April 1986, at 1:23 am local time, reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded during a safety test. The explosion and subsequent fire released massive amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere that could be detected as far away as Sweden. The power plant and the nearby towns were soon evacuated, and many of the houses, streets, stores, and hotels were never revisited save by looters and the slow erosion of time.
In many ways frozen in 1986, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – a 30km area around the former power plant – draws thousands of visitors every year who are curious about the aftermath of the worst technogenic disaster in history.
Despite the huge surge in popularity of Chernobyl tours, it’s still somewhat of a niche activity. Even conspiracy theories still circulate about the dangers and legalities of touring the Exclusion Area, but the reality is that it’s relatively easy to tour Chernobyl, and even easier if you’re aware of a few things that it’s best to know in advance of your trip.
You have to go with a guide
You can only enter the Chernobyl Exclusion zone with a licensed guide, and they’ll be the ones to secure your permit to visit legally. You must book your tour at least a day in advance to give your guide ample time to register your information with the authorities, though you may have to book even earlier if your visit is during the high season. This may feel disappointing if you’re used to traveling independently, but rest assured that your guide will have a wealth of information that will only enhance your visit.
For a day tour departing from and returning to Kyiv, prices hover around $100 for a single spot with an organized group. From there, prices can climb dramatically if you’d like to stay overnight in the exclusion zone, customize your itinerary, or have a private guide.
There are several – maybe hundreds – of companies and independent guides that offer Chernobyl tours. If it’s your first time, a safe bet is from the largest operator of Chernobyl tours, SoloEast Travel. Their Chernobyl Tour from Kyiv covers all the highlights in the exclusion zone like the Chernobyl and Prypiat town signs, the abandoned amusement park, and of course, a brief visit to see the now-entombed reactor four. You’ll have plenty of time to get all the Instagram fodder you need, and lunch is included.
It’s perfectly safe
While it may seem like visiting the site of a nuclear fallout would be dangerous, a visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is perfectly safe as long as you follow a few common-sense rules. Several places in the area still project unhealthy levels of radiation, but most of them are out of bounds or otherwise inaccessible to tourists, anyway.
A common corollary to the amount of radiation you’ll be subject to as a tourist during a single day in the Exclusion Zone is to a long-haul flight on a commercial jetliner. While it’s more that you may experience in your day-to-day life, it’s relatively similar to levels you wouldn’t bat an eye at under different circumstances.
The most dangerous part of a visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone stems not from radiation at all, but rather from the vast amount of abandoned buildings and structures. As they have not been maintained since the disaster, many of them have become dangerous to enter for fear of their collapse. It is no longer legal to enter any building within the Exclusion Zone lest someone be inadvertently harmed.
Your guide will be your number one resource in detailing exactly how to stay safe during your tour, so be sure to heed all of their instructions and feel free to ask questions if you have them.
People still work there
While the power plant and the towns within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are frequently referred to as “abandoned,” that’s not entirely true.
The power plant, though it is now decommissioned, still requires regular maintenance and care to maintain the structures. While other locations in the area have been left to disintegrate, structural issues in the power plant and its reactors could pose a continued threat of leaking radiation and the plant still employs people to maintain them.
Generally, workers perform two-week long shifts during which time they will reside within the exclusion zone. While it’s not exactly bustling, the town of Chernobyl even has a functioning canteen, a shop, and a couple of hotels to accommodate these workers and other visitors.
You have to dress appropriately
Although this region of Ukraine can get pretty hot in the summer, it is required to wear closed-toed shoes and long sleeves and pants to enter the exclusion zone. Even if your tour guide is willing to overlook your attire – although most, if not all, will object – you’ll have to pass through two checkpoints to reach the 10km zone, at which you may be required to present yourself for inspection. Bare arms and legs are a sure way to be denied entry.
You’ll need your passport
For your own safety, the security officers monitoring the Exclusion Zone keep a record of every person that enters. Your tour guide will register your name and passport number in advance to secure your permits, but you’ll need your physical passport to collect them at the border of the 30 km zone. There are no exceptions, so be sure to bring it with you.
Don’t bother bringing your tripod
A visit to Chernobyl is a photographer’s dream, but you can leave your tripod back at your hotel. As your guide will explain to you, there is still radiation from the disaster embedded in the ground, and anything that comes in contact with it for an extended period risks being contaminated. While it might be safe to do so in most areas your guide will take you, it’s forbidden to set anything on the ground lest it accumulates particles.
You have to register professional photography equipment
Another photography tip: don’t expect to rock up to Chernobyl with an unregistered professional camera. While you may be able to sneak it past the checkpoints, there are also police officers that patrol the area that could ask to see your registration at any time. A phone camera or a GoPro is probably fine, but flying a drone or toting a DSLR with anything beyond a kit lens may inspire scrutiny. Most tour operators can help you register your device in advance, so this is the easiest route to take if you’d like to avoid any problems.
You cannot take anything you find out of the Exclusion Zone
Even if you’ve checked the radiation levels with a Geiger counter, it is illegal to remove anything from the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. You will see thousands of pieces of abandoned ephemera during your visit, but the official stance is that these items could be potentially harboring radioactive particles and are therefore dangerous.
For better or worse, the Chernobyl Disaster is a part of Ukraine’s national history. The exclusion zone, to them, represents far more than just a tourist attraction: it’s also an open-air memorial to the lives lost and harmed there. Removing anything from the grounds is tantamount to vandalizing a shrine. A good rule of thumb to use when you’re touring Chernobyl is the same mantra you would use for, say, a national park: take only pictures and leave only footprints.
Most of the Exclusion Zone is a Biosphere Reserve
Not all areas that are off-limits to tourism in the Exclusion Area are deemed so because of radiation levels. In 2016, 30 years to the day after the disaster, then-president Petro Poroshenko created the Chernobyl Radiation and Ecological Biosphere Reserve by presidential decree. The main goals of creating the reserve are to preserve and rehabilitate the local flora and fauna, stabilize water systems in the region, and perform various ecological and geographical research studies.
About 2/3 of the Exclusion Zone is included in the reserve, and some sites, due to ongoing research or otherwise, may be disturbed by an influx of tourists so they remain restricted.
Make sure your tour includes a trip to the Duga
One of the most striking attractions within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is the now decommissioned, declassified Duga. Sometimes called the “Russian Woodpecker” after the strange noises it once created across radio waves picked up throughout the world, the Duga is a massive over-the-horizon radar device that was built by the Soviets during the cold war to detect missile launches coming primarily from the United States.
At the time of its construction, it was kept completely secret: workers involved with the project were expected to live onsite, isolated even from the nearby towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl. In 1989, its telltale percussive signal disappeared and was never heard again, though it wasn’t declassified until 2013.
If you were wondering, yes. SoloEast Travel’s Chernobyl Tour from Kyiv includes a stop at the Duga right before returning to the capital.