I went on a day-long tour of Chernobyl this last time that I was in Ukraine, and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
First off, yes, you can take tours of Chernobyl. It was a two-hour drive out there from Kiev, and we watched a great Discovery documentary about Chernobyl on the way there (called The Battle of Chernobyl, which you can watch here on YouTube). There were five of us there in the group: me, two Austrians (a father and son), and two Dutchmen. We met our guide, Nikolai, at the first of several military checkpoints in the Chernobyl area. He said that it isn’t uncommon for there to be 50+ people on a tour, so it’s great that there were only five of us.
Over the course of several hours, we saw a bunch of stuff. We saw lots of dilapidated and abandoned buildings: a kindergarten, a middle school, a rec center kind of place, etc.). We went to the town of Pripyat, where all of the Chernobyl workers and their families lived. The entire town of 45,000 was evacuated, but not until 36 hours after the explosion. In Pripyat we saw the old ferris wheel, some bumper cars, the cinema, swimming pools, and more.
We saw reactor #4, the reactor that blew up and caused the disaster. I’m amazed at how close we were able to get to it. It’s been covered in a thick concrete shell they call the sarcophagus. We saw the five other reactors (two of which were being built at the time of the explosion). We saw a cooling tower. We saw the new hangar-esque thing that’s being built (called the New Safe Containment) that they’re going to slide on top of the existing reactor #4 structure. The hangar thing has already cost 1.8 billion euros to build and is less than halfway done, but it should last 100 years. We fed giant catfish from a bridge over the river. Because these fish have no predators, they grow to about six feet long. They’re monstrous. We also stopped at a couple monuments in the area and then had an uninspiring meal at the restaurant there in Chernobyl.
We had a couple Geiger counters with us, and most of the time the radiation wasn’t too bad. Every once in a while, though, the guide would put his counter against a plant or above some moss and the thing would go crazy. For the tour, we were required to wear long pants and long-sleeved shirts to protect us from one of the types of radioactive particles that apparently can’t go through clothes.
Nikolai told us a bunch of interesting things about the area. Everything in the buildings was looted in the early 90s, when Ukraine was going through tough economic times after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even light bulbs and wiring were gone. The first “tourists” went to Chernobyl in 1996, 10 years after the disaster. They were scientists, officials, and other important people. The first real tourists visited in 1999. That first year, there were 300 tourists, and there are now that many each week.
People still live in Chernobyl. Nikolai, our guide, does, as do scientists, engineers, construction workers, and members of the Ukrainian military. They can’t stay there all the time, though, for health/safety (i.e., radiation) reasons. Some people live and work there 15 days on, 15 days off. Others work four days on and three days off. There are a handful of older people who were evacuated from the Chernobyl area and who have decided to return to their homes and live the remainder of their lives there.
We were each measured for radiation at each of the checkpoints before being able to leave the area. We all passed.
The whole trip was absolutely fascinating for someone like me who loves history, especially Soviet history. I think the thing that struck me most was just how normal everything looked and felt. It made it easy to forget about all of the people that died or continue to have severe health problems as a result of what happened there.
Here are the pics: