A Guide to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a vast area in Ukraine and Belarus, surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. In April 1986 a routine test went catastrophically wrong resulting in two explosions. Radioactive material was spread over the city of Pripyat and surrounding villages as well as being carried on the wind into northern Europe. The lives of those living in the zone were changed forever and the area is now abandoned and being reclaimed by nature.
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You know when somewhere gets under your skin? Something that niggles away as being quite important to you. Well that something was visiting the exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.
I was just 13 when the disaster happened in 1986, but I remember watching it on the news. I remember footage of cows being monitored as they ate grass that was possibly radioactive. I remember the scare stories about not going out in the rain as the clouds had drifted all the way from Chernobyl and were filled with dangerous radiation. Things like that stick in your mind when you are a child.
At the time I didn’t understand the bigger picture of the accident. However, visiting Chernobyl and Pripyat has made me realise how this one accident was the catalyst towards the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the former Soviet Union and changed working practices within the nuclear power industry forever.
In my professional life I taught about the dangers of radiation, how we protect ourselves from the effects of radiation as well as monitoring and safety. Chernobyl featured in my lectures along with Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Fukushima. Places that have seen nuclear disaster but have also taught us more than we thought possible about radiation safety.
Seeing the reality first hand has changed my understanding and respect for those that dealt with the disasters and the aftermath completely. It has not changed my opinion on nuclear energy but has made me appreciate the unseen work that many do in the face of a disaster.
Visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is not a trip to be taken lightly. The disaster changed the lives of thousands of people and whilst the reported deaths were low, the health consequences are unmeasurable and still being felt today. Whilst the 9/11 Memorial in New York or the UNESCO World Heritage Centre at Auschwitz tell of great human tragedy, the Chernobyl disaster zone feels like the forgotten human tragedy of the 20th Century. It affected people directly in the Ukraine and Belarus as well as most of northern Europe and Russia, but the impact is largely forgotten.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, originally known as the V.I. Lenin Power Plant is located in northern Ukraine close to the border with Belarus. Four reactors had been built and were in use with the fifth and sixth reactors being built.
The description below is a simplified version of events. I do not understand enough about nuclear power to give exact details! However the article by the Nuclear Energy Institute gives all the details you need in a compact and sensible format with links to detailed articles.
The power plant was functioning normally on the evening of the 25th April 1986. Although there had been previous incidents at the plant it was running safely. A routine test to ascertain whether the reactor could function in a power cut and an emergency shutdown, was scheduled. It had been postponed from earlier in the day and the staff working over night had not been fully briefed. It was known that the reactor was unstable when the power dropped.
The test commenced at 1.23am and from the outset it did not go to plan. A rapid increase in power occurred which could not be controlled. The control rods, which are now known to be flawed, fractured causing them to get jammed, leading to a second spike in the power output of the reactor. Within three seconds the power output rose to 530MW, a average output for many nuclear power stations over a 24 hour period.
At 1.24am, under a minute after the test started two large explosions ripped through the power plant. The first was a steam explosion that tore off the 1500-tonne reactor cover sending it through the roof of the reactor building, crushing the rods inside. The second more powerful explosion was caused by the superheated reactor core elements being exposed to air and igniting. This spread 5% of the reactor (the radioactive part of the power plant) over a wide area instantly and as it continued to burn during the following week, plumes of radioactive fallout were sent into the atmosphere. 60% of the fallout fell on neighbouring Belarus with the clouds drifting over much of Europe and the Soviet Union.
The first deaths were of the engineers working in the control room. One died instantly, the second a few days later from the effects of the explosion and acute radiation sickness. A further 29 people died shortly afterwards. Most of them were the firefighters sent in to put out the initial fire. They were either not aware of, or not told of the high levels of radiation that they would be exposed to and went in to fight the fires unprotected. Their clothes and belongings remain in the basement of Pripyat Hospital today. Too contaminated with radiation to be moved.
As time progressed many of the miners who tunneled under the reactor to make it safe and the pilots who flew over the reactor were affected by their exposure to the radiation as well.
During the fire, the core of the reactor had melted and breached the cracked concrete floor of the reactor building. This fuel ‘lava’ has now solidified and remains in place. The largest piece is called the ‘elephant’s foot’ due to its size and appearance. Had this broken through the base of the building and seeped into the ground the disaster would have been even more catastrophic. This was the primary reason for the miners being sent in to tunnel under the reactor and make the area secure.
One of the first things that the liquidators (the people sent in to clear up) had to do was to extinguish the fire inside the reactor. This was done using helicopters, dropping clay and sand into the gaping hole in the roof. Once the reactor fire was under control and eventually extinguished a protective sarcophagus was built over the shell to contain the radiation emitted from the solidified lava within the building.
The City of Pripyat
Pripyat was a model city of the Soviet government and was built in 1970 for the workers of the power plant. A total of 12 reactors were planned in the power plant that was located 3 kilometres from the city. The population of 50000, with an average age of 26 years, were not told anything about the disaster or the threat of the radioactive fallout that was showering down on the city.
Within a few hours of the accident the radiation levels within the city had soared to over 200000 times the normal levels.
It wasn’t until 2pm on the 27th April that the order to evacuate was given. People had been oblivious to the risks, despite an increase in military personnel in protective clothing within the city. The new amusement park, in place for May Day was opened early and business carried on as normal throughout the city.
People in the city were told that they would be away for a short while and to just take the bare essentials. Pets were abandoned as people believed they would return. All 50000 people were evacuated and would never return. The queue of 1200 buses waiting to take the inhabitants from the city stretched for 25 kilometers.
After the city was evacuated an exclusion zone was put in place and the liquidators moved in. Their job was to reduce and remove as much radioactive material from the city as well as clear buildings. This was a hard and dangerous job and whilst official numbers are not available it is believed that many either died from or are still suffering from the effects of the radioactive materials they were exposed to.
Pripyat was never inhabited again and stands empty today, a ghost town crumbling away as nature reclaims its open spaces and buildings. Many of the former inhabitants of Pripyat now live in the newly built city of Slavutych, 30 kilometres north-east of their old homes. Some have returned against the wishes of the government to the villages surrounding Pripyat and live a self sufficient life.
What and where is the exclusion zone around Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant?
The exclusion zone around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was put into effect on the 2nd May 1986. It is divided into four distinct areas based on the amount of radiation risk. There are twelve checkpoints into the zone, with further checkpoints as you pass into the different zones.
There are also radiation dosimeter checkpoints on leaving the zone at the nuclear power plant (going into the canteen), leaving the closed zone at the Pripyat checkpoint and when leaving the 30km exclusion zone checkpoint at Dytyatki.
Everyone and every vehicle is screened at these checkpoints and if needed decontamination will happen before you can leave the zone.
The exclusion zone covers 2600 square kilometers (the equivalent area of land to the whole of Luxembourg) and has resulted in 94 towns, villages and cities being abandoned. This includes areas in both Ukraine and Belarus with 154km of the border between the two countries being within the zone.
As a visitor, you cannot visit this area without an official, trained guide. There are rules in place for both residents, workers and visitors which are adhered to. Some people get a great thrill from entering the zone illegally and there is a lot of talk about S.T.A.L.K.E.R.S and where they target within the zone. This includes places such as the hospital basement where the fire fighters clothing is stored.
Is it safe to visit the Exclusion zone - radiation explained
Having worked with radiation for nearly 30 years, visiting the exclusion zone did not worry me. From a very basic perspective - if there was a risk they would not allow the number of people that currently enter the zone to be there. Monitoring is constant, everyone is issued with a dosimeter and the guides have a dosimeter with tracking device so the groups route within the zone can be assessed with associated risks. There are rules which ensure safety is maintained.
To put things into perspective, a single chest x-ray will give you a dose of 0.1mSv (a Sievert is the unit of radiation). A cross country flight will give a dose of 0.04mSv. One day in Chernobyl will give between 0.003 and 0.005mSv depending on where you go and everyone receives about 3mSv a year just from the sun and background radiation.
The area has been thoroughly cleaned and areas where there are exceptionally high doses such as the Hospital basement, the Red Forest, the Jupiter factory and the old sarcophagus are all strictly off limits. Driving past the Red Forest set all of the geiger counters in the van off, a chirping that subsided as we passed the area. There are some hotspots which give higher readings but the guides are aware of these. You are encouraged to find them and see how the readings change. The highest, at 0.3mSv, that we encountered was on the underside of the Ferris wheel capsule. However given that we stayed in the location for just a few seconds, even this was not a problem.
In some areas there are radiation signs by the roadside. These indicate areas of higher radiation that need to be avoided.
In radiation protection, distance, time and shielding are the key elements. At Chernobyl you do not spend long periods of time near high sources, you are a safe distance from any sources (radiation can only travel so far before losing energy) and highly radioactive areas are shielded - the old sarcophagus, the concrete surrounding the hospital basement (radiation only has so much energy to penetrate materials) as prime examples of this principle.
The biggest risks in the zone is contamination from radioactive dust and the collapse of buildings. The rules of the zone address both of these risks, however both are minimal risks if you stay with your guide and do as you are told.
Places to See within the Chernobyl exclusion zone
Zalissya is a small village just inside the exclusion zone. It has a number of buildings including the Palace of Culture which remain today. The main road through the village is slowly disappearing as the forest surrounding it encroaches on the boundaries. The village was the first to be totally abandoned in May 1986, despite being one of the last to be evacuated.
Kopachi is a small village located 3km from the Nuclear Power Plant. It was subjected to such high levels of radiation during the disaster that the entire village was destroyed by the liquidators and buried. All that remains is the Kindergarten and the war memorial. The kindergarten brings home the reality of the evacuation and how young most of the population in the area actually were.
Chernobyl is now the main town within the exclusion zone. It is where the workers at the power plant live when they are within the zone and where tourists stay if they are on multi day tours. The church, Wormwood memorial, museum and only remaining Lenin memorial in Ukraine are in the centre of the town. A memorial to the who saved the world stands outside the fire station, a place that deserves a minute or two of reflection and is close to a display of all the remote controlled vehicles they attempted to use during the liquidation process.
Pripyat was the main city which housed the workers from the nuclear power plant. It was fully evacuated on the 27th April 1986 and no-one has ever returned. It now stands empty, being taken over by nature. The streets and buildings are still recognisable and looking through windows and doors (with your own safety in mind) shows how the city lived and worked in 1986. The main square with the hotel and Palace of Culture as well as a supermarket and larger tower blocks are the main areas to explore, although walking through other areas are interesting. There is a riverside cafe with stained glass windows, cinema and concert hall with amazing mosaics, a river port and swimming pool that are all interesting to visit without breaking any of the building entry rules.
Pripyat Amusement Park
The Pripyat amusement park is an icon of the disaster. It is located just behind the main square. It only opened on the morning of 27th April before the order to evacuate was given, so was never really enjoyed by the people of the city. It has bumper cars, swing boats and a paratrooper ride as well as the large 26m high Ferris wheel. This area was used by helicopters during the liquidation process and radiation levels here are higher than is some other places.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
The power plant is now closed and is in the process of being decommissioned. It is where most people now living within the zone work. Tours around the power plant are possible, but just exploring the area around the plant shows how important this area was to the country. A memorial stands to those who lost their lives in the initial explosion and fire. The new safe confinement sarcophagus is now in place and can be seen across the city of Pripyat. A memorial sits behind the new safe confinement in memory of those who gave their lives.
Duga radar System
The Duga Radar System is an over the horizon radar system installed in the 1970’s. It was visible from Pripyat but no-one was really sure of its function. It is now decommissioned and stands in a rusting tower over-looking the empty city and countryside. The sheer scale is impressive and the garrison surrounding it as with the rest of area stands empty and engulfed by nature.
Wildlife in the exclusion zone
Since the exclusion zone was put in place, wildlife has been able to flourish. As well as the numerous dogs who are descendents of the pets left behind, wolves and foxes have taken over the area. Lynx are seen in the forests on a regular basis as are elk and wild boar. There have also been sightings of brown bears.
Przewalski's horses are found within the exclusion zone as well. These beautiful and unique horses were once facing extinction but were introduced into the exclusion zone and are now thriving. They are a unique species having never been cross bred with domesticated horses and are believed to be the only true ‘wild’ horses.
Within Pripyat, butterflies are everywhere as are huge numbers of fire bugs. Everywhere you looked these small orange/red and black beetles were present scurrying around in the spring sunshine.
There are mixed thoughts on the effect on nature. Some reports show that nature is flourishing, especially in areas where radiation levels are low. However there is also evidence that in areas of higher radiation levels the populations are struggling with shorter life expectancy and mutations. A defininteve measure of the outcome to wildlife will probably not be known for many years.
Photography Notes Including safety
Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a dream location for photographers although it felt uncomfortable at times. The whole city of Pripyat, in reality is a place of mass disaster and multiple deaths. I feel strongly that respect should be shown, especially when visiting and photographing homes and memorials.
That aside, the buildings make the perfect backdrop for scenes of decay. In some places items have very clearly been staged. In the kindergarten dolls have had gas masks put on them and in other areas gas masks hang in the street. This is no how it would have been left by either the residents or the liquidators, but over time things have evolved and been moved.
Take care when taking photographs. Remember not to crouch down or kneel. It is easy to forget that the ground may be contaminated, a wall may have a hotspot of radiation and leaning on a hot wall to steady yourself is not a smart move. Also keep your spacial awareness switched on. There may be low hanging parts to a building or trees that can catch you if you are photographing through a window or doorway.
There is no restriction on tripods, but personally I chose not to take one. Keeping the feet clean seemed like a lot of effort for minimal gain. On most tours you only have a few minutes to grab the shots you can so higher ISO and a low shutter speed is more efficient than a tripod and time to get the perfect shot set up. This really is a grab and go situation.
If you want to go specifically for photography then speak to your guide when you meet (or even better when you book). They are open to suggestions for modifying the plan and our guide took us to some less visited locations to get some shots that our group had in mind. It is also worthwhile when planning your trip to explore what others are taking and posting on social media. This will give you a few ideas of where the tours are visiting and what is possible, but there is so much to photograph in the city that originality will not be difficult.
When is the best time to visit chernobyl and pripyat?
Chernobyl and Pripyat can be visited at any time of the year. The best times are spring and autumn.
In winter the weather is mixed with snow on the ground and temperatures below zero. A lot of the day is spent outside and even with warm sunshine the cold can chill you.
In the summer it gets very warm and one of the zone rules is that arms and legs have to be covered at all times including closed shoes. On a very warm day, this dress code combined with not being able to drink outside of the van can make it quite an intense and exhausting experience. In the summer months the trees are in full leaf and many of the buildings and paths become obscured and impassable.
In spring and autumn, the weather is cool but not at either extreme. The trees are not in full leaf making it possible to see the buildings properly and especially in autumn the colours can make the area look beautiful.
How do you get to the Exclusion zone?
The exclusion zone is about two hours drive from Kyiv in Ukraine. The only way to legally enter the zone is as part of a tour group. There are lots of companies available operating from Kyiv.
If you decide to go to the Exclusion Zone you will need to plan the trip in advance. Passport details and an application have to be submitted by your tour company in advance of your visit. The earlier you book, the easier the process is.
There is no way you can arrive at the checkpoint and gain entry.
How to choose a tour of the exclusion zone
Choosing a tour is a personal preference. I am a firm believer that the website and email communications of a company can tell you a lot. When booking look for group size. Would you rather explore with five or six other people or thirty? I know which I would prefer.
Look at the places they will take you; are they things you want to do? I have no interest in touring the power plant as I live near one and know how it works, however I did want to see buildings and find out more about Pripyat.
You also need to look at the duration of the tour. Some depart Kyiv at 7.30am and return at 8pm, while others leave at 9am and return at 6pm for a similar cost. Given the journey to the exclusion zone is 2-3 hours each way, and Pripyat is at least another hours drive within the zone, a 9 hour day doesn’t leave much time for exploring.
I am not going to share the company I used to visit the zone, but if you want details please message me. They were absolutely fantastic and the tour was excellent.
Should you stay in chernobyl?
This is without a doubt a massive YES! Some of the tours offer multiple days in the zone. This is a great way to see more and also experience the zone without others around. The main checkpoint opens at 10am and closes at 6pm. If you stay in the zone you can be on the road and exploring at 8am and can keep going until sunset. That is a lot of time without day trippers.
Staying in the zone also means you get to include more locations. This gives you a greater understanding of the zone and how the disaster unfolded. Lots of the reviews on one day trips are from people left wanting more. Even with more time in the zone I still want to return.
The hotel in the zone, called “10” is comfortable but basic. All the rooms are twins with shared bathrooms. The meals are solid hearty Ukrainian food with soups and desserts as well as meaty main courses. Food in the Nuclear Power Plant canteen is also available during the tour and this is an experience in itself that everyone should have. The food is interesting but basic. A real travel memory!
If you stay in the zone there is a curfew at 8pm, alcohol can only be purchased between 7 and 9pm and after 10pm the grills on the doors and windows are locked. This is not just for tourists. All the residents and workers in the exclusion zone live with the same rules to ensure safety.
Rules in the Exclusion zone (and why they are there)
There are a number of rules that are in place once you are inside the exclusion zone. The guides will ensure you keep to them and will pull you up pretty quickly if you forget.
When entering the zone you have to have long trousers and sleeves as well as full shoes. This reduces the risk of contamination from radiation to the skin. This is fine in the cooler months but in the heat of summer it can make it fairly uncomfortable.
You should not eat or drink outside of the hotel or transport. It is also suggested that you wash your hands well before eating or drinking. This just reduces the risk of ingesting any particles that may be on your hands.
Bags and cameras should not be placed on the ground. Again this is to prevent them from picking up any radioactive material from the ground.
Since 2016 it has been illegal to go inside the buildings. There is the equivalent of a £20 fine for you as an individual as well as implications for the guide and their company if you are caught entering the buildings. This is due to their decay and collapse. You can still get a feel for the buildings and their former use just be looking through windows and doors. Some tours will take you inside buildings but this has to be done at your own risk, quietly and without being seen entering or leaving.
If you stay in the zone overnight you must adhere to the curfew and drinking rules. This is enforced by the guides and the hotel and covers everyone in the zone not just the visitors.
Tips for visiting the exclusion zone
The tours that run in the zone will cater for all your needs once you have met them, but it is worth finding out where your meeting point is and how to get there. The city of Kyiv is bigger than you think. Uber works well and was our go to for getting to the meeting point at 7am on a sleepy Sunday morning.
Take plenty of water and snacks with you. Drinks are provided with the meals (locally made fruit juice), but for the time when you are out you do need your own water. It is easier to bring it in than trying to buy once you arrive in Chernobyl. Most tours stop at a service station for coffee and snack purchases on the way out of Kyiv.
Snacks are essential. The meals are hearty, but depending on your taste may be limited. They are local Ukrainian meals which are very different to Western meals. It is also a long day so having energy boosts when you get back on the bus between sites is needed.
If you stay overnight take the bare minimum with you. There isn’t time for pampering, it really is eat, sleep, shower, eat, leave. The day was so long that it was all we could do to stay awake whilst eating.
Is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone for Me?
Only you can answer that question, but I would encourage everyone to visit to understand the full consequences of nuclear power in depth. It is an intense place, however if you have a desire to understand 20th Century history, our impact on the environment and how nature can heal itself then it is worth the time to visit. It is not a luxury trip and should be undertaken with respect for all of those involved.