In the early hours of April 26th 1986, reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the town of Pripyat in northern Ukraine, two hours from Kiev, overheated and exploded. Radioactive material was thrown onto the reactor roof and covered the surrounding area. Plumes of debris rose 2km into the air and radiation was detected as far away as Iceland. The town was evacuated and a 30km exclusion zone put in place. Since 2010 it has been possible to visit the exclusion zone, though visitor numbers are still very low. The radiation released was 400 times that of Hiroshima. It was the worst nuclear disaster in history.
Today, around 400 people work inside the zone, two weeks on, two weeks off to limit exposure. Most of them are working on the cleanup, which will continue until 2065. The total cost so far of the cleanup operations, including construction of the sarcophagus in 1986 and the bigger “New Safe Confinement” dome in 2017, is almost $70 billion.
Around 300 people refused to leave and about 150 still live inside the zone. Now in their 70s and 80s, they continue to farm their ancestral land.
After Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, and the years of intense fighting in the area, some 2 million people have been displaced. Some of the refugees escaped the shelling and gunfire and found their way to the villages around the exclusion zone. A few dozen families have begun repopulating “the cheapest place to live in Ukraine”.
The abandoned town is a photographer’s heaven, but visiting the exclusion zone is also chilling, provocative, and rewarding. It’s something you will most likely only ever do once, so there are some things you should do to get the most out of your Chernobyl visit.
Choosing a tour for your Chernobyl visit
Most tours are day trips out of Kiev. It is a 2 hour drive from Kiev to Pripyat. Access to the exclusion zone is tightly controlled and you will need to travel with an authorised tour guide. You can’t simply rent a car and drive to the zone. Some trips include an overnight stay at a small hotel inside the zone, but there is a curfew at the hotel and you will not have freedom to just wander about at night. Check our guide to the best Chernobyl tours, and the ultimate guide to visiting Chernobyl.
Learning about Chernobyl
Some tours include a visit to the Kiev Chernobyl Museum, but you can also do this yourself. There are some great books about Chernobyl, and here are some of the best websites and videos to learn about Chernobyl.
A good starting point is Wikipedia. The competing claims and viewpoints in the article reveal how there is still a lot of disagreement about the basic facts and figures of the disaster even after more than 30 years.
An amazing story about the people who still live there shows how this disaster remains an overlooked humanitarian issue.
One of the most interesting aspects of learning about Chernobyl is the effect that the Soviet propaganda system had on obscuring the truth of the disaster. The full extent of the death toll and the true impact on the citizens of the former Soviet Union who were drafted in to help the cleanup, mostly without choice, is the subject of this BBC article.
Official rules for visiting Chernobyl are published by the Ukrainian government
You should also consider picking up a copy of a good guide book, such as the Lonely Planet country guide to Ukraine.
Chernobyl’s Cafe is a fascinating documentary that takes a look at whether the region can truly recover from its past. Tourism is growing and industry is returning as “the fears of older generations are replaced by the fascination of the new”, but this is still a very badly damaged area that will never truly return to normal. This documentary is haunting and emotional and very well narrated. Some of the claims may not stand up to careful scrutiny, but that is always the case with any reporting about Chernobyl. You will visit the actual Chernobyl’s Cafe on your tour of Pripyat.
Chernobyl – Sky Atlantic
The well-regarded drama series, Chernobyl, from Sky Atlantic is well worth a watch before your visit to Chernobyl. Yes, it takes some dramatic licence, but it is also a very well-crafted story of the desperation that is absolutely gripping. When you visit Chernobyl you will see the empty homes of families whose lives were upturned, but this acclaimed mini-series brilliantly brings to life the real stories of all those people. Unmissable.
What to do in Kiev
As well as visiting the Chernobyl Museum, Kiev is a beautiful and interesting place for a long weekend break. With more time it is also very easy to expand your visit to include the remarkable communist state of Belarus and tiny Moldova. Read our guides.