Is it safe to visit Chernobyl? Yes, it is widely agreed to be safe. The Ukraine government opened Chernobyl for tourism in 2010. The International Atomic Energy Agency agrees that exposure levels are acceptable for limited periods. Access is tightly controlled and all tours are led by qualified guides. On a typical day tour to Chernobyl and Pripyat you will receive a radiation dose lower than on a long haul flight and this is not a health hazard. The biggest danger is from the unstable structure of decaying buildings, many of which have had metal removed and are being overcome by nature.
Your guide won’t allow you into unsafe areas. Guides carry radiation detectors to show where hotspots are, but this is simply out of interest. The dangerous zones where radiation is still too high are well documented and access is prevented. There are wild animals including wolves and bears in the exclusion zone, but they stay away from the human activity in the visitor areas. You are unlikely to see anything more dangerous than a fox or a dog.
It’s a very common question, and quite rightly. Everyone knows that Chernobyl was the worst nuclear disaster to ever happen, and radioactive material takes decades or even hundreds of years to become safe. The cleanup operation is still ongoing and although there are more than 400 people working inside the exclusion zone they are subject to strict exposure controls and will work for a couple of weeks before an enforced absence for another two weeks.
When you visit Chernobyl you will be asked to sign a disclaimer, which some people find quite alarming. The disclaimer states:
I understand and fully realise staying in the area with high levels of ionizing radiation can cause potential harm to my life and health in the future.
Health experts agree that the risk is low from a day tour. There are even tours which include staying overnight at a hotel inside the zone, because the radiation exposure in most places is minimal. This disclosure is really designed to make sure that you are paying attention to the potential risks and are therefore more likely to obey your guide’s instructions.
The full official rules for visiting Chernobyl are published by the Ukrainian government. Every visitor has to pass through a radiation detector when leaving the exclusion zone, to ensure that no radioactive material is brought out. While visiting the zone you must be careful not to sit on the floor or lean against walls because your clothing can pick up radioactive dust. Most tours include a lunch stop. All the food and water served at the restaurant is brought in from outside the zone and is safe to consume. You must not eat or drink anything inside the zone. Smoking is not allowed due to the risk of forest fire in what is now an unprotected and uncontrolled wilderness area.
The exclusion zone is protected and enforced by the military, and police patrol the zone during daytime when tours are in operation.
Some areas are off limits. The hospital basement is where the first responder’s clothing and equipment was dumped and still has high radiation levels. Most buildings are unsafe and your guides will only take you in some of the bigger structures that are regularly visited and known to be safe.
There’s no traffic inside the exclusion zone, so in that respect you’re at lower risk of injury than during the rest of your time in Ukraine. Ukraine itself is safe to visit except for the south easter region around the Crimean peninsula, annexed by Russia in 2014 and from where over 2 million Ukrainians have been displaced, over 10,000 killed. Check your government’s official travel advice before making plans. For the UK, this is available from the FCO.
If you are particularly concerned but would still like to visit, note that in winter the snow cover helps to suppress the slightly radioactive dust on the ground. It also makes for some spectacular photographs.