On April 26, 1986, during a test to see how much power was needed to keep the No. 4 reactor operating in the event of a blackout, the Chernobyl Nuclear Station exploded, releasing extremely dangerous amounts of radioactive chemicals into the air, which over time contaminated millions of square miles in dozens of European nations. It is estimated that thousands of deaths were directly caused by the explosion, while still more people suffered from illnesses brought about by radiation exposure. The town closest to the No. 4 reactor was Pripyat, a city of 49,000 founded in 1970 to house workers from Chernobyl. Only about three kilometers from the plant, the entire city was forced to evacuate. Over two decades later, this ghost town is a freeze-frame of the Soviet Union in 1986. Communist propaganda still hangs on walls, personal belongings litter the streets and abandoned buildings. The hammer and sickle decorate lampposts, awaiting May Day celebrations that never took place. Toys are strewn about a schoolhouse where they were last dropped by children who are now fully grown. All clocks are frozen at 11:55, the moment the electricity was cut. Ironically the absence of humans has been excellent for the wildlife. In 1986 wildlife was not doing well in Chernobyl, outcompeted for resources by pine and dairy farms. After people left the deer and boar populations returned almost immediately, and despite having radiation levels thousands of times higher than normal, they were not showing obvious signs of mutations (though the plants got pretty weird including some actual glowing) and the animal populations grew enormously. After the elk, moose, deer and boars returned so did their predators the wolves and lynx. Today the animal populations more closely resemble that of a national park than a radioactive containment zone. As it turns out, from the animals point of view, a nuclear disaster is preferable to normal human habitation.
To tour Pripyat, Chernobyl, and the surrounding villages, one must first obtain a day or several-day pass from the government. These passes can be obtained through the touring companies (see below). There are five well-known tour agencies that take visitors to Pripyat. However, due to the lack of repair, the buildings and other structures in the town are becoming increasingly dilapidated. Because of this, many one-day tour companies will not let visitors into the buildings. Other than the crumbling buildings, safety is not a major concern. It takes between 300 and 500 roentgens per hour of radiation to deliver a lethal dose. Levels on the tour range from 15 to several hundred micro-roentgens per hour. All tours end with a screening for radiation levels. Already, after only two decades of abandonment, these cities are beginning to be swallowed up by the surrounding forest. Someday soon, they will no doubt be completely overgrown. On April 26, 1986, the No. 4 nuclear reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant near the city of Pripyat suffered from a catastrophic nuclear accident during a systems test. The resultant explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, which then spread over much of Western USSR and Europe. It is considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, and is one of only two classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale; the other level 7 event being the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in March 2011.
Radioactive iodine and other dangerous radioactive elements released from the explosion and subsequent venting from the damaged containment structure rose into the air and spread across millions of square miles, polluting many European nations. Potassium iodide was distributed in the immediate areas surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, including the Pripyat region where most of the workers lived. The distribution of the contamination was determined by the weather conditions at the time. The radioactive plume touched down many times in numerous populated areas as far out as 500 km (over 300 miles) from the plant site.
The disaster arose during a systems test of the No. 4 reactor. There was a sudden power output surge experienced during a procedure intended to determine how much power was needed to keep the reactor operating during a blackout. When an emergency shutdown was attempted a more extreme spike in power output occurred. It was this extreme spike incident that ultimately led to a reactor vessel rupture and a series of explosions. These catastrophic events were not correctly managed or contained and as a result the graphite moderator of the reactor was exposed to air, causing it to ignite. The damaged reactor vessel released contaminated material into the compromised containment structure, a plume of radioactive smoke and debris particulate then vented into the atmosphere and dispersed over an extensive geographical area, including Pripyat. The explosion and fire ejected hot particles of nuclear fuel and fission products, radioactive isotopes including caesium-137, iodine-131, strontium-90 and other radionuclides, into the air. The resultant plume arising from the damaged plant drifted over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe. Data released in the post-Soviet era indicates that about 60% of the fallout landed in Belarus. Although analysis of the precipitating events remains controversial, there were contributing human errors the cause of the incident was essentially one of flawed reactor and operational systems design, flawed control rod tip design, and defective operational training.
Pripyat, the town closest to the reactor is only 3 km away and was home to 49,000 residents before the disaster, mostly the families of the plant workers. The city of Chernobyl is only 4 km to the south of the reactor. High radiation levels forced the evacuation of more than 100,000 people from the region surrounding Chernobyl, but although about 700 residents have since returned to live in the region, none have reoccupied the actual town of Pripyat.
Pripyat is a freeze-frame of 1980s Soviet life. Propaganda slogans still hang on walls, and children's toys and other items remain as they were. But buildings are rotting, paint is peeling and looters have taken away anything that might have been of value. Trees and grass are eerily reclaiming the land. Today, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a tourist destination. In 2002, it opened for tourism, and in 2004 there were 870 visitors.
The accident that destroyed the Chernobyl 4 reactor is understood to have directly led to the death of 31 reactor operating staff, emergency responders and firemen within three months of the incident. An undetermined number of further deaths arose from exposure to radiation during the initial crisis and the ongoing contamination of the plant and environs.
Almost thirty years after the accident, debate still rages about the number of directly related deaths. Fearing bad PR, the U.S.S.R. for several years forbade medical examiners from listing radiation as a cause of death. Estimates of deaths related to the accident range from 56 to thousands. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests the final figure could reach 4,000 civilian deaths, a figure not including casualties amongst clean-up workers drawn from the Soviet military forces. The numbers presented for consequential death from radiation exposure induced illness and cancer vary considerably and range upward toward just short of 1,000,000 potential casualties. A Russian publication concluded that between 1986-2004 there were 985,000 premature cancer deaths worldwide as a result of radioactive contamination from Chernobyl.
Each tourist coming to the Chernobyl exclusion zone has to sign the rules and obey them during the tour. You can find them here: http://www.chtoa.org/tourist-rules/
To gain access to Pripyat, Chernobyl or any of the surrounding villages, you will need to enter the 30 km exclusion Zone - and to do that, you will need to arrange a day pass. The easiest way of obtaining one of these is through a tour operator, of which there are many based in Kiev.
Government agency with jurisdiction over the site in regulation №1157 stipulates that a request for a Zone permit must be applied for at least 10 office days (which can make up to 14 calendar days) prior to the planned visit.
Chernobyl reactor 4
You'll not be able to get too close, but the nearest observation point is 200 meters from the reactor sarcophagus. The only way to get into the reactor is if you are a scientist or a film maker that has had months of preparation in advance. Although radiation levels here will be much higher than elsewhere in the region, you will not be able to pick up a significant dose during your stay. Typical dose at the site seems to be about 5-9 microsieverts (0.5-0.9 mR/h) (winter), slightly higher in the summer. However, measurements done from the observation point in October 2008 only showed a value of 0.14 microsieverts (0.014 mR/h). There is a visitor's centre with a very interesting model of the damaged reactor, where the plans for building the new sarcophagus over the facility will be explained to you.
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
The power plant itself, home to four decommissioned RBMK-1000 reactors, offers amazing insight into Soviet nuclear and architectural engineering practices for those able to arrange in-depth visits. Commercial tours stop only at the Reactor 4 observation pavilion. Visitors wishing to experience the interior of the plant must request permission via a letter faxed to the plant's general director (currently Igor Gramotkin) as outlined on the plant's website. The letter should introduce you or your group, and explain in detail what you want to see. Admission, by no means guaranteed, presumably favors professionals employed in relevant fields. Visitors are issued badges and indirectly-read TLD-type dosimeters at the power plant entrance, then pass through a modern security checkpoint in the ABK-1 administrative building, and thereafter are given cotton coats, caps, and booties in preparation for entering the radiological control zone. A higher standard of dosimetry and personal protective equipment may be issued for some areas, such as the "Sarcophagus." Visitors' own dosimetry devices are not allowed inside ChNPP. Always be mindful that this is a fueled nuclear facility and security is taken seriously. Strictly follow directions from plant personnel about photography, and never attempt to rest anything on the floor (it may be confiscated due to contamination). The exit portal monitors at ChNPP are thankfully much less sensitive than those found in most American nuclear plants, but still it's a good idea to wear fresh clothes and shoes rather than articles that may have been contaminated elsewhere in the Zone. In 2011, visitation was allowed to Unit 3 main circulation pump rooms, the live 750-kV switchyard control room, the Unit 1 control room, the Phase 1 dosimetry panel, and the memorial to engineer Valery Khodemchuk in the ventilation building between Reactors 3 and 4, among other places. The turbine hall was closed due to excessive radioactivity in 2011, but was accessible in 2010. A particularly interesting place is the bunker under ABK-1 that is used as an emergency response center (as it was in the 1986 accident).
In Chernobyl is a cafeteria and bar Desiatka that serves freshly-prepared and appetizing Ukrainian food. They offer also accomodation in their 2** rooms.
Some commercial tours may stop to feed bread to the monstrous catfish living in the condenser cooling channel that flows under the railroad bridge near ABK-1. Do not take pictures in the direction of the power plant from this location. (Your guide will probably make this rule abundantly clear.)
ChNPP has its own train station, Semikhody. Trains travel without stopping between Semikhody and Slavutych. The service is free. As there are no stops while the train passes through Belarus, there are no border controls. Visitors exiting the Exclusion Zone via Semikhody must pass through a portal monitor and their personal belongings may be frisked for radionuclide contamination.
Vehicle scrap yard
"Rossokha" village, cemetery of military machineries - In April 2008 the government prohibited access to this site and it has remained closed to visitors. The scrap yard contains the irradiated emergency vehicles which tended the disaster. There are a number of fire tenders, ambulances, trucks and helicopters in the vehicle graveyard, although some of the vehicles are now being sold as scrap metal. Because of that and still often lethal radiation, the whole graveyard has been shrinked and today you can see only some of the machinery - helicopters, tanks, ambulances etc.
The famous abandoned city, which once housed 50,000 residents. Sights to see are the schools, kindergarten, public buildings and the amazing cultural palace which contains a swimming pool, cinema and gymnasium, and overlooks the famous ferris wheel. Hazards are the crumbling buildings, and decaying wooden floors in places - so be careful. As of July 2008, most tours will not let you enter the buildings due to their current structural stability.
Minibus day-trips from Kiev typically stop in the town's center, at the west end of Lenin Street near the Palace of Culture. Short-term visitors are confined to the pavement at ground level; if you join one of these tours, your risk exposure is minimal, but so too is your exposure to the vast cultural reliquary that is Pripyat. A more in-depth visit (several days, staying overnight at the Desiatka hotel in Chornobyl, eating meals at the Desiatka restaurant) costs about $400 per person (2014). The long-term visitor is rewarded with considerably more freedom to explore, accompanied of course by an guide.
Decades of neglect have resulted in a physically-hazardous ex-urban environment in which radiation is of distant, secondary concern. Hazards include uncovered manholes in the middle of barely-recognizable streets, open elevator shafts, flooded basements, decayed wooden floors, collapsed roofs, large amounts of broken glass, challenging footpath obstructions in dark hallways, and quite possibly asbestos. Flashlights are essential to exploring interiors. Although radiation isn't a relatively major concern, the "hotter" spots in town would most certainly be off-limits to the public in the United States or Western Europe. As an example, the basement of the Hospital contains first responders' clothing (firefighters' clothes, boots, helmets, etc.) and presents external gamma exposure rates approaching one roentgen (R) per hour (June 2010). Some other hot spots are well-known to guides and they can either help you avoid these places or find them if so inclined. The most important precaution concerning radioactivity is to avoid ingesting loose contamination. Although your guide might eat snacks or smoke in Pripyat, you should not--particularly if you have been handling things or visiting places like the hospital basement. Buy an ample supply of drinking water at one of the the magazines in Chornobyl before going to Pripyat. (Obviously there is not potable water there.) Water can also be used to rinse contaminated shoes before re-entering vehicles.
There are a great number of abandoned villages in the exclusion zone, and all are extremely interesting to view. Visitors can see farmhouses, small cottages and plenty of vegetation. Be careful entering any of these areas, as vegetation always carries far higher levels of residual radioactivity than concreted areas. Guides will always tell you not to step on the moss, and the dust in dried-out puddles tends to concentrate radioactivity.
Your tour will probably include food, but you're advised to bring your own snacks and drinks. However, some tours let you visit the only shop in Chernobyl where you can buy a beer for your meal. By the end of the tour, you just might need it. There is other alcohol sold there, too. In fact a liter of vodka can be had for only a few dollars. However, it is worth stocking up on a few bottle of water before you leave Kiev, because you might not go to the shop until the end of your tour.
If you get access to the Chernobyl administration centre, you will be able to buy souvenirs, such as books detailing the disaster.
In Chernobyl town there is a canteen for the maintenance crews that work in the exclusion zone. If you are on a guided tour you can eat there. All foreign visitors to Chernobyl will likely dine at restaurants in the surrounding area.
If staying overnight the restaurant Desiatka in Chernobyl town is used to provide dinner/breakfast. If you bring meals and drinks with you, make sure to keep them well sealed, and avoid opening/consuming any food or drinks in the open air within the 10 km area around the power plant. Clean your hands thoroughly before touching any food.
Tap water in the area remains unsafe for drinking or washing because of the radiation that leaked into surrounding dams, lakes and rivers, so stick to bottled water or mineral water - which in Ukraine is predominantly sparkling.
Visitors have three (legal) options for spending the night in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and it is the government-run hotel in central Chernobyl (temporatily closed), hotel Pripyat (very old-school) and newly built Desiatka hotel. Any of the tour companies mentioned elsewhere on this page can, in principle, make bookings for visitors at any hotel as part of the process of registering the tour with the government agency.
If you are accustomed to lodging standards in Kiev, you will find the InterInform Agency hotel surprisingly affordable for the level of comfort provided. The buildings are prefabricated structures installed after the 1986 accident. Many rooms are actually suites, some larger than others. Some rooms have useful amenities like refrigerators, dining tables, sofas, or dishes--luck of the draw. Each room has its own bathroom and shower. Tap water is potable. As of 2014 wifi is available. The buildings are not air-conditioned, but (hopefully!) the windows will be unlocked and screened in the summer. The main Interinform office building has the largest suites, while the annex to the east contains more rooms and even a chapel on the first floor with faux-stained-glass windows. Radiation levels at the InterInform Hotel are close to Kiev background.
Desiatka hotel is much better equipped - besides new showers, bedrooms etc. (2014) there is wifi and TV in the room, the bar (restaurant) is just next door. Good travel operators accomodate visitors here. However, low-cost tours accomodate people to the old Pripyat hotel across the street which is not so comfortable and clean.
Hotel guests are NOT PERMITTED TO LEAVE the premises without an authorized guide! This includes innocuously walking 500m down the street to buy drinks / snacks / batteries at one of the magazins. If the very-abundant police catch you out on the town without your guide, you can expect a pleasant little march over to the police station near the Lenin statue / old Dom Kulturi, where they have an open-air gazebo set up with folks like you in mind. There you'll wait in contrition until your guide retrieves you.
The Desiatka restaurant, located on the ground floor of the west building, offers prix fixe dining by reservation only. Restaurant serves three meals a day at fixed times. Dinner is a multi-course, freshly-prepared, traditional Ukrainian set meal with very large portions and typically paired with a traditional beverage like kompot; even after a day of strenuous exploration in Pripyat, it may be hard to eat all the food they bring you, at the pace they bring it. Chances are nobody will check you for contamination or remind you to wash up before eating, but that would be a very good idea to do on your own.
If in Pripyat, exercise caution when entering buildings—the ground around entrances to, and inside buildings will generally be littered with broken glass, concrete and debris. Be sure to take care inside buildings as the flooring can be be somewhat uneven (and sometimes unstable). Watch your footing—a decent pair of shoes/boots would be a good idea. Some buildings are very dark - a pocket torch might be of use.
As of April 2012 tours are no longer allowed to enter the buildings due to an accident occurring involving a floor collapsing injuring several tourists. However, some tour companies may show more discretion than others.
The levels of radiation on guided tours are relatively small; radiation levels in most places are less than those of being in an aircraft flying at 30,000 ft. The main danger is not in the radiation itself, but in particles of radioactive materials that may remain on your clothes or items.
A lethal dose of radiation is in the range of 3-5 sieverts (300-500 roentgens) when administered within an hour. Levels on the tour reportedly range from 0.15 to several microsieverts per hour (15 to several hundred microroentgens an hour). A microsievert is one-millionth of a sievert.
Example: On a six-hour trip arranged in October 2008 the total dose was 4 microsieverts according to the meter (400 microroentgens). This was less than the total dose of the connecting two-hour flight, which was 6 microsieverts (600 microroentgens). Radiation levels by the power plant were 1.7 microsieverts per hour (170 microroentgens per hour) and they varied between 0.4 and 9.5 microsieverts per hour (40-950 microroentgens per hour) in the Pripyat amusement park. Thus, risks are pretty much non-existent as long as you don't get yourself contaminated.
The International Council on Radiation Protection has a recommended annual limit of 50 millisieverts (5 rem) (uniform irradiation of the whole body) for nuclear plant workers.
Clinical effects are seen at 750-2,000 millisieverts (75-200 rem) when administered in a short time scale.
Since the levels are microsieverts (10^-6) the exposure level is very low. But it is still possible to be in contact with some very hot surfaces, so caution should be stressed. Note: One rem is equal to 1.07 R (roentgen), or 0.01 sieverts or 10 millisieverts.