Visiting the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone

Eric Rogers
Feb 1, 2018 · 11 min read

In October 2017 I visited the site of the most infamous nuclear power disaster in world history, the Chernobyl Power Plant in Ukraine (formerly part of the Soviet Union). This included the famous ghost city of Pripyat and other sites within a 30 kilometer exclusion zone that is permanently off-limits for most people.

Over the last decade Chernobyl has emerged as a disaster tourism destination, with around 20,000 people visiting per year. It is a very doable visit, but there aren’t many good resources for planning a trip. This post is about the logistics you need to plan and what you can expect to experience if you visit. At the end there are more resources for you to learn about the history of Chernobyl and tourism there.

My post about visiting Kyiv.

See all of my photos over on Flickr.


How to do it

Tour group required
Visiting the exclusion zone is regulated by the government and can only be done with a licensed tour group. Be sure to book at least 30 days in advance so the agency has time to file the required paperwork for you. There are several companies to choose from. I used SoloEast, one of the oldest Chernobyl tour companies, and was very happy with the entire experience.

My tour was a small group of about ten people in a comfortable mini-bus. It was good size for maintaining an intimate feeling, getting in out and of sites easily, and having some flexibility to follow people’s interests. There are also large motor-coach tours with 30-plus people, but those looked to be much less enjoyable. Do your research, and read reviews on sites like TripAdvisor.

Consider an overnight tour
I took a two-day tour staying overnight in the exclusion zone, and was very glad I did it. We saw more sights, were able to go at a leisurely pace, and had the flexibility to cater the itinerary to the group’s taste. This included three separate visits to Pripyat and lunch at the actual Chernobyl Power Plant canteen serving the workers who monitoring and dismantling the complex.

More on staying overnight in the exclusion zone below. Be sure to confirm your tour booking a week or so in advance. Longer tours are available for research and educational trips. Smaller groups can book private tours. The tour companies can talk to you about specific needs and interests. Most companies are responsive via email.

Don’t forget your passport
Government and military authorities will check your passport and the tour company’s paperwork very carefully. Be sure to triple check your passport number when booking your tour, and keep your passport on you at all times. If your passport number doesn’t match or you forget it, you will not be permitted inside the exclusion zone. And you will be left waiting at the checkpoint for 8–10 hours until your group finishes its tour.

When to go

A two-day tour will likely be Friday-Saturday or Sunday-Monday, giving you a less-busy weekday to explore the more popular sites. On a Saturday in October I saw at least 5–6 other small groups and 3–4 large groups on big buses.

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Memorial in front of The New Safe Confinement that now encloses he 1980s sarcophagus and the destroyed Reactor #4.

What you will see

1. Pripyat: The famous ghost city with the apartment blocks, amusement park, schools, etc. Most of the photos you see online come from Pripyat. You will likely see the spots of the most famous photos like the hospital, gas masks in the school, and amusement park. Many of these scenes have been staged, but there are still opportunities to find spots that are relatively undisturbed.

2. Chernobyl Town: The small town that is still inhabited by a couple thousand people working in the exclusion zone doing cleanup and research. Radiation safety rules require two rotations inside and outside the zone. Chernobyl town has a cafe a small hotel, a couple of hostels, and a small market. Your tour will likely stop here for lunch.

3. Chernobyl Power Plant: All tours let you stand outside the plant’s walls for a brief visit to the New Safe Confinement building that was constructed in 2016 to cover the destroyed reactor, and eventually allow for its dismantling. Depending on your tour, you might have lunch in the canteen serving the plant’s workers, especially on a two-day tour. It’s a traditional Ukrainian meal with pork and borscht.

Other destinations

Duga-3 radar array: A giant, horizon-dominating metal structure that was a long-distance radar receiver for detecting nuclear missiles coming from the US. Depending on your guide, you can climb the array and explore the adjoining control room and other Soviet military facilities.

Cooling Towers: Two of the large, distinctive nuclear towers were under construction at the time of the disaster. Your tour might visit the larger one, especially on a longer tour.

Jupiter Factory: The former electronics factory on the edge of Pripyat is relatively less disturbed and looted than most of the city. In addition to many post-apocalyptic industrial buildings, there are also many military and industrial vehicles.

Going inside the buildings

After more than 30 years of being reclaimed by nature, many buildings are starting to collapse and/or become too unstable to enter. An experienced guide will know where to go and where to avoid. However, always be careful where you step and test any precarious-looking floor boards before putting your full weight on them. There is some speculation that in another 5–10 years most of the buildings will be too dangerous to go inside.

The tallest apartment blocks in Pripyat are about 16 stories tall. It’s worth the climb to the top for the views of the reactor’s New Safe Confinement building, the Duga-3 radar array, and the surrounding forests. Keep in mind that these abandoned buildings do not have safety railings around the roofs. There are many dangerous things like open elevator shafts, holes in the floors, and collapsing stairs.

Inside the Pripyat maternity hospital

The Radioactive Puppies

The dogs hang out around Chernobyl Town, the hotel/cafe, and most of the military checkpoints. Many have ID tags in their ears, so I assume researchers are monitoring them. The soldiers and locals didn’t hesitate to pet the dogs, and neither did I!

All the dogs I met checked out OK on the Geiger counter, so they got lots of hugs from me.

Logistics

Gear and safety

Radiation

You will pass through a radiation detector when leaving the 10km and 30km checkpoints. If you’ve followed instructions you will have no problem passing the check. At worst you might need to clean dust/debris off your clothes if a higher level is detected. In rare cases an article of clothing may have to be left behind. Your guide will carry a Geiger counter, and you can rent your own for around $20.

Your total radiation exposure is estimated to be equivalent to one or town trans-Atlantic plane flights. Do you let fear of radiation keep you from flying?

Internet

Photography

Toilets

Staying overnight

Bring a small bag or day pack suitable for a couple hours away from the tour van. When staying overnight, a medium-sized backpack should also be OK. Pack super light. Suitcases will be cumbersome in a small group tour, and may not be allowed by your tour company. Leave them with your hotel in Kyiv.

Food and booze. All food and beverages are brought in from outside the exclusion zone, and you are not allowed to eat any berries or produce growing there. The cafe at the hotel has a small bar. If you are staying at a hostel, the market has a small selection of bottled water, beer, and vodka. Bring cash Hryvnia, as neither place is likely to take credit cards. There is a curfew of about 8:00 pm, and tourists are never allowed to walk around the town without their guide. Make sure you buy provisions before curfew.


Ethics

Dark Tourism

My personal experience was that many of large abandoned sites had a reverent or almost sacred feeling. The zone is generally very silent, adding to the somber, spiritual vibe.

Re-settlers

My tour visited an elderly woman living alone in a remote area of the exclusion zone. While the situation seems ripe for exploitation, our guide knew the woman personally. We all chipped in a few dollars to purchase some staples like sugar and flour to bring to her. She was delighted to see us and brought out a bottles of homemade pickles and her own homemade, honey-infused vodka. It was delicious! (But keep in mind it is technically against the rules to eat or drink anything produced inside the one) She was pleased to have visitors since her family wasn’t due to visit again for several weeks.


Resources and Information

Further reading

McClatchy DC: Ruined Chernobyl nuclear plant will remain a threat for 3,000 years (4/24/2016)
By former KC Star journalist Matt Schofield.

Washington Post: In Ukraine, a radioactive nuclear ghost town near Chernobyl is a hot destination (7/27/2017)

Wikivoyage Travel Guide to Chernobyl

More: All of my Chernobyl bookmarks

Movies and documentaries

The Babushkas of Chernobyl, documentary about the women who have moved back into the exclusion zone to live out their days in their old villages and farms.

Chernobyl’s Cafe, documentary about the small cafe and hotel that recently opened to serve the military, cleanup workers, scientists, and tourists in the zone.

The Chernobyl Diaries, an awesomely bad horror movie about tourists stranded overnight in the exclusion zone.

YouTube playlist

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This story was originally posted on my own web site, ericrogers.org.

Eric Rogers

Written by

Advocate. Geek. Traveler. Queso Enthusiast. Nature Aficionado. Social Entrepreneur. #KCMO