Pripyat and Chernobyl tour – Extreme tourism in Ukraine

Pripyat fairground...and a significantly higher dose nearby

Key Facts

Location: Pripyat, Ukraine
Days: 1
Difficulty: 1/5
Guidebook: The Chernobyl Disaster

Chernobyl tours, visiting the area around the abandoned Chernobyl nuclear power plant and the city of Pripyat, have been offered for several years now. In the early hours of 26 April 1986, the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred when a botched experiment caused an explosion that destroyed reactor number 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Lethal radioactive material was spread over a wide area and an intense fire in the reactor core continued to pour out lethal radioactivity until the concrete ‘sarcophagus’ could be built over the reactor months later. Being the Soviet Union, the disaster was covered up for several days and only came to international attention when the Swedish noticed increased levels of radiation around one of their own nuclear power plants and started investigating. By that time radioactive clouds have traveled across large parts of Europe.

Today the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone covers over 2500 square kilometres of land – much of it heavily contaminated – around the former power plant. Devoid of human habitation, the area is rapidly becoming something of a wilderness. However parts of the zone are open for visitors, who can sign up for organised Chernobyl tours that visit the abandoned town of Pripyat and a site close to the remains of reactor number 4.

Entrance to the Chernobyl exclusion zone

Entrance to the Chernobyl exclusion zone

Inside the 30km exclusion zone some former residents have returned to live in the area, tolerated but not encouraged by the authorities. Within this area is the modern day Chernobyl town, populated by workers in charge of decommissioning the nuclear power plant. The last Chernobyl reactor was only shut down in 2001 and work will continue there for some years. All Chernobyl tours pass through here first to get a safety briefing and background information.

Chernobyl town

Modern day Chernobyl town

Dosimeter radiation reading in Chernobyl

Dosimeter reading in Chernobyl

On the edge of the town a memorial remembers those who lost their lives cleaning up the Chernobyl accident.

Chernobyl firefighters memorial

Monument to the firefighters who died containing the Chernobyl disaster

The right side of the memorial commemorates the firefighters who first responded to the explosion. Immediately after the accident at reactor 4, dozens of fires blazed in the vicinity, threatening the cooling systems of the adjacent reactor 3 and raising the spectre of a second nuclear explosion. The Chernobyl firefighters extinguished the blazes on and around the reactor, but received fatal radiation doses within minutes. A month later most were dead. Those who went to fight blazes on the reactor roof, directly above the exposed core, never came back.

Chernobyl firefighters memorial

Remembering the first responders – the firefighters who lost their lives trying to contain the blaze

The left side of the memorial remembers the 600,000 liquidators who cleaned up the aftermath and built the concrete protective shelter (the ‘sarcophagus’) in the following months. Before this could be done, the fire in the reactor core had to be extinguished and the myriad pieces of highly radioactive reactor core, scattered throughout the immediate vicinity, had to be put back inside the reactor building.

Robots were tried but their electronics quickly succumbed to the radiation, leaving the job to 600,000 military reservists, dubbed “liquidators” or “bio-robots”. These men ran onto the reactor roof, collected a shovel of material, and dumped it back into the hole in the roof. The radiation levels were so intense that they were limited to 45 seconds of exposure. Nevertheless, many received fatal doses while others survived but suffer health effects to this day. Many of these men receive no compensation for their injuries.

Chernobyl firefighters memorial

Remembering the liquidators who helped clean up the Chernobyl disaster

The 10km exclusion zone contains the most heavily contaminated land and only brief visits are allowed. As well as being covered in radioactive dust and fallout, much of this land was used as a dumping ground for the highly radioactive vehicles used in the clean up process. Chernobyl tours must pass quickly through the most dangerous areas such as the Red Forest, where much of the material was dumped.

Exclusion zone entrance on the Chernobyl tour

Radiation warning signs at the exclusion zone entrance

The road to the Chernobyl power plant passes the channels used to bring cooling water to the reactors. Opposite are the incomplete remains of reactors 5 and 6, under construction at the time of the accident and destined never to be finished.

Then suddenly, reactor four is in sight. Reactors 1 and 2 on the right, and on the left, encased in its concrete sarcophagus, reactor 4. From this distance it looks innocuous, but the contents of the hastily constructed concrete shell will still be deadly in 20,000 years.

Chernobyl reactors 1, 2, and 4

Reactor 4 on the left, with the unfinished reactors 1 and 2 on the right

Even here the radiation levels are relatively low – 0.6 μSv/h (microsivierts / hour) – about 5 times higher than 18 km away, but still well within safe limits for short exposure. The real danger here is contamination – or worse, ingestion – of dust or dirt which will continue to expose us to radiation after we leave the area.

The roar passes reactor 4 and the so called Red Forest, where the radiation was so intense it burned the trees. The trees have since regrown, but the dosimeter still screams its displeasure as we pass this short stretch. Abandoned buildings litter this area.

Abandoned factory building, Chernobyl

Abandoned buildings litter the area around the reactor

In front of reactor 4 stands another memorial to those affected by the accident. The concrete sarcophagus is slowly leaking radiation and is due to be replaced by another which will last 100 years. It won’t be the last. Here, a few hundred metres from the reactor, the dosimeter reads 2.91 μSv/h (micro-sivierts / hour). Apparently the reading nearer the fence a few metres away is 9 μSv/h – a fact I don’t feel the need to independently verify…

Chernobyl tour - concrete sarcophagus over reactor 4

Concrete sarcophagus over the abandoned Chernobyl reactor 4

Dosimeter showing Chernobyl radiation levels

Radiation levels near Chernobyl reactor 4

Chernobyl sarcophagus closeup

Close up of the sarcophagus ‘shelter object’

Chernobyl memorial stone

“To those who protected the world from nuclear disaster.”

The primary stop on most Chernobyl tours is the abandoned city of Pripyat. Just 2 kilometres from the nuclear power plant, a model town built for the Chernobyl plant workers and their families. It housed 50,000 people and despite its proximity to the plant, it was not evacuated until 36 hours after the accident. It has been abandoned ever since and now stands as if in a time warp, gradually decaying.

Pripyat sign city

Entering Pripyat

The main road in is overgrown and the summer greenery hides the former town square.

Approaching Pripyat

Approaching Pripyat near the hotel

Abandoned hotel in Pripyat

The former hotel, long abandoned

Many of the buildings here, including the former hotel and the Palace of Culture, have been stripped by vandals and looters in the years after the town’s abandonment. Despite its reputation as a perfectly preserved “ghost town”, much of Pripyat has suffered this fate. Some families were allowed into the town in the weeks after the accident to collect their possessions, and poor security in the exclusion zone allowed looters to take much of the remaining material. According to our guide the effect is less the higher you go in the apartment buildings – TVs and sofas being much easier to carry from the ground floors than the upper levels!

Poison apples growing in Pripyat, Chernobyl

Applies, poisoned by radiation, growing in Pripyat, Chernobyl

Palace of Culture, Pripyat, Chernobyl

Steps to the former Palace of Culture

Abandoned buildings in Pripyat

View towards the former hotel in Pripyat, Chernobyl

Mural in Palace of Culture, Pripyat

Mural in the abandoned Palace of Culture

Abandoned courtyard, Pripyat

Courtyard in the abandoned town of Pripyat

Inside the gym 25 year old notice boards remember sporting successes, as nature slowly takes over.

Abandoned gym, Pripyat

The abandoned gym in Pripyat

Abandoned notice board

An abandoned notice board, complete with decaying photos of sports events, in Pripyat gym

The story of the amusement park – due to open on May Day 1986, just days after the accident, is fairly well known. These rides were never used and now stand rusting.

Abandoned fairground ride

Abandoned fairground ride in Pripyat

Abandoned bumper cars, Pripyat

The famous abandoned bumper cars in Pripyat fairground

Abandoned ferris wheel, Chernobyl

Ferris wheel

Radiation levels vary drastically here. A relatively low 0.89 μSv/h in part of the amusement, but just two metres away, the bumper cars kick out 2.47 μSv/h – a similar level to right outside reactor 4. I always knew bumper cars were dangerous.

Bumper cars radiation reading, Pripyat

Low dose in one spot…

Pripyat fairground, visited by all Pripyat tours

…and a significantly higher dose nearby

Around every corner long abandoned buildings are slowly crumbling, their original purposes as homes or offices long forgotten.

Pripyat abandoned buildings

Abandoned buildings everywhere

Abandoned building in Chernbyl

Many Soviet symbols are still visible, such as the emblem on the top of this building

Portraits of former Soviet leaders

Portraits of former Soviet leaders

Abandoned buildings in Pripyat, Chernobyl

Buildings almost obscured by trees

Old building, Chernobyl

Empty apartment building

Dilapidated swimming pool in Pripyat

The famous Pripyat swimming pool, one of the key sites on the Chernobyl tour

Overgrown street in Pripyat

Overgrown streets, slowly succumbing to nature

The former school…

Abandoned school, Pripyat

Entrance to the former Pripyat school

Inside former Pripyat school

Inside the school is slowly collapsing

Abandoned piano in Pripyat school music classroom

Music classroom in the school

Gas masks, issued to every student, litter the floor. Their presence is nothing to do with the accident – they have been left here by looters looking for the silver used in the air filters.

Gas masks on the floor in abandoned school, Pripyat tour

Inside the school, gas masks – issued to all students during the Cold War – litter the floor

Before leaving we need to go through this device. Hmmm.

Radiation machine in Pripyat

Everybody on the Pripyat tours must pass through this machine before leaving

Chernobyl tours are offered by several companies, and it seems they tend to pool their customers anyway. The biggest difference seems to be the length of the tours (2 day / 1 night trips are available) as well as the ability to have private guided tours.

View more photos from Pripyat tour:

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