For some reason I always wanted to see the remains of Chernobyl. The 1986 accident has changed lives (sadly in a bad way) for hundreds of thousands of people and this place of destruction was always on my list. Additionally, it is also one of those places that has incredible options for photographers.
During my last visit to Kiev I could not book a tour since every tour agency told me that I'd have to register my passport at least 3 weeks in advance. Initially I did not believe it, but as all agencies verified that I had to accept it.
This time, I booked 6 weeks in advance with SoloEast Tours – one of the first who started these excursions back in 2005. At $159 per person it's not cheap and you are required to pay a $50 deposit.
The meetup was just outside my Maidan Square-located hotel in Kiev at 9 AM. Only 6 other people would be part of the tour and we all looked like a group of experienced travelers with lots of photographic equipment. Our driver mentioned that groups were much larger last year but tourists were staying away because of the ongoing protests in Kiev that are still very much visible (though it was perfectly safe when I was in town).
The drive up to the perimeter of the 30km 'dead zone' or 'exclusion zone' takes about two hours. During that, the company shows you an excellent documentary about the 1986 accident. Unbeknownst to me, there was an enormous danger for a second explosion that would have leveled Minsk and Kiev (both within a 200-mile radius). This may have polluted most of Europe for generations with high radioactivity and was avoided only by killing hundreds (or thousands) of Soviet workers who labored in extremely dangerous and deadly conditions for about 6 months. These workers bore the brunt of the dirty work during the clean-up that was needed to make the area less dangerous (but not ever safe for habitation again).
The worst effects on the general population was felt in Pripyat which was a town of 50,000 people just 2 miles off the blown-up reactor. The accident happened at night and most of the population was unaware of the deadly radioactive poisoning until the evacuation was completed 48 hours later. As things were at the time, the cover-ups were complete with local bureaucrats trying to cover it up as much as the Soviet leadership.
The tour takes you through 2 security checkpoints with tough-looking police who check your passports (and who also check the radioactivity on the way out).
These days, radioactivity is in the soil – the air does not contain radioactive particles anymore like it did in 1986. The roads have been cleaned and repaved many times and they emit zero radioactivity. However, if you venture into the fields it quickly turns very dangerous. There is enough radiation to get seriously sick!
In total the radiation we were exposed to during the day was about 5 microsieverts which is as much as one hour on a transatlantic flight. So it's perfectly safe if you follow the rules.
However, we pinpointed our Geiger counters towards certain hotspots and easily saw 20+ microsieverts per hour. Being close to such radiation for several days is unhealthy!
After visiting several monuments (that aren't of too much interest) we were taken to the Chernobyl Kindergarten and Daycare which has hardly been touched in almost 30 years. It has been looted and furniture has been moved, but there is lots of original equipment still left. The view of the interior is just spooky and extremely disheartening.
After that, our tour continued to the mutated catfish that swim the waters outside the reactor. These look like sharks and are huge – a disturbing sight!
The reactor was confined within a sarcophagus designed to work for 30 years, which it did. However, the time is now up and there is a new structure being built that is supposed to make sure the radiation stays inside at a total cost of about $1.4 billion.
Given the scale of the accident, it is crazy that the sister reactors of Chernobyl 4 were restarted in 1986 and ran all the way into 1995. However, reactor numbers 5 and 6 were under construction but were never finished. Chernobyl was once planned to be the biggest nuclear power source in the USSR.
The reactor itself and the sarcophagus are rather anticlimactic – since this is an active work site for hundreds of people it looks more like a large storage area. The scale and level of destruction is completely invisible.
There is a new wall outside the sarcophagus that protects workers in the nearby buildings by blocking gamma rays that are emitted by the cooling magma under the reactor.
Radiation was low in those areas that we visited.
After that, the highlight of the tour started – Pripyat, the city just 2 miles off the reactor, the city of 50,000 people – none of which were allowed back in after a hasty (and way too late) evacuation after the accident.
Pripyat is a perfect example of how nature has grown back and reclaimed its territory. The once-broad streets now resemble park roads. Many buildings have completely disappeared behind huge trees that fought their way through the concreted surfaces. It's surreal. There were no other visitors at the time we toured the area and you are faced with huge buildings with Soviet logos – ones that used to house a whole city. It's so quiet. There is no birdsong and no sound except the leaves rustling in the wind.
The town had all the Soviet amenities – in fact it was a model town for the Soviet lifestyle, with a swimming pool, lots of schools and daycare facilities, a cultural palace, a hotel and a restaurant (yes, one per town may have been enough).
Now it's a ghost town that has been looted since the end of the Soviet Union but largely remains in its original state. It's almost like a modern-day pyramid sight.
There is an iconic amusement park that was never completed and was due to open just a couple of days after the accident. There's a huge Ferris wheel, rusting in the wind, that has never seen any people on it.
Most buildings are now off-limit to visitors since some buildings started collapsing and accidents happened. We were only allowed inside the middle school. It's a 4-storey building with dozens of class rooms. All the original furniture is still there. The sinks and lamps have been removed and most glass has shattered but otherwise it seems time has stood still. It's a truly unforgettable sight – both in terms of the human disaster but also of the beauty of this combination between nature and crumbling buildings.
We also got to see the huge swimming pool and the stadium (which hadn't been finished either). Both now resemble more a park than a building.
After Pripyat we were treated to a good, original Ukrainian lunch in Chernobyl. Washing hands is an essential requirement before taking this meal!
When exiting the 'exclusion zone' the bus and all the passengers had to go through a mandatory but quick radioactive screening at both the 10km and 30km zone exits. None was detected and we got under-way for the 2 hour drive back to Kiev (unfortunately on less than perfect roads).