Chernobyl: Is it safe to visit the nuclear disaster site?

The nuclear disaster unfolded 35 years ago

Cathy Adams
Thursday 02 September 2021 14:59 BST
Chernobyl has been open to tourists since 2010, though visitor numbers remain low
Chernobyl has been open to tourists since 2010, though visitor numbers remain low

Thirty-five years ago, the world’s worst nuclear disaster took place in a Ukrainian town near the Belarus border.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster happened overnight on 25-26 April 1986 in the now-abandoned town of Pripyat, when an explosion sent radioactive material into the air.

The disaster was covered in detail in 2019’s Sky Atlantic/HBO drama Chernobyl.

Here’s everything you need to know about visiting the former nuclear site.

What is the Chernobyl disaster and what happened?

The disaster occurred during a routine late-night safety test in the number four nuclear reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, in the town of Pripyat, which is 104k from the Ukrainian capital Kiev.

The plant crew intentionally switched off the safety systems to test the turbine.

However, the reactor overheated and generated a powerful explosion that sent plumes of radioactive material two kilometres into the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s estimated that 400 times more radioactive material was sent into the air than when the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

Following the explosion, 134 servicemen were hospitalised with acute radiation sickness, of which 28 firemen and employees died in the weeks and months after the explosion.

An 18-mile radius, known as the exclusion zone, was set up around the reactor; and more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the area.

Is Chernobyl open to tourists?

Yes. The site has been open to the public since 2011, when authorities deemed it safe to visit. While there are Covid-related restrictions in Ukraine, the Chernobyl site is open as a “cultural venue”, subject to extra safety measures.

Is it safe to visit?

Yes, provided you visit with a specialist tour guide.

“Several thousand people visit every year,” says Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel. “The amount of radiation you’re exposed to is similar to on a long haul flight.

“The main danger is not radiation, but unsafe structures which have been deserted for 30 years, and lots of metal has been stripped away. So go around in groups, and obey the guide’s instructions.”

Peter Wybrow, Ukraine expert at Regent Holidays, which organises trips to Ukraine and Chernobyl, says guides will always carry a Geiger counter with them to measure radiation.

However, it is dangerous to stay near the site for longer periods.

Should tourists visit Chernobyl?

It’s a fascinating experience on many levels and well worth a visit, says Francis.

“It’s bleak but also illuminating, poignant, fascinating to learn the real stories. It’s a photographer’s dream.

“You can also meet the settlers who returned to hear their stories and help them out by buying their moonshine. Don’t see it as disaster tourism but as a way of understanding the risks of nuclear.”

If I want to visit, how can I do it?

Chernobyl is around 100k north of the Ukrainian capital Kiev, or a two-hour drive. It’s an easy day trip for tourists already in Kiev.

“Most tours are day trips but you can stay overnight in a small hotel in Chernobyl town too, which is perfectly safe and best way to really experience it rather than just a few hours on a day trip,” says Francis.

“Kiev shouldn’t be missed and it’s a good idea to combine with a visit to the Kiev Chernobyl Museum giving you the background, especially some interesting films shot during the time of the evacuation.”

What can visitors expect when they visit?

Because the exclusion zone has meant almost no human interference for more than 30 years, wildlife surrounding Chernobyl has thrived: visitors can spot species such as tame foxes and giant catfish, as well as wild horses, bison, bears and wolves – although these are rarely seen.

Francis adds: “There are also many interesting buildings around, although lots of them have been damaged by looters or disrespectful tourists.

“It’s a good idea to climb to top of a residential building, about 15 storeys high, to take in the views. Also the fairground, the Ferris wheel is one of the iconic Chernobyl images. It was scheduled to open a few days after the explosion so the wheel and the dodgems never had paying riders.”

What should tourists be aware of?

Some places are still off-limits to tourists because of radiation fears, such as the basement of the hospital where the first responders’ equipment and clothing was dumped, says Wybrow.

Although on a two-day tour to Chernobyl, visitors will be exposed to a lower level of radiation than on a long-haul flight, there are safety checks in place.

Wybrow adds: “When you go through the outer and inner exclusion zone you are subject to radiation checks to ensure no one is above a safe level. There is also a curfew in Chernobyl if you overnight there.”

The Independent journalist Emma Thomson visited Chernobyl first-hand. Read about her experience here.

What are the rules for travelling to Ukraine?

British travellers are required to provide proof of health insurance that covers Covid for the duration of their stay. Insurance must be purchased from a company registered in Ukraine or a foreign company that has a representative office or an insurance partner in Ukraine.

Travellers must also present: a document confirming receipt of at least one dose of a WHO-approved Covid vaccination; a negative Rapid Antigen Test taken no more than 72 hours before entry, or; a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before entry.

The requirement for proof of vaccination or a negative test does not apply to children under 12.

Is Ukraine on the UK’s travel green list?

No, but it is on the amber list. This means returning travellers who have been fully vaccinated with two doses of the same vaccine in the UK, EU or US, plus accompanying under 18s, don’t need to quarantine on return to the UK. They must instead pre-book and take a PCR test within two days of arriving back in the UK.

Unvaccinated adults must self-isolate for 10 days upon arrival into the UK and take a second PCR on day eight. Arrivals in England have the option to pay for an extra test on day five for an early release.

All travellers, regardless of vaccination status, must present a negative Covid test prior to departure for the UK.

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