A day in the exclusion zone: Chernobyl and Pripyat
Chernobyl, a place I have wanted to visit since I was young and now finally made it there. I had high expectations of the place and indeed met my expectations and more.
Last time I attempted to visit; there were many restrictions, you needed to book a few weeks in advance in order to get clearance and a I met lot of tourists that said it was super busy. This time around, authorities have eased restrictions on entering Chernobyl and I decided to visit during Covid to avoid the crowds.
After a few days of trying to get onto a tour, I managed to join a small tour with 5 other people. The tour cost $60USD which I later found out was an absolute bargain for what the guide showed us. If you are interested in also going on a tour, please contact me and I will put you in contact with the tour guide.
Entering the Exclusion Zone
On the morning of the tour, I met the guide at the central square in Kyiv, from there we then drove about 2 hours to the exclusion zone. We cleared security easy and headed on into the exclusion zone.
While at security we only saw one other tour group, however it looked like a more commercial tour agency with 20+ people onboard it looked rushed. I knew 2 guys on the tour and it turns out that the commercial tour groups charge $100+, have many more people in the group and rush through the tour.
After clearing the military checkpoint, Chernobyl town is about 15km away. En route to the town, the tour guide showed us many abandoned villages. These villages are now completely overgrown. It looks like a forest, but once you go into the forest; there's roads, paths and buildings amongst all of the trees. Many elderly people were allowed to return after the disaster and village we stopped at was inhabited until 2015, when the last person there died.
Chornobyl Town (Чорнобиль)
Chernobyl (Чернобыль), or Chornobyl (Чорнобиль) in Ukranian, is the name we all know for the place where the disaster happened. We call the disaster Chornobyl because it's the name of the region, named after the largest town in the region. Chornobyl town was not connected to the power station or disaster, it just so happened to be inside the exclusion zone.
Today more than 7000 people work in the exclusion zone and use Chornobyl town as a base. Chornobyl town is 25% populated and radiation levels are relatively normal. We took a drive around the town and stopped for some lunch before heading off to Pripyat. If we were to take a multi-day tour, then we would have stayed in the hotel in the town.
Pripyat Power Station
Pripyat took its name from the river Pripyat, next to which the power station and supporting town was built. I was on a day tour, so we only stopped here briefly. You can take tours and explore the inside of the power stations. I would like to return and take the tour inside the power station another time.
Reactor 4 was the reactor that exploded, however there was another 3 functional reactors, then 5 and 6 were in-progress. In total, they planned to build 12 reactors to create the largest facility in the world at the time.
Post-accident, the damaged reactors were restored and remaining reactors kept operational and eventually shut down in 2000. When shut down, the power station had generated more power after the accident than it did before. I assumed that the whole power station was decommissioned after the accident, but it turns out that's not the case.
Pripyat Town (Припять)
Just north of the power station, is Pripyat town. The town was built to service the power station and most people living in the town had some connection to the town.
After the accident, the explosion blew north in the direction of Belarus, with Pripyat town in the path of the radiation. The whole of Pripyat town was contaminated and while they have decontaminated most of the town, it can never be populated again.
Today most of the contaminated top soil has been removed, roads were resurfaced and large metal objects removed in an attempt to reduce the levels of radiation in the town. While walking around, my geiger counter rarely peaked above 3 or 4 times background radiation, however there are hotspots with 500+ times background radiation and still many contaminated objects.
Pripyat town is spooky, it looks exactly like you see in photos and on the TV. Sadly, nowadays many people have entered the buildings and injured themselves and the Ukrainian government has banned entry into buildings.
Our guide said maybe we can go into 1 or 2 buildings, but it was so empty that he decided to take us into most of the buildings. This is the advantage of going in a small group. I have not posted the name of the tour agency to avoid getting them in trouble as the guide said he showed a Youtuber around a few years ago and was banned from operating tours for a while.
As we started entering buildings a storm rolled in. Walking through abandoned schools, gyms and a nursery felt spooky with thunder and rain in the background.
Hospital № 126
Towards the end of Pripyat, our guide asked if we wanted to visit anywhere else. I said yes; the hospital. He looked a bit uneasy as the hospital is completely off limits, but seeing as it was raining really heavily and nobody was around, he said lets go.
First responder firefighters were taken to the hospital after the explosion and is now heavily radiated. After the firefighters were taken into the hospital, their uniforms were contaminated and subsequently thrown in the basement. The basement was recently sealed off after videos were uploaded to Youtube of people riding bikes in the basement without protective equipment. Our guide said he knows a way into the basement via another building, but it's a bad idea to enter without protective equipment.
Inside the hospital, we found a piece of firefighters uniform and the geiger counter was recording between 600 and 1000 sieverts. Background radiation is 0.2 and all day, the highest sievert recording I had seen was about 100 so seeing 1000 was scary. I accidentally touched the piece of uniform with my geiger counter and the guide went absolutely crazy and said that I might have gotten contaminated. On the way out of the exclusion zone you have to pass through multiple radiation screens and I wasn't irradiated so no problem, but it was a nerve-racking moment.
Hospital № 126 was by far the creepiest place in the whole town and there was a very dark eerie feeling in the whole building. It's difficult to explain the feeling, but it wasn't a pleasant building. Perhaps I was thinking about the horrific scenes that played out in the hospital post accident, I'm not sure.