Visiting Chernobyl, Ukraine

On the evening of the 25th of April, 1986 workers at the Chernobyl power plant in the Soviet Union, now Northern Ukraine, and Southern Belarus, shut off the safety protocols to run tests in an effort to increase the efficiency of the No. 4 reactor. What they got instead was the largest nuclear accident in history that Ukraine is tasked with cleaning and controlling to this day.

Server Room for Soviet Radar Array
Server Room for Soviet Radar Array

A [Very] Brief History

In Soviet times it was common to name large projects according to their nearest town, in this case, Chernobyl, it was the nearest town at the time of construction. Later the town of Pripyat which is only 3-4km from the power plant would be the nearest town and housed employees and their families. Today Pripyat is a desiccated ghost town.

The location of the powerplant was chosen as at that time the area was sparsely populated by a spattering of small villages in the forests. Making it easy to resettle or remove them entirely if the need arose for safety or Soviet security reasons.

The Soviets, in general, were not forthcoming with information, not even those on the site of the accident, to the Kremlin. In fact, the Kremlin learned about the true nature of the accident from the Swedish authorities when they reported increased radioactive readings in their airspace as the fumes and toxic gases swept across Europe, billowing into the atmosphere from the burning fission materials.

Top-Secret Radar Station

The Soviets constructed a large radar station that operated by bouncing radio frequencies off the lower atmosphere. The intent was to detect missile launches by the USA, however, with a 10% accuracy on a single missile and 70% on a large scale launch, they would depend on the USA going all-out to really make use of the project.

After the power plant accident, the project was abandoned, computers and equipment used to operate the array were both damaged and removed from the site, leaving little trace that anything dubious was happening.

Top-Secret Soviet Radar Array
Top-Secret Soviet Radar Array

The Forgotten Heros

Due to the top-secret radar installation, the Soviets were reluctant to acknowledge anything had happened at Chernobyl for fear of the Americans or Chinese finding out about their radar array. This meant the real nature of the event was kept hidden for years, and the true fact that Europe was only mere steps away from being made inhabitable had the accident not been contained.

The first responders on scene at the accident would have received a lethal dose of radiation within hours. With several of them dying that night and many more in the following days, as radiation destroyed their bodies.

To keep up the charade and downplay the events, the Soviets did not allow family members to see their loved ones while they died quickly in hospitals, then upon their death, they were still kept from their families and were labelled heroes, and thus belong to the country, so they were buried in Moscow, where they had to be buried several meters below the ground more than normal in order to contain the radiation their now lifeless bodies emitted.

The whole story was all to keep the true severity of the situation a secret from the public and the world. Only today do we recognize the contributions of nearly all the people that gave their lives, knowingly or unknowingly to contain the accident and prevent it from worsening to a global scale. However many still alive today face health issues in Ukraine as a result of their invaluable contributions in containing the accident.

Containment & Cleaning

After the reactor core was cooled and radioactive debris was contained and buried a sarcophagus was erected over the reactor. Encompassing it entirely in a thick wall and roof. Today a second structure has been erected and is still in progress, costing upwards of $1 Billion, with help from a special fund.

In addition to containing the reactor itself, it was necessary to remove all the homes that could not be cleaned. Brick structures have been cleaned today and this is how you can visit the abandoned town of Pripyat. Other smaller towns with wooden structures were demolished and buried to conceal the radiation as best possible.

In areas that people visit the earth itself has been removed and replaced with non-contaminated earth. The ongoing process to contain and remove contaminated materials will likely never end, especially within the 10km zone around the reactor.

Radiation & Visiting Today

Today it is reasonably safe to visit the contaminated zone at Chernobyl. A 30km and 10km zone surrounds the reactor with the town of Pripyat being within the 10km zone and Chernobyl in the 10km, and the only habitable place within the contaminated zone.

On the ground, just hundreds of meters away from the new sarcophagus covering the reactor the radiation levels are similar to what you would experience in the city of Kiev. An 8 hour day in the contaminated zone will dose you as much as 24 hour period in Kiev. On my trip, I received about the same dose of radiation as one would receive in 1-hour on an international flight.

Visiting Chernobyl will require you to say in Kiev, check out my review of Kiev here.

Good to Know

While it’s perfectly safe to visit, there are a few things you’ll want to know before adventuring to Chernobyl.

  • You must wear long pants and long sleeve shirt at all times, both to reduce radiation absorption and keep the bugs off.
  • Bring water and snacks, the drive from Kiev is about 2 hours each way and while you get lunch you’ll be happy you had something extra.
Pripyat Amusement Park
Pripyat Amusement Park