Chernobyl came back into the spotlight with the release of HBO’s Chernobyl TV-series. But the area is degrading, and it is high time to visit the site of one of the largest man-made catastrophes.
The 26th of April 1986 at exactly 01:23:40, a test in reactor four in the the Chernobyl nuclear power plant evolved into an explosion that would quickly turn into one of the largest man-made catastrophes ever and eventually, it was one of the reasons for the fall of the Soviet Union according to former General Secretary Gorbachov himself.
Today, the remains of the city of Pripyat and the surrounding nuclear power plants with the enormous sarcophagus enshrining the exploded reactor 4 is a popular tourist attraction, but wildfires and neglect over the past 35 years has sent the area into degradation, and without intervention, the buildings are sure to collapse in time, leaving less and less to see.
Already, wildfires last year wiped out many of the small villages and cottages in the exclusion zone, taking out several of the attractions that used to be included in the standard tours. The firefighters of Ukraine fought the fires for a month and was only relieved when a lucky rainfall finished the job.
For the same reasons, the government and several organisations and tour operators want the Chernobyl site to be put on the UNESCO world heritage list with the Ukrainian Culture Minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, spearheading the effort:
“We believe that putting Chernobyl on the UNESCO heritage list is a first and important step towards having this great place as a unique destination of interest for the whole of mankind,” said Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko.”
Really worth the visit
Still, despite the wildfires and the degrading buildings, Chernobyl is still very much worth a visit. The city of Pripyat was unscathed by the fires and famous landmarks like the ferris wheel and the Hotel Polissya, which is one of the main locations for the team of scientists battling the catastrophe, are still standing, though the hotel started collapsing some weeks ago.
The most trips there cost around 100 USD and for the price, you get transportation, a guide and a lunch in the same cantina where the workers, who are still working on cleaning up the zone, are eating. For the money it is easily one of the best attractions in Ukraine, and one of the most overlooked attractions in Ukraine.
There is no real dangers associated with a trip to Chernobyl. The tours do not allow you to go into the decrepit buildings, but some operators will let you enter on your own peril. Radiation, which might be a concern for many people, is not a problem as well. The radiation you receive from a two day trip to Chernobyl is equivalent to the radiation you receive on a long flight.
Chernobyl Tour has been the operator Ukraine Nu used when visiting Chernobyl, and we have also recommended them to friends and visitors, who all expressed being satisfied with the trip. Chernobyl Tour also has English speaking guides, for those who do not speak either Russian or Ukrainian.
Among other interesting landmarks in the exclusion zone is the Duga-1 Radar. It was a part of the Soviet anti-missile defense and was nicknamed the Russian Woodpecker, because it transmitted a short wave signal sounding like a sharp tapping noise.
Chernobyl is only allowed to visit in the company of a certified guide. Some, called stalkers, organize illegal trips to the zone. Since COVID-19, the amount of tours to Chernobyl has decreased as they often require a certain amount of people to go. It is a good idea to sort it out in advance.
At exactly 1:23:40 in the night, 35 years ago, the worlds largest and possibly most deadly nuclear accident took place, as a reactor exploded because of a test run that was forced upon inexperienced staff members.
As people in the control room that night was not prepared for the test, and because the shift leader was of the opinion that the RMK reactors like the reactors in Chernobyl could not explode, the whole thing went terribly wrong.
In the following days, weeks and months, the Soviet Union tried to combat the effects of the spread of radioactive material without alarming the outside world to their massive failure or asking for help.
The outside world did notice though, as detectors as far away as Sweden started measuring increases in radiation. The Central Committee of the Soviet Union still refused to publicly admit defeat because the integrity of the Communist Party itself would be damaged.
According to Mikhail Gorbachev himself, who was the party leader at the time, the accident itself was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union.
In a 2006 interview, Gorbachev said: “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of Perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”
As is also represented in the Chernobyl TV show, the Soviet Union organized a mass eviction of everyone living in the 4760 square kilometre exclusion zone that stretches from Ukraine into Southern Belarus. The evacuation had enormous human costs which is clearly felt on the visit to Pripyat.
In general, the best way to visit Chernobyl according to Ukraine Nu, is if you have some background knowledge. A very good place to start is with the HBO TV show Chernobyl from 2019, which has many historical points outlined very well. Many of the historical errors are highlighted at the end of the show.
If you want to read more before or after visiting Chernobyl, the book Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich is a world renowned report of the events told through eye witnesses. The book was main source material for the TV show Chernobyl and has been praised for it’s detailed, albeit dark, account of the events.