Discovering Disaster: A Tour of Chernobyl
Story and photos by Bart Beeson
It’s no surprise that you’re going to have to follow some rules when visiting Chernobyl, the still highly radioactive site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster. On a recent visit, the guides laid out a series of particular rules, most of which were in place to keep guests from being exposed to too much radiation – no sitting or lying on the ground, no going off on your own, and those with no socks or particularly hole-filled jeans had to cover their exposed skin. We were also told that there was no cigarette smoking except in a few designated areas, due to the risk of starting a forest fire that would release radiation-contaminated smoke into the atmosphere. And while thousands now visit Chernobyl safely each year (many of them inspired by the hit HBO series), the fact that the area still has such high radiation levels is a testament to the severity of the disaster that took place 34 years ago.
On the day of my tour, I made my way through the predawn streets of Kyiv, Ukraine, to a designated meeting point, where I checked in and found my seat on a full-sized bus. The coach gradually filled up to capacity with an international mix of people, including several groups of twenty-somethings who, based on their chatter, had obviously come to Kyiv more to check out the club scene than to learn about Chernobyl (like the young Scandinavian man who sat next to me and promptly fell asleep, releasing potent clouds of alcohol fumes each time he exhaled).
During the two-hour drive to the exclusion zone – the 1800-square-mile area where public access and inhabitation are restricted due to the elevated radiation levels – we watched a brief documentary on the nuclear disaster and the frantic efforts to contain it. Arriving at what resembled a border checkpoint, a military officer came on board to inspect everyone’s passport, and we offloaded to check-in. Along with all the other visitors, I received a small device to monitor the amount of radiation I would be exposed to during the course of the visit, and those who paid a little extra were issued a Geiger counter to measure the radiation levels at different locations on the tour.
After everyone was geared up, we re-boarded and drove to our first stop, Zalissya, a town that was a small farming cooperative community located 15 miles from the nuclear facility. Our guides told us the community wasn’t evacuated until a week after the explosion, with residents continuing to farm and live there while being exposed to radiation. Today the site consists of a cluster of dilapidated buildings, including what was the village grocery store, as well as the rusted, skeletal remains of playground equipment, all gradually being overtaken by shrubs, vines, and trees.
We next made our way to a small schoolhouse by the side of the road. Before entering, our guide had us form a circle next to a tree and noted that this was a “hot spot” – a site that retains particularly high levels of radiation. Various members of the group took turns holding their Geiger counters near the ground, the staccato crackling from their devices rising the closer they got to the contaminated soil. Upon entering the schoolhouse, we found it was a time capsule from another era, still packed with abandoned toys, stuffed animals and classroom decorations. It was not hard to imagine scores of children running around and laughing.
Our next stop was Pripyat, the once-thriving city of 50,000 where the nuclear facility employees lived. In several spots, our guides held up photos of Pripyat residents taken from before the disaster at the same spot where we stood. The smiling faces from the past stood in stark contrast to the overgrown and decrepit wasteland that exists today. Pripyat was supposed to be the city of the future – here the best and the brightest had been brought to run the nuclear facility, and while in other places throughout the Soviet Union they were waiting in bread lines, here they had supermarkets and even an amusement park, which was to be inaugurated the day after the disaster. Today, the never-used Ferris wheel, bumper cars, and other rides still stand, a reminder of the unfulfilled promise of the city.
For lunch, we headed to the cafeteria for the people who currently work within the exclusion zone, keeping the site safe, monitoring radiation, and running a solar electric farm that opened in 2018. Before entering, we each had to pass through a radiation detector, putting our hands on sensors before being buzzed through. It seemed routine enough, but while waiting my turn I wondered what exactly would happen if someone didn’t pass – what was the procedure for a radiation overdose? But I didn’t have anything to worry about and passed through along with everyone else in my group. The only thing that was a cause for concern was my lunch – Ukrainian cafeteria food is about as good as it sounds – so for anyone thinking about visiting, packing your own lunch is highly recommended.
After lunch, we made our way to the nuclear facility, where a giant sarcophagus of sorts has been built to completely seal off the infamous reactor number four. I was surprised to learn that despite the enormity of the catastrophe, after the leak had been contained the other reactors were reactivated and functioned for years, with the last one finally being shut down in 2000. Across the way from the original reactors was the incomplete structure for what was to be a fifth reactor. The cranes that were being used in construction still stand – too contaminated with radiation to ever be used again.
Our final stop of the day was at the Duga radar site—a secret military installation that, at its peak, was home to 1,000 members of the military. Today, the remains of the giant, powerful radar still stand– a series of interconnected metal towers that reach up to 500 feet high and extend nearly a half-mile. Nicknamed ‘the Russian woodpecker’ for the clicking sounds it emitted that could be heard on radio transmissions, the radar was built for early detection of ballistic missile launches. Unfortunately for the Russians, despite years of trying, they were never able to get it to work properly (conspiracy theorists maintain that the entire Chernobyl disaster was actually an intentional act just to distract from the failed radar).
We ended the day by heading back to the check-in point, where we again went through the radiation detectors and turned in our monitors. We were given a chance to hit the souvenir shop, which offers a variety of glow-in-the-dark mementos including magnets, mugs and the most popular item: condoms. We were also issued a certificate with a map of the tour route and an annotation of how much radiation we each received during the day (mine was the low total of .002 millisieverts, less than the amount of radiation you would receive on a coast-to-coast flight within the U.S).
After a day of hearing about tragedy and disaster, our guides left us with a somewhat hopeful message. With the absence of a human presence, wildlife is making a comeback in the exclusion zone. Bird and mammal populations are thriving, including eagles, elk, foxes, bears, and wolves. A testament to the resilience of nature, visitors can now go on tours to spot the range of fauna in what is known as a “radioecological reserve,” and it has become a popular spot for scientific studies. As far as visitors go, it’s one more reason to follow the rules – coming face-to-face with a Chernobyl wolf could be a terrible ending to the tour.
Bart Beeson is a Burlington, Vermont-based freelance travel writer and photographer. He is a regular contributor to Travel Weekly, and has published in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy and other media outlets. When he’s not traveling, Bart can be found hiking with his dog Kesey or spending time at his family’s New Hampshire lake house.