Is it safe to visit Chernobyl?

The Chernobyl disaster of April 1986 is regarded as the most serious and destructive nuclear accident of all time, rivalled only by the Fukushima meltdown in Japan of 2011. Vast quantities of radioactive material – around 400 times that of the combined Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs – was released into the atmosphere during the initial explosion and the fire that burned for 10 days afterwards, eventually spreading across much of Europe. Vast swathes of the surrounding landscape were heavily contaminated, and many clean-up workers either died or became seriously ill from radiation sickness, though higher estimates of deaths directly linked to the incident remain unproven.
Despite all of this, and the fact that the clean-up operation is still ongoing and will be for years to come, Chernobyl is generally considered safe to visit. There are still many radioactive hotspots to avoid, especially within the tighter 10km exclusion zone, but in most places you will be exposed to less radiation than you would be on a long-haul flight. People working around Chernobyl must have their shifts rotated every three months or so, but in the months and years following the mass evacuation, several hundred people have returned to live in their villages within the wider exclusion zone, tolerated by the Ukrainian government.
In 2011 the Ukrainian government announced it would begin allowing tourists to visit Chernobyl and the nearby workers’ city of Pripyat. It is possible, but bureaucratic and potentially very dangerous to go in on your own, so the best option is always to pay a little more and join an organised and guided tour. By doing so, all of the entry requirements are arranged on your behalf, and you will stick to the official, safe route. You’ll also learn a great deal more than you would wandering around by yourself.

Practicalities of visiting Chernobyl and Pripyat

The exclusion zone around Chernobyl is the largest restricted area in Europe, stretching 30km in every direction. There is another 10km exclusion zone inside it which is the most irradiated area. To get between zones and the outside world your tour group will need to pass through checkpoints, at which you will need to wash your hands thoroughly, and walk through a full body radiation scanner to check you’ve not picked up any unwelcome particles.

Guides often carry Geiger counters with them, devices used to measure radiation. Because they know the area so well these are more for demonstrative purposes, so don’t worry too much when you hear them beeping in greater intensity at some points – any danger is minimal. There are still plenty of hotspots to be avoided, including the Red Forest and areas of the amusement park, but so long as you follow your guide’s instructions you shouldn’t be getting close to any dangerously radioactive places.
The minimum age for touring Chernobyl and Pripyat is 18. You don’t need any protective gear but you will be told to wear closed shoes, long sleeved tops and trousers so that your exposed skin is kept to a minimum, just to be on the safe side. Not that you’re likely to, but it’s for the best not to go rolling around on the ground. You will have a lot of freedom to wander around the streets and different buildings, but responsible guides will keep a close eye on you and it’s worth exchanging phone numbers with them, for the following reason.
The main danger in walking around Pripyat is not radiation but the decaying structures all around. No one has lived here or maintained the buildings since 1986. There is broken glass everywhere, and metal thieves have done a lot of plundering, even of manhole covers, so you need to watch your step at all times. Never collect any souvenirs yourself – who wants a radioactive doll or book on their living room shelf anyway? And if you’re an enthusiastic photographer, try and avoid moving things around to get a better image – these buildings were once home to people that went through an immensely traumatic evacuation. Even this long after the event, it’s still a little disrespectful.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Chernobyl or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

How long should I stay?

We recommend an overnight trip, staying at a hotel in the city of Chernobyl 18km south of the Chernobyl power plant. There is so much to see here across quite a large area that just one day cannot do it justice. However if you are a little nervous about visiting, and no one could blame you, then there are plenty of Ukraine vacations that visit the capital, Kiev, and several of these will include a day-trip to Chernobyl and Pripyat. Over a few hours you’ll have the time to visit some of the key landmarks, such as the Palace of Culture, the amusement park and the docks.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Yasemin Atalay] [All photos: peter wybrow: Chernobyl 2016 Regent Vacations]