On April 24th, 1986, reactor 4 from Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant suffered a massive, destructive explosion, releasing tonnes of radioactive material into the sky, which spread across Europe and even to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
It was an unprecedented accident caused by human negligence, which took the lives of tens of thousands of people, caused hundreds of thousands to be evacuated, plus all the social, economic and natural repercussions, whose consequences are still being suffered today.
I won’t go into technical details, but you can read all the causes and consequences of the disaster here
As a result of the disaster, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was created, a 30km² territory that surrounds the nuclear plant, from where all the people were evacuated and access to which was completely restricted until 2009, when the Ukrainian Government decided to open it to the public.
Since then, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has attracted a few intrepid travelers interested in learning and seeing with their own eyes the effects of the worst nuclear disaster in our history.
However, things have changed.
At the beginning of 2019, after the successful TV Show broadcast by HBO, Chernobyl was, once again, something to talk about and, in very little time, just a few months, Chernobyl visitors increased by 50%, and statistics say that they will keep increasing in the coming years.
I personally believe that this increase in popularity isn’t doing any good to the Chernobyl site, as the exclusion zone is already attracting a type of tourist typically found in mass tourism destinations, characterized for being insensitive, irresponsible and lacking empathy and consciousness about the consequences of one of the worst human catastrophes.
The truth is that, after my visit, seeing what Chernobyl has become was pretty shocking and, in this article, I want to show you how to visit Chernobyl in a responsible and sensitive way.
Visiting Chernobyl and the problem with mass tourism
Something I have learnt during my travels is that, inevitably, mass tourism destinations attract irresponsible travelers, ranging from the typical tourist that rides elephants to the one who doesn’t give a damn f*** about the repercussions of mass tourism on the local culture.
The irresponsible tourist who travels to Chernobyl doesn’t go because they want to learn and empathize with the victims, but they travel for pure morbidity and for showing off on Instagram that they went to a radioactive zone.
Anyone with common sense can confirm this awful situation.
If you are interested in traveling to Chernobyl, you may also want to read about my experience visiting the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan
However, it is important to mention that the normalization of the disaster doesn’t only happen because of tourists’ behavior.
Actually, I strongly believe that those really responsible for such normalization are most Chernobyl tour companies, which have done nothing but sensationalize Chernobyl for their own benefit, exclusively focusing on selling you the concept of how awesome visiting a radioactive zone can be.
My experience visiting Chernobyl
I visited Chernobyl on a weekday during the offseason, in mid-October, and I literally freaked out at the number of tourists I saw.
We came across 10 or 15 other groups at least.
That’s on the one hand, which wasn’t a big deal anyway.
But, on the other hand, what really surprised me was the way some of the tour guides would tell us about Chernobyl’s disaster, and that was in a very superficial and even impertinent way.
Our guide’s explanations – who, by the way, was a young lady from Kiev who had nothing to do with the catastrophe – exclusively focused on the sick and sensationalist part of the disaster, and barely mentioned anything about all the people who suffered the accident directly, either the evacuated families or all the people who practically gave their lives working on cleaning up the contaminated zones.
Basically, she didn’t show any sort of sensitivity about the place.
But there’s more.
I remember having a small argument with her when I wanted to tell her about a relevant book I had read recently: Voices from Chernobyl.
She told me that she had not read it, which was kind of strange, as she was a professional tour guide; but what surprised me was her response:
This book is very sensationalist.
Apart from the fact that she had not even read it, her comment made no sense at all, as the book’s author was a Belarusian lady who won the Nobel Prize and her work was a compilation of testimonies of those who lived through the disaster in the first person.
The book was exactly the total opposite of sensationalist, so my answer to her ignorance was:
With all due respect, the only sensationalist thing here are the tours the different Chernobyl companies sell.
On top of this, if we consider the behavior of some of the people from the group, who couldn’t stop making jokes, selfies and taking ridiculous poses in front of abandoned places, what do you want me to say…
Chernobyl has become a disgustingly sensationalist place.
Tips on how to visit Chernobyl in a responsible way
Here are my responsible traveler tips:
In order to empathize with the place, read a good book about Chernobyl
And I recommend Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize of Literature for writing precisely this book and a few more of the same genre.
Voices from Chernobyl is a compilation of testimonies directly related to the disaster, from people who were evacuated to those who refused to leave, soldiers who helped with both the evacuation and clean up, firemen, liquidators, scientists and basically, the whole Chernobyl world.
A compilation of absolutely sobering and hair-raising stories whose only achievement is to put you in their skin in a very f***ed up way.
I promise you that, after reading this book, you will see Chernobyl with very different eyes.
You can buy it through this link.
Choose the right tour company
To be very honest with you, I think I kind of overreacted before.
Not all companies sell sensationalist tours.
A few of them are guided by very professional guides who were somehow related to the disaster.
For example, some guides are old residents of the exclusion zone, while others participated in the cleanup.
Those guides really know what Chernobyl is about and, besides telling you the most empirical and tangible facts about the accident, they will also tell you the stories they lived and experienced.
And, how to find the best company?
Something to be aware of is that the best tour company isn’t the one with the best reviews on Tripadvisor.
In fact, the one I chose had very positive reviews, for the simple reason that the guide was a nice lady and had good knowledge about the facts, but she lacked empathy and sensitivity, two qualities which, in my opinion, each and every guide should have.
I hope you can understand that I can’t recommend a specific company, especially because guides may change over time but use your common sense when looking for those reviews that talk about the person’s attitude and behavior.
Many who visit Chernobyl and Ukraine then head to Moldova to visit the unrecognized country of Transnistria
Consider booking a 2-day tour
Typically, the tour companies offer two different tours: 1-day or 2-day tour.
The 1-day tour, the one which 95% of tourists choose, takes you to those famous places which today flood all over Instagram feeds: the Ferris-wheel, Duga radar, reactor 4, etc.
In the 2-day tour, however, they will take to visit locals living in the exclusion zone, some of them being re-settlers (those who came back after X years), while others are locals who refused to leave.
Meeting those locals can be a good chance to learn and empathize even more.
Don’t take selfies, don’t make jokes, be respectful
Basically, behave like a normal person.
The Chernobyl disaster took the lives away of thousands of people, so the least you can do is paying your respects.
Also, remember to pay your respects to Belarus
Chernobyl Nuclear Plant is located in today’s Ukraine but not many people know that about 70% of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus, contaminating one-fourth of the country. Crazy.
The exclusion zone of Belarus is actually bigger and up to 2,000 towns were totally evacuated.
Whereas the nuclear disaster is the worst thing that has ever happened to Ukraine and Ukrainians, remember that Belarussians suffered even more and, for some reason, the world tends to forget that.
I just want you to be aware of that and, if you want to be a real responsible traveler, you should visit the exclusion on Belarus side, where mass tourism hasn’t arrived yet.
Practical information for visiting Chernobyl
Here’s what you need to know to prepare for traveling to Chernobyl.
Where is it?
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant is 150km north of Kiev and less than 20km from the border with Belarus.
Chernobyl is a small town but the power plant, despite being named after Chernobyl, is in a city called Pripyat, 20km north of Chernobyl.
Today, Pripyat is a ghost city but Chernobyl is partially inhabited, mainly by workers from the exclusion zone, who do 2-week shifts.
Is it safe to visit Chernobyl?
Is Chernobyl safe to visit? Before analyzing Chernobyl’s dangers, let me clarify something.
Before my visit, I had read a few travel blogs whose authors claimed that they felt very safe in Chernobyl.
Well, I am sorry to say that this is one of the stupidest things you can ever say because radiation is something invisible, you can’t smell it, you can’t feel it and you can’t hear it.
Those who had to be evacuated also felt very safe and, in fact, that was one of the greatest problems, but then, after X months, all of them woke up with no hair and tumors in their body.
Today, Chernobyl isn’t a dangerous place, not because one feels safe, but because professional physicists have confirmed that the levels of radioactivity have decreased enough, so it doesn’t affect humans for short exposure.
How does radiation work?
Obviously, I am no physicist and I don’t know if I should write about it but, as a traveler, I wanted to know a little bit about radiation and this is what I learnt.
When you get to the exclusion zone, during the first few kilometers, the dosimeters mark 0.15 microsieverts (Sv) per hour, which is pretty much the same level of radiation you get in any major city around the world, from Barcelona to Kiev.
As you continue getting closer to the nuclear plant and reach Pripyat, the radiation levels increase to 1-2Sv per hour, which is 10 to 20 times the normal levels but apparently, it is less than having an x-ray taken or even flying in a plane.
However, in some areas we passed by, especially the Red Forest, the dosimeters reached 40Sv per hour, but we passed it quickly in the bus, so the total exposure was less than a few seconds.
This type of radiation is called gamma rays but, in Chernobyl, there is an additional type of radiation named beta particles β, a kind of radioactive dust which – theoretically – unless you start digging something up from the ground, you shouldn’t be contaminated by it.
These tiny particles can’t be detected by the dosimeters they lend you but, once you leave the exclusion zone, they scan your body to check whether you were contaminated or not.
In this article, The Guardian has made a very insightful radiation comparison
How much does it cost to travel to Chernobyl?
The 1-day tour costs around 90-100€, whereas the 2-day tour costs 270€.
- 1-day tour: round trip transportation from Kiev to the exclusion zone, the guide and lunch.
- 2-day tour: round trip transportation from Kiev to the exclusion zone, the guide, all meals and 1 night in the hotel of the exclusion zone.
By the way, the dosimeters cost an additional 200UAH, around 7.50€.
Can you visit Chernobyl without a guide?
Yes, you can, but not legally.
In fact, there are a few companies (and you can find them on Google) that offer clandestine 3-day walking tours, staying and camping inside buildings from the exclusion zone.
Can you recommend me a tour company?
I can’t, sorry.
I don’t really want to mention the one I went with and I can’t recommend a company I haven’t tried.
The only thing I can tell you is that you should do proper research and book well in advance.
By the way, don’t forget your passport and, if you want to fly a drone, let the company know because you will need to get a specific permit.
Conclusion: is it ethical to visit Chernobyl?
I am going to say the exact same I said after receiving loads of negative feedback when I came back from my trip to Syria.
If you travel with the sole objective of learning, gaining knowledge and you are respectful to the locals, in my most humble opinion, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in paying a visit to places like Chernobyl, Syria or the Aral Sea.
In fact, I think that it would something positive, as you would be able to talk about the situation of the place based on your own experience and not on what the media says.