Visiting Chernobyl

Cristina Pogorevici
6 min readJul 21, 2019

Low safety culture of the entire system was the cause of the Chernobyl accident. I’m sad to say, not much has changed.

In a hostel in Chisinau (Moldova), after hearing the stories of fellow solo travelers, I decided to visit Chernobyl, the sight of one of the worst human disasters of all times.

None of the articles online, the stories from others or even watching the HBO Series “Chernobyl” could have prepared me for what I was about to experience.

I decided to take one of the last days of my research trip (check previous article for information about it) and book a tour to the nuclear exclusion zone. Legally, you can only enter the exclusion area with a guide and an arranged tour (which you have to schedule at least 5 days in advance). There are numerous companies who do tours as interest in the area has increased tremendously (companies saw a 40% increase in tours compared to May of last year). People working in the Exclusion Zone (as guides or on the nuclear plant) have a limit set at working 15 days/month.

8:00 AM — a minibus picked me (and 6 others) from Dnipro Hotel in Central Kiev and left for the 2h drive to Chernobyl.

Some of the safety rules you need to be aware of:

  • all the parts of your body have to be properly covered at all times;
  • visitors are not allowed to have meals in the open air;
  • visitors are not allowed to smoke tobacco (or anything else) in open air;
  • consuming alcohol during or prior to the tour as well as bringing it into the Zone is prohibited;
  • it is prohibited to place your photo/video equipment on the ground;
  • it is strictly prohibited to take items away from within the Zone;
  • it is not permitted to touch objects, structures, vegetation, or the ground; Sitting on the ground is also not permitted.
Chernobyl is 90 km (56 miles) northeast of Kiev and about 16 km (10 miles) south of the border with Belarus. The nearest town to the power plant was actually Pripyat, not Chernobyl.

The Exclusion Zone is split in two: the 30 km (19 miles) area (mostly decontaminated, still inhabited by a few hundred people) and the 10 km (6.5 miles) area (that still shows high radiation despite decontamination efforts; not inhabitable in our lifetime).

10:30 AM — we reached the Dytyatky checkpoint to enter the exclusion zone, lined up with our passports and got checked by a police officer.

We were also offered a dosimeter that records all the radiation we receive throughout the day and we had to wear it around the neck at all times.

Entrance sign to Chernobyl. Today, the town has a population of 500.

First stop on the tour was the old abandoned Kindergarten in Kopachi village.

Pictures by Andrew Taber (@andrewtaber)

We then drove straight to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station and came close to Reactor 4, which cause the fatal explosion on 26 April 1986.

A New Safe Confinement (pictured below) was designed with the primary goal of confining the radioactive remains of of Reactor 4 for the next 100 years. It also aims to allow for a partial demolition of the original sarcophagus, which will start soon, not allowing tourist to reach this spot in the future.

Reactor 4 under the new sarcophagus.

Next on the tour was to Pripyat, “The Dead (Ghost) Town” — the location of the swimming pool area, amusement park with it’s ferris wheel, river boats, abandoned buildings, the first supermarket in the Soviet Union, cinemas, an entertainment center, the hospital, etc.

Street art in Pripyat.
Abandoned sight on the Pripyat river; the famous amusement park that was never functional.
More pictures from the amusement park that was supposed to open on May 1st just a few days after the disaster occurred.
Abandoned buildings of Pripyat; some Soviet propaganda left behind.

One of the surprises on the tour was the Duga-3 (“Russian Woodpecker”) radar. This early warning radar for their anti-ballistic missile system was one of the Soviet best kept secrets that continued its operation three years after the nuclear disaster. Speculation suggested it was used as a form of mind control and, to this day, the full extent of the nature of its use remains unanswered.

The abandoned Duga radar, hidden in plain sight behind the Red Forest.

One of the final stops was an exhibition of military machineries used to clean the reactor and decontaminate the area, after the disaster.

At the end of the visit, we were all required to pass through a radiological control checkpoint (similar to the security machines in airports).

7:00 PM — we returned to Kiev.

Total Budget: 70–120 Euros (depending on the type of tour selected).

Final Thoughts

Low safety culture of the entire system was the cause of the Chernobyl accident. I’m sad to say, not much has changed. The radiological control checkpoints we had to pass (twice) on the trip seemed like they didn’t really function — one of them even had plastic foil covering the spots where we were supposed to place our hands and feet. The metal detector-like contraptions were unmonitored, just there to offer tourists some piece of mind. After placing our hands on either side we all received the green light and were allowed to pass.

Moreover, when I asked the tour guide to check my neck dosimeter (that recorded my radiation intake throughout the day) he initially refused saying that it would take too long to check everyones’ device. After he agreed and took our dosimeters he went into a police shelter. Upon return, he said he had checked, at random, three out of the seven dosimeters and that the values were 5, 5 and 7 (when normally, the mean is around 3).

One of the lines that stuck with me after the visit was my guide’s answer when I asked him if he’s watched the HBO series: “After coming here everyday, 15 days a month, I try to pretend that Chernobyl doesn’t exist for the rest of time”.

If you have any questions, tips or recommendations feel free to leave them in the comments below or contact me at cpogo@wharton.upenn.edu. For more stories and details about my adventures, you can find me on Instagram: @cristinapogo.

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Cristina Pogorevici

Proud Romanian | Schwarzman Scholar ‘22 | Wharton ‘21 | Traveler (43 countries) | Instagram @cristinapogo