April 26, 1986 signifies the day that the world witnessed the worst catastrophic nuclear power plant disaster in history: Chernobyl. Can you visit Chernobyl today? Absolutely, but you can only enter the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Zone with a guided tour. You will have the opportunity not only to learn about the tragic accident and discover what happened to the residents and children of Chernobyl, but you will also explore the abandoned villages and see the reactor that changed people’s lives forever. If you’d like to learn more about the background behind the nuclear disaster, check out “Part 1” of my experience where I discuss the city of Chernobyl, the cause of the Chernobyl disaster, and the subsequent consequences of Chernobyl.
Before being allowed into the Zone, you have to go through the 30 km Zone Checkpoint. Here, an armed officer will check your passports and you will be good to go! Throughout the Exclusion Zone, there are 18 different checkpoints. Just don’t take any pictures of the checkpoint…
The first stop of our Chernobyl tour was the village of Zalissya. This was the first village to become completely abandoned (by May of 1986), and no one has lived there since; there were once 3,200 people living in Zalissya. On the day of the disaster, people in Zalissya didn’t hear an explosion or smell fumes as they were 25 km away from Reactor 4; they sensed that nothing was wrong. Due to this, many were reluctant to leave their homes as it was difficult to believe the levels of radiation in Chernobyl.
In Zalissya, we had the opportunity to explore some abandoned houses and the hospital. Could you imagine having to pack up your home and leave, when everything around you still seemed so normal?
The city of Chernobyl is situated 20 km from the power plant. Today, it is a functional town filled with workers.
You will find apartment buildings that were left unoccupied (that the workers now live in) and statues alike, but we made three stops within the city of Chernobyl:
The Angel Statue: Five years ago Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine unveiled the Angel Statue. Many believe that the Chernobyl Disaster is the fulfillment of Revelation 8 in the Bible.
And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter. Revelation 8:10-11
For those not familiar with the Book of Revelation, it describes the beginning of the end of the world due to a series of horribly catastrophic events. In looking at the passage above, it’s important to note that “Chernobyl” means “wormwood” in Russian because the land of Chernobyl is covered in wormwood.
As for the waters being made bitter, when the nuclear disaster happened, the radiation-filled clouds from Chernobyl drifted over Europe and the Soviet Union; the enormous downpour of rain that fell from these clouds brought radiation to soil, animals, trees, crops, and waters. When Revelation 8 says that “many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter,” it describes what happened with the Chernobyl Disaster.
In giving truth to the prophecy, a statue of an angel blowing the Third Trumpet was erected in the city of Chernobyl.
Museum Commemorating the Nuclear Disaster: While we did not go inside, the exterior of the museum is painted in beautiful, colorful murals. One of the main paintings shows storks leaving a fiery nest. The storks leaving the nest signifies the people who were evacuated, while the nest that’s caught on fire symbolizes the radiation in Chernobyl.
Village Alley: The alley symbolizes the villages that will never be inhabited again. It’s a cemetery of sorts for the villages destroyed and/or abandoned in the nuclear disaster.
Radar Duga I
Built in 1974, Radar Duga I was a secret military complex. So secret, in fact, that it wasn’t even on a map! In its place, it was shown as a children’s camp. That's one creepy-looking camp if you ask me…
While Radar Duga 1 is now abandoned, you can still see the children’s camp facade upon entering.
In reality, Radar Duga I was designed to spy on the Americans; the USSR wanted to see if they were targeting Moscow or if World War III would break out.
Welcoming us to Kopachi stands an Unknown Soldier. Dated 1941-1945, this statue commemorates the people from Kopachi that died fighting the Nazis during World War II, and those who liberated Kopachi from the Nazis.
But, that’s not the reason why you visit Kopachi. You visit Kopachi to get a sense of how abruptly people were forced to leave. You visit Kopachi to feel.
Kopachi was completely burned to the ground in 1986, but one building remains…
The eeriest building in the zone: remnants of a former kindergarten for the children of Chernobyl.
If that doesn't give you goosebumps, I'm not sure what will…
ChNPP – Industrial Power Plant
Following Kopachi, we entered the Industrial Power Plant. We passed by the unfinished Reactors 5 and 6 before coming 300 meters from Reactor 4, the site of the disaster. It’s crazy just how close we are allowed to get! We were some of the few who were able to see the old sarcophagus covering most of Reactor 4 and the new sarcophagus for Reactor 4 side by side; in November of 2016, the new sarcophagus completely covered and contained Reactor 4, as “there remains an estimated 200 tons of radioactive fuel inside the crippled reactor.” When I visited, however, we could still see 1/4 of the building that survived.
The last reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was shut down in December of 2000.
Pripyat (or Prypiat)
When the nuclear power plant was first being constructed in the 1970s, it was an honor for the people living in Pripyat. Who would have ever known that such a tragic disaster would happen just 8 km from their doorsteps?
15 minutes was all it took to receive a lethal dose of radiation.
Yet, 20 hours after radiation, Pripyat was still unaware of the radiation and the rising levels.
The people living in Pripyat Ukraine knew nothing of the disaster at first; citizens were told that everything was fine with the reactor. Meanwhile, the reactor was still burning. Radiation in Pripyat was 15,000 times higher than normal that morning, and 600,000 times higher by that night.
On April 26, 1986, the people of Pripyat received 50x the healthy dose of radiation. Within three days (without evacuation) they would have been dead.
30 hours after the nuclear explosion, more than 1,000 buses arrived and the entire city of Pripyat Ukraine was evacuated. The people had two hours to grab their necessities because they were told that they'd return home in three days. What they didn’t know was that they were leaving their entire lives behind.
They were never to return home.
The USSR Authorities concealed the seriousness of the situation to avoid mass panic. In a matter of three and a half hours, 33,000 people evacuated Pripyat tearfully but peacefully.
They were Europe’s first nuclear refugees.
24 different nationalities lived in Pripyat, and every third person was a child.
In 1992, 45% of the children of Chernobyl that were exposed to the lethal doss of radiation were healthy.
In 1994, only 10% of those children of Chernobyl were healthy.
Let that sink in for a minute.
With that being said, we took off on our Pripyat tour to explore this tragically abandoned city. Below you will find a chilling photo essay of Pripyat today. From main squares to city halls, gymnasiums, theaters, schools, amusement parks, and beyond, our haunting experience at Pripyat will stay with me forever.
Our final stop of our Chernobyl was a lookout over the Cooling Pod and Industrial Site. The Cooling Pod is an artificial lake that was used as a heat exchanger for each reactor; it was in use until 2000.
The Aftermath & Consequences of Chernobyl
Today, this region of Ukraine is still lagging behind. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster claimed the lives of 500,000 people and left over 130,000 residents and children of Chernobyl displaced. The people working on Reactor 4 were deemed incompetent and blamed for the disaster.
When the disaster happened, liquidators rushed to the scene; 30,000 liquidators, of 600,000, were allowed into the Zone at one time. Everyone who would professionally contribute to the clean-up was there— policemen, firemen, army men — and even regular citizens that were being called upon. Many of those liquidators developed Acute Radiation Sickness and their lives were given for the betterment of the USSR; the government supposedly took all possible steps to mitigate the problem though. Reactor 4 was open until November of 1986 when the sarcophagus was put on.
The people and children of Chernobyl that were evacuated went to towns and villages in the Kiev (Kyiv) region. Other Ukrainians were forced to house the evacuees because they couldn’t say no to the USSR. Not only did the refugees have to leave their entire lives behind, but they felt like a burden on top of everything else. Once they realized it was a permanent move, the USSR started to build brand new houses and villages.
In the Summer of 1986, the USSR built houses for each displaced family and were required to pay them as well — the average monthly salary was 100 Rubles, but the government had to pay them the equivalent of 40 times their monthly salaries per month, and the children of Chernobyl would get an extra 800 Rubles more per month until they reached 18 years old.
Today, people have started to come back. There are petrol stations, policemen, firefighters, churches, and transportation companies. Everyone working in the Zone is fed 3x per day by the government to help offset costs, and they live in abandoned dormitories on site.
Before exiting the Zone, we were required to go through radiation detectors. Chernobyl Tour conducted an incredibly informative, interesting, and professional tour. We never felt unsafe and I’d truly urge anyone wanting to explore Chernobyl to sign up with Chernobyl Tour. It’s as authentic as it gets — remember, one of the founders of the company was a former liquidator himself!
At the end of the day, we received less radiation than a normal X-RAY or CT-Scan.
Irradiation dose received: 0.003 mSv
** Since the original writing of this article, there has been a 40% increase in tourism to Chernobyl due to HBO's new hit series, Chernobyl. With the influx of tourists looking to visit the sites of the show, it is incredibly important to remember how many people lost their lives due to the nuclear disaster and to be respectful while in the Zone. **