Chernobyl - Pripyat, Ukraine
(All photos on this page by Julia Hedlund)
The Chernobyl reactor explosion and meltdown in 1986 was the worst nuclear power accident in history. 41 workers died in the explosion or from radiation poisoning within a few months of the accident. Many thousands more have died since due to radiation induced cancers. Radioactive fallout from the accident has made a large section of Ukraine and Belarus uninhabitable. Some areas near the reactor will be uninhabitable for thousands of years due to high levels of radiation.
After the accident some 336,000 people were evacuated from the area around the power plant in both Ukraine and Belarus. The towns of Pripyat (population 49,360 in 1986) and Chernobyl (population 14,000 in 1986) were entirely and permanently evacuated. Hundreds of smaller villages and farms in the agricultural area around the plant were also evacuated. Residents have since returned to some of the evacuated areas in Belarus and Ukraine. An area of about a 1,000 square miles closest to the plant has been designated the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and requires Ukrainian government permission for entry.
In the years immediately following the accident some 600,000 people were employed in the clean-up operation. Many of those people were only able to work for minutes before receiving or exceeding lifetime safe levels of radiation exposure. After the Soviet Union collapsed, responsibility for the clean up shifted to the newly independent nations of Ukraine and Belarus. In Belarus' first year as a nation (1991) 21% of the national budget was spent on Chernobyl related expenses. From 2003 to 2005, 5%-7% of the national budget of Ukraine was spent on Chernobyl related expenses. Work continues at the site with thousands of people currently employed in the continuing clean-up operation.
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone was first opened to tourists in 2002 and since then, a small but growing tourism industry has developed around Chernobyl nuclear disaster tours. Over a dozen companies now offer group and individual tours of the exclusion zone. Most tours leave from Kiev and cost $150-$300 per person in 2014. My sister and brother-in-law had a chance to take an afternoon tour in spring of 2014. All of the pictures on these pages were taken by my sister during that visit.
Access to the exclusion zone is not permitted without government permission which means one must go through one of the recognized tour companies. There is list of tour companies on the wiki travel site here. Permission for individuals needs to be arranged in advance so booking a tour in advance is recommended. It is possible to book last minute tours but this involves extra expense. Vans or small busses pick tourists up at pre-arranged locations in Kiev in the morning. The trip to the exclusion zone takes about two hours during which passengers are shown an informational video (depending on the tour company). All vehicles entering the exclusion zone pass through a security check point where passenger documents are examined and a government employed tour guide boards the tour vehicle. The tour guide/minder assigned to my sister's group spoke English. The tour of the zone my sister was on lasted approximately 4 hours. They visited the reactor site where a new sarcophagus is being constructed to help contain radioactive material. They visited the ruins of Pripyat and a few memorials. Lunch was provided in a building in the (probably) former town of Chernobyl where many administrative functions are now housed. During the tour they encountered a few other tours and individuals with guides. While on the tour they were allowed to wander freely. The use of a Geiger counter was offered for an additional $50. When they left the exclusion zone they were check for radiation.
In spite of the recent political upheaval in Ukraine and the conflict in the eastern part of the country, travel in western Ukraine is still perfectly safe. Kiev is apparently a wonderful city to visit and the exchange rate has recently been very favorable for international visitors.