It’s been more than three decades since the catastrophic accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine, but the disaster still casts a long shadow.
On 26 April 1986, an explosion at the plant near the city of Chornobyl (Chernobyl’s Ukrainian name) released radioactive material that drifted across the Soviet Union and Western Europe. In the immediate aftermath of the event, emergency workers scrambled to contain the damaged core, fearing a second massive explosion if it should come into contact with the water table beneath. It was a truly terrifying exercise in which many people risked their lives, and later suffered illness and death as a result.
A joint HBO/Sky television series premiered 6 May, bringing those grim events to life again in Chernobyl. The dramatic five-part series stars Jared Harris as Valery Legasov, a Soviet nuclear expert; Stellan Skarsgård as Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina; and Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk, a nuclear physicist investigating the cause of the disaster.
This dramatic re-creation is sure to spark interest in the region of Ukraine where the disaster took place. Though it may come as a surprise, it’s possible to visit and walk through the eerie ruins of Chornobyl and its surrounds, as part of an authorised tour into the 30 kilometre exclusion zone around the former reactor complex. One established tour operator, Chernobyl Tour, was founded by Sergii Mirnyi, a former emergency worker who took part in the post-disaster clean-up. Other companies offering tours include SoloEast and Chernobyl Welcome.
Most visitors to Chernobyl join a day trip, starting from Kyiv. The exclusion zone is two hours north of Ukraine’s capital city, so that makes for an outing of twelve hours or so, including return travel. For those with more time, there are also multi-day tours, with the option of spending a memorable night in basic accommodation within Chornobyl city, and the prospect of visiting more sites of interest.
The exclusion zone contains more than the reactor complex, with its eye-catching curved shelter covering the doomed Reactor 4. Tours take you to a former top-secret radar base, in addition to various other abandoned buildings once used for military or social purposes. The many empty villages are the saddest places to explore, with their collapsed houses and empty schools, still scattered with belongings including children’s toys.
The most startling location – and the most famous to the outside world via photos of its rusting Ferris wheel – is Pripyat. Built in the 1970s to serve as a dormitory town for workers at the adjacent nuclear complex, its deserted modernist architecture makes it resemble the location of a post-apocalyptic science fiction movie. This entirely abandoned city is a photographer’s dream, especially its decaying sports ground and rusting amusement park.
Access to Chernobyl is certainly possible – but is it safe? The tour operators insist that it is, as they avoid severely contaminated areas and limit overall time spent in the zone. Chernobyl Tour claims on its website that “total external [radiation] dose obtained during usual ten-hour trip in the Zone is several times smaller than the one received during a transatlantic flight.”
On the tours you’ll be repeatedly reminded not to wander off into forested areas, and not to eat the local mushrooms, though you probably don’t need to be told that. It’s worth noting that the sites visited have been deserted for decades and can present physical hazards; keep an eye out for uncovered manholes, or collapsed girders that can be tripped over. Beyond that, there’s a definite tension in being scanned for radiation as you pass in and out of the zone. It’s a reminder of the calamity which once occurred here, and how important it is not to forget its lessons.