On a freezing November morning in 2017, I jumped on a bus and travelled a couple of hours north of Kiev to the Zone of Alienation, the restricted area around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.
Over 1,000 square miles of territory was evacuated in 1986 after one of the power plant reactors exploded. 30 years later the clean up is ongoing and the area is still under military control.
Since 2011 escorted groups have been allowed into the zone, I’ve decided to join one.
One question I get asked a lot is why I chose to come here, my answer is always the same:
It’s an abandoned Soviet nuclear wasteland…why wouldn’t I want to go?
Entering the zone
You can only enter the exclusion zone as part of an organised tour (I’m part of a group with 12 others), and entrance starts mid-morning so there’s a bit of a wait.
I’m at the main gate and there’s a queue of mini-buses and vans here. Most visitors are coming on day trips but some (like me) will be staying in the zone overnight.
Eventually we’re called forward and present ourselves to the armed military guards. They’re taking this seriously, every digit on my passport is being checked against a list of permitted visitors.
While this happens the vehicles are being searched by more guards to make sure nobody sneaks in (or brings anything they’re not supposed to).
I had to sign a waiver at this point, basically just:
- Radiation is dangerous
- No seriously, radiation is dangerous
The risks aren’t as bad as most people probably think, I got more additional radiation on the flight from London to Ukraine than I will from the reactor in the next 32 hours.
We’re also given a list of rules that we have to obey. I can’t remember all of them but they’re mostly along the lines of:
- Don’t touch anything
- Don’t eat anything while in the zone
- Don’t go into buildings
- Don’t go mushrooming, (yup – this confused me too)
Predictably this very quickly became a todo list and by the time I left, I think my group had broken almost all of the rules. We’d have completed it but we couldn’t find any mushrooms 🤷♂️
The exclusion zone
There are actually two exclusion zones here, the outer perimeter at 30km from the reactor and the inner cordon at 10km. Both are guarded by military checkpoints, and we’re screened for radiation when leaving either zone.
The inner cordon seems to be the most enforced, there are soldiers present in the radiation check room.
When we’re screened at the outer 30km checkpoint, the room is empty – only our guide is there to make sure we’re clean.
This gave us the chance to take some photographs of the radiation machines. Each metal pad checks for radiation, if you’re clean then the metal barrier unlocks.
- Exploring Chernobyl
- Exploring Chernobyl: Zalesye
- Exploring Chernobyl: Chernobyl City
- Exploring Chernobyl: Military Base
- Exploring Chernobyl: Kopachi Kindergarten
- Exploring Chernobyl: Power Station
- Exploring Chernobyl: Walking through Pripyat
- Exploring Chernobyl: Cafe Pripyat
- Exploring Chernobyl: Amusement Park