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Is it safe to visit Chernobyl?

Chernobyl city

Chernobyl Zone. Safe “radioactive” tourism

Forbes claimed Chernobyl exclusion zone to be the most “exotic” place for tourists. There is no surprise up to 20 000 people are visiting the sight every year.

Although Chernobyl is assimilated with the biggest human-made nuclear disaster a number of people who visit the sight every year is growing rapidly. Official numbers of tourists, eager to take a look at the most post-apocalyptic zone varies from 8 000 to 20 000 per year according by tour operators allowed in restricted area. The agency of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine is an administrative power to give a green light and let tourist groups inside the “Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation”. That is the best indicator for displaying actual safety level. There are not only safe tours for one day but for two days, three days and even more upon individual request. Ukrainian Ministry of Civil Protection wouldn't allow any visits in case the area was still full of deadly radiation. Also according to UN reports back in 2002 most places of the Zone no longer possessed health risks. In other words - Chernobyl is very safe place to visit nowadays.

The saviest and the most extrem tourism is the Chernobyl Zone

Last day of Chernobyl 1
Radiation free 2
Safe nuclear tours 3
       What is radiation? 3.1.
       What types of radiation exist? 3.2.
       Low-level radiation – safe level 3.3.
       High radiation level 3.4.
Chernobyl safe tours 4
      How are the tours organized? 4.1.
      Can people live in Chernobyl? 4.2.
Chernobyl tours rules 5
      How to order a tour? 5.1.
      Best time to visit Chornobyl 5.2.
Check for safety in Chornobyl tour now 6
How to visit Chornobyl today? 7

Last day of Chernobyl

Chernobyl accident, being known as the most severe nuclear disaster in human history, occurred on April 26, 1986. Last year marked that 30 years had passed by now. A power test which took place the night of the accident was operated without precautions needed. As it was acknowledged later, there were not many policies articulated for operating on low energy. The reactor operators were not aware of the fact their actions made reactor number 4 dangerously unstable. And what is worse - would lead to the fatal mishap.

Explosions ejected nearly half of 1200 ton’s graphite moderator, destroyed reactor itself. A great part of the fuel, core components, structural items were blown from the reactor to adjacent buildings and the nearest areas around the reactor. It resulted in uncontrollable multiple fires. Explosions also released major part of radioactive materials into the environment. A great radioactive cloud took off and drifted with the wind to the north-western part of Europe and further. It turned around to Ukraine again which means that whole planet was partly covered with radioactive gasses and particles. According to scientific researches, dangerous contamination of the ground was found to some extent in practically every country in the northern hemisphere.

The main part of the dangerous radiation discharged from exploded reactor consisted of iodine-131, cesium- 134, cesium-137, plutonium-241, Stroncium-90. Due to airflow course, the radioactive cloud at first covered Belarus, Scandinavia, and Russia and after then, as the wind directions changed, dangerous particles were blown over the greater part of the Europe. The worst affected territories were:

  • the area of several thousands of miles around the 4th reactor;
  • a great part of Belarus at the border with Ukraine was receiving nearly 80% of the contamination;
  • a large area to the south from Bryansk town in Russia;
  • northwestern regions of Ukraine;- Scandinavia and Norway were partly scattered.

Radiation free

The biggest part of the dangerous radiation emission contained iodine-131, cesium- 134, cesium-137, plutonium-241, Stroncium-90 etc.

Iodine-131 is known to have a short decay time – about eight days. It was extremely dangerous right after the accident. As it could easily get into water, milk, cabbage and other food products and into human's body with it. Since people in the former Soviet Union were not properly instructed on the danger after the accident, a great number of the population received harmfully high doses with food and drinks which had seriously affected their thyroid tissues. Cesium -137 and Stroncium-90 have the longest half-life existence among the most dangerous radioactive elements those ejected to an environment in 1986. Their decay time is about 30 years and it got to half-life point last year.

Of course, there is still the great percentage of polluted areas but radiation gets deeper into the ground each year. Most of the dangerous materials achieved its half-life time and no one is living under fatal levels of ionizing radioactivity today.

Notably, you can see it in the wildlife expansion over abandoned territories. 30 years after the nuclear reactor explosion, the area, forsaken by former habitats, has been totally overflowed and occupied by wild animals and nature. If you are lucky you would be able to come across rare bands of wild Przewalski’s horses, bisons, and bears, falcons, moose, packs of wolves, foxes, deer, and beavers. On top of that, there is the significant reappearance of lynxes and great owls. Eagles fly in ghostly cities, trees, bushes, grass, and the world of other greenery is everywhere. It may appear like you are in some reservation yet gloomy, half –destroyed buildings from the Soviet era will give you no way to forget where you are.

Safe nuclear tours

It is well known that the highest radiation level you can be exposed to in your tour to Chernobyl and nearest abandoned villages is nearly 0.0007 mSv/h that is 0.0004 mSv/h higher than the norm.

If you are taking the transatlantic fly to Ukraine 40 000 feet in the sky you may receive 0.0035 mSv per hour as cosmic rays can penetrate the plane due to thin atmospheric shielding.

For you to know the level of background gamma radiation in Kiev averages between 0.000095-0.00015 mSv/h. By the way, normal limit of background radiation activity for human equals 0.00030 mSv/h

Yes, we do get everyday background radiation without even visiting nuclear plants and without even noticing. That is why it’s so important to understand what radiation actually is and why it is safe to visit Chernobyl not only for one but even for more than three days. All you need is just keep up with the safety instructions of the Zone official guide. Radiation is a word that is used to describe the heat that moves from its source in form of invisible energy waves. In case we want to identify whether the source of radiation is dangerous for human health we should take several factors into account, those are radiation dose, radiation energy, part of the body exposed to radiation, and cell sensitivity level.

Sources and materials which can lead to DNA damage or biological tissues damage are called ionizing radiation. It consists of gamma-rays, X-rays, and particles resultant of radioactive decay.

Table of radioactive level comparison

  Chernobyl 1986 Chernobyl 2017 Safe level Dangerous level Prypiat 1986 Prypiat 2017
Background radiation 8.77- 4000 mSv/h 0.00015-0.0007 mSv/h 0.00030 mSv/h 1 mSv/h and higher 8.77- 1000 mSv/h 0.0007-0.0015 mSv/h

What is radiation?

Radiation is a word that is used to describe the heat that moves from its source in form of invisible energy waves. In case we want to identify whether the source of radiation is dangerous for human health we should take several factors into account, those are radiation dose, radiation energy, part of the body exposed to radiation, and cell sensitivity level.

Sources and materials which can lead to DNA damage or biological tissues damage are called ionizing radiation. It consists of gamma-rays, X-rays, and particles resultant of radioactive decay.

What types of radiation exist?

As we all are exposed to radiation and it is not necessary to live near dangerous objects or restricted zones – it is our everyday reality whether we know about it or not. That is the reason low-levels are considered harmless to human health even on life-long terms.

Background radiation can come from natural sources and also can come from artificial (human-made) sources. The last one could become the reason for high-level radiation exposure, dangerous for living beings in case of explosions or accidents.

Naturally occurring sources include:

Cosmic rays as a type of radiation that is coming to Earth from Sun and outer space. About 8% of background radiation we receive from outer space.

Rocks, soil - some rocks give off radioactive radon gasses as a result of radium decay in the earth. It remains the largest source of background radiation in our homes – more than 50% of background radiation we gain from rocks and earth (about 2 mSv per year). Thorium & potassium found in the earth's crust are also the sources of background radioactivity.

Living things - plants, trees, mushrooms and mosses actually absorb radioactive materials from the soil and became radioactive too. That is how polluted materials can be passed through food chain right to our dinner tables.

There is little we can do about background ionization as it is the natural thing and we live with it through our lives. We all should eat, drink and breath after all and we can’t avoid it to reduce radiation we get.

But human activity has added much to background radiation by creating and using artificial sources of radioactive materials.

Artificial or human-made sources include:

  • Nuclear plants.
  • Radioactive waste from nuclear power stations.
  • Radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons testing.
  • Medical x-rays of any kind (mammograms for example).
  • Chemotherapy, nuclear medicine.
  • Flying planes and Body scanners found in airports.
  • Microwave ovens, computers, TV's, radios etc.

Low-level radiation – safe level

Nearly all artificial background radiation we can get in our everyday life comes from medical procedures such as X-rays photography, mammography or nuclear medicine tests. For comparison – it would take a 1000 airport security scans to receive the same radioactivity level as of only 1 chest X-ray. The amount of artificial radiation one can receive from medical manipulation is considered low-level radiation that can cause no damage to human body.

One of the best examples of radiation fears actually occurred in Europe after the Chernobyl accident. Pregnant women sought abortions because of misapprehension that radiation level will cause extreme damage to the fetus and that children would be born disabled or with mental disorders. Though there was no medical justification for it as radiation exposure levels were entirely below those likely to have any frightening effects.

Scientific studies of some 75,000 children born of people who survived and get high radiation doses at Hiroshima and Nagasaki half a century ago confirms that there was no increase in genetic abnormalities in human populations. The same – no genetic effects were evident after the Chernobyl accident.

Due to myths about radiation danger and lack of understanding, people from the Chornobyl Zone have suffered from fatalism, giving up their lives, some of them just "took on the role of invalids." In that time mental health together with addiction to smoking and alcohol became actually far worse a problem than thyroids cancer, caused by high doses of radiation people gained for the first weeks after explosions from polluted air, water and food.

One way or another, at low levels of exposure, body's natural mechanisms always do repairing job to DNA and other damaged cells soon after it occurs. There are adaptive responses in our bodies that are stimulated after damage signals and it protects cells and tissues.

However, high-level irradiation overwhelms our repair mechanisms and is harmful to human cells. Dose rate is as important as overall dose.

High radiation level

What makes radiation dangerous? Any kind of ionizing radiation on its way through our bodies will make electrons become ejected from atoms, which will lead to leaving positive ions. These positive ions are known as free radicals. And they are of all others the cause of bringing damage to DNA. If that happens and DNA is damaged, then there appeared to be 3 possible outcomes:

  • The cell repairs itself. If the radiation dose is low and/or it is delivered over a long period of time (low dose rate), the risk is substantially lower because there is a greater likelihood of repairing the damage.
  • The cell dies. It only occurs after gaining very high doses, such methods are used in nuclear medicine.
  • The cell repairs itself but repairing is done with mistakes. Such results are rare and can cause cells to grow uncontrollably wich leads to cancer.

The potential damage from an absorbed dose depends on the type of radiation and the sensitivity of different tissues and organs. Available scientific evidence does not indicate any cancer risk or immediate effects at doses below 100 mSv per year. Normally we are exposed to the average of background radiation from 1.5 to 5 mSv per year.

Chernobyl safe tours

Even though thousands of tourists are allowed and are eagerly coming to visit abandoned cities in Zone it may be surprising for tourists how many strict rules there exist during "radioactive excursion". In 1986 some highly radioactive places appeared near the NPP, one of them is The Red Forest, a 10-square-kilometre area around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant within the Exclusion Zone. The forest name came from the ginger –brown color of the pine trees after they absorbed deathly levels of ionizing rays and died. Another is Rassorva rescue vehicles graveyard. In places like this radiation, rates are far beyond acceptable.

Those places are not allowed to visit during the tour, otherwise, the group is allowed to stay near these places only for a very short period of time. But apart from these sites, there is no way you are getting any dangerous radiation if you are keeping to the rules of a trip. During the two-day trip, the body receives a dose of radiation which you can compare to 0,001 dose by X-ray scan or to a couple of hours spent in an airplane. If you are interested in numbers you will receive 0.007 mSv of gamma radiation – an absolutely normal and safe dose. An average American receives a dose of nearly 6.2 mSv each year which is considered to be the healthy dose for a human being. Half of it – 3.6 mSv citizens get from the natural background sources – earth, food, water, air and the remaining part is received mostly via medical procedures. Considering above mentioned you now can loosen up as there is no possibility of radiation exposure in Chornobyl tour since we can get more ionization doing X-ray in the hospital.

How are the tours organized?

These days an access to the area is allowed with special permission and accompaniment of an official guide. Official Guide means a person who is professionally trained and well-informed, who knows all tour paths that are carefully set in order to minimize the risk of being near highly radioactive parts still present in the Zone. To take a legal tour you should contact one of the official Tour Operators. There are options of a basic group and individual group tours. Any details about sightseeing spots, timing, organization rules and continuance of the individual Chornobyl tours directly depend on the policy of different operators.

The tour itself starts in Kiev at about 8:00 am. It will take bus nearly 2 hours to get to the first checkpoint in "Dytiatky". Only after that, the guided trip will begin. There also will be a possibility to buy some local souvenirs- shorts and hats, postal cards, or snacks and drinks in the grocery shop. After 1-day tour bus will take you to Kiev at about 20:00. During 2 and 3 days trips you will be able to spend a night at the hotel right there on the territory of Chernobyl city. The hotel is new, so it is safe. Every room in the hotel is equipped with all needed: clean towels, shampoo, soap, heating, warm water, cooler, refrigerator, bathroom and TV.

And what's the main you will visit nuclear power plant and villages people partly left decades ago.

Can people live in Chernobyl?

No, it is not a joke, not all villages in the contaminated zone are completely abandoned. There are still about 5 hundred people who returned to their former homes or choose “new” one. Mainly they are old women “babushkas” as they are called who decided to return to the places they once lived in. Officials call them “returnees”, inhabitants who are coming to live out their lives in peace and silence. Many people who often visit the Zone said that they are used to bring some gifts to those people.You can see their vegetable and fruit gardens, pets like cats and dogs, sometimes cattle stock. People who live in the area drink water from rivers and wells, eat mushrooms and berries and it seems they don't particularly care about the possibility of radionuclides in it. "You cannot see the radiation, and nature is doing fairly well here”,- are the most common answers. Needless to say that there is still danger in doing so.

Ukrainian people are not the only one who had returned to the exclusion zone. Belarus government, for example, prepared a new national program over 2011-2020 for resettling of contaminated areas, which were heavily polluted by the Chernobyl fallout. Gomel, which is a part of Polessian State Radiation-Ecological Reserve, and Mogilev regions are in the center of governmental focus. More than 137,000 people were evacuated from those areas. UNSCEAR research showed that nuclear disaster produced little risk for the general population. That is why Belarus restricted Ecological Reserve hopefully is going to show to the world society that safe life and labor with minimal restrictions is possible.

Chernobyl tours rules

Though it turned out to be zero risks of becoming highly radioactive within the trip to the Zone yet there are still the Alienation Zone rules. Those rules are to be followed in order to minimize other health risks. While walking in Chornobyl and Pripyat, it is officially forbidden to enter any buildings, due to the unsafe conditions. Since no backup and remedial works had been applied for the last 30 years it is better not to play with your luck. As follows from Ukrainian law no businesses allowed there apart from those necessary for Chernobyl Zone functioning. Nevertheless, a lot of unique constructions and spots were added to the tour programs to ensure tourist's satisfaction and diversity of impressions.

Another strict rule is about age – Ukrainian government allows visiting of contaminated land only for people who reached 18 years of legal age and older. No parental guidance or permissions will allow a younger individual to pass the first administrative post. According to some medical research children's and teenager's bodies are more sensitive to radioactive influence as the cells in their bodies are growing very fast so maybe this restriction is a right call.

How to order a tour?

To order a tour, first of all, you need to send your passport data to your Chernobyl Tour Operator. This procedure is needed for the tour operator to send your details to Zone Administration. Only they can approve groups allowed to the Zone and make your pass ticket legal. Also, everyone has to bring their valid passports with them during all time of the trip. The reason is simple - during the excursion, you will be passing several checkpoints on your way to the sights.

Wear pants, not shorts.

If to talk about cloth, there are also rules you cannot avoid for your own good. You should not buy special outfit or gas masks or anything of that sort. Guests are only obligated to wear:

  • pants, not shorts and not skirts, and not short pants;
  • shirts or jackets should be long sleeved. Your body should be covered at most.
  • footwear, particularly, have to be of a closed type. You will not be allowed to enter the Zone in sandals or any other open toe shoes. The reason is there is still a good chance to find highly radioactive particle if you touch or step on the bare ground out of suggested concrete passages. The radioactive isotopes are sinking into the soil with a speed of 1 cm per year. So it’s about 30 cm deep that the ground is contaminated. That is why visitors are forbidden to sit or touch the ground, to put their cloth or cameras to the ground, along with touching constructions, ground, trees, moss etc.

Whatsoever it is recommended to wear some old clothes that can be washed easily or even chucked out in case someone is skeptical about its safety.

Before vacationers enter and before they leave a restricted zone they should be sure to check their bags and pockets so that they are not bringing into the area something from the list mentioned below:

  • animals;
  • plants;
  • drugs;
  • any weapons.

Visitors are forbidden to take anything they found on the territory out of it. Any materials, stones, dolls, ground, papers or any items found on the territory of alienation.

As for the food here are also some rules – tourists should not eat in the open space. But can drink bottled water. Eating local berries, mushrooms or fruits as much as drinking local water is strongly prohibited.

Smoking in the Zone is also forbidden. And its due to safety measures and a high risk of getting radioactive particles right inside the body.

Guides are instructing visitors what to do and what is not allowed while entering exclusion zone. And it is better to follow those instructions and directions.

Best time to visit Chornobyl

You can choose for yourself when is the best timing. Tours are organized all over the year so you may decide on any season you like. In winter there is the best chance to come across exclusion zone inhabitants like deer’s and foxes, or wolves. And also the atmosphere is right for abandoned ruined cities.

In spring when everything is in bloom it's a good time for photographers as leaves don't hide buildings.

In summer everything is just covered with green, cities are like jungles. It sets the atmosphere of nature triumph over man-made structures. Of course, tour operators are monitoring the situation with forest fires during the hottest season. As the fire in the Zone forests can be dangerous considering radiation they hold. Heated air polluted with heavy radicals is always darting high and will cover all territories where the wind flows. Visitors should take it into account.

In autumn lonesome spots are rather dull – leaves are falling to the ground and perhaps such a view will be interesting for those who like melancholic places or is up to the so-called "dark tourism".

Check for safety in Chornobyl tour now

Official Guides are always taking their groups all along safe paths according to the strict directions of the Zone authorities. On top of that, every visitor is going to be checked several times a day on the special checkpoints of dosimetric control and near the entry to the canteen inside Nuclear Power Plant.

In case somebody’s level of contamination is higher the norm than his or her clothes are to be cleaned and washed with special chemicals otherwise the visitor may be asked to leave polluted clothes on the checkpoint. That means every tourist may as well take some change just in case.

Every group of tourists is always equipped with no less than 2 Geiger-Müller counters, you can take your own if you have one. This counters permanently show radiation level in the place they are. But as the tourists are guided through the most safe routes, the radiation level in that places is even lower than the natural level in any place on Earth. That’s why guides are proudly pointing out low amounts that Geiger-Müller counters are showing.

Any risk to swallow or breathe in a radioactive particle while you are on a trip is extremely low. Especially if a visitor follows the route and rules of safe behavior. Even if such situation happens, there is a probability next to impossible that radioactive decay will occur while in the body. Because the reason of danger is in the irradiation, and it can only happen at the moment of a disintegration of an atom(decay). Human lungs and body is dealing with a lot of dust and has a good cleansing system inside so the risk of irradiation happening is out of the question.

The highest levels of radiation remain only within close proximity to Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant, at the pass ways of northern and western releases from the reactor, and in some other places near plant territory. The levels which could cause any immediate danger to human health are situated inside the Chernobyl Sarcophagus built in 1986, that is now covered with A New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure called “ARCH”. An arch is 110 meters high, 165 meters long and spanning 260 meters. It is covering both unit 4 and the Sarcophagus 1986 structure. Its entire structure has a weight of 36,000 tones and for now remains the largest moveable land-based structure ever built. The NSC is built to make better environment shielding from radiation inside the sarcophagus. It will also let the works of remote handling of dangerous materials from the bottom of exploded reactor begin. The hermetical construction will allow engineers to dismantle old coverage that is shielding all that left of unit 4. And after that special workers will remotely remove fuel-containing materials for disposal. There are still about 200 tons of highly dangerous materials deep within the unit 4 that are considered to be an environmental hazard until they can be better contained.

How to visit Chornobyl today?

The “Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation” is situated about 130 km north of Kiev, Ukraine. So you need to book your trip and get to Kiev first. During the "radiation tour," you will visit half-abandoned villages on the edges of the Zone, destroyed Red Forest, the hospital, Pripyat town that was a home once to nearly 49,000 inhabitants. Ferris wheel that is in the never-opened park, Chernobyl NPP of course, even The Sarcophagus and the New Safe Confinement is allowed to observe from 300 m distance. You will walk along Chernobyl town. You will see river port, where abandoned ships and steamers full of radiation lay at Pripyat riverbank. In case you are on tour for more than one day there is a hotel built in Chernobyl for visitors with dinner, breakfast and all accommodations included. Guides are professionals, friendly and helpful. Radiation levels are surprisingly low on the officially proposed routes, you even get more on a flight or doing X –ray. No animal or birds mutants, but quite a number of tourist from different countries together with workers of the Plant Complex. Take a tour to make a look into the past of Soviet era, to know more about the worst nuclear accident, see people who live there and cities that were frozen in 1986 which now are becoming a beautiful wildlife sanctuary.