First a bit of history to give you better perspective on your possible next tourist destination. Or, should I say a reckless adventure?
The construction of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant or CNPP (named after Soviet Marxist revolutionary and founder of the Soviet Communist Party, Vladimir Lenin) was started in 1970. Contrary to the popular belief, Chernobyl is not the closest city to the power plant; the city of Pripyat is - only 1.2 miles (2 km) from the power station. Pripyat was founded in 1970 as a home for the power plant workers. Its population in 1986 (the year of disaster) was 46,000 people. Chernobyl is located about 7.5 miles (12 km) from CNPP and had population of 12,000. The whole area is located about 10 miles (16 km) from the border between Ukraine and Belarus and 62 miles (100 km) north of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine (which at the time of the accident was a part of former USSR).
By 1983, four reactors were built with two more still under construction when on 26 April 1986 a disaster struck. On that day, reactor No. 4 suffered a sudden power increase, leading to a series of catastrophic explosions in its core. This resulted in releasing large quantities of radioactive fuel into the atmosphere and ignited the graphite (one of the strongest combustible materials) moderator (a device to sustain a prolonged nuclear chain reaction). Current estimates are that the highest radiation levels were equivalent to more than 20,000 roentgens per hour. So that you know: an exposure of 500 roentgens in five hours is lethal for human beings. The typical exposure to normal background radiation for a human being is about 200 milliroentgens per year or about 23 microroentgens per hour.
Interestingly, after the 1986 disaster, the remaining three reactors at the power plant continued to operate. In 1991, reactor No. 2 suffered a major fire, and as a result was decommissioned. In 1996, reactor No. 1 was shut down, followed by reactor No. 3 at the end of 2000. In 1995 the world learned that as early as 1982, a partial core meltdown occurred in reactor No. 1 - an event not made public until years later.
Never mind that Chernobyl, other than the name of the city, had little to do with the power plant and nuclear disaster. Pripyat, Chernobyl, other towns and small villages in the area were all evacuated immediately in 1986. The 30 kilometer (about 19 miles) Exclusion Zone (also known as the Zone of Alienation or, simply, The Zone) was created around the site to prevent people from entering the heavily contaminated territory. However, thousands of residents refused to abandon their homes or returned later despite the government ban. The current population in area is estimated to be about 400 people with half of them living in the town of Chernobyl and others spread in villages across the zone. In addition, about 3,800 employees (most of them live outside the Exclusion Zone in Slavutych, located 50 km northeast of the power plant) keep maintaining the remains of the now closed nuclear plant. Only in 1986 - 1987 about 200,000 persons worked in Chernobyl area to take care of most immediate consequences of the disaster.
In 2000, the so-called "State Specialized Enterprise Chernobyl NPP" (SSE ChNPP) was created by the decree of the Ukraine president to ensure the safety of nuclear installations operation and decommissioning as well as management of the facilities for radioactive wastes. According to the official Ukraine government data, the radiation in the Administrative building area at the power plant averages 65 microroentgens per hour (which is almost three times more than the annual average from natural background radiation); in the Shelter Object (current official name for the Chernobyl huge concrete "sarcophagus" surrounding the nuclear reactor No. 4) observation pavilion area - 1,08 milliroentgens per hour (1000 milliroentgens equal 1 roentgen). The radiation rate inside the Shelter Object itself is around 3400 roentgens/hour.
Currently, any residential, civil or business activities in the zone are legally prohibited and punishable. However, the poaching of game, illegal logging, and metal salvage have never stopped in the Zone. A new type of adventure tourism (also called "Chernobyl stalking") emerged to visit the abandoned enterprises, military installations, buried radioactive equipment, abandoned villages and towns.
According to several statements made by representatives of the Ukrainian government, there are plans to open the Zone for legal tourism. Allegedly, travel itineraries in the Zone are to be identified that will be medically safe and at the same time interesting enough for tourists. However, no specific dates have been communicated (as of 2011) regarding details of such plans or when they are officially implemented. Some cosmetic changes were implemented recently (end of 2010 - beginning 2011) which seem only to strengthen the power of Chernobyl InterInform agency (a division of the Ukrainian Ministry of Emergency Measures) as the main authority regulating (among other things) permits to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and the Zone of Mandatory Resettlement (even more restricted area with about 6 mile radius (10 km)).
On the surface, Chernobyl tourism exists exclusively as organized tours offered by a few firms now offer visits to the restricted area, for example Journeys into Chernobyl Zone (Naviquan.com neither endorses this or any other Chernobyl tour operator nor approves or encourages any activity associated with traveling to the Exclusion Zone). It is our understanding that such tours are legal and based on a permission obtained from the Ukrainian authorities (see more information in the "Useful Visitor Info and Tips" section below). However, it is also our understanding that illegal "Chernobyl stalking" is growing as well despite officially announced in 2007 severe criminal and administrative penalties for illegal activities in the Exclusion Zone.
It is a bit eery to write about Chernobyl as a growing in popularity tourist destination - after all, the name of this Ukrainian town is associated with one of if not the largest human made disaster that even happened on our planet. It can hardly be an entertainment usually associated with tourism. And yet, here we are - it seems to be a human nature to try to be a part of events like this, no matter how much sorrow they may have caused and no matter how dangerous trips like this can be. Indeed, this place is more like an alien world with black radiotrophic mushrooms growing on the reactor's walls, with ghost villages and towns, with accounts of encounters (true or imaginary) with mutated animals.
Yet, the magnitude of the disaster, many things still remaining secret, rumors and myths are awakening human imagination and attract as magnet adventures in their pursuit of unusual. As usually, any prohibition - in this case the prohibition of traveling to the Zone - only adds more fuel to the prospects of touching something significant. Popular video games like "S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl" and "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare" featuring the city of Pripyat romanticize even further the itch of visiting the Zone. It is not surprising to read a forum post by a 16-year old youngster on one of web sites dedicated to Chernobyl about the dreams to be able to go there when he is 18.
The video below (copyright Chernobyl, Pripyat and ChNPP today) shows some abandoned areas in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Even if it is short, you can definitely feel the eerie silence that permeates the Zone.
Usually, organized tours start in Kiev and proceed to the Zone with buses. Kiev is the capital of Ukraine with Zhuliany International Airport (IATA: IEV, ICAO: UKKK) serving routes to UK, Germany, Sweden, Italy and some other European countries.
A safe way to learn first hand more about the disaster is to visit the Ukraine National Museum "Chernobyl" located in Kiev (the capital of Ukraine), address: Krorevoy lane, 1, Kiev, 04071, Tel.: (38044) 425-43-29, 417-54-22 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Exposition includes about 7,000 artifacts: declassified documents, maps, photos. Most items were collected during the expeditions of the museum team to the Chernobyl zone. You can see computer simulations of the disaster and its consequences, the dynamic three-phases diorama "The Chernobyl nuclear power plant before, during and after the accident", the current layout of Chernobyl NPP. Besides, Kiev itself is a beautiful city and one of the oldest Eastern Europe; it can be a real tourist destination with many things to see.
If you decide to take the risk and visit the Zone, do it legally and obtain all necessary permits from the Ukrainian authorities. If you are dealing with an organized tour operator, make sure that it follows all relevant regulation and obtains permits on your behalf. Secondly, join a group of people led by guides knowledgeable about the Zone. There are many dangers that are waiting for travelers literally at each and every step. For example, the territory of the Zone is polluted unevenly. Spots of very intensive pollution were created: first, by wind and rain spreading radioactive dust at the time of the accident, and later by multiple burial sites for material and equipment used in decontamination. In reality, the list of potentially deadly things is much longer than just radiation and much longer than the scope of this page permits. Our warning of danger is the MOST SERIOUS one with our strongest advice to abandon any plans to visit the Zone.
The entrance to the Zone for any unauthorized personnel (including tourists) is controlled now by Chernobyl InterInform Agency (in Russian: Агентство "Чернобыльинтеринформ"). The best we know about it is that it is a government agency within the Ukrainian Ministry of Emergency Measures. It appears that after recent changes tour operators offering Zone trips have to sign contracts with the agency. Remember if you travel to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone without a permit, you are violating the Ukrainian law. The territory of the zone is controlled by special police units and state boarder guards (protecting the perimeter of the Zone). The Zone is partly excluded from the regular civil rule.
Visitors must comply with any and all instructions provided by the officer responsible for the escort of the group and support of the visit (official guide). Along with expected things in the set of official rules for visitors (like no alcoholic drinks and weapons), there are several things that stand out. Among them rules aiming at preventing excessive radiation exposure (no touching of anything, no sitting on the ground, strict dress code, no items carried outside the Zone) there is one requiring radiation checks on the premises of Chernobyl InterInform.
Some Chernobyl tourist agencies offer individual tours. They are more expensive. In 2011 the cost for one person in a group trip is about $70 - $100. An individual tour may cost $400 - $500.
Keep in mind that during some tours offered visitors do not cross the borders of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The idea of such tours is that view of abandoned buildings of some resettlement areas (for example, Narodichi and Vilcha), is apocalyptic enough to satisfy visitors' curiosity. Such areas may not have a security perimeter and visiting them is relatively simple.