UPDATE 24 February 2022: given the military invasion of Ukraine by Russia, this site will be out of reach for the forseeable future. UPDATE 25 February: the Chernobyl NPP has fallen into Russian hands.
UPDATE 4 April: now the Russians have retreated from Chernobyl and the IAEA will regain access to the site. But for tourists it will still remain inaccessible for now.
Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, is the site of what is commonly regarded as the worst nuclear disaster in history, namely back in April 1986. The name Chernobyl has practically become synonymous with the notion of worst case accident in that industry (although Fukushima in Japan has more recently demonstrated that this wasn't a one-off and that it might even get worse still).
Large swathes of land were contaminated, a vast Exclusion Zone has been declared around the stricken site, and clean-up work is continuing to this day.
Yet it has become a tourist destination as well, in fact one of the top dark-tourism pilgrimage sites in the world (together with the nearby ghost town of Pripyat). A short visit to a viewpoint by the reactor is usually part of tours into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. And a few very lucky ones may even be able to see the inside of the plant. Intrepid visitors can also go and see the ruins of the unfinished Block 5 & 6 site (officially out of bounds for tourists) or their, equally unfinished, cooling towers.
Construction of the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl was begun in 1970, together with the building of a new town to provide homes for the plant's personnel and, initially, construction workers: Pripyat.
The first RBMK-1000 reactor block became operational in 1977, followed by Blocks 2 to 4 between 1978 and 1983. Two additional blocks were planned/under construction to become operational between late 1986 and ca. 1993 but were never completed.
Chernobyl was one of the largest nuclear power plants in the USSR and the first one built on the territory of the Ukrainian SSR. As you would expect of any self-respecting site of this importance, it was named after V. I. Lenin.
There had already been a serious incident at Block 1 in 1981 (hushed up by the authorities, as usual), but on 26 April 1986 real disaster struck at Block 4 … and it was to be one of the most significant industrial accidents ever, with far-reaching consequences up to the present day.
I still haven't fully understood the technical details of what exactly happened on that fateful day (my grasp of nuclear physics and power plant technology isn't quite sufficient) – so I won't go into them too much here. If you want to know all the technical, radiological etc. details then there are numerous sources out there that can explain them far better than I ever could. Possibly the most authoritative sources are this official IAEA report about the accident, and this one about the consequences; but I particularly recommend this summary of the cause of the disaster – it's detailed but not too technical and thus not beyond a lay person's grasp, and it's very illuminating! (All external inks open in new windows).
Very basically, this is how understood it: the engineers of Block 4 wanted to test the assumption that if there was a sudden power loss, the generating turbines would still be spinning and could supply sufficient residual energy to bridge the time it took for the emergency generators to spring into action (ca. 15 seconds). It was further assumed that the residual energy should also be sufficient to quickly insert the control rods (SCRAM) in case the reactor should begin to overheat.
As the reactor was slowed down to 5% in preparation for a due refuelling operation the test was started. And to make it more “realistic”, the electricity supply for the huge pumps that sent the cooling water through the reactor was disconnected (one of the most disastrous errors of them all!).
Within seconds of the test's start the reactor's energy first plummeted then exponentially increased beyond control. The maximum that the gauges in the control room could show was 120% – that's where the reading stopped, but not the power surge. Nobody had assumed the reactor could go much beyond 100%. But estimates after the event reckoned the reactor may have spiralled up to 1000% or even much more.
As the coolant water supply had slowed down, the water inside the reactor almost instantly began to boil, thus turning to steam (which in turn cannot absorb neutrons like liquid water can), while the moderating graphite heated up further. A vicious circle. To make matters even worse, the emergency “scramming” of the reactor failed too, only a few of the control rods went into the core, but too slowly. Moreover the control rods were also tipped with graphite, which exacerbated the overheating cycle at this stage.
Within only 7 seconds into the “test” there was a steam explosion that lifted the 2000-tonne reactor lid up, the so-called Upper Biological Shield, and sent it crashing down sideways into the reactor core, crushing the fuel rods inside.
A few seconds later there was a hydrogen explosion (a large amount of hydrogen had formed from the chemical reactions set in motion in the disintegrated reactor), creating an even larger blast that ripped the roof of the reactor Block's superstructure open (there was no outer containment vessel), thus exposing the whole inferno to the outside world.
What's more, the second explosion also ejected chunks of hot graphite (and possibly bits of reactor fuel too) into the air, some of which landed on the roof and started several fires (also on the roof of the adjacent Block 3).
But the worst fire started in the core itself, when the moderating graphite of the reactor core ignited. Firefighters were called in, but they were not aware, or not told, of the immense radiation they were going to be exposed to. Several of them died of lethal radiation exposure within weeks (an exceptionally nasty death that is). In total 31 persons are officially recorded to have died as a direct consequence of the disaster (two in the explosion itself) and its immediate aftermath (from lethal radiation doses).
The fire inside reactor No.4 continued burning for days until the so-called “liquidators” managed to put it out, mainly by dropping tonnes of extinguishing materials such as sand and clay onto the fire from helicopters (exposing the pilots to high levels of radiation from directly below). By then the burning reactor had released unprecedented amounts of radioactivity into the atmosphere and contaminated large tracts of the land around it.
The core of the reactor had melted and fuel “lava” breached the cracked reactor bottom and flowed out. It nearly made its way out through the reactor building's concrete floor. The largest solidified section of this lava (or 'corium' as the technical term goes) has since become known as the “Elephant's Foot” (due to its shape).
If the core lava had melted through the bottom part of the building and seeped into the ground, the disaster could have been even more catastrophic – the so-called “China syndrome”. To prevent this, or further steam explosions, the water under the reactor had to be drained and liquid nitrogen was to be pumped in to cool the core down (literally freezing it – though this plan was eventually abandoned and the specially built tunnels under the reactor were simply filled with concrete). Once the situation was under control, the reactor wreck could be shielded by the so-called the sarcophagus built around it.
It is often said that the causes of this disaster were an unfortunate combination of some systemic design faults, incompetence and human error, lack of training, a flawed chain of command and also just plain old bad luck.
These days most of the blame is put on the design of this type of reactor, using graphite as a moderator and also on the tips of the control rods. It is often even claimed that the RBMK-1000 is the only type of design where such a disaster could possibly have happened (and therefore should never have been built in the first place).
Especially proponents of the use of nuclear power like to adduce that argument, pointing out that none of the reactors in use in the West (or elsewhere outside the former Eastern Bloc) are of this type and could not have reacted in this catastrophic way. You have to wonder, though, what's become of this argument after Fukushima in Japan ... which did end in a similar scale of disaster, even though its reactors did not share the RBMK-1000 design.
But back to Chernobyl. While the engineers conducting the experiments that triggered the disaster certainly carry a large part of the blame as well, at least the tremendous efforts of the “liquidators” in response to the disaster were commendable, if not heroic.
However, the Soviet authorities' handling of the accident after it happened then also added quite a bit to the overall disaster, through further negligence as well as old-style Soviet cock-ups due to exaggerated secrecy.
The evacuation of the nearby city of Pripyat was only begun more that 24 hours after the explosion on 27 April. All the while the city was being exposed to the radioactive cloud emitted by the smouldering reactor wreck.
In the rest of the Soviet Union, the accident was largely hushed up at first – and obviously the West had no idea either … until, that is, a nuclear power station in Sweden (namely Forsmark NPP) got wind of it. Quite literally. They noticed elevated levels of radiation and at first thought something was wrong with their own plant until they realized the fallout was coming with the wind from the territory of the USSR.
Once the Soviets admitted the disaster had happened – and was still taking place – it made massive worldwide news. Though far away, the shock it created in Western Europe was immense. It was the No.1 news item (often the only one) for weeks. People were told not to eat certain foodstuffs that might be contaminated, children were not to play outside, especially when it rained, and a general sense of fear gripped the public. (We were well informed about the developments, but the Ukrainians were kept largely in the dark.) I remember those days well … and all the while you had to wonder what the fate of the people so much closer to the site would be ...
By the way, most (ca. 60%) of the radioactive fallout landed on the territory of neighbouring Belarus (then still part of the USSR as well, but now too an independent state), where it continues to pose a huge problem.
Back at the reactor, the debris from the explosion had to be cleared away, some of it from the reactor roof itself. To this end, remote-controlled robot vehicles were initially used, but their electronic circuitry was quickly damaged by the extreme radiation, immobilizing such machines. So human“liquidators” were dropped off by helicopter for short operations meant to last only 40 seconds, but many worked longer, thus exposing themselves to higher levels of radiation, in many cases fatal doses. The “liquidators” of Chernobyl are still regarded as heroes in Ukraine.
In the surrounding land, whole villages and a highly contaminated section of forest (the infamous Red Forest) were ploughed over and buried. Some of the machinery used in the liquidation was also either buried or stored in remote fields (e.g. at Rossokha – see under Chernobyl in general). Topsoil and surfaces in Pripyat were also decontaminated over the years. But several hotspots remain. Not least the stricken reactor itself.
Some 200 tonnes of highly radioactive materials remain in the ruins of reactor No. 4. The “sarcophagus” of concrete and steel that was hastily built over the entire structure by the end of 1986 was supposed to contain the radiation. This, however, was only a temporary measure. When it became clear that the old sarcophagus was crumbling and even leaking (apparently birds were even nesting inside!), new measures needed to be taken. This was underscored in February 2013 when part of the roof of the old turbine hall directly adjacent to the sarcophagus collapsed.
And so another sarcophagus, called the New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure, was devised and is currently still under construction. It is basically a huge steel roof, assembled slightly off-site (to protect the workers from the high radiation levels at the reactor itself). When completed, it was to be slid over the old sarcophagus – the largest operation of moving a building in history (it weights approximately 30,000 tonnes!).
This operation was originally scheduled for completion by the end of 2011 or 2012, but delays pushed it back further so it was announced that it would be finished in 2015. When I visited in May 2015, the date had been moved again. Finally the movement of the NSC over the old sarcophagus of block 4 was undertaken in November 2016. It took some 15 days.
Once the New Safe Containment structure was properly sealed and made completely airtight by mid-2019, could the overdue dismantling of the old sarcophagus and the reactor begin. The rest of the plant, meanwhile, is already undergoing decommissioning. The whole process is planned to last until 2065! The New Safe Containment structure over the remains of the old reactor is planned to last for about 100 years. As you can imagine, the costs for all this are absolutely astronomical (but the Ukrainian state doesn't have to cover all that alone – there's a lot of international financial help too).
NOTE: since the NSC has been moved into place the old sarcophagus over Block 4 has of course become invisible from the outside ... and so the left part of my logo is now history ... as is the photo next to the intro to this chapter above.
The other three reactors of Chernobyl NPP, remarkably, remained in operation at first, even after the accident. Block 2 was shut down only in 1991, followed by Block 1 in 1996. Block 3, the one directly adjacent to the disaster site, was not switched off until the year 2000.
Yet even today, the plant is anything but deserted. It's teeming with activity and thousands still work in the Zone and at the plant itself. Because of the construction of the New Safe Confinement structure, this is actually one of the busiest corners of the whole Zone. It's a stark contrast to the eerie silence of the nearby ghost town of Pripyat!
So what about the human costs of this largest ever nuclear disaster? Well, in addition to those 31 killed outright by the accident or in the immediate aftermath (mainly firemen), many of the thousands of “liquidators” developed radiation-induced illnesses but there were few further radiation-related deaths. So the direct death toll wasn't actually as bad as it could have been.
But how badly has the wider population been affected? This is a highly controversial issue. What seems clear is that the more pessimistic estimates of hundreds of thousands of deaths indirectly linked to the disaster, are not being borne out. But it is very hard, if not downright impossible, to clearly distinguish between natural or other causes and those that can actually, definitely be traced back to the Chernobyl disaster.
In short: we will probably never know. Figures given are more determined by interest than hard fact. Supporters of nuclear power will always talk the figures down, anti-nuclear-power groups will always inflate them. Where in the vast middle ground in between these extremes the truth lies, no one can say for sure.
Overall the Chernobyl disaster has probably created more myths and misconceptions than truth, at least in popular culture. One of the more recent lowlights in this respect has to be the 2013 horror movie “Chernobyl Diaries”. Not only is it just a bad film, going by the reviews and ratings (e.g. in IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes), but apparently also full of factual errors and twisted concepts about Chernobyl as such (again going by the reviews – I've not subjected myself to actually sitting through the film).
My recommendation is: stick with reality. It is certainly fascinating enough – and also spooky enough in the case of Chernobyl and Pripyat, so in my view no fictional “embellishments” are required at all.
UPDATE 2019: the recent HBO/Sky five-part dramatization series about Chernobyl is much, much better, and largely accurate, even though a few details are not quite correct (e.g. the claim that the irradiated liquidators were emitting radiation themselves, which is wrong, or the insinuation that the helicopter crash was caused by the radiation emanating from the reactor core, when in actual fact it was due to a rotor blade hitting a crane cable).
One last thing: the Chernobyl disaster is often compared to Hiroshima in a very skewed way. First of all, there was of course no nuclear explosion at Chernobyl. That sort of explosion is physically impossible at a nuclear power station. (In nuclear energy production, natural or only slightly enriched, uranium is used, incapable of a nuclear explosion. The Hiroshima bomb used 90% enriched uranium, while the Nagasaki bomb, and virtually all subsequent nuclear weapons, have been based on a plutonium core).
Secondly, one can often read the claim that Chernobyl released 400 times as much radioactive material into the atmosphere as the Hiroshima bomb did. While on one level not actually incorrect, it is still an unfair apples-and-pears type of comparison, as both the type of radioactive material released and the kind of radiation involved were of completely different sorts. So the comparison really doesn't hold water at all.
Finally, Chernobyl was an accident. OK, serious design faults were involved and human incompetence, so plenty of human guilt too, but it was still only an accident. Nobody intended it to happen. In contrast, the Hiroshima bomb was the deliberate and well-calculated use of a terror weapon of mass destruction – with most of the consequences pretty well predictable before the bomb was dropped.
All war politics aside (see under Hiroshima and Nagasaki for more on that), the human factor in the decision to drop the bomb is on a totally different level. Nonchalantly making direct comparisons between Hiroshima and Chernobyl is thus not only wrong, it is also disrespectful towards the bomb victims. This is not intended to belittle the human loss in the Chernobyl disaster. I just wanted to make it clear that the two events were of a completely different nature.
What there is to see: UPDATE: since Putin launched his war on Ukraine, all tourism in the country has come to a halt, obviously, including at Chernobyl, which is currently in the hands of the Russian military. The text below described what could be seen before the war. I'll let it stand for the time being (in the hope it may one day become relevant again), but it's now basically history.
Depends very much on what kind of general Chernobyl tour you are on. The regular day return trips from Kyiv/Kiev usually make only a short stop at a viewpoint near reactor 4. Others explore a bit beyond (e.g. the unfinished cooling towers). And a chosen few may even get access to parts of the inside of the plant.
You will definitely see the plant on every tour, though. The site is huge and the main road between Chernobyl town and Pripyat (also part of every tour) passes straight by it. So you can see the massive plant through the windows of your car, minibus or coach. But vehicles are not allowed to stop anywhere close to the NPP – except for that one designated spot, and that's a usual component in virtually all tours.
You get a photo op by the small memorial just a couple of hundred yards from the old sarcophagus at reactor block 4. This is the closest you are allowed to get. And it is pretty close! UPDATE: the old sarcophagus is no longer visible, since the New Safe Confinement structure has been moved over it.
On my first trip to Chernobyl in the autumn of 2006, the monument hadn't been put up yet and this spot was still just a dusty empty plot by a building site. When a truck thundered past the guide told our small group “hold your breath”! That's because you don't want to breathe in any irradiated particles – and at this site there would still have been plenty in the dust then. It was a somewhat unnerving moment as the dust took longer to settle than I could hold my breath (so I breathed through my hand for a bit).
These days there's a car park at this location that is fully sealed by tarmac. And in the middle of a grassy patch in one corner of it stands a shiny monument depicting the reactor cradled by a pair of hands. It's quite kitschy, in an almost Japanese style, far removed from the usual old socialist-realist Soviet-style of heroic monuments. The monument was unveiled in November 2006 (i.e. shortly after my first visit) and is dedicated to all those involved in the “liquidation” and clean-up of the site. There's also an English-language plaque, though its wording is slightly off-kilter.
But what counted here was the view of the reactor block 4 and its old sarcophagus. When I re-visited in 2015 the iconic old chimney stack (which also features in the logo of this website!) had already gone! It had to be removed to make space for the New Safe Containment structure (see below). In its stead a new ventilation stack has been installed, set back a bit from the original location. At least it has a somewhat similar style to the old one, so the difference may not even be fully apparent to everybody. Now that the New Safe Confinement structure is in place, you can't even see the new chimney stack any more from the viewpoint, only while driving past on the south side of the plant.
Back in 2006 and 2015 even my untrained eyes could see that the old sarcophagus was in a bad state, rusty and even cracked in some places. Indeed it wasn't fully sealed – air and rainwater could get in … and presumably a certain amount of radiation got out. So you didn't want to spend an awful lot of time here.
But all this has meanwhile changed: the New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure is now in place so the old sarcophagus is no longer visible. At the time of writing, in November 2018, work was still ongoing to finish the NSC, namely to seal it to make it completely air-tight. Only then can the dismantling of the old sarcophagus and the reactor ruin begin – this will be done by robotics, as far as I know. [UPDATE: as of mid- 2019 the sealing is complete too, so demolition work on the old sarcophagus could begin.] At the same time, intermediate-term storage for the materials retrieved from Block 4 is being prepared inside the Zone too.
A visitor centre was established at the NSC during its construction too. This is mainly about the construction of the New Safe Confinement structure but is also quite informative about what happened in the old reactor in 1986.
Its star piece is a large model of the reactor and the old sarcophagus. When I was there in May 2015, a local guide gave a little presentation and this involved him opening the reactor block model to show a representation of what it looks like inside the old sarcophagus.
Normally, such mere scale models would probably leave many dark tourists rather cold, but this one has to be an exception. You really do gain a much more graphic understanding of what's inside the real-life structure. The model is full of lovingly crafted details, even little figures of men, “liquidators” presumably, clambering around in the debris. The guide even pulled out a model of the old control room from one side.
But the core of the model – naturally – is the reactor itself. You can see how the explosion lifted the reactor lid with the fuel and control rods attached to it – and how it landed on its side.
There are photos on the visitor centre walls, including some of the worst hotspot inside the reactor building – in particular the infamous “Elephant Foot” of lava that formed from the molten-down reactor core and its uranium fuel rods. This is the most lethally radioactive bit of the entire complex (so obviously you won't ever see it for real).
Also part of the visitor centre is a short video presentation about the new sarcophagus and the plans for the future. They even hand out glossy brochures – just like at any other corporate PR presentation. After all, the construction of the new sarcophagus had been “outsourced” to a French specialist consortium.
After the presentation at the visitor centre as such, we were then led out to the rear of the building to some closer-up viewpoints of the gigantic New Safe Confinement (NSC) under construction.
Once again, size does matter here (cf. Duga). The steel lattice arch with its silver sheeting is over 350 feet (108m) high and its span is about 850 feet (260m)! Workers could be seen on the curved exterior of the structure, looking like little ants against the humongous hulk of the new sarcophagus. They were busy attaching more of the metal sheeting that was being lowered from high cranes. The workers were secured by ropes and were performing some choreographed routines that involved a lot of shouting. This was quite surreal too.
From the construction site you also got a good view of the old sarcophagus – and the new separation wall that was built between the two, namely to provide some protection for the workers. I was told that workers are allowed a maximum of two-hour shifts on that side of the site, so the wall can provide only so much protection. Elsewhere on the site the maximum shift duration is six hours.
To my surprise there were several stray dogs obviously living at the site. They were quite friendly, though. A poster on the fence, however, warned of the wolves in the Zone and admonished workers never to walk all the way to Chernobyl town but always to use the transport provided!
So, the experience at this location consists of some good views and photo ops, though now no longer of the old sarcophagus, and possibly a presentation at the visitor centre. And normally that's the best you can expect in terms of seeing the actual nuclear power plant of Chernobyl, at least during one of the regular day return trips from Kyiv/Kiev (see under Chernobyl in general).
On longer tours (which involve staying overnight in a hotel/guest house within the Zone) you can also see other elements of the old plant. For instance the abandoned building sites of Blocks 5 & 6 which you will see looming dramatically in the distance when driving past. Or the similarly unfinished cooling towers for those extra blocks.
AND: you can even go and see the INSIDE of Chernobyl NPP, in particular Blocks 1 and 2. This is a very special treat. It never features in the regular day tours. You have to personally apply for a permit (the details of how to go about that and other practicalities are described below).
When I went to Chernobyl in May 2015, I was lucky enough to get a specially arranged tour inside the plant. So I will describe this extraordinary experience here next.
After clearing the lengthy security and check-in procedure, we met our guide provided by the NPP administration's “international department”. He fitted us out with white lab coats and hats as well as plastic shoe covers, simple radiation dose recorders and visitor badges. The extra clothes aren't “protective”, they are just intended to prevent any particles sticking to your regular clothes getting into or out of the plant interior.
We crossed the bridge leading into the plant proper and there we were: in the long “golden” corridor that connects the entire length of the plant. Or rather: almost the entire length. The last section into the disaster-stricken reactor 4 is obviously blocked off. Still, the remaining corridor stretches for almost half a mile (700m). It is indeed clad in gold-like yellowish metal panels. Walking down this is like a nuclear age version of "The Shining".
Every so often employees of the plant pass you – especially at the rooms set aside for smokers. And everybody wears these white over-clothes and blue shoe covers. It makes you feel quite uniformed. We also passed a cleaning woman busy wiping the floor. Cleanliness is clearly still taken seriously here too.
We also passed the door to the control room of Block 1 – it is locked, and unstaffed these days, i.e. already more or less decommissioned.
The control room of Block 2, however, was still staffed when we were there, because from here some decommissioning work at the turbine hall was being monitored and supervised. Our guide got us through the security door and in we stepped.
Three rather bored-looking men were sitting around a table at the rear wall sipping tea and shuffling some sheets of paper. They more or less ignored us as we inspected the marvellous curve of the control consoles stretching out along the opposite wall. The wall itself is covered floor to ceiling with yet more Soviet-era technology.
If you've seen photos of the control room of reactor 4, the image of Block 2's control room will look very familiar, only that here everything is still intact. The guide informed us, though, that the actual technology, the inner workings of all this gear, was changed significantly in the wake of the 1986 disaster. So the similarity to the reactor 4 control room is in fact more visual than actual.
Much of it is dead now, though. Many switches and dials have been lead-sealed, most of the indicator lamps and meters are switched off and dark … only the odd light here and there was still on, plus one tube TV monitor transmitting an image from the turbine hall. It was presumably this that the employees staffing this room were supposed to keep a close eye on. They don't. The whole atmosphere is very calm and relaxed. The only ones showing some enthusiasm and excitement were us.
We took plenty of photos of the room and of each other. I'm not normally one for selfies – but under these exceptional circumstances I thought it just had to be documented that we were really here. I even got myself talked into (by the guide) posing for photos like a power plant worker or even a scientist … even though I am anything but an expert in nuclear power plant technology. (See gallery below)
After the control room we headed on deeper into the plant. The floor covering changed from neat, clean tiles to a spooky kind of semi-translucent thick layer of rubbery plastic. We passed several hatches with the radioactivity warning symbol. At the far end there are also a couple of heavy steel doors painted red, and also sporting the radioactivity symbol. I was told all these are for the disposal of irradiated materials and parts. I wondered whether any of these sealed red steel doors would be the ones leading into the sarcophagus. But apparently the access hatches must be elsewhere. …. not that we could have gone in wearing just these white cotton coats over our normal clothes anyway. It would have killed us.
We were now near the base of the ventilation shaft deep inside Block 3, right by the separation wall that hermetically sealed off Block 4. You can still see the arches where there would once have been a door or corridor leading further west (i.e. into Block 4). Now they are bricked up (or rather: sealed by concrete). At one such point we came to a small memorial monument.
The monument commemorates Valery Khodemchuk, the engineer who on 26 April 1986 became the first fatality of the disaster. He was operating the large coolant circulating pumps and was near the north side of the reactor hall when it exploded. He was buried in the irradiated debris of the collapsed building, and despite desperate efforts by colleagues and liquidators, his body was never found. So the sarcophagus is not only a tomb in a metaphorical sense, it is also the actual grave of this man.
From here we continued into the pump hall – i.e. Khodemchuk's original workplace. Despite the low light, the yellow tubular shapes of the huge pumps could clearly be made out. All is quiet at this end of the plant. We got as far as we could on this tour.
Then we embarked on the long walk back, past walls with all manner of pipes and dials and wheels, all in an eerie glow of minimal lighting, and then all the length of the corridor again. En route our guide pointed out a few bits and pieces of the plant outside that are visible through the windows on the north side of the corridor, including a rail carriage for transporting spent fuel.
Short as the tour was (and unfortunately didn't include any reactor halls) it was still an extraordinary experience, eerie and fascinating as well as insightful. Sadly, access to the inside is so tightly regulated and restricted, not many readers will get the chance to go on a tour like that. I feel quite privileged having had the fortune of being treated to this. (UPDATE: on my most recent return visit, in November 2018, from what my guide told me I gathered the impression that visits of the inside of the NPP have become somewhat more common, presumably because it brings in extra money, the restrictions seem to be less enforced now – but it still requires extra paperwork and pre-planning much longer in advance. UPDATE 2019: it is now also possible to visit the old control room of Block 4, i.e. the authentic place where the accident started; except that most of the electronic parts have been removed from the consoles so it doesn't look especially original any more. The reactor hall of one of the other blocks can now be included in such special visits too.)
But there are also other, very cool parts of the NPP complex that can be visited without such bureaucratic obstacles, provided you are on one of the longer multi-day tours (cf. Chernobyl in general).
One such special location is the abandoned construction site of reactor Blocks 5 & 6. These are set back from the main plant's Blocks 1-4, so they are outside the tightly secured inner perimeter of the main plant. No barbed wire fences or security gates here. Still, “officially” no visitors are supposed to be here, yet some guides do take them there, but you have to be discreet …
Blocks 5 & 6 were never finished and thus never fuelled, but they did receive irradiation from the disaster next door in 1986. The construction was actually only cancelled a couple of years after the accident. But it looks like the workers all deserted the place in a shot and left everything behind. The rusty red hulk of the reactor block building is still encircled by several construction cranes, slowly rusting away. One has collapsed already.
This collapsed crane can be seen at the rear of the site, where an overgrown former railway bridge allows access to a spot from where you can have a closer look. Here you are standing right next to where the turbine hall for reactor block 6 would have been. But only the foundations of this were finished.
Now this area has filled with rainwater and formed an artificial green lake. The concrete stumps where the columns supporting the roof would have been built on poke out of the water like islands, arranged in regular symmetrical patterns. And on the top of these little concrete islands, seagulls have built their nests. In fact, when we arrive, it sets off a frenzy of disturbed seagulls taking off and circling over the lake screeching angrily – all that against the backdrop of the ominous red hulk of the reactor hall of block 5. A totally surreal scene.
On my most recent visit to the Zone, in November 2018, I was in addition treated to a visit of inside block 5 too. And that was definitely a highlight of that trip. First we entered the building from the other side, i.e. from the south and ascended a staircase. In places there were holes in the concrete but the steps still felt sturdy and safe.
At the top we emerged at an intermediate level and from there climbed some metal ladders further up, then walked north and through some holes cut into the rusty metal cladding of the building, and through that we got to the orther side, from where we could turn west to the roof.From here you get a glorious view of the entire NPP block 1 to 3 plus the NSC over block 4 ... theoretically. Unfortunately when I was there it was a very hazy day, so the view was quite impaired. But still. You also get a good view down to the flooded foundations of what would have become the turbine hall for block 6, complete with that collapsed crane and a couple that are still standing.
From the eastern side of this high level (the very top is inaccessible) you get the best view of the massive crane that was used for inserting the reactor cores into the various blocks. It now stands abandoned but at a spot where you can't go (next to a building that is apparently still occupied so you would be seen at this forbidden spot). We also explored the southern side of the intermediate level roof from where you can peek into the reactor hall and also over the almost finished turbine hall for block 5.
But the best bits were still to come: venturing inside the building. First into the pump halls, where those massive cooling pumps would have been installed. They never arrived, so the places intended for them were just giant round holes in the floor – so you have to watch your step carefully near those (literal) pitfalls. (I saw on photos taken just a couple of years previously that there used to be a lot more steel around here – both at the pump shafts and e.g. on the outer walls of the building, where huge steel beams were still poking out … these have now gone. Salvaging metal from the site is apparently still ongoing, so it's bound to change even more in the future ...)
Finally we got right to the bottom of the “biological shield”, i.e. the inner safety containment vessel for the reactor (there never was an outer shield at these Soviet reactors – see above!). It was pitch-black dark in there so I was glad I had invested in a 1000-lumen strong torch before this trip. Here it really came into its own. Without it there wouldn't have been anything to see and entering would have been foolhardy, given the many pitfalls and debris all around.
Eventually we emerged back at ground level where we had entered (“infiltrated”) and went back to our vehicle. We also went back to that viewpoint to the north of the foundations of block 6, but this time we proceeded all the way to the turbine hall of block 5, and I even went in. There were eerie noises coming from inside. I had assumed that maybe the wind created those sounds, but I was later told that there were actually workers at the far end doing some de-contamination jobs or other (probably just more metal salvaging). So I understood why my guide was getting a bit nervous when I went in and motioned me to come back out. Had I ventured even deeper I might have been “caught”.
A bit further still from the NPP, ca. 1 km to the east, is the site of the cooling towers that were also under construction at the time of the 1986 accident. Blocks 1-4 were purely water cooled from the reservoir specifically built for this purpose, but it wouldn't have been enough for 5 & 6, so these would have required such tower cooling instead.
One of the towers is but a stump, rising a mere 30-60 feet (10-20m) or so above the ground. The other tower was about two thirds finished when construction was halted. Even so it is an absolute giant.
I've always had a strange fascination with cooling towers. I find their distinctive shape really beautiful and mesmerizing to look at. And I've long wanted to go inside one to admire the shape from within. This was my first time, and even though the tower is unfinished, it still had an absolute wow effect on me. And that's just for the architectural side of it (and the sheer size).
It is very difficult to estimate the dimensions, given that there are few points of reference around, but I would very roughly guess that it must be around 60-80m in diameter and slightly more in height at the stage it was left in (completed it would have been quite a bit higher than wide). Whatever the exact figures may be: it is absolutely huge!
You can step right in, as the tower walls stand on zigzagged concrete stilts. At the bottom there are several enormous steam pipes on supports. Also visible is the beginning of a network of supports for the condenser floor with some of its fill plates already installed (but only very few).
So far it's just a bit of industrial ruin aesthetics … but once you look up, it's awe-inspiring. The wide opening to the sky feels like the soaring dome of an oversized cathedral (even Hagia Sophia or St Peter's feel small in comparison to this).
What adds further to this overwhelming effect of sheer size is the fact that birds live in and circle around inside the tower. They looked like some kind of hawk to me, definitely a smaller type of bird of prey (I am no expert an avian zoology and they were too far away to be certain anyway). As they circled inside the tower they produced shadows that seemed to double their numbers. I found it a cool visual effect.
At the top rim of the tower you can see old scaffolding, in three storeys, left behind from when the tower was being built ring by ring of poured concrete. After all these years, this iron and wood scaffolding has become unstable – and this is evidenced by a section lying on the tower floor. It fell down a while ago but more pieces could come tumbling down at any moment. It's therefore a bit unnerving to stand directly under this scaffolding. I preferred to walk into the middle or stay by the outer support stilts.
On the outside of the tower wall you can see a long, long ladder leading all the way to the top. I asked my guide if one could climb up, and he replied that it would be too unsafe, given the instability of the scaffolding at the top. However, I have found a photo online that was taken from up there. That must have been taken by a very daring (read: foolhardy) photographer ... (or maybe it was a drone shot taken from very close to the rim.)
One last element added to the somewhat scary experience at the cooling tower. Right by the path that we walked along towards the large tower, my guide pointed out an inconspicuous-looking patch on the ground. He held his dosimeter close to this spot and it immediately went into a screeching alarm sound. The reading on the display was the highest we had seen anywhere in the Zone, even higher than by the Red Forest (see under Chernobyl in general). So something must be buried here that is highly irradiated. But my guide had no clue what it could be and why it would be here, almost 2 miles (3km) from reactor 4 ...
On balance: while visiting the site of stricken reactor block 4 is no longer so exciting since the New Safe Confinement structure has been put in place to cover the iconic old sarcophagus, it's still a must-do stop on any tour of the Zone. Much more exotic, however, are guided tours of the inside of the remaining NPP, as are intrepid visits to the unfinished block 5 & 6 and their cooling towers. But for all that you have to be on a longer, at least two-day private tour. The usual day return trips to Chernobyl by bus won't include any of this.
Access and costs:at least a short stop at the viewpoint by reactor Block 4 is a standard part of virtually every Chernobyltour and included in its price. Visits to the inside of the plant are extremely restricted, and cost extra. CURRENTLY INACCESSIBLE
Details:You can visit this site only as part of a larger Chernobyl tour – see under Chernobyl in general for details of these and the various options and prices.
On these tours you will at least be driven past the NPP twice, but virtually all tours also make a photo stop by the monument and viewpoint near reactor Block 4 and the construction site of the new sarcophagus. I assume that many if not most tours will also include the visitor centre at this site.
However, only longer tours (with at least one overnight stay in Chernobyl town) will in addition go to the cooling towers and the Block 5 & 6 abandoned construction site.
Access to the inside of the NPP is, as you might expect, extremely restricted and NEVER part of the regular tour programmes.
What is required is special permission granted by the director of the plant, and to obtain this, you have to write a letter detailing why you want to see the inside of the plant. The more professional and scientific sounding you can make your reasons, the better your chances. Those working in the nuclear industry or professional film-makers and photographers will have the least problems obtaining a permit. Mere curiosity, on the other hand, may not suffice as a reason.
Normally applications have to be submitted at least two weeks in advance, but I was lucky to be granted one at shorter notice – thanks to the commitment of the private guide I had, who also provided invaluable help with the application letter. (Thanks again Misha!)
UPDATE 2018: it seems to me that visits to the inside of the NPP have become somewhat more common, going by photos that get posted online and by what my guide indicated. But extra paperwork and longer pre-planning (6 weeks at least) is still necessary. Yet the permits seem to be handed out a bit more liberally these days (presumably because after all it generates extra money).
Once the visit was approved, we were given a time for when to turn up at the NPP's administrative block, just to the east of Block 1. On arrival we first had to pass through all manner of security screenings and checks of the paperwork (you also have to have your passport on you at all times!).
We were given visitors' badges, checked through the security gates and on the other side we were then assigned a special guide working for the international department of the NPP administration.
He also provided us with simple radiation exposure readers to clip to our visitor badges, plastic covers to put over our shoes and a white lab coat and hat to wear over our normal clothes. The extra guide then saw us through all the additional security gates inside the plant, e.g. at the door to the control room of Block 2.
At the end we handed back the over-clothes, disposed of the plastic shoe covers into a box provided, thoroughly washed our hands and then had to pass through one of those contamination check machines (cf. Chernobyl in general).
Afterwards our assigned guide also accompanied us to the visitor centre at reactor 4 and the New Safe Confinement construction site. Here we witnessed some quibbling over the paperwork and competences (the international department and the security department appear to be in competition with each other to a degree) but we were eventually let through. After touring this part we dropped our extra guide back at the NPP's administrative building and continued on our own for the rest of my Chernobyl tour programme. All in all this extra touring took ca. two hours.
The extra cost for this was 100 EUR (for two people).
I also asked my guide whether it was possible, in theory, to go even deeper into the plant and into the old sarcophagus of Block 4 itself – and expected a resounding “no”. But to my surprise I was told that ultimately this too was basically a question of money … and of course giving good reasons for wanting to do this when applying for the permit. I know some documentary film-makers, journalists and professional photographers have done this, getting at least to the control room of reactor 4 briefly … you may have seen such images e.g. on National Geographic.
For normal mortals this is probably a step too far, even if you could get permission. Sure, seeing THAT control room with your own eyes would be an outstanding experience. But I doubt I'd ever get the chance. And I'm not sure I even want to know what the asking price for a permit to do this would be.
Going even further into the collapsed reactor block, let alone as far as the infamous “Elephant Foot” is, obviously enough, completely out of the question. Even with protective clothing and respirators, this would be way too dangerous. This is one of the most lethal spots on Earth. Few locations are as rightly out of bounds as this one.
Time required: between several hours and just a few moments at the viewing point by reactor 4 and the NSC for just a quick look – depending on the kind of Chernobyltour you are on. My tour of the inside of the plant lasted ca. an hour – plus another one at the new sarcophagus construction site and the visitor centre. Exploring around the cooling towers and the site of Blocks 5 & 6 also took between one and two hours in totalin 2015. On my return trip in November 2018, when we explored Block 5 in more depth, we spent about two hours there.
Combinations with other dark destinations: At least a short visit to the viewpoint by the reactor 4 site is part of virtually any tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, as is a more extensive visit to the nearby ghost town of Pripyat. So these elements will already be combined for you in any case.
If you are on a longer private or small-group tour, you could also add on a visit to the former fish farm of Chernobyl after seeing the cooling tower, as this is only a few hundred yards to the east of the tower by the lake shore – see under Chernobyl in general.
As all Chernobyl tours depart from Kiev, a few days in that fantastic city are naturally the most obvious combination you can and should aim for. A particular attraction for anyone interested in the Chernobyl NPP, the 1986 disaster and its aftermath has to be the Chernobyl Museum in Kiev! Even if you've been to the real thing, this museum still has plenty of extra details to offer. And if you can't go to the Zone yourself, this is the next best thing.