The Site Today
Late last October, I had the opportunity to visit Fukushima in conjunction with a conference I was attending in Sendai, so when my personal plans this month called for a stop in Kiev, Ukraine, I just had to find a way to get to Chernobyl. Since I wasn't traveling on official business, I looked for other ways to get there. This would lead me to the first observation of many that I had in the course of visiting these two sites within a 5-month period: There are currently no public tours of Fukushima, but there is a thriving business providing commercial tours to Chernobyl.
So my husband and I booked a one-day tour from Kiev to Chernobyl and back. Departure time was 8, but by the time we got to the departure point at 7:30, we noticed that there were several buses and that lines were already forming outside the buses. We were directed to one bus, where we got in line to be checked in. The paperwork included showing our passports so they could be checked against the information we had provided in advance. We also had been offered an option of renting a Geiger counter, so the numbers of the devices needed to be recorded as well.
We ended up with a full busload of 46 people from 13 countries, but I discovered we were only one bus of several making the trip that day. The guide also told me this was off-season, and they had more tourists in the summer months.
The trip from Kiev to the exclusion zone around Chernobyl took roughly two hours. At the first checkpoint, the tour group underwent a check-in procedure, the primary purpose of which was to try to make sure that they knew who is going in and coming out. And to make sure the people who go in do come out. We were also issued thermo-luminescent dosimeters (TLDs), whose numbers had to be entered in the roster next to our names.
After the checkpoint, some of the members of the group spotted an elk standing by a body of water off the side of the road. Other than that, the only animals we saw were dogs that hang around at the checkpoints and the entrance to the cafeteria. We were warned not to touch the dogs, so I didn't, but these didn't look like wild dogs. They were clean and look well-cared for.
The first stop on the tour was a small, abandoned village called Zalissya. I had never heard of this village, but we stop here because they allow us to go into some of the buildings, something they don't allow at the other stops. The village had scattered one- and two-story houses and a few other buildings, such as a school. We walked down the main road and poked our heads into one of two of the homes. After 30+ years of neglect, they are falling apart, and we had to pick our way around some damaged floorboards, and pieces of walls and ceiling that have fallen down.
We then go through a second checkpoint at Leliv and detour from the main route to see an old Soviet missile defense early-warning radar site called Radar Duga-1. This is one of the sites that emitted a sharp tapping noise that caused it to be dubbed "the Russian Woodpecker."
Our next stop was Kopachi, where we went into an old school building that had child-sized cots. A couple of the cots had dolls sitting on them. Our guide pointed out some spots outside the building where there are high radiation readings, and everyone had a chance to see the numbers on their Geiger counters spike.
We then circled around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant site, where we saw the sarcophagus, the other now abandoned units, and the skeleton of a new unit that was under construction when the accident occurred.
From there, we went to the cafeteria for the workers, where we had a quick lunch. Entry into the cafeteria requires going through a scanner to make sure no one tracks radioactive particles into where the food is being served.
Following lunch, we returned to the buses and were taken to a closer point to view the sarcophagus. The current sarcophagus replaces the earlier one and still looks new and shiny. We were able to take selfies with the sarcophagus in the background, but we were warned not to take pictures of some guards we see off to one side, or to take pictures in some other directions, in particular, of the fuel storage facilities.
After that, we finally reached Pripyat (also spelled Prypiat), where we got off the bus and took a long walking tour through the town. For safety reasons, we were admonished not to enter the buildings, many of which are missing most of the walls and windows on the ground floor. (Scrap aluminum was apparently valuable in the Soviet Union, and window frames were stolen.) Of course, in their eagerness to get some pictures, some people kept ignoring the instructions, and the tour guide spent much of her time trying to corral the group. Pripyat has been built to house the staff of the power plant, and is much grander than the little village we had visited, with multi-story buildings and a lot of infrastructure--administrative buildings, schools, post office, supermarket, recreational facilities, etc. The tour ended at the stadium and amusement park that had just been built and had not even officially opened at the time of the Chernobyl accident. This site boasts what is allegedly the hottest spot in the exclusion zone, and everyone had a chance to check the reading with their Geiger counters.
After we got on the bus and got underway again, we passed an area of high radiation. The tour guide told us to put our Geiger counters against the window, creating a small "chorus" as they all went off at once.
Our last stop was the town of Chernobyl. On our way in, we paused briefly at a monument to the liquidators of Chernobyl. It is sited just outside the firehouse from which most of the firefighters came, but the statues surrounding the monument also represent doctors and others who were involved. The statue is titled, "To those who saved the world."
While Chernobyl (or Chornobyl) is still in the evacuation zone, and no one lives there permanently, it is now used to house people who are working at the plant. They work in 15-day shifts and spend their time off in Chernobyl. The utility pipes are laid out in an unusual way--they are all above ground, and they are raised over walkways and roads. The reason is that digging to bury them would release radioactive particles that have sunk into the earth.
Exiting the exclusion zone requires going through the same 2 checkpoints we hit on our way in. We each went through a scanner at each stop. Apparently, the second one was more sensitive than the first. And the bus also got scanned at each stop by a hand-held scanner run under the bus. The tour guides also read our Geiger counters and gave us each a certificate showing the radiation dose recorded. Mine was 0.003 mSv, and my husband's was 0.002 mSv.
With the 2-hour trip back to Kiev, the total tour is more than 12 hours.
It is particularly interesting to contrast the visits to Fukushima and Chernobyl:
- The 2 sites are at very different places in their recovery from the accidents. The Fukushima accident was only 7-1/2 years ago when I visited the site. The Chernobyl accident was almost 33 years ago. This difference may account, at least partly, for some of the other differences I note.
- At Fukushima, the damaged units were still exposed. At Chernobyl, the damage is concealed under a sarcophagus.
- The Fukushima tour spent more time on the power plant site, where we looked at where they were storing water, etc. On the other hand, we just drove past the residential and business areas. The Chernobyl tour didn't spend much time on the plant site, but did give us a close look at the residential areas.
- Most of the housing and other buildings outside the site at Chernobyl is badly damaged by 30+ years of neglect and vandalism. The housing and businesses on the roads outside the Fukushima plant mostly appear to be in good shape.
- You are allowed to drive through the exclusion zone around Fukushima with no checkpoints--although you can't stop. You are not able to drive through the exclusion zone around Chernobyl.
- There are no public tours of Fukushima. Chernobyl has hundreds of visitors a day.
- Chernobyl not only has one-day public tours, but even has tour options that last 2 or 3 days, and that include an overnight stay in the town of Chernobyl--that is, inside the exclusion zone. (Since I did not choose that option, I can't provide details on what they do with the extra time on site.)
- Photography was not allowed at Fukushima. Cameras and cellphones were collected before the tour and returned afterwards. One reason was so that the accident would not become a spectacle. Photography was permitted at Chernobyl, although photography was restricted in some areas, and souvenirs were available for purchase at the end of the tour.
- Our guide at Fukushima was a technical person. The guides at Chernobyl were not experts in the field. They are pretty knowledgeable, and basically did a good job, although I caught a couple of questionable statements.
Overall, I learned more from the Fukushima tour, where I got a close look at some of the technical work in progress. However, getting a tour of Fukushima is just not an option for most people. The Chernobyl tour gave a different perspective, and represents the post-accident situation at a different point in time, with more of a focus on the civilian side. And the tour is available to the public (for a fee, of course, but one I thought was reasonable).
While I wouldn't recommend planning a trip to Chernobyl as your next vacation, for anyone who is traveling in the area, it provides an interesting experience. (I'm not in the business of advertising for commercial businesses in this blog, but we found this tour operator on the Internet, and checked it out by looking at on-line reviews on one of the major travel sites.) And having had the opportunity to see both sites within a short period of time really provided a very special perspective.