Chernobyl City and the Exclusion Zone

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station was the scene of an explosion in April 1986. It was such a significant event that a large area around it was evacuated within three days after, and has never been officially repopulated. It may surprise you to learn then that you can visit it. Or at least you could pre-pandemic (I went in 2014) and before the subsequent war in Ukraine.

What is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Originally covering everywhere within 30km of the power plant, the exclusion zone is now about 2,500 km² in area. This makes it slightly larger than Dorset. Within this area, officially nobody is allowed to live, and access to it is quite restricted.

In practical terms there are two exclusion zones. Approximately 30km out there’s a checkpoint along the road, making sure everyone who goes in is registered, and legally entitled to, and on leaving, that everyone who entered in that party or group is still with that party or group, and that no-one is sneaking out with any radioactivity on them.

Large brick structure by the side of the road at the edge of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Large letters in Cyrillic wish you a safe journey. A sign on the right tells you it's 131km to Kyiv.
The sign on exiting the exclusion zone. The Cyrillic means ‘bon voyage’, or thereabouts
Although restricted, access to this zone is at least possible for people, particularly those with links to the area. This includes previous residents and their families, who are permitted to return for occasional visits to graveyards and the like. Some of the land within has been reclaimed for farming, but most of it has been left to nature, This makes it one of the most significant areas of wildlife and flora in the world.

In addition, Chernobyl City is located within this zone. This function as a kind of ‘admin’ centre for visits to the plant and where visitors on longer trips spend the night. It’s also where most of the monuments and information about the explosion is, and where the church is that the exiled residents return to.

The other zone is located 10km or thereabouts from the power plant. This covers pretty much only the power plant itself and the town of Pripyat, and is much stricter in scope. The only people allowed past this point are those working at the plant, or tourists on an official group visit.

It’s unclear how long the exclusion zones will remain in place. Some tentative steps have already been made in terms of agriculture, including the manufacture of vodka, but officially no-one’s allowed to live there so we don’t have a control cell. Obviously. The Ukrainian government have suggested a few hundred years, while environmental organisations have put a figure of 100 times that. Either way, it won’t be in your lifetime.

Is Chernobyl Power Station still used?

Despite what happened here, it may surprise you to know the power plant was still in use in some form until a couple of years ago. It was finally decommissioned in 2015, the year after my visit, though the other reactors in place had been switched off by 2000. Reactor number 2, incidentally, was shut down due to a fire in 1991; an incident that ended far better than its neighbour.

The explosion took place in reactor number 4, but this didn’t stop operation of the other reactors even at the time, save for a brief shutdown of number 3 in the immediate aftermath. Officially, at least; remember this was the Soviet Union and clarity f information wasn’t their strong point.

Grey and foreboding structure that is the Chernobyl Power Plant's nuclear reactor – long and dirty-white with a chimney.
The Chernobyl Power Plant
After the explosion, as part of the clean-up, a ‘covering’ was placed over the reactor to contain it and prevent further radiation from leaking out. At the time of my visit, this cover was coming to the end of its effective life (a maintenance issue more than anything else), and they were building a more solid and secure ‘coat’ that would be effective for the better part of the 21st Century. Nine years later and nothing’s gone wrong yet, though who knows what the radioactive equivalent of anti-vaxxers that make up an influential part of the Russian state will do.

One thing about power plants in general, and nuclear power plants in particular, is their need for a good supply of water – it’s no co-incidence that the major nuclear power plants in the UK (Sellafield, Dounreay, Sizewell, Oldbury), are by the sea, Chernobyl is very much inland, but it’s built next to the Pripyat River, and surrounded by a huge lake. This lake is filled with catfish. The workers would sit on the quayside and go fishing for them, and there’s even a sign – in English – explaining how to feed the catfish. This opens the question of ‘would you eat any fish caught in the surrounding waters of a nuclear power plant, especially one in a country whose commitment to health & safety is somewhat dubious’?

Picture of the waters around the Chernobyl Power Plant, with a large catfish just under the waters and just about visible in the murk.
I think it’s a catfish?
You may be pleased to know the food we ate in the canteen on-site was chicken, with rice, salad, bread, and juice. The canteen looked exactly like the canteen at any other industrial building – plain and formica, The only difference between it and the average works unit in the UK is the turnstile on entry that’s attached to a radioactivity detector. This was to make sure that you yourself are not bringing any contaminated particles or dust into a clean area. Because electrons respect man-made borders, obviously,

Inside the canteen at the Chernobyl Power Plant. It's very 'clean' and 'functional', with bare metallic serving stations and bland tables with ribbed chairs.
Inside the canteen at Chernobyl Power Station. It looks like any other industrial or educational canteen tbh
Outside the reactor that blew up is a memorial. It’s two hands holding what appears to be a cuboidal building, below a bell. It was installed in 2006, on the 20th anniversary of the construction of the original shelter covering for the reactor, and is, like many of the others, dedicated to the ‘liquidators’, the name given to those who undertook the clean-up of the site after the explosion.

The memorial to the liquidators; two hands rising up out of a plinth, encircling a replica of the power plant. The plint is lined with memorial tablets and flowers. Behind the sculpture is the power plant itself.
The memorial to the liqudators

What is Chernobyl City like?

While much of the impression of the Chernobyl Disaster concentrates on the town of Pripyat, and with good reason because it was the town specifically built to serve the power plant, there are many other towns and villages around that were affected. One of the most notable was Chernobyl City itself.

Despite its name, it lies a bit further from the power plant, around 15km away. It is, however, much more of a functioning city rather than an accidental nature reserve; as I mentioned, it’s kind of like the admin centre for visits to Pripyat and the power plant.

Seemingly derelict low-rise buildings, presumably housing, stand along the side of the road behind purposely-planted trees.
Suburban Chernobyl
These days much of the town is dedicated to the remembrance of the disaster. There’s several sculptures and other memorials to those who died, including a stone set in the grass with three flat tablets around it. These tablets list everyone who’s reported to have died in the accident, and from above the whole thing is built to look like the symbol of radioactivity. There’s also a, and the best way to describe it is ‘very Soviet’, memorial specifically to the clean-up crew, with meticulously-carved humans depicted as fighting the fire. I believe the style is called ‘socialist realist art’ and it’s very common in communist countries – centring the ‘working man’ in his struggle against the natural world. Conversely, elsewhere in the town centre is a weird sculpture made of thin poles of metal that look like an angel blowing a trumpet. This is apparently a reference to the Wormwood of the Bible which turned a third of the world’s water green and bitter, and feels … to me, slightly awkward, I must say.

Standing in a pile of boulders is a statue made up of little pipes of wire. It's a tall statue – several metres in height, and it's of a figure with a long cape and wings, blowing a long straight horn-type instrument. It is dark against the bright blue sky and green trees behind it.
The Wormwood Statue in Chernobyl City
One quite poignant part of the memorials is a path with signposts either side, the sort of signposts you find when you enter and leave a town/village. Except these signposts depict all the places that were abandoned after the disaster, or at least within the exclusion zones – everyone knows of Pripyat but there were hundreds of other places affected, mostly small villages, true, but they all count, they all had people living in them that were forced to move on elsewhere. The signs have the white ‘welcome’ boards on one side and the black ‘you are now leaving’ boards with the town names struck through on the other – they would have been the signs you saw had you been passing through before it all happened.

Close-up of a small sign that would tell you you're in Chernobyl City. It's one of many signs along both sides of a path, each on a pole. This one has a small wreath of flowers hanging off it.
The path of town signs, Chernobyl centre stage
Chernobyl City also has a church. It’s a very pretty building built in the traditional style of Russian Orthodoxy, with the golden domes, and quite colourful (especially pastel blue). It’s the Church of St. Elijah, and it dates from 1877, having been built on the site of two previous churches which both burned down earlier in the 1800s. It’s not open very often, but it still serves as the ‘mother church’ for everyone who used to live nearby but who have since been relocated, so when it does open, it’s very popular. Many people make specific journeys here to pay their regards to dead relatives in their old hometowns, who are still buried in the churchyard nearby, but because the site is in the exclusion zone, most of the time they don’t have access.

View of St Elijah's church, Chernobyl. It's a very typical Orthodox structure in design and colour, being mostly blue with a series of small rounded windows and two towers which terminate at a conal point.
No pictures are allowed inside
Around Chernobyl City are any number of abandoned buildings. One we went to; indeed it was the first building we entered on the tour; is an old school nursery, or children’s home (a genuine children’s home, I mean, not a front for a huge metal antenna). It’s a very eerie place, and served as quite the introduction to the rest of the region. Obviously it’s in ruins – it’s very much falling down, there’s dust everywhere, there’s posters ripped and peeling off the walls, and there’s metal-framed bunk beds, well, cots I guess maybe, all bedding and soft furnishing long since gone, but what makes it all the more hitting are the small things. Toys scattered around, plastic 1980s dolls lying on the bed-frames, perhaps decades since they were last held. We’ll pass over the thought that they’ve been placed there on purpose for a photo-opportunity; they’re still *here*, they’re still unloved. One shoe discarded on the floor. And, on one of the window-ledges, a teddy-bear in the form of a rabbit. Abandoned, never to be loved again.

Inside an abandoned children's nursery near Chernobyl City. It's crammed with bare metal framed bunk beds, mostly empty but some have remains of bedding on them. One has a child's toy of boxes with letters on.
Even when used, it feels like it would be quite a cramped environment
What may surprise you is the exclusion zone isn’t completely abandoned, or at least it wasn’t on my visit. A couple of people who used to live in the area before the accident moved back a couple of years afterwards. This was much to the annoyance of the local authorities, but while they expressed their strong dissatisfaction, didn’t manage to actually re-evict any of them. Maybe because they felt it was too much hassle, maybe because they felt ‘eh, well, if they want to move back, that’s their funeral’.

Two elderly people standing outside their cottage.
People who moved back and live in the exclusion zone
We met up with one of these people; an elderly husband and wife whose names I sadly don’t remember, Because I never made a note of them at the time. They’d been evacuated, along with everyone else, just after the accident, but the husband had come back as part of the clean-up operation. And, well, stayed. His wife joined him later.

They had built up a little cottage in the woods, and turned it into quite a small-scale self-sufficient farm with animals and crops. They also had pet cats and a dog, They didn’t seem to have any ill-effects from living there, and remember my visit was some 28 years after the explosion and they’d been there for most of them. I mean they’re all probably dead now, given it was 9 years ago, but who knows.

One of the many abandoned vehicles used in the clean-up operation after the explosion It's some kind of tank-based vehicle with caterpillar tread, and which what might be some kind of hoist on the roof. In the picture it has several people scrambling on top of it.
A vehicle used in the clean-up operation, now a play-thing for tourists
In their yard they had several of the vehicles used in the clean-up; not necessarily in use any more but certainly in a decent enough condition to climb on and poke around in. Which we did, because when next would I get to sit on an adapted tank covered in radioactive dust.

I am not a role model.

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