What Chernobyl looks like today: the Chernobyl disaster in photos

by Sep 30, 2020Ukraine

Abandoned Ferris Wheel Chernobyl Bronze Medal NATJA

This is what Chernobyl looks like today. I visited the Chernobyl disaster zone in early 2020, nearly 34 years after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine exploded. The disaster forced tens of thousands to leave their homes, many more to perish from radiation exposure, and countless others to suffer from disease.

What does apocalypse look like? We see it in movies. We see photos of post-war devastation. But what is it like to walk through? To try to absorb complete destruction? To see what Chernobyl looks like today, I visited the Chernobyl disaster zone in early 2020, nearly 34 years after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine exploded. That disaster on April 16, 1986, forced tens of thousands to leave their homes in the thriving city of Pripyat, many more to perish from radiation exposure, and countless others to suffer from disease.

Over four days visiting the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – known officially as the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation – I was able to explore abandoned buildings, walk the halls of the crumbling hospital where the first workers were taken after the explosion, peek into THE control room where workers frantically tried to stop the disaster, and climb high into an unfinished nuclear reactor. Although the Chernobyl zone today totals about 1,000 square miles, the central portion where the main city of Pripyat and many villages were is about 30 kilometers (nearly 19 miles).

Chernobyl Entry Checkpoint Therese Dosimeter

At entry checkpoints, all visitors receive and must always wear a personal “dosimeter” to measure radiation received during a stay in the Chernobyl zone. And a few tacky souvenirs are usually available too. Gas mask anyone?

When visiting Chernobyl, most tours from Kyiv don’t allow you more than about 8-10 hours in “the zone,” on my visit to Chernobyl, we had three nights and four full days to poke around sights, take photographs at night, and truly live and feel what apocalypse looks like.

With the completion in July 2019 of the concrete “safe confinement” over the reactor that exploded, the Ukrainian government started offering more extensive tours and talked of transforming the area into a highly touted and developed tourist destination. “Impossible,” said a tour guide. Chernobyl is not an amusement park. It is the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster and a living memorial to those who fought the battle, gave their lives, worked to expose the truth, and to many who still suffer today. Visit Chernobyl yourself as it is today through the photos below (Click on each photo to launch a larger image).

What Chernobyl Looks Like Today. Pripyat after the Chernobyl disaster

This sign has welcomed visitors to the city of Pripyat in Chernobyl since 1970 – The city has been a ghost town since the nuclear disaster in 1986, but the sign remains.

The once-glamorous city of Pripyat

The city of Pripyat is where Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant workers, support crew, city personnel and their families lived. Today, it is abandoned, with trees, bushes and animals taking over the massive squares and formerly grand boulevards. Even 1970s-era mosaic artwork is disintegrating since some consider them historic while others see them as symbols of Soviet propaganda and oppression.

Pripyat Abandoned Dogs Puppies

Permanent residents in the devastated Chernobyl zone are animals, including hundreds of stray dogs, descendants of those left behind when residents evacuated. They love people and look so sad when you leave.

Chernobyl Zone Ghost In Stairs

The utter destruction in the Chernobyl nuclear zone made me think of ghosts that likely lingered. But since none appeared, I made myself into one in a crumbling stairwell using a long exposure and tripod.

Pripyat City Main Square Hammer And Sickle

The formerly grand main square and boulevard are hard to recognize behind tall trees and thick bushes. But signposts remain – including this one with the Soviet hammer and sickle.

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Abandoned Swimming Pool Night

The swimming complex at night seems haunted, with the sounds of things dropping from the ceiling but nothing in sight. This pool was actually used by staff for 12 years after the nuclear accident.

Pripyat Riverside Cafe Chernobyl Urkaine

The Riverside Café was an elegant place to dine right on the Pripyat River. You could catch boat rides, lounge in the sun, or take a cool dip. Now, trees are growing through floors. Note the “before” photo on the cell phone.

Chernobyl Pripyat Soviet Mosiac

Scattered around the abandoned city of Pripyat are large Soviet mosaics by artist Ivan Lytovchenko created in the late ‘70s and now embattled: Save historic art or let Soviet propaganda crumble?

The Chernobyl exclusion zone amusement park

Recognized internationally as symbols of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster are the never-used rides in the amusement park. The park was set to open for May 1 festivities just days after the April 26, 1986 explosion. But of course, it never did open since residents were evacuated starting on April 27. Today, the rides remain rusted and eerily still, creaking in the breeze, never to echo with the giggles and shrieks of children.

Abandoned Ferris Wheel Chernobyl Bronze Medal NATJA

What has become the rusty symbol of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster: The Pripyat Ferris wheel, here at night, illuminated with the light of a flashlight for effect, still creaking wistfully in the wind.

Pripyat Amusement Park Abandoned

The Ferris wheel is not alone. A small amusement park with rides sits near the Pripyat main square, all rusted, every one falling apart, none every able to amuse children and adults who had to exit en masse before it opened.

Think Tank Pack Pribyat Amusement Park Bumper Cars

The disintegrating bumper cars seem to smile at you from their place of rest (or, should I say, sneer?). I used a Think Tank Retrospective Pack on my tour to avoid, as advised, putting anything on the (radioactive) ground.

Inside the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Tours inside the nuclear plant have been offered more extensively since the completion in July 2019 of the “safe confinement” structure of the exploded reactor. A full tour lasts nearly all day and takes you into all corners of the plant that are safe, including the control room where the disaster played out in 1986. It also includes education about the disaster itself. All participants must suit up in protective clothing from head to toe and wear masks, as well as go through radioactive screening both prior to and after the tour.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Golden Corridor

The so-called “golden corridor” that connected all of the reactors at the Chernobyl plant and their control rooms remains quite “golden” today. The dingy windowless tube seems to go on forever!

Chernobyl Nuclear Plant Worker Inside Tour

The Chernobyl plant remained staffed as it continued its slow decommissioning in early 2019. The final reactor running was not shut down until 2000. Here, a worker heads back to his station through a dark room of machinery.

Chernobyl Plant Reactor 4 Control Room

This is what remains of the control room for Reactor 4, the unit that exploded in 1986. It is but a shell – all buttons and knobs were stolen. You only get to stay in the room for a few minutes due to possible lingering radioactivity.

Chernobyl Reactor Tour Yelena Plate Explosion

This is the 1,000-ton concrete lid in a shutdown reactor – just like the one that shockingly exploded right out of Reactor 4 in 1986. Those two hams on the plate were the guides – meet Stan and Stan.

Living with radiation in Chernobyl

Radiation is something you live with on a tour in the zone, although where tours go it is never high enough to do damage for the short time you are there – unless you stayed for a couple of weeks or more and sat on it … or something stupid. Occasionally the measurement devices carried by guides or a visitor go off, issuing frantic warning beeps that get faster and faster, meaning you do not want to linger where you are.

Chernobyl Radiation High Geiger Counter

One day, a tour member’s personal device jumped to nearly 500 CPM (counts per minute) – 100 is considered a warning but you’d need to be in contact with a reading of 100 for 432 days to even slightly increase your risk of cancers.

Radiation Check Leaving Chernobyl Zone Ukraine

Am I aglow yet? At first it was so strange, but you quickly became accustomed to checking yourself for radiation going in and out of the central zone or the cafeteria. No alarms for us!

What Chernobyl looks like today – sometimes touring is a gray area

Although walking the (former) streets of the city of Pripyat is fascinating, there are sights outside of that area that can be visited too – some perhaps needing a special “gift” to keep guards at bay. From unfinished construction to memorials and street art, as well as a former radar complex, visitors touring the Chernobyl disaster do need guides to get them to these places safely.

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High Inside Chernobyl Reacter Five

Reactor 5 was nearly 70 percent complete when Reactor 4 exploded. Guards keep out tourists — well, almost all. You just need the right “gift.” Here, a photo on a foggy day from high inside the reactor’s rusting remains.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Administraion Memorial

In front of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant administration building (no photos of the building are allowed!) is a memorial to those who died as first responders to the sudden nuclear explosion in 1986.

Chernobyl Reactor 5 Cooling Tower Abandoned 1

The cooling tower for Reactor 5 was under construction, too, but came to a halt. The mural by Australian artist Guido Van Helton was completed for the disaster’s 30th anniversary and was the first street art done by permission in the Chernobyl zone.

Pripyat’s hospital where first responders were taken

The hospital where the first injured responders were taken is another sight in Pripyat that is visited with more of a wink. First responders’ radioactive clothing, gear and helmets are all entombed in the blocked basement in Chernobyl today. We were warned not to put anything on the floor in the hospital on our walk-through since there is an occasional radioactive bandage lingering – yup, really.

Pripyat Hospital Room Chernobyl

It’s hard to walk the silent hospital halls and not sense the panicked activity there in 1986. Medical equipment, bottles and charts remain a-tumble in rooms with peeling paint and broken glass.

Hospital Exclusion Zone Chernobyl

Particularly moving are the beds, toys and children’s furniture remaining in the Pripyat hospital in Chernobyl today.

Abandoned ruins everywhere in the Chernobyl disaster zone

Everywhere you look, you see what apocalypse might look like. The trees and bushes take over, rain and weather find a way in, buildings and structures collapse. Meanwhile, the signs of civilization remain, as you walk gingerly through the halls of former schools or where there once were sidewalks or playgrounds. Outside of Pripyat, there was a large residential and office area to service the former “Woodpecker” Duga radar structure hidden in the forests.

Chernobyl Woodpecker Complex Trikes

Little bikes await their riders who will never return. The area around the so-called “Woodpecker” radar complex was a little town itself, with housing, schools, sports facilities, and community centers.

Piano Classroom Woodpecker Complex Chernobyl

A school’s music room with a gas mask on a crumbling piano. The gas masks found here and there when visiting Chernobyl today are more than likely placed by tourists for photo ops or by unethical guides.

Chernobyl Nuclear Zone Childcare Ruins

This is the image many think of when imagining what Chernobyl looks like today. A childcare center continues to disintegrate as you fully sense lives destroyed. Rusty beds line former nap rooms, with dolls and toys scattered about.

Chernobyl town’s Monument of the 3rd Angel Nuclear Memorial

“And there fell a great star from heaven…” The Monument of the Third Angel sits in the town of Chernobyl, with the angel lifting her trumpet to the sky. It is a simple, stark monument to those who risked everything in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster – at first perhaps unwittingly. The monument’s name was taken from the New Testament, Revelations 8:10-11: “And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from Heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of water…” This monument was created by Ukrainian artist Anatoly Haidamaka – and strangely enough – sits just a couple of blocks from one of the last remaining statues in Ukraine of Lenin, which in the Chernobyl zone is considered historically protected.

Chernobyl Town 3rd Angel Nuclear Memorial

Chernobyl Town 3rd Angel Nuclear Memorial sounds its trumpet on a cloudy winter day.

Touring the Chernobyl zone — the sight of the world’s greatest nuclear disaster — remains with you long afterward. There is something mesmerizing, fascinating, shocking about walking streets that look like forests and through buildings that are peeling and crumbling. As you see what Chernobyl looks like today, you ride emotional waves of sadness and shock. This is what apocalypse looks like.

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Visit Kyiv and Chernobyl: quick facts and travel tips

Need a place to stay in Kyiv? We recommend the Salute HotelNot only is it centrally located for superb city access by foot but it is also near an historic metro station. Plus, its odd round shape is quirky enough to be cool, and rooms aren’t bad at all. (Ask for one facing north toward the Motherland Statue for amazing night views!)

Where to eat in Kyiv? Aside from the “secret” Ostannya Barykada restaurant, also consider the Syndicate Bar & Grill brewery for freshly grilled food as well as some super awesome ginger tea. Another trendy stop for a change from Ukrainian or Georgian food is the Drunk Cherry at the base of the Andriyivsky Descent for grilled vegies and, get this, really good BBQ ribs, not to mention some scrummy cherry liqueur.

Research your visit to Europe by looking at all the articles and recommendations we have made from personal experience by clicking here. Flights to Kyiv are available from many major European cities and access to town from the airport can be done by taxi for very inexpensive. If you have cell reception, you can use Uber too (see below though).

Need cell phone reception? Although some providers, including mine, said Ukraine was included in its international plan, reception was unavailable. Do yourself a favor and go straight to a Kyivstar (“KИÏBCTAP”) store (there is a major one near Maiden/Independence Square) and buy a flat-rate, all-inclusive SIM card. They are quite cheap and will save the day.

Where to get cash? You can get “Hryvnia” at any number of ATMs but rates fluctuate wildly so do compare. Also, when I was at Hotel Salute, the lobby ATM limited withdrawals to the equivalent of about USD $8! Although prices are low in the Ukraine, that won’t take you too far, so find a bank for ATM withdrawals, although even at a bank, ATM withdrawals will be quite limited. Beware of the little booths or boxes (with a person inside) that are in about every restaurant or store for exchanging money (cash only because USD and EUR are apparently quite in demand there); rates will be less favorable there.

How to visit Chernobyl? Chernobyl and Pribyat are only accessible with guides. You can either go with a group or hire a private guide. Day trips are the most popular, but overnights are also available. Do your research since many unscrupulous tour companies have sprung up since 2019 HBO series aired and popularity surged. My guides were from ChernobylTravel.net and were terrific — ask for Lisa or Kostya. We also recommend Get Your Guide as another trustworthy option.

Here are several guidebooks on Kyiv and Chernobyl we recommend: Lonely Planet Ukraine and Lonely Planet Ukrainian Phrasebook & Dictionary. A few words of Ukrainian (or Russian) come in handy, especially off the tourist beaten path.

Be prepared for anything. When traveling to Ukraine, and especially Chernobyl, things change and anything can happen. Don’t leave home without the right travel insurance. We use Global Rescue for emergency evacuation coverage, advice, and for travel insurance that offers a “cancel for any reason” option. Be sure your trip to Ukraine is covered!

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