'There's what the tour guides like to tell you...' The danger of visiting Chernobyl.


In light of the success of HBO’s five-part series Chernobyl, there are reports the number of tourists interested in travelling to the site has significantly spiked.

But is it actually safe to visit Chernobyl?

Over 30 years since the catastrophic nuclear power plant disaster in Pripyat, northern Ukraine, in which a sudden power surge destroyed the structure in seconds and released a cloud of radioactive dust, the town itself is almost frozen in time.

Pripyat remains almost entirely empty, although a small number residents returned after they were evacuated in 1986. But the majority of homes, schools and parks haven’t been touched. There’s an abandoned theme park which never opened, and greenery has enveloped large parts of the town since residents aren’t there to maintain it.

When people were initially evacuated, 36 hours after the disaster, they were told they would only be gone for three days. The result was that they left their entire lives behind. The following summer, they were permitted to return to reclaim belongings that weren’t significantly contaminated, but the town remains eerily similar to the one they left that day, over three decades ago.

The real story behind HBO’s Chernobyl. Post continues after podcast.

It has been estimated that the area won’t be safe for humans to occupy for at least 20,000 years.

But tourists have been visiting on and off since the 1990s, and in January 2013, after a brief closure, the site was reopened to the public.


According to Adam Higgenbotham, the author of Midnight in Chernobyl, 70,000 people visited the exclusion zone last year.

“What the tour guides like to tell you is that you will absorb a bigger dose of radiation from the cosmic radiation you’re exposed to on a plane flight from New York to Kiev than you would from spending a couple of hours inside the exclusion zone,” he told Claire Murphy on Mamamia’s daily news podcast, The Quicky.

But there is one area of concern if you’re visiting.

“The thing you do need to be concerned about is radioactive dust,” Higgenbotham said. “If it gets inside you, it can cause a lot of problems. That’s probably the one source of genuine danger.”

It’s this radioactive dust that was particularly dangerous to people at the time. In the days after the Chernobyl disaster, whenever rain or snow fell, radioactive dust fell with it. That’s why the impact of the explosion wasn’t contained to Pripyat or even Ukraine – instead affecting many parts of Europe.

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When residents evacuated the area, they weren’t permitted to bring their pets, because of the likelihood of them having radioactive dust in their fur.

Higgenbotham tells a story about a little boy who brought his cat when his family evacuated their home – despite being told not to. When the evacuees were stopped at a checkpoint, and disembarked their bus, his cat sat under the wheel of the bus, which was covered in radioactive dust. Upon re-boarding, the boy picked up the cat and sat it in his lap for the remainder of his journey. His health, reportedly, has never been the same.

More broadly, Higgenbotham says, “the health effects are hard to track”.

Partly because of the complexity of the type of research it would take to track it, but also, he says, “because the Soviets did quite a lot to try to conceal the real data”.

One particularly well-respected epidemiologist, Elizabeth Cardis, estimates that around 10,000 people within the population of affected areas will die as a result of cancer they got because of Chernobyl.

The official Soviet number when it comes to deaths that can be attributed to the disaster, is 31.

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