On April 26, 1986, disaster struck reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. At first, Soviet officials attempted to hide the cataclysmic events unfolding in Ukraine, but when radioactive clouds were detected as far away as Sweden, news spread that the unthinkable had happened: a lethal explosion at a nuclear facility.
Residents at the neighboring town of Pripyat weren’t told of the deadly radiation covering their homes at first. As official buses began evacuating the area, people were instructed to bring only a suitcase, since they would be able to return in a few days. But as the extent of the explosion became clear, the Soviet military established an official Exclusion Zone, a roughly 18-mile radius around the stricken power plant. About 115,000 people were evacuated in 1986, and another 220,000 in the following years, leaving a desolate landscape of abandoned towns and villages.
More than 30 years after the disaster, much of the Exclusion Zone—now encompassing 1000 miles and also called the Zone of Alienation—is still strictly off-limits. The area remains a chilling reminder of nuclear disaster, while at the same time drawing thousands of tourists each year and demonstrating the resilience of nature.
1. You can stay at a hotel in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
The Hotel Desyatka, located within the 30-kilometer exclusion zone, is simple but safe. Wi-Fi gives explorers the unique experience of being able to email friends and relatives from deep inside the zone. The hotel is the only place for intrepid explorers to the zone to stay, but its staff are only allowed to work on a strict rotation of 15 days in the zone and 15 outside, to keep their radiation exposure to a minimum. Workers inside the zone live in basic dormitories in the town of Chernobyl.
2. You need official permission to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Tourists are required to travel with a guide. There are strict military-style checkpoints at the 30-kilometer zone border, at the 10-kilometer border, and at the entrance to the ghostly town of Pripyat. Your name and passport must be submitted to authorities seven to 10 days in advance, and the guards check you and your passport numbers at each checkpoint. The early days of the zone‘s establishment saw a large problem with local intruders infiltrating the vast perimeter to ransack Pripyat and other areas, but since 2007, the Ukrainian government has clamped down on trespassing.
3. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone includes more than just the power plant‘s ruins.
Chernobyl was the largest town in what’s now the exclusion zone. Dating back to the 12th century, it was once a vibrant community with a large Jewish population. Many of the residents were murdered by the Red Army and then during the Nazi occupation in the first half of the 20th century. At the time of the disaster, the population had increased, largely due to the nuclear industry, to approximately 14,000.
Today, Pripyat attracts most of the attention. Opened in 1970, Pripyat was designed as a model communist city filled with young workers; the average age of the roughly 50,000 inhabitants was about 26. The now-empty town had a disco, gymnasium, movie theater, sports field, and the famous amusement park. One of the most-frequented parts of Pripyat, according to tour guides, was the maternity ward. About 1000 babies were born in Pripyat each year.
As roads have steadily deteriorated, the smaller towns deep in the Exclusion Zone have become cut off and remain mostly unvisited. Across the border in Belarus, the effects of the explosion were similarly catastrophic, if not more so. An estimated 70 percent of the fallout descended on Belarus, contaminating approximately a quarter of the country. The most heavily hit areas in Belarus are now part of the 834-square mile Polesie State Radiation Ecological Reserve, a mixture of forests and deserted industrialized areas.
4. Thousands of people still work in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Roughly 2400 people still work at the decommissioned plant: mostly security guards, firemen protecting the volatile area from deadly forest fires, and service staff for the workers. Like the hotel staff, they live in the zone on a rotation pattern of 15 days in, 15 days out, to keep their radiation exposure manageable.
5. Some people even live there.
About 200 older residents also live full-time in the zone, having returned to their ancestral villages despite warnings from the Ukrainian government.
6. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is often described as being frozen in time.
Aside from the hotel, there is one bar, a post office that still makes one daily noon collection, and a supermarket, where produce is scarce but with the shelves are filled with alcohol. There is even a museum and something virtually non-existent in post-1991 Ukraine: a statue of Lenin. Because it remains mostly frozen at the moment of the 1986 evacuation, Chernobyl is one of the few places where the Soviet hammer and sickle can still be seen.
7. Tourism to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is big business.
The Exclusion Zone began allowing officially sanctioned visits, mostly for scientists and reporters, almost as soon as it was created. In recent years, tour groups have begun organizing brief, strictly controlled visits. One tour guide, named Nikolai, told Mental Floss in 2016 that a couple got engaged on one of his tours. Before the proposal, the groom-to-be asked Nikolai if he could take them to the most contaminated area possible for the big moment.
8. The zone has a curfew.
Inside Chernobyl, there is a strict curfew of 8 p.m. At night in the town square, one of the only things you can hear aside from the stray dogs barking is a strange sequence of rising electronic beeps coming from the forest somewhere to the north, which sounds a bit like the famous five-note sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A tour guide told Mental Floss that they come from the scientists‘ camp, which is constantly monitoring radiation levels.
9. Everyone gets their radiation exposure monitored—even the tour guides.
Every visitor coming out of the Exclusion Zone goes through a radiation screening at each checkpoint. If your levels are too high, clothes and boots are either washed or left behind. Taking anything out of Chernobyl is forbidden. Tour guides like Nikolai are checked regularly, and say they don’t receive anywhere near the annual levels of radiation deemed too dangerous.
10. Parts of the zone are still highly dangerous.
Despite the growing numbers of tourists, the zone is still highly toxic and dangerous. The landscape is dotted with warning signs indicating where the “hot spots” are. Walking around is for the most part safe, but the greatest danger comes from ingesting radioactive particles. Nikolai has had to warn visitors against posing for photographs licking trees, eating berries, and rolling around in the earth. Parts of the zone, particularly near reactor four and in the basements of buildings such as Pripyat’s hospital, remain dangerously high.
11. The ruined reactor isn‘t even the creepiest part of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
One of the most remarkable parts of the Exclusion Zone is southeast of the reactors: the eerie Duga-3 radar station. Once one of the most secretive spots in the Soviet Union, this vast construction of antennae and aerials was pointed in the direction of the United States, listening for incoming planes and missiles. On maps, it was marked as a children‘s summer camp, while the locals were told it was a radio tower. Around 1500 high-grade technicians, scientists, and military personnel worked and lived here, wrapped in the highest levels of Cold War secrecy. There was even a kindergarten. Today, there is just one soldier guarding the peculiar complex, the propaganda murals on the walls decayed and long-forgotten.
12. The zone is home to recovering wildlife.
The zone will continue to be contaminated by the radiation from the disaster for about 300 years. Without many humans around, wildlife has returned to the area, which now teems with foxes, wolves, lynx, boar, moose, and rabbits.
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2022.