It might not be pleasant, but the reality is many people think of Chernobyl when they hear the name Ukraine. This was the nuclear disaster that took place exactly 134 km (~83.5 mi) to the north of Kiev.
Thus, it is natural for a traveler to be concerned about radiation pollution in Kiev, especially with all the misinformation spread on the internet, including by ignorant residents of Kiev themselves.
Of course, this only confuses travelers who are trying to find out a simple answer to whether or not one’s health will be negatively affected by radiation when they visit Kiev or any other place in Ukraine.
So, here is my answer, with all the facts to your questions:
Is Kiev safe from radiation?
I was born in Kiev and have been living in this amazing city for all my life, and as a resident, I know this simple truth:
All dangerous radiations levels are long gone today, and Kiev is and has been for a long time safe from dangerous radiation levels in the air, soil, and water. Moreover, the vast majority of radioactive isotopes released into the air after Chernobyl explosion did not survive for more than 1-2 weeks; in addition, the wind carried the radioactive cloud north.
Even the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which is the contaminated area with long lasting radioactive isotopes, covering 2600 square kilometers (~1000 square miles) around Chernobyl, is not dangerous to visit or walk around in. However, you are not supposed to eat anything that grows there, drink any water from its wells, or swim in its lakes and rivers.
So, now you know that Kiev is not radioactive and we do not have glowing rats or cockroaches!
Nevertheless, this question really took me back to school as I was trying to verify every little piece of information about radiation in general and in association with the Chernobyl aftermath in particular. And since you are still here, these are some highlights I would like to share with you:
You are radioactive too
If this comes to you as a surprise, do not worry, you are not the only one!
Although many do not suspect it, we are all radioactive. You, me, and every living person you know generate more radiation than that existing in the background around us and all over our planet.
Imagine that you will be exposing yourself to higher radiation levels when you are in a full stadium, theater, or walking in crowded street all thanks to the collective radiation of people around you!
This is totally normal and will not threaten your health. It is an example of how you might experience higher radiation but without it being of any danger to your health and wellbeing.
Kiev architecture is also a factor
What makes Kiev beautiful also makes its radiation levels slightly higher than that in some other places, however all within the normal levels of course.
Building materials include natural stones that often have traces of naturally radioactive elements, and I am not talking uranium or platinum here, but about stones like granite.
When visiting Kiev, you will notice that granite is widely used in many buildings in the city, especially old ones and governmental institutions, as well as large infrastructure objects like train stations, metro stations, etc.
Although this granite might emit some gamma and beta radiation, it remains within safe health levels. So, it is also contributes to raising registered radiation levels in Kiev.
What happened in Chernobyl
Chernobyl is one of the worst nuclear accidents in history and a tragic event that took a toll on millions of people, not only in Ukraine but also over large parts of the northern hemisphere. The Chernobyl event occurred on the 26th of April 1986, during the Soviet era, when Ukraine was part of the USSR.
We actually study this in school, and I believe it still part of the curriculum in Ukraine. However, the volume is not that long.
A big part of the fallout and catastrophic radiation contamination of Europe was attributed to the reactor’s design, which lacked containment structure to prevent or minimize the \spread of radiation in case of a similar accident.
The aftermath of Chernobyl affected almost the entire European continent, including the British islands.
Radiation spreads from Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus to the Scandinavian countries in the north, then Italy and Turkey to the south. The radioactive cloud even reached parts of the United States’ east coast.
The details of what exactly caused the explosion is highly debated among experts, scientists, and investigators. Official versions vary between design flaw to human error, and some reports from pre- and post-Soviet era contradict themselves, so I am not going to touch on this part, but skip to the recorded explosion of the fourth reactor core after a massive spike in power levels.
The explosion was so powerful that it completely ripped the roof away, and here I recall one of the Chernobyl first responders saying in an old local documentary:
The reactors’ core got exposed and we could see it boiling with our naked eyes.
Little known to the rest of the world that Chernobyl’s first responders who successfully innovated and successfully contained a first of its kind situation, risking their lives to save millions of their countrymen and others around the world from an even bigger disaster.
The total number of first responders and Chernobyl disaster liquidation teams varies due to different standards of classifications of what is now several independent countries (Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and other former USSR republics), the numbers are between 600,000 and 900,000 people and up to a million according to some estimations.
In late 2016, construction and installment of new giant, safe confinement covering the damaged reactor was completed. This installment is built to withstand 100 years and prevent radiation from reactors remains to come out.
There are special tours organized to the exclusion zone and the ghost city of Pripyat, which is safe to visit, but not to stay in it. If you are up to this adventure, contact me to plan one for you.
How nature helped Kiev
The infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine is located to the north of Kiev and when the tragic explosion happened there in 1986, mother nature intervened to save Kiev from a total disaster.
The wind during the early days of the incident was blowing to the north and northwest carrying the radioactive cloud away from the city.
Unfortunately, what saved Kiev and its residents also damaged many places and harmed other people as the radioactive cloud reached Russia, Belarus, and many parts of Europe resulting in contamination.
Certainly, Kiev also suffered from the incident, as the wind later shifted its direction resulting in the city getting affected by radiation.
People who were living in the capital during that time encountered the effects of Chernobyl aftermath, and there have been spikes in the percentage of some types of cancer and some unconfirmed relations between the incident and some health conditions in the affected area.
Europe suffered greatly from Chernobyl
Such disasters know no borders. Despite the fact that Chernobyl is located in Ukraine, countries like Belarus and Austria had larger territories contaminated by radioactive caesium-137 (radioactive Caesium isotope that can easily spread) than Ukraine itself.
In addition, Finland and Sweden had very high contamination levels, while Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Poland, Moldova, and even the United Kingdom had lower levels of radioactive contamination.
There are still multiple restrictions on farming, stock animals, fishing, wildlife, food production and consumption in many European countries, in some more than others such as Austria, Germany, Sweden, and Italy.
So, after all this radioactive talk, do not worry. Radiation is normal in Kiev and anywhere else in the world. The city is not radioactive, and you can even visit Chernobyl and the exclusion zone around it if you wish.
So what are you ready to start planning your trip?