It has been a post-apocalyptic wasteland ever since its nuclear power plant became the scene of the worst atomic accident in history.

But the former Soviet city of Pripyat, the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, has became an unlikely drawcard for international tourists with a morbid curiosity for what's inside the still-radioactive fallout zone.

Tour guides armed with Geiger counters to detect radioactivity have been ushering hordes of travellers - more than 10,000 a year, in fact - inside an exclusion zone surrounding the power plant that catastrophically melted down in a reactor explosion 30 years ago this month.

The exclusion zone in Pripyat is about two hours north of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and captures a 30km radius of contaminated land.


Tourists entering the site are screened carefully, undergoing body scanner tests to detect radiation. Visitors are told not to touch anything or even sit down, and are swept for radioactive dust before they can leave.

There is a hotel for tourists to stay, although they're warned not to eat or drink anything that hasn't come from outside the exclusion zone.

Pripyat itself is a former Soviet city frozen in time. It was evacuated after the nuclear explosion and photographs by visitors have captured the children's school books, propaganda posters and Cold War-era gas masks that provide clues to life under the former USSR.

An abandoned amusement park - featuring a graveyard of rusty bumper cars and an eerily still ferris wheel - is one of the top drawcards for tourists inside the exclusion zone.

Visitors can also check out Pripyat's formerly bustling shopping streets and empty schools, kindergartens, apartments and a swimming pool.

Some people still live in Pripyat, despite government warnings it will remain unsafe for at least 24,000 years.

Bare bed frames and toys were left behind in the scramble to flee Pripyat. Photo / iStock
Bare bed frames and toys were left behind in the scramble to flee Pripyat. Photo / iStock

But there are also signs that wildlife is slowly returning to the devastated region, providing an even more fascinating scene for visitors.

"The untouched scenery, wilderness, the contrast of the past and now, make Chernobyl really interesting for photographers," former Chernobyl tour guide Dominik Orfanus told CNN.

The Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear accident the world had ever seen, and has only since been rivalled the 2011 disaster at Fukushima in Japan.

On April 26, 1986, a power surge caused reactor four at the power plant to explode, sparking a fire and sending a huge radioactive cloud to drift over surrounding countries and as far away as Canada.

About 50 people were killed in the immediate aftermath of the blast.

The long-term effects of the disaster have continued to inspire dread, however the toll of nuclear fallout on people and the local environment has been fiercely debated.

The United Nations said in 2005 about 4000 people will eventually die from radiation from Chernobyl, but Greenpeace put the predicted number at 93,000. Other studies have suggested the toll could exceed 140,000.