Have you ever heard of a place on Earth that is considered to be unlivable for the next 20,000 years? Because of the long-lived radiation that resulted from the tragic incident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, the entire region won’t be safe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years.
The incident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant is one of the biggest Nuclear events in history and it caused the biggest evacuation known to humanity. The power plant and the surrounding town is void of human life, where only the brave visit – and for short periods of time only. The entire town is completely abandoned, left for nature to take its course. The plant, the ghost towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl, and all the surrounding areas are known as the “zone of alienation” and are largely off-limits to humans.
This is the story of Chernobyl: what happened, what it means, and one elderly man’s account of that fateful day and his choice to return to live in the danger zone.
In light of the new HBO mini-series “Chernobyl,” premiering on May 6th, here is the back story to get you caught up.
A Dark Day in History
During the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded. The Chernobyl Power Plant was built in the now abandoned town of Pripyat, Ukraine, North of Kiev. The incident was nothing short of devastating and the chain of events would lead to an evacuation of the whole city and the subsequent results of the radiation.
The event has been studied ever since. But even after years of scientific research and government investigation, there are still unanswered questions about the accident, especially regarding the long-term health impacts on those exposed to the radiation.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
Located about 81 miles north of the city of Kiev, and about 12 miles south of the border with Belarus, the power plant was designed and built during the 1970s and 80s. The nearest town was the newly built city of Pripyat, which held almost 50,000 people in 1986 (the year of the accident).
A smaller town, Chernobyl, was home to about 12,000 citizens. The rest of the region was primarily farms and woodland. The power plant used four Soviet-designed RBMK-1000 nuclear reactors, now universally recognized as an inherently flawed system.
And that flawed system would cause the darkest years to come…
The day before the nuclear disaster, operators were preparing for a one-time shutdown to perform routine maintenance on one of the reactors. The operators ended up disabling plant equipment including the automatic shutdown mechanisms, which was later discovered to be a violation of safety regulations.
At 1:23 a.m. on April 26, an immense amount of steam was created, which caused more reactivity in the nuclear core of reactor number 4. There was a power surge that caused a massive explosion, detaching the 1,000-ton plate covering the reactor and releasing radiation into the atmosphere.
A Second Explosion
A few seconds later, a second explosion which was even greater than the first blew the building apart, spewing burning graphite and other parts of the reactor around the plan. This started intense fires around the power plant.
The explosions ending up taking the lives of two plant workers, followed by several workers who died within hours of the accident. Over the next few days, emergency crews tried desperately to suppress the fires and radiation leaks.
But the death toll was climbing as the workers were succumbing to acute radiation sickness…
A Town Evacuated, Leaving Everything Behind
On April 27, about 36 hours after the incident, the citizens of Pripyat were evacuated. By then, people were already complaining about vomiting, headaches and other common signs of radiation sickness. Officials eventually closed off an 18-mile area around the plant.
The town’s residents were told they would be able to return after a few days, leaving their personal belongings and valuables behind. They were unaware of the reality of what really took place and that they would never be able to return.
134 servicemen were hospitalized during the time that elapsed after the blast, which was months. 28 firemen sadly pass on as well. And for those who survived, the ingested nuclear particles made them ill later in life, causing them too to perish.
Following the nuclear catastrophe, the surrounding countries also started to panic. Many considered evacuating, but it was put on hold until further notice. It took a long time for the Ukrainian government to assess the damage and test the air. But finally, people started to calm down, and the nearby countries didn’t end up making any major decisions.
Chernobyl and Pripyat, however, remained void of human contact and eventually became a real-life ghost town…
A Real Ghost Town
Perhaps more amazing than the explosion and devastation itself is the ghost town that is resulted. Every square inch of the area was literally left as is and untouched for decades. It’s been 33 years since the incident and nature has definitely taken its course.
One of the most haunting images is the abandoned amusement park. A place which was once a source of amusement and fun for children and families became a haunting reminder of what once was. This amusement park is just one of the many abandoned sites.
Leaving Your Entire Life Behind
Can you imagine having to leave everything you own behind without more than a few moments to even understand what is happening? The inhabitants of Pripyat and the surrounding areas had no choice to evacuate quickly.
Many homes, like the one seen here, were left completely as is. Children’s toys and all, left as they were and as though they were to be picked up within a day or two. We can only imagine how it must have felt for those who were forced to leave their homes…
The People of Pripyat
Like many people of the era, the residents of Pripyat were hard-working people, in many ways representing the “everyman” and “everywoman” of the time. Not only did they have to leave their homes suddenly, but they also had the fear of their health looming over them.
Unsure of what the future would hold – if they could return home or if their health was forever destroyed. Their homes would become historical sites for future photographers to document, providing the world an image of what nuclear disaster really entails.
Amazingly, despite all of the hazardous chemicals in the atmosphere, animals are popping up and showing us that they have been living in the area for a number of years now. Animals and wildlife are slowly returning to the abandoned areas, which have become enveloped by strong vegetation and plants.
In recent years, wolves have been showing up, making the ghost town their new den. Many, however, fear that the wolves are carriers of a genetic mutation which is definitely a possibility considering they live and feed in the affected area. Not to mention that they have been breathing the air as long as they have.
The incident of Chernobyl has become an example…
Setting an Example
As it goes with many historical disasters, this famous nuclear fallout became an example of what not to do. Those operators didn’t intend to be the models for what never to do, but that is exactly what ended up happening.
Security protocols are set in place for a reason. And the Chernobyl incident will forever be remembered at what can go wrong when things are overlooked at the Nuclear Power Plants of the world. They have likely been the subject of history lessons.
The Prevailing Health Effects
At the time of the incident, the strong winds were traveling from the south and east, meaning most of the radiation traveled northwest toward Belarus. Soviet authorities took their time to release information about the severity of the disaster to the outside world.
But radiation alarms began to go off at a nuclear plant in Sweden, and so the authorities were forced to reveal the full extent of the crisis.
And that crisis would be devastating for too many people…
Within Three Months
Within three months of the disaster, a total of 31 people died from radiation exposure. More than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were eventually reported and later linked to radiation exposure.
Surprisingly, the overall rate of cancer losses and other health effects related to Chernobyl were lower than initially feared. “The majority of the five million residents living in contaminated areas … received very small radiation doses comparable to natural background levels (0.1 rem per year),” according to an NRC report. “Today the available evidence does not strongly connect the accident to radiation-induced increases of leukemia or solid cancer, other than thyroid cancer.”
More Fear Than Actual Suffering
Some experts claimed that understandable fear of radiation poisoning led to even greater suffering than the actual disaster. There were many doctors throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that advised pregnant women to terminate the pregnancies to avoid birth defects or other disorders.
But the actual level of radiation exposure these women experienced were in reality too low to cause any problems. A United Nations report on the effects of the Chernobyl accident stated that it was “full of unsubstantiated statements that have no support in scientific assessments.”
The radiation also impacted the environment…
The Red Forest
Shortly after the radiation leaks occurred, the trees in the woodlands around the plant were killed by high levels of radiation. This region came to be known as the “Red Forest” because the dead trees turned a bright ginger color.
To contain the radiation, the trees were later bulldozed and buried. Also, the damaged reactor was hastily sealed in a concrete casket. Whether or not this containment was effective is yet to be determined.
The Plant Continued to Operate
This may come as a shock, but the Chernobyl Power Plant was only shut down in December of 2000, 14 years after the explosion. That means that despite the contamination of the site and all the inherent risks in operating a reactor with clearly obvious design flaws continued to operate.
Another surprising fact is that a few hundred former residents have recently returned to their former homes, despite the risks of being exposed to remaining radiation. For everyone else, like scientists and government officials, they are permitted to be on the site for inspections and other purposes only.
And as recently as 2011, Ukraine opened up the area to curious tourists who want to see firsthand what the after-effects of the disaster include…
The region today is seen as one of the world’s most unique wildlife sanctuaries. It was featured in an episode of Netflix’s ‘Our Planet,’ an incredible series that illustrates how changes in the climate and atmosphere are affecting animals.
Almost miraculously, the area is home to thriving populations of wolves, deer, lynx, beaver, eagles, boar, elk, bears and other animals. They have been making the dense woodlands their home.
The Jury is Out
Scientists are divided on how well the animals are really doing in the zone of alienation. Biologist Jim Beasley of the University of Georgia’s Savannah River Ecology Laboratory has been studying wolves there.
Beasley says that there is a population of large mammals on the Belarus side that has increased since the disaster. And within a 5-week trip to the area, he was floored by the sheer number of animals he saw. He stated: “It’s just incredible. You can’t go anywhere without seeing wolves.”
But wolves aren’t the only animals roaming the fields…
Signs of Life
These are wild Przewalski’s horses, a rare and endangered subspecies of wild horse. The photo was taken in 2016, showing the wild horses on a snow-covered field in the Chernobyl exclusions zone. These horses were actually intentionally brought into the area.
In 1990, a handful of the endangered Przewalski’s horses were brought in the danger zone to see if they would settle in. The species seemed to enjoy their new habitat, and now about a hundred of them graze the empty fields. Przewalski’s horses are actually the last surviving subspecies of wild horse.
Beavers are Popping Up Too
Another sign of life in the no-man’s land is the handiwork of beavers. The growth of beaver populations in recent years an important thing to happen in the zone’s ecology. A wolf expert and scientist researching the area, Marina Shkvyria, said:
“The beaver population is growing. Beavers can return it to being a little bit wilder.” Eventually, as the beavers chop the trees, the land will return to swamps. “It will become like it was a hundred years ago. The beaver in Ukraine is exactly like the elephant in Africa: it completely changes the look of the landscape.”
The zone has become a sanctuary for wildlife, and scientists are debating the effects…
The Debate Continues
The combined territory of all the exclusion zones in Ukraine and Belarus caused by the disaster is around 1,600 square miles, making it one of the largest strictly wild sanctuaries in Europe. Jim Beasley put forward a study in which he compiled 14 species of mammals, that found no evidence of contamination.
But other scientists beg to differ. Anders Pape Møller, a Danish scientist, studied swallows in nuclear environments, saying “These animals in Chernobyl and Fukushima live 24 hours a day in these contaminated sites. Even if the actual dose for one hour is not extremely high, after a week or after a month, it adds up to a lot. These effects are certainly at a level where you could see dramatic consequences.”
But They Agree on One Thing
Both sides can agree on one thing, however: that radiation is bad for people and bad for animals. The debate is over how bad the damage really is and whether it has caused the animal populations to decline.
This debate among scientists over the effects on wildlife and humans is heated and political. With over 30 years of history now to draw from, Chernobyl is the evidence to extract from.
Three years ago marked the half-life of the dangerous radioactive chemicals…
2016 was the year that marked the half-life of cesium-137, one of the most widespread and dangerous of the radionuclides that was released into the atmosphere. This means that the amount of cesium has dropped by half.
For animals, the radioactive material enters their systems through the food chain. Shkvyria explained: “Mushrooms concentrate radiation. Voles, little rodents, love mushrooms. And when they eat contaminated mushrooms, they concentrate the radiation in their bodies. When wolves eat voles, they pick up the contamination.”
As Far Away as Norway
Radiation from Chernobyl has been measured as far away as Norway in reindeer, but it in the exclusion zone, it’s spread out in patches. Wolves, in particular, seem to get some protection from the radiation because they have a big territory and tend to move around a lot, into the cleaner areas.
The irony is that human populations have a bigger negative impact than radiation.
Yet there are still many animals in the area, just in smaller quantities…
Sergey Gaschak is a Ukrainian scientist who has been working in the zone for the past 30 years. He believes that it’s a “myth” that new animals have started to appear in the exclusion zone. “This is absolutely not true. Almost all the species we have now, we had before the accident, just in lower densities.”
Gaschak uses camera traps to see which species are in the area. “We have all large mammals: red deer, roe deer, wild boar, moose, horse, bison, brown bear, lynx, wolves, two species of hare, beaver, otter, badger, some martins, some mink, and polecats,” he says.
A Possible Nature Preserve
“There are more animals now than there were 30 years ago. We have horse, deer, moose, wolves, boar, hare and others,” says Anatoly Tsiganenko, a resident of the village of Radcha, a mile from the border with Belarus and a few hundred yards from the border of the exclusion zone.
Aside from the fact that there is more wildlife today than before the accident, it also means there’s more poaching, particularly on the Ukrainian side. Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko, wants to convert the exclusion zone into a nature preserve to help solve the poaching problem.
But the long-term effects are still unknown…
They Seem to Be Doing Alright
Jim Beasley doesn’t refer to the landscape as “ruined” by radioactive contamination, but he knows that it will be there for centuries or millennia. But the wildlife seems to be doing all right.
And amazingly, there are more wolves there than in Yellowstone, Canada. Beasley said, “The preliminary density estimates that we are seeing suggest that in Chernobyl the density of wolves is much, much higher than even Yellowstone.”
A New Tourist Attraction
Ever since the area has been open to tourists, people have been visiting, at their own risk of course, and taking photos of all the fascinating sites. They are able to take photos to share with the world.
Not only tourists but journalists and scientists have ceaselessly been visiting to document the incredible sites, further contributing and sharing the story of Chernobyl. But whoever “dares” to go there, is warned of the possible dangers to their health.
A major symbol of the disaster is seen in many photos…
The Symbol of Nuclear Fallout
The gas mask is probably one of the most iconic and important symbols of nuclear fallout or disaster. And the exclusion areas are literally littered with them. Almost every building and room inside has gas masks scattered everywhere.
This picture shows a gas mask sitting by a doll at one of the kindergartens in Pripyat. As haunting as this image is, it’s the reality of the situation. No one, even children, were free of wearing the masks in the immediate time surrounding the explosion.
Before and After
This image shows a shocking before and after comparison of the hotel that was built for the visitors of Pripyat. It was meant to be a luxury complex and an exciting new development that would bring some glamor to those visiting.
Before the incident, the land was grassy with flowers, blooming in their natural bright colors. There were cars and people, enjoying a vacation or business trip. Now, having been abandoned for over 30 years, the resulting situation is far from the original.
Next, another remarkable before and after image…
What Once Was…
Here’s another striking comparison of before and after the event. The original image is of a regular busy day in Pripyat, showing how lively the town used to be. You can see how the lampposts are still there, but that’s about the only remnant of what once was.
But the cobblestone sidewalk has been taken over by trees and grass, and the buildings are concealed by the nature that has grown wild. Without seeing the before image, it would be difficult to see what the ghost town used to be like before its “death.”
The Main Streets of Pripyat
This image shows one of the main streets in Pripyat. The town wasn’t fully populated at that point, before the explosion. The plant was only 16 years old when the accident happened, and so the town itself was still growing and expanding.
But there were signs of life, people coming and going, advertisements of developments that were to come, hotels, apartments, and business complexes. But it all turned to moss and weeds. The buildings neglected and useless.
Business were thriving before the incident…
A Previously Thriving Business
As you can see here, this area was once thriving, with people walking around and going about their lives. They were completely unaware of the history that would take place. Many were unconcerned about the nearby power plant.
One of the big issues that still face the Ukrainian government is how to clean up the reactor itself. Out of the 200 tons of enriched uranium that were on the disaster site, 190 remain. 10 tons went out into the atmosphere and the rest is still on the ground.
Land of the Brave
Eighty-two-year-old Ivan Semenyuk is a “self-settler;” someone who chose to return to their village located in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone after the explosion. Considered brave by many, he chose to return to his home, the only place he knows.
Ivan recounted the events of that night. “We could hear the glass shaking in the window frames before the explosion,” he said. “We asked what it was, but were told they were just cleaning the chimneys. In the morning, we were told it exploded, but I wasn’t scared. We went in my neighbor’s car to get a closer look and saw the fires. I remember them handing out lots of alcohol to guard against the radiation.”
It took 36 hours until the busses came…
It took 36 hours before the first buses came to evacuate residents of Pripyat. People were told to take only necessities – that could come back in as soon as three days. And the residents didn’t even have a choice.
“I wouldn’t have left,” Ivan admitted, “but on May 6, the army forced us out with guns.” It was then a full two and a half weeks after the event before President Gorbachev confessed on the national news about the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
Authorities Said it Would Take a Year
The authorities said the land would be safe after a year, and those with good houses (about 140 families) came back. “I came back with my wife in the winter of 1988,” Ivan recalled.
Today, there are 200 or so self-settlers spread out among the 162 villages located inside the Exclusion Zone. The population of his village, Parishev, which is eight miles from the nuclear power plant, was once 600. It now totals three. Two elderly women live close by.
And sadly, his wife is no longer with him…
Evidence of a Man Living Alone
His wife, Marya, passed away a couple of years back and his house is cluttered with objects as well as evidence of a man elderly man living alone. The kitchen table is covered with cracked teapots and vodka glasses.
He spoke of his family: “I have two sons. One has a drinking problem, the other lives in the city and visits once a month.” One can only imagine the loneliness. “I always find something to do—cook food for the chickens, chop firewood,” he said, “but it’s difficult and there’s no choice for me now.”
When asked if he regrets his decision to return, he said, “It was still the right choice to come back. I didn’t like the noise in Kyiv. If I need fish, I go fishing; if I need mushrooms, I go foraging.”
He grows potatoes, cabbage, and beetroot in his plot of earth. When he was asked about the effect of the radiation on the vegetation, he said, “Only when it rains!” Apparently, the rain washes radioactive material from the trees.
In the Company of Tourists
Ivan does manage to find a company. Ever since the tourists starting coming around in 2010, he’s been seeing people here and there. He doesn’t seem to mind either that people have been coming and going.
“It’s good you visit and see the truth about the radiation levels—it’s low,” he said. There are operators that offer tours for visitors to see specific sites, even places within 250 meters of reactor number four, where people are still working to clean the debris.
What is to Come?
As incredible as it is to see what once was a thriving city turned ghost town, it’s even more amazing to see how resilient nature is. A completely unnatural event such as a nuclear fallout had absolutely devastating effects on the human population at the time of the accident.
Yet only 33 years have passed, and wildlife is thriving. Aside from the fact that the area is unlivable for the normal population for 20,000 years, it has become a stomping ground for animals, scientists, journalists, tourists, and brave individuals alike. All coming to see what the no man’s land has to offer.