Chernobyl, 35 years on

On Saturday 26 April 1986, a nuclear disaster occurred within the No. 4 reactor of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The explosion of the reactor can be considered the biggest human-made disasters of the 20th century. For some, the Chernobyl disaster is just a distant memory. For others, it’s a nightmare reality that they have been living with for years. Chernobyl is symbolic for many in east Europe, a site if a catastrophic disaster and a post-apocalyptic style landscape which attracts artists, explorers and ‘dark tourism’.[1] What really happened in Chernobyl, and what legacy does it leave 35 years on?

The Chernobyl Disaster

Located in the city of Pripyat, in what was then part of the Soviet Union, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant lays approximately 130 kilometres from the capital city of Kiev. The entire plant was constructed between 1970 and 1983.[2] Along with this, the city of Pripyat was under construction about 3 kilometres for the plant’s workers and their families. Housing approximately 49,000 inhabitants, Pripyat was a bustling city in its prime, and considered a ‘modern utopia’ by many.[3] With five secondary schools and two sports stadiums among other things, the town was seen as a model socialist city, one which was believed would thrive as it grew in the coming decades. The town of Chernobyl itself housed about another 12,500 Ukrainian citizens.[4]

The outside of reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant

On 25 April 1986, in what would have seemed a normal nighttime watch at the plant, disaster struck. Engineers were carrying out complex reactor tests on Reactor 4, which began to spiral out of control. They took the fateful decision to shut down the reactor, which caused a huge power surge which created an explosion in the reactor’s nuclear core. The explosion killed the two engineers instantly from heat burns, while the night watch in Reactor 4’s control room were exposed to a lethal dose.[5] Soviet authorities blamed the disaster on an inexperienced night shift worker, but was it caused by human error, or was it the result of the authorities cutting corners when the plant was built?

Subsequent aftermath

The explosion caused a subsequent fire at the Chernobyl power plant, which firefighters rushed to attend too. Hours after the explosion, the firefighters were taken to Hospital 126. The doctors and nurses were at a loss as to what was making their patents so ill; those who had been to the plant were showing symptoms of vomiting and burns, however the invisibility of the radiation proved to be a fatal issue. Of all the firefighters taken to hospital from the plant, 28 of them died within 3 months of the explosion.[6] It is unknown how many later died as a result of the intense exposure to radiation from the explosion itself.

Because the explosion happened in the early hours of 26 April, when the town awoke the whole area of Pripyat was already under high levels of toxic radiation. However, no one was informed of the explosion, and the population in the city went about their lives as normal. The authorities did evacuate the heavily radiated areas just a day after the accident, but the Soviet authorities waited eleven hours before informing Pripyat of the radiation leak, and thirteen hours before informing Kiev.[7] Even once informed, it took a further ten days before some areas as close as three miles from the plant were evacuated, with many being informed that they would be able to return in just a few days.[8] There was clearly an overall feeling of disbelief and denial, proved by the fact that no official information was provided to the city for so long. At this time, the entire population of Pripyat was forcibly evacuated, with a strict order of no return.

Once the initial disaster was over, focus was shifted on to what would happen next: the clean-up. Grappling claws attached to crane were used to handle the huge chunks of highly radioactive metal ejected by the explosion. Toxic debris was also scattered across the roof of Reactor 3, which they tried, and failed to remove with robots. The decision was taken that humans would have to climb on to the roof to remove the debris, however they were only allowed to be up there for 40 seconds at a time. Once back down on the ground, their shovels and clothes had to be disposed of in order to minimise the huge amounts of radiation that contaminated them. These brave workers were known as ‘Liquidators,’ and at the height of this task, it is estimated that approximately 600,000 were employed to clear the debris from the roof.[9] It is thought that at least 4,000 of the Liquidators died due to their exposure to the radiation, as despite being brief, the level of doses that they received each and every time the entered the roof was phenomenal.[10]

The ‘social media effect’

In 2011 Chernobyl was officially declared a tourist zone, and many visitors came. However, in order to enter ‘the zone’ you must have permission, entering through highly militarised checkpoints. Ukrainian law dictates that the radiation one is exposed to while in ‘the zone’ must be continually monitored, and you are only allowed to stay in ‘the zone’ for a maximum of two weeks at a time. However, this does not mean that all who enter Chernobyl do so lawfully. Thrill seekers, driven largely by social media are a continuous problem. It is, of course, a good thing that the younger generation want to connect with the history of Chernobyl, but with no one allowed to enter the area without a government permit, they are putting themselves and others at immense risk. These illegal trespassers, know known as ‘stalkers’ create makeshift living quarters in various derelict buildings in Pripyat, and seek out the most dangerous and inaccessible places, both for the thrill and their social media profile. These ‘stalkers’ have become an increasing issue over the years, to the point that police must now patrol the area 24/7 to search for these illegal trespassers.

The ‘social media effect’ is clearly one of the reasons that so many are draw to Chernobyl, in order to show off making videos of dangerous stunts. For many of these so-called ‘stalkers’ reaching Pripyat is the ‘holy grail’ of their exploration, in which they can show of their extreme thrill seeking via social media. In these cases, it is not only the high radiation levels that are extremely dangerous. Many videos document people climbing to dangerous heights on the various structures in Pripyat in order to capture the desolate city from above. Many feel that the fines imposed on trespassers are not harsh enough, and stricter measures may deter people from entering the highly dangerous area.

The Chernobyl Legacy

It is very easy to lose face of the fact that Pripyat was once a thriving city, with thousands of inhabitants, which was destroyed by one fateful error. However, despite the tragedy that occurred, there was, and is, some good coming from the Chernobyl disaster. For example, in order to build the 1.4 million pound arch that now covers the highly radioactive part of the Chernobyl plant, 40 countries came together to fund it. While the area is still a long way from being safe and inhabitable, this will protect the area for the next hundred years or so.

Furthermore, some time after the disaster the area began to turn into a sort of re-wilding project. The outer exclusion zone has become a place in which biologists can study how wildlife adapts to areas of radiation, as well as how wildlife adapts in an area with no human contact at all. In fact, ‘the zone’ has become an unlikely wildlife sanctuary, with sightings of wolves, bears and linx, among many other animals. In the face of a radioactive wasteland, it is nice to see nature reclaiming its territory.

In conclusion, what happened on the night of the 25-26 April was an unbelievable tragedy. It is unclear how many have died as a result of the radiation that they were exposed to during the time of the Chernobyl disaster and the subsequent towns evacuation. Today, ‘the zone’ is still highly radioactive with the Chernobyl exclusion zone itself still being referred to as ‘the dead zone.’ Furthermore, in the immediate aftermath, approximately 135,000 people were displaced after the evacuation, dividing families and irreversibly disrupting the lives of many.[11] However, accidental hope has come from the explosion of Reactor 4. Countries coming together to support another in its time of need, an accidental re-wilding project, and the story and history of Chernobyl being kept alive by ‘stalkers’ (even if done so illegally) means that the legacy of Chernobyl is one that we can learn from, but also one that we can look towards and see a strange sort of beauty slowly forming in its place.


[1] Hanna Chuchvaha, ‘Memory, Trama, and the Maternal: Post-Apocalyptic View of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster,’ Journal of Ukrainian Studies 7, no. 2 (2020): 4

[2] Chernobyl Accident 1986, World Nuclear Association, last modified April 2020, last accessed 28 March 2021, https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Callie Phui-Yen Hoon, ‘The 1986 Chernobyl Disaster: Catalyst for the Fall of the Soviet Union,’ The Concord Review (2013): 230

[6] Chernobyl Accident 1986, World Nuclear Association, last modified April 2020, last accessed 28 March 2021, https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx

[7] Hoon, ‘The 1986 Chernobyl Disaster,’ 230

[8] Hoon, ‘The 1986 Chernobyl Disaster,’ 230

[9] Chernobyl Accident 1986, World Nuclear Association, last modified April 2020, last accessed 28 March 2021, https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx

[10] Hoon, ‘The 1986 Chernobyl Disaster,’ 230

[11] Hoon, ‘The 1986 Chernobyl Disaster,’ 230

[Images] All images from WikiMedia Commons with no known copyright restrictions https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Main_Page


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