33 years later, the Soviet Era’s radioactive region continues to fascinate and haunt

The Accident

It was early in the morning on April 26th, 1986 when the worst nuclear disaster in history occurred.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine (former Soviet Union) was conducting an electrical test on the plant’s equipment when disaster struck. Due to a combination of factors – from improper safety measures, a lack of essential communication and coordination amongst lead staff members and operating personnel, to faults within the design of the nuclear reactor itself – a sudden surge of power caused the explosion of Unit 4 and the release of highly-toxic radioactive matter into the environment.

While officials struggled – and some sources even say dawdled – with the overhanging dangers associated with the plant’s explosion, life continued to go about for the citizens of the nearby city of Pripyat. The general population was aware that something had occurred the night before at the power plant.

Toxic Exposure

What they were not aware of were the quickly-rising levels of radiation. 50,000 people in Pripyat alone were exposed to this invisible danger. It wasn’t until the next day that a mandatory evacuation was put into order. Citizens of Pripyat, and other surrounding areas, were forced to leave the lives they’d known behind. But for many of them, they wouldn’t live long enough to know a future beyond the Chernobyl disaster.

YouTube video of compiled news reports and footage from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster (NewsFromUkraine)

From 1986 onward, thyroid cancer, leukemia, and cardiovascular disease have afflicted many of those who were exposed. Children and adolescents were particularly vulnerable to the health effects of the nuclear fallout. Liquidators called to the site of the disaster were most vulnerable to the highest levels of radiation exposure. Many of these heroic workers sacrificed their lives during the construction of the original sarcophagus that entombed the remnants, and the radiation, of the destroyed Reactor 4 building.

The Exclusion Zone, Post-1986

Hundreds of discarded gas masks litter the grounds and buildings of Pripyat
(Credit: Brook Ward/ Creative Commons

We’ve all seen the haunting images of what has infamously become known as the ‘Chernobyl Exclusion Zone’. This area of approximately 1,000 square miles around the damaged nuclear reactor is uninhabitable to humans. The Ukrainian government allows access to only certain areas within the Zone.

Over the past three decades since the disaster occurred, photographers, journalists, and extremist travelers have been permitted entrance into certain areas of the Exclusion Zone. These are the areas whose levels of radioactivity are within ‘safer’ limits, but the dangers still loom over the abandoned region like the invisible, deadly particles from the reactor meltdown itself.

Bumper cars at what was supposed to be a new amusement park to be opened on May 1, 1986 in Pripyat. Due to the Chernobyl disaster and the mass evacuation of the city, the park never saw its opening day (Credit: Clay Gilliland/Creative Commons)

Pripyat’s ghostly buildings are crumbling. Radioactive animals roam freely throughout the Exclusion Zone. Radiation levels continue to fluctuate due to atmospheric factors. Yet these risks certainly don’t deter the insatiably curious. There are even tours that one can book online nowadays to visit Chernobyl.

Some sources indicate that the dangers of radiation poisoning have lessened substantially over the years. However, according to a post on livescience.com (which provides detailed facts about the nuclear disaster, and its long term impacts on both human and environmental health) the area won’t be safe for human habitation for at least 20,000 years.

No Easy Answers

A Soviet Era doll is amongst the many remnants of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (Credit: Adam Jones/
Creative Commons)

As I researched Chernobyl, I came across a website on Pripyat which included a gallery of photographs. People took these pictures months and years before the accident happened. It evoked a bittersweet sensation in me.

Growing up, I had seen the eerie images of the abandoned Ukrainian city on TV – the dilapidated buildings, the rusting remnants of an amusement park, the countless broken dolls, children’s toys, and gas masks strewn about… It’s almost hard to imagine that Pripyat was once a thriving city during the Soviet Era. But I think the most unnerving thing about this particular nuclear disaster is just how long-term the effects of it will last for. These effects go beyond the Exclusion Zone itself.

According to Chernobyl Guide the three countries most affected by radiation are Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Austria, Finland, and Sweden also had higher levels of radiation as a result of the disaster. There is debate among many sources over just how far the particles spread throughout the world. However, one thing is for certain – Chernobyl’s aftermath is not going to disappear into history anytime soon.

The warning sign at the Chernobyl Exclusion Area (Credit: Mike Goad/ Creative Commons)

*Feature image “Pripyat – View Over Pripyat from Fujiyama Building” courtesy of Jean Chris Andersen/Creative Commons

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