April 3, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

What Does Chernobyl Look Like Today?


Disaster

The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl left the the once-bustling area around it uninhabitable—so what does it look like now that nature has spent the last 40 years trying to take it back?

Cdgallery

The Plant Was Never Finished

Construction of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant began in Northern Ukraine in 1972. It was meant to have 12 units by the time construction finished, which would have made it the largest nuclear power station in the world. 

Only four reactors were ever completed.

Aerial view Chernobyl nuclear power plant with sarcophagus. (Chernobyl, Ukraine)IAEA Imagebank, Flickr

There Were Four Reactors

At the time of the catastrophic meltdown, Chernobyl NPP had four working RBMK-1000 reactors. The four of them produced around 10% of Ukraine's electricity.

Chernobyl Reactor #4, seen to the left of the red and white tower, famously blew it's top in 1986Matt Shalvatis, Flickr

They Built A City

The USSR built an entire city outside of all their nuclear power plants to house the workers and their families. At Chernobyl, that city was called Pripyat.

Aerial view of Buildings in Pripyat with cloudy sky in the backgroundJorge Franganillo, Flickr

1, 2, 3, 4

The first reactor at Chernobyl came online in 1977. No. 2 followed the next year in 1978, then No. 3 in 1981, and No.4 in 1983.

Unit 3 and 4 Reactor Building Damage - Chernobylatomicallyspeaking, Flickr

They Were Expanding

The Soviets had already laid out the sites for Reactors No. 5 and 6. Construction on No. 5 was 70% complete, and it was scheduled to start operation on November 8, 1986. That never happened.

Unfinished Reactor 5 Chernobyl, UkraineClay Gilliland, Flickr

"State Of The Art"

The first two nuclear reactors were first-generation Soviet technology, while the third and fourth were second-generation. That meant they had a more secure containment structure. Not like it made a difference.

4Th Block Of The Chernobyl Nuclear Power PlantIAEA Imagebank, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Already Had A Meltdown

The catastrophic meltdown of 1984 wasn't even the first meltdown at the power plant. Reactor 1 suffered a partial core meltdown in 1982.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant showing the sarcophagusIAEA Imagebank, Flickr

No One Even Noticed

A faulty cooling valve made the uranium in the reactor overheat. There were no casualties, but the negligence of the operators meant that no one even noticed the meltdown for hours, allowing radioactive material to leak out into the environment.

Photo of the The Chernobyl Nuclear Power PlantFi Dot, Flickr

They Kept Quiet

It took years before Soviet officials even admitted there had been an incident, even though Reactor No. 1 was out of operation for eight months. But what about the incidents they never admitted to?

Photo of the Reactors 5 and 6 of Chernobyl Nuclear Power PlantPaweł 'pbm' Szubert, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

They Talked Big

The Soviet Union bragged about their state of the art second-generation facilities on the international stage—but documents declassified in Ukraine in 2021 tell a very different story.

The damaged unit 4 reactor and shelter at Chernobyl, as seen from a rooftop in PripyatIAEA Imagebank, Flickr

They Plant Wasn't Safe

There were serious incidents in both the third and fourth reactors in 1984—two years before the catastrophic meltdown—but government officials kept them quiet.

Photo of the Chernobyl Reactors no. 1 and 4Eamonn Butler, Flickr

The Most Dangerous Power Plant

The documents prove that even as far back as 1983, officials in Moscow knew that Chernobyl was "one of the most dangerous nuclear power plants in the USSR".

Abandoned ghost town Pripyat, post apocalyptic city, view of nuclear power plant in ChernobylIhor Khomych, Shutterstock

The Reactor Wasn't Working Properly

Despite their bragging, the second generation units struggled to perform as intended. After a series of unsuccessful tests, the power plant ran one more safety test on Reactor No. 4.

Spoiler alert: It wasn't safe.

Photo of the Chernobyl Reactor 4 in Chernobyl Exclusion ZoneAdam Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

There Was An Emergency Shutdown

At 01:23:04 on April 26, 1986, the safety test began. At 01:23:40, for an unknown reason, an operator initiated an emergency shutdown, or "scram".

Chernobyl Npp Site Panorama With Nsc ConstructionIngmar Runge, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Whoever Did It Is Gone

We still don't know the why the scram was initiated. The two men who would have made that decision both died before they told anyone. But we know what happened next.

Chernobyl Nuclear power plant, blurred background.M101Studio, Shutterstock

Rapid Cooldown

The idea behind a scram was that control rods would rapidly inject water into the core, quickly cooling it and ending the reaction. But there was a MAJOR flaw in the design.

Close-up Photo of the Memorial to Those who Saved the WorldIan Bancroft, Flickr

It Had The Reverse Effect

For a brief moment, right as it started, a scram could actually speed up the nuclear reaction in the core. That's a big problem.

Interior view of the control room of Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant unit 3IAEA Imagebank, Flickr

Overdrive

For an instant after the scram started, the reactor jumped to 10 times its normal output. The control panel broke after that. Not that it mattered anymore.

Photo of the Chernobyl Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plantthedakotakid, Flickr

Radioactive Explosion

In the blink of an eye, the reactor exploded. Radioactive core material—mere seconds ago an active fission reaction—was jettisoned into the atmosphere with the force of 225 tons of TNT.

Aftermath of the Nuclear Reactor Mishap at Chernobyl, USSRIAEA Imagebank, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Air Was Glowing

Alexander Yuvchenko, a survivor of the disaster, said that the reactor hall was filled with a beautiful, laser-like beam of blinding blue light, caused by ions in the air, that seemed to be "flooding up into infinity".

Inside Chernobyl's Reactor FourBBC World Service, Flickr

Radiation + Fire = Bad

When it's bad, it can always get worse. The Soviets used combustible tar in the roof of the reactor building. A raging fire quickly made the nightmare scenario even worse.

In an unlit room sits the control panels for Chernobyl's Reactor FourBBC World Service, Flickr

They Tried To Make Them Keep Working

The chief working the night shift at Reactor No. 3 wanted to shut down and evacuate, but he was given respirators and potassium iodide tablets for his team and told to keep working.

He lasted until 5 am before breaking orders, shutting down the reactor, and evacuating.

Chernobyl Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Control Room No. 2Michael Kötter, Flickr

The Firefighters Didn't Know What They Were Getting Into

The firefighters who arrived to fight the blaze were not told about the levels of radiation. The first on the scene, Volodymyr Pravyk, succumbed to acute radiation sickness on May 11, 1986. He was not the last.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of Volodymyr PravykЧорнобильська АЕС, Wikimedia Commons

People Started Getting Sick

The evacuation needed to begin immediately, but the people of Pripyat were not initially notified. But within just a few hours of the explosion, people started falling seriously ill.

Aerial Viev of the Pripyat Lenin SquareMichael Kötter, Flickr

Ukrainian Officials Were In The Dark

Despite happening in Ukraine, Moscow ran the plant, so Ukrainian authorities who could have offered aid were kept in the dark.

Abandoned buildings in Pripyat near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.IAEA Imagebank, Flickr

The Evacuation Started Over A Day Later

In the early morning of April 27, 36 hours after the explosion, authorities finally ordered the evacuation of Pripyat.

 Photo of The ferris wheel in Pripyat amusement parkClay Gilliland, Flickr

They Were Told They'd Be Gone Three Days

The residents of Pripyat were told to only bring what was absolutely necessary, and that they would be able to return in three days. No one ever went back.

Pripyat Main Square viewed from the roof the the Polissya HotelEamonn Butler, Flickr

The Exclusion Zone

The Chernobyl disaster was still going to get a lot worse before it got better. 10 days after the explosion, the USSR expanded the evacuation area to 30 km around the site. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Zone has existed ever since.

Sign At Entrance To Chernobyl Exclusion Zone - Northern UkraineAdam Jones, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

"A Minor Accident"

At first, Soviet officials admitted only that there had been a "minor accident". By the time the evacuation of over 100,000 people was under way, it was hard to keep saying the accident was that "minor".

Photo of The Polissya hotel in the city center of the abandoned city of PripyatClay Gilliland, Flickr

A 20-Second Announcement

On April 20, the Soviet news programme Vremya made the following, 20-second announcement: "There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided for any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up".

Reactors of the Chernobyl atomic plant seen from the central square of PripyatPedro Caetano de Moura Pinheiro, Flickr

The Roof Is On Fire (And Radioactive)

The most dangerous part of the cleanup was trying to clear the approximately 100 tons of radioactive debris that was thrown onto the building's roof in the explosion.

Rooftops of the Abandoned Buildings in PripyatJorge Franganillo, Flickr

The Sarcophagus

All the material had to be removed and collected before the construction of the sarcophagus: a massive concrete tomb to seal the reactor and radioactive debris within.

Chernobyl Sarcophagus - The Mammoth Beamatomicallyspeaking, Flickr

Cleanup Robots

The Soviets used 60 remote controlled robots to clear radioactive debris. Unfortunately, this was the 80s, so they almost all failed. The vast majority of the cleanup was performed by human workers: The Chernobyl Liquidators.

Robots Used During The Chernobyl CleanupClay Gilliland, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Bio-Robots

The Chernobyl liquidators called themselves "bio-robots," with their heavy military protective gear. But even with the gear, the liquidators could only work for 40-90 seconds before radiation levels got too high.

A group of liquidators gathered at the Museum of Slavutych on the 32nd anniversary of the Chernobyl disasterTom Skipp, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Over The Limit

Each liquidator was only supposed to act as a "bio-robot" at most a single time. However, several of them report doing it five or six times.

Chernobyl Sarcophagus - Finishing the Roofatomicallyspeaking, Flickr

Human Hands Did The Work

In the end, 90% of the material was removed by the 3,800 liquidators, who absorbed an average of 25 rem of radiation each.

Damage Turbine Hall of ChernobylIAEA Imagebank, Flickr

They Sealed It Away

Design for the sarcophagus started within a month of the explosion, and construction was complete by November. The Chernobyl reactor was sealed off from the world forever. A bandaid on a gunshot wound.

Unit 4 Reactor Building Damage - Chernobylatomicallyspeaking, Flickr

1,000 Square Miles 

The initial Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Zone was a simple 30km radius around the plant. Eventually, it expanded to cover around 1,000 square miles. But that wasn't the end of the plant.

Chernobyl and Pripyat Exclusion ZonePedro Caetano de Moura Pinheiro, Flickr

The Power Plant Kept Working

I guess the disaster wasn't THAT bad. The Soviets continued operating reactors No. 1 and 3 for nearly a decade after the meltdown.

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power PlantOak Ridge National Laboratory, Flickr

The Most Radioactive Place On Earth

The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Exclusion Zone is one of the most radioactively contaminated places in the world today.

Person measuring Radioactivity in front of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power PlantRoman Harak, Flickr

A Scientist's Dream

Because of the high levels of radiation and the lack of human interference, the Exclusion Zone is extremely popular with scientists—and it's becoming more and more popular with tourists.

Taking samples from the Pripyat River, situated by the Chernobyl Nuclear Power PlantIAEA Imagebank, Flickr

A Glowing Green Paradise

Humanity really messed up the area around Chernobyl, but since we evacuated, the zone is a thriving sanctuary for both flora and fauna, with more biodiversity and thicker forests than anywhere else in Ukraine.

The Red Forest  area surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power PlantJorge Franganillo, Flickr

They Finally Shut Them Down

Ukraine finally agreed to shut down the Chernobyl rectors completely when the EU promised to help them modernize the sarcophagus and build new, safer reactors.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant with New Safe ConfinementK Budzynski, Shutterstock

In The News

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone saw fighting after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it has remained closed to tourists ever since.

Chernobyl nuclear power plant with new safe confinementM101Studio, Shutterstock


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