What Chernobyl Looks Like Today, Over 30 Years After The Explosion

It has been over thirty years since Reaccto Four in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant overheated and exploded on April 26, 1986. The city is still dealing with the ramifications of the disaster. The nearby city of Pripyat was evacuated and many were left dead or seriously ill. It’s still highly dangerous to be in Chernobyl and the city is still uninhabited.

These photographers were able to go to Chernobyl for a short time to capture on film what’s left of this ghost town.

Soviet Doctors Overreacted Because They Were Afraid

chernobyl 18
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

It’s been widely publicized that the Soviet Union severely under-reacted when news of the disaster first broke. While this is true, they swung in the opposite direction later on when it came to health concerns.

Doctors feared that the radiation could have disastrous effects on Chernobyl’s population. Some doctors even forced women to have abortions because they were afraid that their babies would have severe birth defects. They thought that a generation of people with birth defects would leave a lasting impression of the Soviets as failures.

The Cleanup Caused More Damage

chernobyl 30
Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images
Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images

You would think that the initial explosion was the most devastating event of the nuclear disaster, however, the cleanup following the explosion actually caused more damage. Only two plant operators died in the initial blast. Twenty-six workers died during the cleanup.

Those who helped in the aftermath of the explosion knew that they would likely die as a result of their actions, but they decided to step up and help anyway. They are regarded as heroes who prevented worldwide destruction.

Ukraine Opened To Tourists In 2011

chernobyl 17
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

It’s still not safe to live in Chernobyl, but because people are interested in the disaster, and because enough time had passed, Ukraine decided to start allowing specially organized tours to visit the affected area in 2011. The tours are run out of Kyiv and have to follow a strict set of rules.

In this photo you can see one of the tourists feeding a wild fox who moved into the area after it was abandoned.

The Cleanup Isn’t Over

chernobyl 21
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The cleanup that happened in the aftermath of the explosion is technically still ongoing. Immediately after the reactor exploded, workers installed a protective “shell” around the site, but that shell wasn’t a permanent solution.

The shell is made out of sand, lead, and boron that was dropped onto the reactor. A concrete shell was then poured on top of those materials. The concrete is now starting to crack. In 2016, Ukraine began constructing a new shell, but they admit that the zone will not be completely cleaned up until about 2065.

The Children Who Lived In The Region Are Still Dealing With The After-Effects

chernobyl 15
Andreas Jansen/Barcroft Images/Getty Images
Andreas Jansen/Barcroft Images/Getty Images

Some people are still dealing with the physical effects of being exposed to high levels of radiation. People who were children at the time of the explosion in Chernobyl are just now starting to see higher rates of diseases such as thyroid cancer. It turns out that people who were children in Chernobyl at the time of the incident have ten times the normal rate for thyroid cancer.

Around the disaster area, nearly 6,000 children are born every year with genetic heart defects.

Nobody Can Live There For Another 20,000 Years

chernobyl 20
Andreas Jansen/Barcroft Images/Getty Images
Andreas Jansen/Barcroft Images/Getty Images

Wildlife may be thriving in the area surrounding the remains of the reactor, but that doesn’t mean that it’s safe for humans to move back in yet. Ukrainian scientists have estimated that the lands around the Chernobyl Power Plant won’t be safe to inhabit for another 20,000 years. Some scientists think that 20,000 is too generous of an estimate and it may be closer to 30,000 years.

There have even been restrictions about how close to the zone you can hunt and fish in Ukraine.

Taking A Big Risk

chernobyl-disaster-3
Oleg Pereverzev/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Oleg Pereverzev/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In this photo, you can see an abandoned building that has been taken over by the slow re-growth of mother nature. Trees have even begun to sprout in the building even though that floor is made out of solid concrete.

Though the native foliage is growing back slowly, there is still concern over the possibility of forest fires which could spread rapidly over a radioactive zone. Fire officials keep a close eye on Chernobyl for this reason.

The Effects Of Radioactive Iodine

chernobyl 19
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

It wasn’t the fire that took the lives of the plant workers, but radioactive iodine. After the explosion, the few plant workers who survived the blast recall seeing a strange, blue light around the reactor. The light was a result of ionization of the air.

Since the iodine was floating throughout the zone, workers could breathe it in and it would build up in the thyroid gland. That’s why thyroid cancer is a big concern for Chernobyl survivors.

Chernobyl As A Movie Set

chernobyl 25
Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Chernobyl looks like an apocalyptic cityscape now. It’s a run-down ghost town, which makes it the perfect setting for some very scary movies. One horror film from 2012, Chernobyl Diaries, is set in Pripyat and follows a tour group that gets stranded and has to deal with mutant monsters.

Chernobyl has also been featured as a destination in films like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Live Free Die Hard. In 2019, a series about the Chernobyl incident was released on HBO.

Around 100 People Still Live There

chernobyl 10
Khan Balc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Khan Balc/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Believe it or not, even though most authorities consider Chernobyl to be uninhabitable, around 100 people still live in the area. Some women and families chose to return to their villages in or around the Chernobyl contamination area after the meltdown in 1986. Around 1000 people moved back to the area after the disaster, most of them being older women.

They refused to leave their homes and many of them died as a result. Around 100 of them have managed to fight off the radiation in their bodies.

Pripyat Was Entirely Evacuated

chernobyl 2
Vitaliy Holovin/Corbis/Getty Images
Vitaliy Holovin/Corbis/Getty Images

The city of Pripyat, Ukraine, was built just to house the workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The workers and their families totaled more than 49,000 and the Soviet Union town would be considered similar to a coal mining town in America.

The city was originally meant to be much smaller, but at the time of the disaster, it included fifteen elementary schools, one hospital, ten different gyms, and three indoor swimming pools. All of them became abandoned.

One Bad Thing After Another

chernobyl 1
Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Vladimir Shtanko/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

There were problems with the Chernobyl Power Plant leading up to April 26. They failed three different tests to create alternative forms of power to keep a reactor going in case of an issue. Then, on April 26, scientists tried to bring Reactor Four back on track only to have it accidentally surge with power.

The power surge caused a domino effect which in turn created a string of explosions within the reactor. The domino effect was so bad it even reached into Reactor Three.

400 Times Worse Than The Atomic Bomb

chernobyl 6
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

If you’re wondering just how bad the explosion was at the Chernobyl power plant, scientists have estimated it was 400 times worse than the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima.

This metal claw was used to clean up Reactor Four immediately after the disaster and is still extremely radioactive today. It’s so dangerous that they can’t even remove it from the area without contaminating transportation and workers.

A Week-Long Fire

chernobyl 7
Bildagentur-online/UIG/Getty Images
Bildagentur-online/UIG/Getty Images

The fire that came from the nuclear reaction raged outside the factory for more than a week. One of the Soviet Union’s fatal mistakes was bringing in more people to fight the fire. In fact, soldiers from all over the Soviet Union were shipped into Chernobyl without any proper radioactive protection.

The firefighters and soldiers who did arrive to fight the flames were often left with deformed bodies and many died of cancer.

Nuclear Testing In The 1950s Didn’t Help

chernobyl 27
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

While the fallout from the Chernobyl disaster was deadly to the environment, because it was quickly contained in the area and the fire only burned for a week, it wasn’t as bad as most nuclear testing from the 1950s and 1960s.

In fact, some studies have shown that the radiation in the Nevada desert in the United States is just as high from nuclear tests as the area around Chernobyl.

Radiation Reached Ireland

chernobyl 8
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Thanks to the enormous fire that raged for more than a week, huge plumes of radioactive smoke were released into the air and atmosphere. Most of the fallout settled north over Belarus and around Ukraine, but the air currents brought the smoke all across Western Europe.

The fallout from the fire reached as far west as Ireland and there were even reports of nuclear rain in France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.

36 Hours To Actually Evacuate

chernobyl 5
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

An open notebook, beer bottles, and a plate with food can still be seen leftover in an abandoned house. While the blast was alarming and residents of Pripyat knew something was wrong, it took 36 hours before Soviet officials were ready to admit that an evacuation was necessary. Even then, they told residents they would return in a few days so many took only essentials.

Finally, on April 28, officials called for an immediate evacuation of anyone with a 10 km (6.2 miles) radius. As the days passed, the evacuation zone just kept growing.

The Biggest Man-Made Disaster Of All Time

Dolls and a gas mask are left behind in a kindergarten in the ghost town of Pripyat near Chernobyl's nuclear power plant
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

To this day, the Chernobyl disaster remains the worst man-made environmental event of all time. It was the first Level 7 incident on the International Nuclear Event Scale (INES). The only other Level 7 event to occur was the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

Chernobyl remains the worst though because the nuclear fallout and contamination have caused an unknown amount of deaths. In comparison, Fukushima has only been held responsible for one related death.

The City Is Inhabited By Wolves

chernobyl 4
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

The area around Chernobyl might be radioactive and contaminated, but that hasn’t stopped wildlife from returning to the area and overtaking it. Trees and wildlife have overtaken the area, including foxes, moose, beavers, and birds. In fact, wolves now outnumber humans in the area because they’ve been able to flourish without interference.

The return of wildlife to the area has been a fascinating topic for scientists who are still studying how the radioactivity affects the animals.

The Long-Term Killers

chernobyl 12
Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Maxym Marusenko/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Once the initial threat of radioactive iodine was gone, the long-term threat didn’t come from the air, but from the ground. Strontium-90 and Cesium-137 were emitted with the blast and settled on the ground, where livestock ingested it.

Strontium-90 is calcium-based so it is found in milk from the affected area. Cesium-137 is potassium-based and found in the blood and tissue of the animals. People who returned and ate the livestock ended up becoming contaminated as well.

Sweden Told The World

chernobyl 9
Vitaliy Holovin/Corbis/Getty Images
Vitaliy Holovin/Corbis/Getty Images

It’s important to remember that all of this was going on during the Cold War. There was minimal sharing of information between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world. The world didn’t even know about the Chernobyl disaster until days later when the sensors at a Swedish Nuclear plant began to read high levels of radiation.

Sweden sent out an alert to the rest of the world and it didn’t take long for Western scientists to figure out where the reaction originated.

The Elephant’s Foot

chernobyl 22
Scott Peterson/Liaison/Getty Images
Scott Peterson/Liaison/Getty Images

Located below Reactor Four and underneath the sarcophagus today, the “Elephant’s Foot” is the most radioactive area of Chernobyl. The foot is a pile of direct radioactive waste that could not be removed or covered at the time. When the foot was first formed, being exposed to it for just 60 seconds was enough to kill a worker.

Today, officials have decided that 500 seconds is enough time to kill you. The Elephant’s Foot will remain highly radioactive for at least 100,000 years.

The Red Forest

chernobyl 14
Bildagentur-online/UIG/Getty Images
Bildagentur-online/UIG/Getty Images

The environment took a huge hit from the initial radioactive fallout. Many trees in the surrounding area died immediately. One bunch of pine trees that were directly downwind from Reactor Four turned reddish-brown like on an autumn day. The dead bunch of trees earned the nickname the “Red Forest” and had to be bulldozed down.

Even today, trees and fauna in Chernobyl grow substantially slower than trees in the surrounding areas.

The Cover Up Attempt

chernobyl 18
Pyotr Sivkov/TASS/Getty Images
Pyotr Sivkov/TASS/Getty Images

After the Swedish Nuclear Power Plant alerted the rest of the world to the high levels of radiation, the west pressed the Soviet Union for an explanation. The Soviets admitted to the world that there was an accident that had killed two people but they lied and said nothing else was wrong. The Soviet hadn’t even announced the situation to their own people.

It took until May 6 for the Soviets to admit something was wrong because they had to close the schools in Kyiv, the capital city which was more than 65 miles from the plant.

The Power Plant Remained Open

chernobyl 19
Bildagentur-online/UIG/Getty Images
Bildagentur-online/UIG/Getty Images

Believe it or not, the Soviet Union and then Ukraine kept the Chernobyl Power Plant operating all the way up until 2000. They simply covered Reactor Four with a protective “shell” and continued working.

Anyone working at the plant had to follow strict labor laws and were monitored by international advocacy groups. If you were a worker on site at the power plant, you could only work five hours a day for one month, and then you have to take a mandatory 15 days off.

The Safety System Was Turned Off

chernobyl 22
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The series of unfortunate events that led up to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster might have been avoided if the power plant had their safety system functioning properly. Each of the reactors were set up with an emergency core cooling system which stops the nuclear debris from overheating and, in turn, surging with power.

If that system hadn’t been turned off unnecessarily for the test, then the meltdown might have been avoided.

The Blast Might Have Helped In The Long Run

chernobyl 20
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images
SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

While the cancer rates from the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl increased after the disaster, some doctors and scientists have argued that it helped in the long run by evacuating the area. Cancer-related deaths had been increasing in the area for years leading up to 1986, largely due to background radiation.

By evacuating such a large area, many scientists believe that in the long run, fewer people have ended up with cancer.

Insects Can’t Stand Chernobyl

chernobyl 21
Scott Peterson/Liaison/Getty Images
Scott Peterson/Liaison/Getty Images

Even though wildlife and fauna have returned to Pripyat and Chernobyl to create a home, spiders and insects have stayed away. Scientists and biologists are not sure why these animals specifically have chosen to remain outside the area, but anyone who has read Spiderman knows radioactive spiders aren’t what anyone needs right now.

Birds also tend to stay away from the nuclear zone and the ones that have remained have shown smaller than average brains and wingspans.

Belarus Got The Worst Of It

chernobyl 24
Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Even though Pripyat and the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant are located in Ukraine, Belarus got the worst amount of contamination. Pripyat is close to the border of Belarus, and the winds at the time meant most of the radioactive smoke blew north towards Belarus rather than south into the rest of Ukraine.

It was estimated that 70% fo the radioactive material landed in Belorussian fields. This might also explain why Sweden was the first to notice the radioactive readings.

The Financial Cost Ruined The Soviet Union

chernobyl 16
Andreas Jansen/Barcroft Images/Getty Images)
Andreas Jansen/Barcroft Images/Getty Images)

There were a lot of reasons why the Soviet Union eventually fell apart in 1991, but some economists believe that the $18 billion USD spent at the time harmed the country so badly it couldn’t turn back. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $41 billion USD today.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said this money was spent just containing the zone, and that health costs were not factored in. Even today, Ukraine sets aside 5-7% of their government spending on Chernobyl-related reasons.

The Psychological Toll

chernobyl 30
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Analysts have also argued that the moral costs of the Chernobyl disaster greatly affected the Soviet Union. Many think because they lied for so long to the public about the disaster, that the younger generation began to lose faith in the system and turn against the leadership.

Depression and thoughts of suicide were also side effects for those directly affected by the Chernobyl disaster, largely in part due to illness and being uprooted from their homes.

The United Nations Came Together

chernobyl-disaster-5
Andreas Jansen / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Andreas Jansen / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

This abandoned building is yet another casualty from the disaster of over 30 years ago. Since news broke around the world, many charities have come together to bring relief by the citizens who were affected.

The United Nations, for example, launched the Chernobyl Recovery and Development Programme in 2003. Their main goal was to support the Government of Ukraine in alleviating the consequences of the disaster in the surrounding areas.

Children Are Still Suffering

chernobyl-disaster-4
Andreas Jansen / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Andreas Jansen / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

This is the aftermath of what the disaster wreaked on a child’s bedroom in Pripyat. Many years later it remains untouched, leaving many to wonder about the fate of this poor child.

The United Nations also supported the non-profit Chernobyl Children International. They work with families who are still affected by the economic outcome of the incident by offering medical and humanitarian aid. This organization was founded by Irish activist Adi Roche.

Taking The Radiation Contaminated Structures Down

chernobyl-disaster-2
Oleg Pereverzev/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Oleg Pereverzev/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This memorial was erected to commemorate the liquidators of the shelter and containment area built over the fourth block. One charity that has been working to create safe conditions for dismantling radioactive structures is the Chernobyl Shelter Fund.

Set up in 1997, it was projected to take up to nine years and cost up to $768 million USD. But it was meant to create a stable and safe shelter system for at least 100 years.

A Worker Remains Entombed

chernobyl-disaster-1
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

These tourists are taking photos of a memorial set up in the honor of Valery Khodemchuk. Khodemchuck worked as a circulating pump operator and was killed in the accident at reactor four. In fact, his body remained entombed inside the reactor four site.

His life was just one of many sacrifices made in the accident that day. This way he will certainly not be forgotten for the unfair way that his life had to end.

Looking Back

chernobyl-disaster-6
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The effects of the Chernobyl disaster are most evident in Pripyat’s main square. It was the site of the city’s Polissya hotel before the accident happened. Now it is overgrown with trees and shrubs where flowers used to grow.

Before the disaster, Pripyat had a population of 49,400 people who averaged about 26 years old. It was clear that they were a community that had a lot of potential to grow into something great.

The Abandoned Culture Center

chernobyl-disaster-7
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

This used to be the auditorium of the Energetika cultural center that stood in Pripyat. It is now a damp and abandoned building that is home to collapsed ceilings and rotting wooden chairs that probably used to seat hundreds of audience members during shows.

The Palace of Culture Energetik was built during the ’70s and was meant to bring rich arts and culture to the citizens of Pripyat. Now it is a complete ghost town.

Schoolbooks Are Left In Their Places

chernobyl-disaster-8
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Schoolbooks still remain disheveled on shelves in an abandoned classroom at School Number 3 in Pripyat. It truly shows how life was put to an abrupt stop for the citizens of this unsuspecting city.

There were almost 5,000 students of kindergarten age and 6,786 students in secondary school at the time of the accident. Sadly, many of those bright futures met their incredibly dim end at the hands of an intense explosion.

Ivan Lives As Normal

chernobyl-disaster-9
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As you’ve previously read, many elderly folk have chosen to return to their homes inside the Exclusion Zone. 80-year-old Ivan Semenyuk is one such citizen. He returned to his home in the village of Parushev with his wife Marya.

Ivan forages for mushrooms in the forest, which he is putting in the oven to dry. He also raises chickens and grows corn, beets, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and pumpkins. He is one of the few people in Parushev, where 600 people used to live.

The Workers Left Behind

chernobyl-disaster-10
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

These are small dosimeters left scattered and inoperable on the ground in Pripyat. The dosimeters measure radiation dosage and they were used by the workers that were sent to clean up the aftermath of the accident.

These scattered devices evidence how dangerous these clean-up efforts were, as it was noted that more people lost their lives from clean-up than the explosion itself. These are similar to the devices given to tourists who visit Chernobyl.