On April 26, 1986, the world experienced one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located near the town of Pripyat in what was then the Soviet Union (now Ukraine), was the site of an immense explosion that released large amounts of radioactive particles into the atmosphere. The reactor number 4 of the plant suffered a catastrophic meltdown during a safety test, which eventually led to an explosion and a fire that emitted a plume of radioactivity that spread over much of Europe.
The immediate aftermath of the disaster was horrifying. Two plant workers died on the night of the explosion and 28 more people died within a few weeks due to acute radiation poisoning. The nearby town of Pripyat, home to many of the plant’s workers and their families, was evacuated. It is estimated that thousands of cases of thyroid cancer and other illnesses are linked to the radioactive contamination from the incident.
The Chernobyl disaster has had lasting effects on the environment and on human health. The area surrounding the power plant, known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, was contaminated with radioactive particles, and a 1,000-square-mile area was deemed uninhabitable. This region has remained largely deserted, though some people did return to live in the villages despite the government orders.
How radioactive is Chernobyl today?
Fast forward to the present day, and Chernobyl still bears the scars of its past. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone remains contaminated, but the levels of radioactivity have diminished over the years. There is a significant variation in the levels of radiation within the Zone, with some areas being relatively safe, while others are highly radioactive.
Initially, the Soviet Union constructed a concrete sarcophagus, called the Object Shelter or simply “the sarcophagus,” to contain the radioactive materials from the damaged reactor. In 2016, a massive steel structure named the New Safe Confinement was placed over the original sarcophagus to further contain the radiation and prevent its release into the atmosphere. This new structure is expected to last at least 100 years.
Inside the New Safe Confinement, radiation levels are extremely high, but outside, the levels have decreased. That being said, the radioactivity in the soil in certain areas remains high due to isotopes like cesium-137 and strontium-90, which have half-lives of about 30 years and continue to emit radiation.
The Exclusion Zone is divided into different areas based on the levels of radioactivity. The area in the immediate vicinity of the reactor is known as the 10-kilometer zone and has the highest radiation levels. Beyond that, there is a 30-kilometer zone where the levels of radiation are lower but still considered to be unsafe for long-term human habitation.
Interestingly, despite the radioactivity, the Exclusion Zone has become a haven for wildlife. With humans absent, animals such as wolves, deer, and even endangered species like the European bison have thrived.
What happens if you go to Chernobyl now?
In recent years, Chernobyl has become a destination for curious tourists and researchers. The Ukrainian government allows guided tours into certain areas of the Exclusion Zone, including the town of Pripyat. However, visiting Chernobyl is not without its risks and regulations.
Upon entering the Exclusion Zone, tourists are required to wear protective clothing and carry a dosimeter to measure radiation exposure. The tours are designed to minimize exposure by avoiding the most contaminated areas, and by limiting the amount of time spent in the Zone.
In the town of Pripyat, visitors can see the remnants of a once-thriving community, now abandoned and overgrown. Buildings, schools, and even an amusement park stand as eerie reminders of the disaster. Radiation levels in Pripyat are higher than normal background levels, but lower than the area immediately around the reactor.
If you were to wander off the designated paths or enter buildings, you might encounter areas with higher levels of radiation. Spending extended time in such areas could result in receiving a dose of radiation higher than what is considered safe. Staying overnight or for extended periods is strongly discouraged and is generally not permitted.
For the more daring, there are multiple-day tours available, where accommodation is provided in designated lodgings with lower radiation levels. However, these are exceptions, and long-term stays are still inadvisable. Keep in mind, since February 19th, 2022, these tours have been suspended indefinitely due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Interestingly, a small number of people, mostly elderly, chose to return to their homes in the outer parts of the Exclusion Zone after the disaster. These people, known as “self-settlers,” have been living there for decades despite the risks.
How long will Chernobyl be radioactive for?
The radioactivity in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone will persist for thousands of years, but the levels will continue to decline over time due to the natural decay of radioactive isotopes.
Cesium-137, one of the primary isotopes released during the disaster, has a half-life of about 30 years. It’s expected to be a hazard for at least several centuries. Strontium-90, also with a half-life close to 30 years, is in the same category. However, Plutonium-239, another isotope released, has a half-life of over 24,000 years, and will pose a risk for tens of thousands of years.
Different parts of the Exclusion Zone will be habitable at different times. The 30-kilometer zone is likely to be habitable sooner than the 10-kilometer zone around the reactor. However, given the complex nature of radioactivity and the environmental contamination, it is hard to predict exact timeframes.
The area immediately surrounding the reactor will likely remain uninhabitable for thousands of years. For the larger Exclusion Zone, it might take a few hundred years before radiation levels are low enough for safe, long-term human habitation.
Chernobyl stands as a reminder of the potential consequences of nuclear power when things go awry. Though its radioactivity is declining, its legacy will endure for generations to come.