Chernobyl (/tʃɜːrˈnoʊbəl/, UK: /tʃɜːrˈnɒbəl/), also known as Chornobyl (Ukrainian: Чорнобиль, romanized: Chornobyl’), isn’t an easy place to visit. Although it is only a two-hour drive north of Kiev and close to the Belarusian border, access to Chernobyl is tightly controlled and restricted to staff and tour operators. It is a partly abandoned city in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, located in northern Kiev Oblast, Ukraine’s Ivankiv Raion. Before its evacuation, Chernobyl was occupied by 16,000 citizens but is now only populated by Zone administrative workers, some of those involved in the decommissioning of power plants, and locals who declined to leave their homes or returned later.
(Aerial views of Reactor 4 in the immediate aftermath)
The town is notorious for being the location of the first major nuclear power accident in the world. Chernobyl reactor 4 experienced a critical power source on 26th April 1986 and sent radioactive material into the atmosphere. Chernobyl is approximately 90 kilometers (60 mi) north of Kiev, and 160 kilometers (100 mi) southwest of Gomel, Belarus. The Chernobyl power station was arranged at the settlement of Pryp’yat, 10 miles (16 km) northwest of the city of Chernobyl (Ukrainian: Chornobyl) and 65 miles (104 km) north of Kiev, Ukraine. The station comprised of 4 reactors, each fit for delivering 1,000 megawatts of electric force; it had come online in 1977–83.
On 5th May 1986, Chernobyl was evacuated nine days after a disastrous nuclear accident at the site, which was the biggest nuclear disaster in history. Together with the inhabitants of the neighboring town of Pripyat, which was built as a refuge for the workers of the factory, the community was moved to the newly established town of Slavutych and most have never returned. The surrounding area was contaminated, including the cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat. This area is termed the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
The catastrophe started during a system test at Chernobyl plant reactor number four. Staff shut down the power-regulating system of the reactor and its emergency protection systems and removed most of the control rods from its core while allowing the reactor to continue to operate at 7 percent capacity. These mistakes were compounded by others, and at 1:23 AM on April 26 the chain reaction within the core went out of control. The resulting fire sent a plume of highly radioactive smoke into the atmosphere and over an in-depth geographic area. The plume began to spread across most of the Western Soviet Union and Europe. According to official post-Soviet data, about 60 percent of Belarus’ radioactive waste fell.
The level of contamination with caesium-137 was around 555 kBq/m2 (surface ground deposition in 1986). In 1998, average doses of caesium-137 from the accident (estimated at 1-2 mSv per year) did not surpass those of other exposure sources. Current effective dose concentrations for caesium-137 as of 2019 are 200-250 nSv/h, or around 1.7-2.2 mSv per annum, which is equivalent to the normal background radiation from natural sources worldwide.
(Map exclusion zone nuclear power station at Chernobyl)
The entire area was evacuated within days of the explosion. Many acres of forest and farmland were contaminated, and, although many thousands of individuals were evacuated, many thousands more remained in contaminated areas. Moreover, several livestock were born deformed in subsequent years, and in the long run, several thousand radiation-induced diseases and cancer deaths were predicted among humans. The city has become overgrown and is home to many forms of animals. According to statistics from the census gathered over a prolonged period of time, it is estimated that more animals are now living there than they were before the catastrophe.
Most tour groups visit Chernobyl and Pripyat (the city built for the facility plant workers). Chernobyl continues to be inhabited by clean-up workers and offers two hotels and a restaurant, bar, and little shop. Although Chernobyl is largely a ghost town today, there still lives a small number of people, in houses marked with signs that read, “Owner of this house lives here”, and a small number of animals still live there. After the disaster, the Soviet Union formed a circle-shaped exclusion zone based on the nuclear power plant, with a radius of around 18.6 miles (30 km).
During the Second World War, from 25 August 1941 until 17 November 1943 Chernobyl was occupied by the German Army. During the Holocaust, the Jewish community was massacred. City streets can be walked but entry into abandoned buildings is not permitted due to security concerns. The exclusion zone covered a locality of about 1,017 square miles (2,634 square km) around the plant. It was later extended to 1,600 square miles (4,143 square km) to include heavily radiated areas beyond the initial region, however.
The abandoned cities are a clear reminder of how nature, as humans leave, can reclaim the land. Although no individuals actually reside in the exclusion zone, scientists, scavengers, and others can apply for permits to allow them to enter for a limited amount of time.