What Is Chernobyl Like Today?

A ferris wheel stopped for eternity, abandoned toys and school books, empty gymnasiums and swimming pools with peeling paint—eerie images from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster still haunt us 30 years later. What is the area like today?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #339

Eerie images from the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster still haunt us 30 years later. What is Chernobyl like today?

On April 26, 1986, a safety test gone wrong led to an explosion in reactor #4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine. (At the time, Pripyat was part of the USSR.) Several factors then conspired to result in an unprecedented, widespread scattering of over 100 radioactive elements into the surrounding towns and cities.

First off, RBMK reactors, like the ones at Chernobyl, don’t have containment structures like concrete and steel domes. Second, the fire resulting from the explosion burned for almost ten days and further destroyed the building surrounding the reactor. And finally, once air was able to enter the core of the reactor, graphite blocks, meant to moderate reactions in a working reactor, also caught fire.

In the hours, days, and weeks after the explosion, radioactive elements including plutonium, iodine, strontium, and caesium contaminated a region of roughly 150,000 square kilometers in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine. Carried by the wind, these elements were later detected as far away as Sweden and Finland and across the northern hemisphere. 

Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone 

The entire population of Pripyat, home to about 50,000 people and only three kilometers (about 1.8 miles) away, was evacuated. But the evacuation didn't happen until 36 hours after the explosion. Many didn't understand the magnitude of the disaster and thought they’d only be gone for a few days. They were not permitted to bring many belongings, including family pets, for fear of contamination. Their hasty exit left a town that today appears frozen in time: a doll lying atop rusted playground equipment, supermarkets taken over by nature, and a ferris wheel stopped for good. 

Their hasty exit left a town that today appears frozen in time: a doll lying atop rusted playground equipment, supermarkets taken over by nature, and a ferris wheel stopped for good.

In the weeks and months that followed the explosion, an estimated 120,000 to 200,000 people in total were evacuated across a region known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which covers everything within a 30 kilometer radius of the site, or roughly 1000 square miles. 

The region is expected to remain uninhabitable for thousands of years. Many of the radioactive elements decayed quickly, but the most dangerous—iodine-131, strontium-90, and cesium-137—have half-lives of 8 days, 29 years, and 30 years, respectively. In chemistry, the definition of a half-life says that this means it will take 30 years for half of the initial cesium to decay. Then, it will take another 30 years for half of what you had left at the 30-year mark to decay. But in studying Chernobyl, scientists have learned that the “ecological half-life” of cesium—that’s how long it takes for the element to actually disappear from the local environment—is turning out to be much longer. While contamination in the water supply has improved, the levels of radioactivity in the soil remain higher than the 30-year half-life would predict. 

Health effects of Chernobyl

Two workers died due to the initial explosion and 28 of the first responders, including firefighters and a clean-up crew, died soon after from acute radiation sickness. The continued health effects are (and will continue to be) significant, although to what extent is less clear. Greenpeace estimates that as many as 270,000 people will develop cancer related to the nuclear disaster with nearly 100,000 of those cases being fatal.  

The thyroid gland in children is especially vulnerable to absorption of radioactive iodine, one of the isotopes released in the disaster. A study by the National Institute of Health found that the rate of thyroid cancers for people who were exposed to the radioactive fallout as children and adolescents has yet to see a decline. 

The forced and fast evacuation, the loss of community, the stigma associated with being an “exposed person,” and a lack of reliable information have led to extensive psychological consequences as well.

Who is in Chernobyl today?

The Clean Futures Fund says that 3500 workers are in the area daily to monitor radiation and continue the clean up and maintenance of the reactor site. You can also visit on guided tours of the Exclusion Zone. Many of these tours leave from Kiev, where guides are said to be trained to avoid hot spots. The tours are considered safe since the exposure to radiation is minimal over a short amount of time. (Remember, we’re exposed to similarly low levels of radiation while flying in an airplane or getting an X-ray.) There is also a culture of young people in Kiev known as stalkers who sneak into the zone to take instagrammable photos. And others still have returned to their homes in an effort to preserve their way of life. For those who are curious, National Geographic has a video of a visit to the Exclusion Zone. 

Chernobyl a wildlife Sanctuary

In the absence of the majority of the humans that once populated the city, Chernobyl has also become somewhat of a wildlife sanctuary. Animal residents include dogs, foxes, and wolves. The dogs in the area have proven particularly resilient. Now, there are hundreds of stray dogs that are descendants of those once abandoned pets. The SPCAI estimates 250 dogs live at the plant itself, 225 live in the city of Chernobyl, and hundreds more are found across the exclusion zone for a total of over 1000 dogs.

The majority of the dogs are young.The lifespan for a dog in Chernobyl is only four years. But their main threat now is not radiation but the cold. It gets well below freezing in the winter. An organization called the Dogs of Chernobyl has begun to use these dogs to study the area. They capture the pups, vaccinate them, check their radiation levels, and then release them wearing special collars to help with mapping radiation levels across the Exclusion Zone. Some of the dogs are even up for adoption ... once they're cleansed of radioactive dust, of course. 

The lifespan for a dog in Chernobyl is only four years. But their main threat now is not radiation but the cold.

Other wildlife in Chernobyl has allowed for the study of health effects of prolonged exposure to the radiation in the region. Studies have shown, for example, an increased instance of cataracts in wolves and higher than normal levels of albinism in birds.

The sarcophagus 

In the months following the explosion, very brave people knowingly exposed themselves to radiation and worked to contain the radiation and prevent it from further seeping into the soil, encountering the water supply, and being carried away by the wind.  These people were known as liquidators. An estimated 600,000 liquidators, included plant workers, firefighters, soldiers, and miners from across Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, worked in this effort. Part of this work included building a steel and concrete structure, known as the sarcophagus, around the reactor. The sarcophagus serves to contain the radiation and to protect the damaged reactor from further exposure to the elements. 

The sarcophagus was meant to last 30 years which, if you’re doing the math, are already up. A new containment shield, the largest movable steel structure ever built, was constructed in 2016 and now sits over the entire power plant. Workers still enter it, mostly to monitor the radiation levels, but also to remove the old sarcophagus and the remaining nuclear fuel. 

As noted by engineering professor Roger Socolow, the Chernobyl clean up is not just the work of the heroic first responders, but also of their descendants and their descendant’s descendants. More than 30 years later, we still have a lot to learn about the impact of the Chernobyl reactor explosion.


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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.