Chernobyl today remains an “exclusion zone,” and photos have captured the eerie scene of lives interrupted. A teddy bar lies amidst the debris of time and neglect; the looming and now decaying Soviet-era apartment high rises still stand like lonely sentinels to a time and disaster past.
This is Chernobyl now. You can see photos of the disaster site throughout this article. When the reactor blew in 1986, as is shown in the HBO series Chernobyl, the government evacuated 350,000 people from an “exclusion zone” erected around the plant. Today, that area remains a ghost town.
The town of Pripyat is a particularly eerie site today; it was the community where a lot of the workers lived near the nuclear plant. Photos show children’s shoes mixed with the detritus of time and abandonment.
According to Inverse, though, wildlife returned to the radiation-tainted area; “brown bears, bisons, wolves, lynxes, Przewalski horses, and more than 200 bird species,” are among those creatures living in the exclusion zone today, reports Inverse.
Some of the characters featured in the Chernobyl series on HBO were real people (like the firefighter Vasily Ignatenko, the scientist Valery Legasov, and the government minister Boris Shcherbina who bands together with him). Others, like Emily Watson’s scientist character Ulana Khomyuk, are compilations of real people.
The show was drawn in part from Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster.
How many people died at Chernobyl? That’s under dispute. It’s clear that about 30 people died as a result of the disaster either immediately or soon thereafter. What’s less clear, though, is how many people suffered after-effects from the radiation that wafted into the air and throughout eastern Europe.
Some counts put the death toll in the thousands, but others dispute that. You can read an analysis of the death toll at Chernobyl here.
Today, there are two exclusion zones, according to USA Today. One is in Ukraine and the other in Belarus. Only scientists travel to the zone in Belarus because, the newspaper notes, the government doesn’t allow journalists to go there.
“Both are wild radioactive kingdoms that seem healthy and ordinary to the naked eye,” says USA Today, which adds that the soil is contaminated.
Today, some people – known as “stalkers” – go into the exclusion zone because they like the peace and quiet, the newspaper reports (and in the early days criminals went there to hide as well.) About 10,000 abandoned apartments remain in the area, according to the newspaper.
Today, it’s possible to take tours to Pripyat. However, Chernobyl is not completely safe today. USA Today reports that radiation levels have dropped but there remains radiation in the disaster zone.
Planet D reports that the exclusion zone today occupies a “30 kilometer radius around the reactor.” The “stalkers” form a subculture within it, the site reports.
How much radiation do people on tours get exposed to? According to Planet D, not much.
The radiation people get on a “typical tour of Chernobyl is less than the average dose to a passenger on a flight from Kiev to Toronto,” the site claims.
The reactor was encased in a concrete sarcophagus.
Other than the stalkers, about 100 people known as “self-settlers” have returned or never left the exclusion zone because they refused to abandon their homes, according to Green Global Travel. In addition, there are still workers living in the area involved in the ongoing clean-up efforts, even today.
According to Green Global Travel, it’s safest to visit Chernobyl in the winter because the weather makes it less likely to have contact with radiation-tainted soil.
In addition to the wildlife, nature is doing its thing and reviving within the exclusion zone.
If you want to visit Chernobyl, you will have to follow the rules and regulations put forth by the Ukrainian government.
Among them: Taking photographs in certain places, taking things from the exclusion zone, and drinking alcohol. “The radiation levels in the zone have significantly decreased since the accident, but it still remains a polluted place where the most of buildings are in an emergency condition. Therefore, we urge you to remain in a sober, adequate state during your visit,” the government advises.
Picnics, sleeping in tents, and other areas that bring people in contact with the ground should be avoided, the government says.
“Probably many of you have heard that all the cities and villages of the exclusion zone were washed off after the accident, in the direct sense of the word: with application of detergent, clearance, and then washing with water. The ground, on which this water drowned, absorbed all radionuclides,” the advisement reads. “That is why the level of radiation near the earth is higher than at the height of your growth. In view of this, it is better to refrain from wishing to sit down to have a rest in the shade of the Pripyat trees.”
People aren’t supposed to take items from the exclusion zone in part because they are still contaminated with radiation. That’s even true, the government says, of toys.
“A baby toy or old photo, which you may like so much thinking it would remind you of this trip, can be highly contaminated. In addition, we do emphasize that bringing ‘artifacts’ from the Zone is not only dangerous, but also illegal! As a result, by this act you contribute to the distribution of radionuclides across the territory of Ukraine.”
Although tourists are allowed to go there, be aware that there is still radiation there, and will likely be so for another 20,000 years.
The levels are high enough that workers are limited in how many hours they can work at Chernobyl – five hours a day and then 15 days of rest after a month’s work, according to Manchester Evening News.
“The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that occurred on 26 April 1986 was the most serious accident ever to occur in the nuclear power industry,” says the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation.
According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “The Chernobyl accident’s severe radiation effects killed 28 of the site’s 600 workers in the first four months after the event. Another 106 workers received high enough doses to cause acute radiation sickness. Two workers died within hours of the reactor explosion from non-radiological causes. Another 200,000 cleanup workers in 1986 and 1987 received doses of between 1 and 100 rem (The average annual radiation dose for a U.S. citizen is about .6 rem).”
In 1986, almost 50,000 people lived in Pripyat, the closest town to the Chernobyl plant. There was also a nearby town called Chornobyl, population 12,000, according to Live Science.
How does this compare to other nuclear incidents? To give you a sense of it, more than 100,000 people died immediately when nuclear bombs hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A 2006 study called Estimates of the cancer burden in Europe from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident found that “the Chernobyl accident, which occurred April 26, 1986, resulted in a large release of radionuclides, which were deposited over a very wide area, particularly in Europe. Although an increased risk of thyroid cancer in exposed children has been clearly demonstrated in the most contaminated regions, the impact of the accident on the risk of other cancers as well as elsewhere in Europe is less clear.”