What is Chernobyl?


Chernobyl, also called Chornobyl (Ukrainian: Чорнобиль), is the name of a city situated in northern Ukraine near the border with Belarus. Chernobyl was largely abandoned following the disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant located 14.5 kilometres (9 miles) away. Ukraine was part of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) on the 26th April 1986 when the disaster occurred.

The City is now within the 30Km Exclusion Zone that surrounds the Nuclear Power Plant. Before its evacuation Chernobyl was inhabited by 16,000 people but is now populated only by Zone administrative personnel, some of those involved in decommissioning the power plants and residents who refused to leave their homes or subsequently returned.

Chernobyl, 2010

What is the Chernobyl Disaster?

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster began in the early hours of Saturday 26 April 1986 within the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. An explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, which spread over much of Western USSR and Europe. It is considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history and is one of only two classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the other being the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011).

Aerial views of Reactor Four in the immediate aftermath (photos © 2020 ChNPP).

The disaster began during a systems test at reactor number four of the Chernobyl plant. There was a sudden surge of power output, and when an emergency shutdown was attempted a more extreme spike in power output occurred, which led a reactor vessel to rupture and a series of explosions. These events exposed the graphite moderator of the reactor to air, causing it to ignite. The resulting fire sent a plume of highly radioactive smoke into the atmosphere and over an extensive geographical area. The plume went on to drift over large parts of the western Soviet Union and Europe. According to official post-Soviet data about 60% of the radioactive fallout landed in Belarus.

Increased radiation dose across Europe
Increased radiation dose across Europe.

The battle to contain the contamination and avert a greater catastrophe ultimately involved over 500,000 workers, known as liquidators,  and cost an estimated 18 billion Rubles.

Only after the level of radiation set off alarms at the Forsmark Nuclear Power Plant in Sweden, over one thousand kilometres from the Chernobyl Plant, did the Soviet Union publicly admit that an accident had occurred. The true scale of the disaster was concealed. After evacuating the nearby city of Pripyat, the following warning message was read on state TV:

“There has been an accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. One of the nuclear reactors was damaged. The effects of the accident are being remedied. Assistance has been provided to any affected people. An investigative commission has been set up.”

28 April 1986, 21:00

From 1986 to 2000, over 350,000 people were evacuated and resettled from the most severely contaminated areas of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.

Thirty-one deaths are directly attributed to the accident, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers.
Estimates of the number of deaths potentially resulting from the accident vary enormously. A UNSCEAR report places the total confirmed deaths from radiation at 64 as of 2008. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests it could reach 4,000 civilian deaths, a figure which does not include military clean-up worker casualties. A 2006 report predicted 30,000 to 60,000 cancer deaths as a result of Chernobyl fallout. A Greenpeace report puts this figure at 200,000 or more. The Russian publication, Chernobyl, concludes that 985,000 premature cancer deaths occurred worldwide between 1986 and 2004 as a result of radioactive contamination from Chernobyl.

“Nearly 400 million people resided in territories that were contaminated with radioactivity at a level higher than 4 kBq/m2 (0.11 Ci/km2) from April to July 1986. Nearly 5 million people (including, more than 1 million children) still live with dangerous levels of radioactive contamination in Belarus, Ukraine, and European Russia.”

Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment (PDF; 4,3 MB) 2009

A massive concrete and metal structure, a sarcophagus, was hastily constructed to encase Unit 4 as an emergency measure to halt the release of radiation into the atmosphere following the 1986 disaster.

Can I visit Chernobyl and Pripyat?

Yes. Although visitor numbers had been growing steadily, since HBO’s miniseries “Chernobyl” aired on May 6 2019, there has been a spike in visitor numbers. Kyiv’s tourism board expected 100,000 visitors to Chernobyl by the end of 2019, compared to the 70,000 in 2018 and 8,000 in 2015. The Exclusion Zone was officially re-opened to tourists in 2011. Numerous tour companies offer day trips from Kiev or longer stays of up-to 4 nights.

Is it safe to visit Chernobyl and Pripyat now?

Although levels of radiation in Pripyat, Chernobyl and the surrounding area are higher than normal, it is generally safe for the short time you will be exposed. Further information is available on the levels of radiation in Pripyat and Chernobyl now.

Buildings, having now sat empty for many decades, can also pose a risk. Middle School 1 has already partially collapsed. Care should therefore be taken when entering any building.

What is Pripyat?

Named after the nearby Pripyat River, Pripyat was founded on 4 February 1970 in northern Ukraine which was then part of the Soviet Union. It was built to house the employees of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plants located 4 kilometres away and became the ninth nuclear city in the Soviet Union. Pripyat was officially proclaimed a city in 1979 and had a population of roughly 49,400 prior to being evacuated on the 27 April 1986 following the disaster at Reactor Number 4 the day before. Pripyat now lies within the Exclusion Zone and remains uninhabited due to the high levels of radiation.

Panorama of central Pripyat
Panorama of central Pripyat, spring 1983. The faint outline of the Nuclear Power Plant under construction in the background. © chornobyl.in.ua

Along with being home to the nuclear power plant’s employees, Pripyat also became a major railroad and river cargo port. It was a young and prosperous city with the average age of the population approximately 26 years old.

  • Accommodation: 13,414 apartments in 160 apartment blocks, 18 halls of residence accommodating up to 7,621 single males or females, and 8 halls of residence for those married or couples. Total area of living space, 658,700 m2.
  • Education: 15 primary schools for about 5,000 children, 5 secondary schools, 1 professional school.
  • Healthcare: 1 hospital that could accommodate up to 410 patients, and 3 clinics.
  • Trade: 25 stores and malls; 27 cafes, cafeterias and restaurants capable of serving up to 5,535 customers simultaneously. 10 warehouses with a capacity of 4,430 tons of goods.
  • Culture: a culture palace, a cinema and a school of arts, with 8 different societies.
  • Sports: 10 gyms, 3 indoor swimming-pools, 10 shooting galleries, 2 stadiums.
  • Recreation: 1 park, 35 playgrounds, 18,136 trees, 249,247 shrubs, 33,000 rose plants.
  • Industry: 4 factories with total annual turnover of 477,000,000 rubles. 1 nuclear power plant complex.
  • Transportation: Yanov railway station, 167 urban buses, the nuclear power plant car park had 400 spaces.
  • Telecommunication: 2,926 local phones managed by the Pripyat Phone Company, plus 1,950 phones owned by Chernobyl power station’s administration, Jupiter plant and Department of Architecture and Urban Development.

How far is Pripyat from Chernobyl?

The city of Pripyat is located just over 2.5km (1.5 miles) from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant (ChNPP) and 20km (12.4 miles) from the City of Chernobyl.

The evacuation of Pripyat

The population of Pripyat, over 49,000 people, were not immediately evacuated after the explosion at the nuclear power plant in the early hours of Saturday the 26th April 1986. The majority of people, unaware of the explosion or its scale, went about their usual business the following day. Weddings were held, children played outside and gardeners worked on their plots. The smoke rising from the Power Plant, a highly radioactive plume, was explained away by officials as a routine steam discharge.

However, within hours of the explosion, dozens of people began to fall ill. Later, reporting severe headaches and metallic tastes in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting. A few residents gathered on bridges and rooftops to view the burning reactor exposing themselves, in some cases, to doses of radiation that would later prove fatal.

Pripyat contamination levels. © chornobyl.in.ua

In the early hours of Sunday 27th, the first of over 1200 buses began to arrive in Pripyat in preparation for a possible evacuation. Trains at the Yanov railway station were also prepared.

At a meeting between 10:00-12:00 on Sunday morning the chairman of the Governmental Commission provided the local party and Soviet authorities with an update and the evacuation order for Pripyat was announced (the official time and date of the announcement is considered to be 12.00, midday, on the 27 April).

At the same time, radiation levels began to drop and there was briefly hope that an evacuation would not be necessary. But just two hours later radiation levels rose to what would later be recognised as their highest ever level.

Local radio reported the order to evacuation to residents just after 1pm as police began to work their way from house to house. Residents gathered at the entrances to their homes at 1.50pm and the official evacuation began at 2pm when the first buses and trucks collected the residents and their belongings.

The residents of Pripyat were asked to carry with them only what was required for two or three days away, some food, a change of underwear, and their identity papers. Dosimeters were confiscated.
The evacuation of Pripyat’s residents took 3.5 hours and used all 1,200 buses. Residents recall that everyone was in a hurry, but nobody was panicking. No one would live in Pripyat again.

The population of Pripyat are evacuated
The population of Pripyat are evacuated (Igor Kostin).

In the weeks following the evacuation most valuable articles, such as cars and electrical appliances were deliberately crushed or broken to prevent looting but many former residents believe a considerable amount of their belongings were stolen.

Later that year the city of Slavutich was constructed, 45 kilometres, from Pripyat to house the personnel of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and their families, evacuated from Pripyat. As of 2005 Slavutych had about 25,000 inhabitants with its economic and social situation remains closely linked to the decommissioning of power plants and other facilities within the Zone. Once a year, close to the disasters anniversary, former residents are allowed to return to Pripyat.

A timeline of events surrounding the Chernobyl disaster.

What is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone?

The “Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation” is the officially designated exclusion area around the site of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster. It is commonly known as the “Chernobyl Exclusion Zone” or simply “The Zone”.

Established soon after the disaster by the Russian military to cover the areas worst affected by radioactive contamination it was initially an area of 30 kilometre (19 mile) radius from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant designated for evacuation and placed under military control. Its borders have since been expanded to cover a larger area of the territory of Ukraine, approximately 2,600 km2.

The purpose of the Exclusion Zone is to restrict access to the most hazardous areas, reduce the spread of radiological contamination and conduct radiological and ecological monitoring activities. Today, the Exclusion Zone is one of the most radioactively contaminated areas in the world and draws significant scientific interest due to the high levels of radiation exposure in the environment, as well as an increasing interest from tourists.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is managed by an agency of the State Emergency Service of Ukraine whilst the power plant itself and its sarcophagus (and replacement) are administered separately.

The Exclusion Zone that surrounds the power plant. © www.wired.com.
Looking south east across the Zone from the roof of Reactor 5.
Looking south-east across the Zone from the roof of Reactor 5.