In the weeks and months following April 26, 1986, it would have been hard to believe anybody would ever voluntarily enter the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Now, however, thousands of tourists flock to the site each year, keen to see the epicentre of the nuclear catastrophe.
Whether you know the event as a memory, an interesting piece of history, or the inspiration for HBO and Sky’s television show, the explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had an impact across the world.
For some, it was direct and disastrous. In the first three months following the explosion, 31 people died; two immediately in the wake of the explosion, and 29 as a result of acute radiation sickness.
For others, it was stretched out and constantly threatening. According to the World Health Organisation, children and adolescents living in the most affected regions drank milk contaminated with radioactive iodine in the aftermath of the disaster, giving them an increased risk of thyroid cancer. By 2016, more than 11,000 thryoid cancer cases had been diagnosed in this group.
Although some of the cases could be down to the ageing population’s increase in risk of spontaneous thyroid cancer, it is most likely some of the cases are attributable to the radioiodine intake in 1986.
For those living in countries far enough away from Chernobyl, and for younger generations, the impact was more diluted.
It’s hard to imagine exactly how dire a situation really is when it happens miles away, or before your lifetime, but the TV series Chernobyl, which came to an end in the US on Monday (June 3), offered those who are more removed from the catastrophe a chance to see how it affected the world.
The show told the story of the explosion, the impact and the clean up, and although there were some instances of artistic license, the majority of what the creators presented to viewers is based on fact.
The nuclear disaster was so horrific it didn’t need to be embellished; it was captivating enough within the factual tragedy, and for that reason the HBO and Sky creation became the most highly rated TV series ever on IMDb.
Chernobyl told of how thousands of people from the towns and villages within a 30-kilometre radius were evacuated, and how animals had to be killed to prevent the spread of radiation.
We see what those involved in the clean up had to go through in order to make the site as safe as it could be; how the roof of the power plant had to be cleared in order for a cover to be constructed, and how trees and the land had to be dug up and buried.
The series took us back to 1986 so convincingly that it’s fairly easy to picture the scenes as they were, but when Chernobyl opened as a tourist attraction in 2011 the Ukrainian government gave visitors a chance to see what the world would look like if all its inhabitants suddenly disappeared.
When Pripyat was evacuated residents believed they’d only be gone for a matter of days, meaning they took very few possessions with them. As a result, the ghost town is littered with the remnants of abandoned lives.
Take a look at some of the harrowing scenes here:
To get more of an insight as to what the exclusion zone, the 19 mile restricted area which surrounds the power plant, looks like three decades on, UNILAD spoke to two people who visited Chernobyl in recent months; Emerson Maud and Jack Skelton.
After watching documentaries about the incident and its aftermath, Emerson decided to take a trip to Chernobyl in November 2018. He explained the site is heavily monitored – you have to be authorised by the Ukrainian government to visit and have your passport checked regularly by those guarding the site – and said there are radiation detectors in place which visitors must use.
Speaking about what he saw on the trip, the 20-year-old said:
Images and videos don’t do it justice. I was surprised by the scale of Pripyat, it’s a full city where tens of thousands lived, and now… nobody.
There were newspapers on the floor from the day before the accident; shoes, drawings and personal belongings scattered around.
The most shocking thing would have to be the nursery, where dolls had been left behind by children.
Many items were stolen soon after the accident, but what was left was harrowing.
Jack, who visited Chernobyl in April 2019, said the most saddening thing he saw were abandoned schools and nurseries.
There’s something really disturbing about somewhere which would normally be so full of life being so quiet and empty.
The residents were only given a few hours to gather a few possessions before they were evacuated.
I think one thing that really stuck with me is seeing piles of handwritten homework left on the desks which are dated 1986.
Jack went on to explain tourists are given Geiger counters to measure the total amount of radiation absorbed during the trip. While authorities insist it is safe to visit the site, the exclusion zone remains one of the most radioactive places on Earth.
Take a look at the concrete sarcophagus which now covers the nuclear reactor:
Although much of the land was torn up and animals were killed in the clean up efforts following the disaster, the sudden and permanent evacuation of the area eventually allowed nature to thrive, giving Chernobyl a truly post-apocalyptic feel.
Roads have become overgrown, trees have staked fresh claim on the land and a number of wild animals roam free in the area.
Check out how the land compares three decades apart:
Emerson described the exclusion zone as a view from both the past and the future. The hasty abandonment left it frozen in the era of Soviet Russia, with propaganda still visible around the site, and yet at the same time the overgrown city is a preview of what life will look like after humans are no longer around.
The harrowing site left behind allows tourists to travel back to the moment the residents upped and left, and the dramatic difference between recent images from the exclusion zone and its appearance in 1986, recreated in the television series, gives an insight into how the night of the nuclear disaster changed so many lives so suddenly.
The explosion at Chernobyl is truly an astounding piece of history, and the preserved site ensures it will never be forgotten.
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Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.