After the Fallout: Living in Chernobyl Today

By Jake Schroeder
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People all over the world learned about the infamous Ukraine city known as Chernobyl in 1986 when the nuclear power plant in the city experienced a meltdown. The disaster killed at least 30 people within days — the exact number is a subject of intense debate — and left many more residents with health problems that killed them slowly. It’s known as one of the worst nuclear disasters the world has ever experienced.

Decades later, Chernobyl still stands as a (mostly) abandoned city. Despite ongoing dangerous levels of radiation in the area, vegetation, animals and even a few humans have returned to the area and now call it home. Take a look!

Where Is Chernobyl?

Hidden away 90 miles north of Kiev, Chernobyl is now a secluded ghost town. It was once home to around 14,000 people, many of whom worked at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant when it was still a good town for families to call home.

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Chernobyl is close to Pripyat, the city that housed most of the power plant's employees when it was erected in the 1970s. Both are now located in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which is mostly uninhabited because of high radiation levels.

Privately Owned Until 1896

Before Chernobyl became the home of the nuclear power plant that caused its demise, it was home to many different types of residents. In the 1100s, the land was owned by Rurik Rostislavich, a former ruler of the Kievan Rus, who treated it as a hunting area.

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In the following centuries, it was sold a few times by other royals and leaders and eventually ended up in the hands of a prominent Lithuanian-Ruthenian family named Chodkiewicz. They ended up selling the land to the state, and Chernobyl eventually became an official part of the USSR.

Nuclear Power Supplier for the Ukraine

In 1964, the government built the Chernobyl Power Plant on the land. It was the very first nuclear power plant built in the Ukraine, and it supplied power to several major cities, including Pripyat. Unfortunately, when it was first built, it used a containment system that wasn't designed to last indefinitely.

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The plant suffered from more than one accident over the years. In 1982, one of the core reactors had a meltdown that caused minimal fallout. That particular incident was kept a secret until after the major incident that later occurred at Chernobyl.


Disaster Struck in 1986

On April 26, 1986, the true power of the plant became quite clear. A series of ill-advised and unsuccessful experiments on one of the reactors caused the entire thing to blow up. It was a combination of bad decisions that led to the giant explosion of the nuclear reactor.

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The reactor itself was RBMK (a high-powered channel type of reactor), and the design was later said to have serious imperfections along with unstable reliability. Also, the reactor's thermal processes were terrible. All of these factors combined to cause the explosion.

Evacuation of the City

About nine days after the explosion, the entire city of Chernobyl and the neighboring city of Pripyat both had to be evacuated. The contamination from the nuclear explosion was way too severe for people to continue living anywhere near the two towns.

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Radiation levels were so high that the city was contaminated all the way down to the buildings, ground soil and water. Remaining anywhere near Chernobyl posed grave threats to the health of the town’s residents and the residents of neighboring communities.

Delayed Response Proved Deadly

The evacuation of the residents of Chernobyl and the surrounding areas didn't occur until nine hours after the initial explosion, and that was far too late for many people. Only two people died from the initial explosion of the reactor, but 29 others died within days of the explosion from radiation exposure and other injuries.

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After the evacuation and during the clean-up of the area, more than 30,000 people either died or suffered from such severe radiation poisoning that it directly contributed to their deaths months and years later. That number is sure to continue to rise as various types of cancer continue to take lives.


It Could Have Been Much Worse

The disaster at Chernobyl has contributed to thousands of deaths since it first blew up in the ‘80s, but the consequences could have been much worse. If the explosion had mimicked the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the aftermath of the disaster would have been mortally devastating.

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The risk of contamination was so great, in fact, that it could have spread throughout the entirety of Europe if it had been even slightly worse. A lot of the contamination caused by the disaster spread through the air, with the most affected part of the world being Belarus.

Extremely Dangerous Site

Because the radiation levels throughout the site were so high, it became unsustainable as a living habitat. Many of the people who didn't leave immediately or who arrived to fight the fire and try to clean up the radioactive mess also ended up dying in the following months.

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The consequences of the explosion were expected to be so dire due to radiation exposure that women who were pregnant and anywhere near the site were forced to terminate their pregnancies. The risk of fetal developmental abnormalities was deemed to be far too high.

Elevated Levels of Radiation Left a Ghost Town

Because there was no way anyone could survive living in the town for longer than a few months, it essentially became a ghost town. People were forced to leave everything behind, and the Soviet Union’s denial that the problem was out of control meant no intervention came from surrounding countries, and no one flocked to the scene to help any of the people.

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The country tried to keep the disaster under wraps before realizing just how bad the nuclear radiation fallout was in the surrounding areas. Some of the radioactive dust caused by the explosion was found as far as the United States.


Ghost City Became Nature's Wonderland

Without people to maintain the buildings and surrounding areas on a regular basis, Chernobyl has been overrun by nature in the past few decades. Although the flora of the area was probably affected in ways we can’t see, it didn't stop the plant life from continuing to grow in the area after the explosion.

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Unfortunately, one forest in a nearby area was completely destroyed by the explosion. The trees all died and turned a reddish-brown color following their exposure to the radiation. Both the dead trees and red forest still stand today, untouched and undecayed.

The Exclusion Zone

The closest area to the reactor plant is now called the Exclusion Zone. This area of around 2,600 square kilometers is a zone that is too dangerous to enter. It’s guarded by the military at all times and is off-limits to everyone because of the radiation risk it poses, even in short duration.

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The area isn't just designed to keep people out, however. The designated zone also serves as a testing ground for the government to determine how the radiation levels are dissipating (if at all) and to ensure the radiation doesn't keep spreading.

Some Animals Managed to Survive

The human inhabitants of the area had to completely evacuate Chernobyl when the reactor blew due to the ongoing grave danger. Even many who evacuated later suffered from radiation poisoning and eventual death.

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Many animals, however, somehow managed to survive — and even thrive — in Chernobyl following the disaster. The area inside the Exclusion Zone and even some of the surrounding area outside the zone will be dangerous for humans for another 20,000 years. That means the animals in the area will get a chance to live a human-free good life for quite a long time.


Invertebrates Weren't as Lucky

Despite the fact that a lot of species of animals have been living it up in Chernobyl since the disaster, some species didn't fare quite as well. Invertebrates — spiders, insects, etc. — didn't have quite the same survival rates as their counterparts with backbones. That’s an interesting twist, considering the joke that only roaches will survive a nuclear holocaust — apparently not.

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It appears that when radiation levels are at their highest, insects and other invertebrates can’t survive any better than humans. Chernobyl isn't the first example of this. The Fukushima nuclear accident caused invertebrates to die, solidifying the theory that bugs can't live in radiated areas.

Bears and Wolves Reign Supreme

Of all the animals in the Chernobyl area that have begun to multiply quickly because of the lack of human intervention, wolves and bears seem to be the ones that are faring best with the radiation levels. The ecosystem established by these animals has remained untouched since the human evacuation in the ‘80s.

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Other animals that have contributed to the newly wildlife-heavy area are foxes, lynxes, beavers, raccoon dogs and a ton of wild birds. The animals in the area rely heavily on one another to keep their little slice of radioactive paradise working properly.

Visible Animal Deformities Are Rare

Despite what comic books lead most of us to believe, radiation exposure doesn't always lead to extra eyes or a few extra limbs. That’s equally true for the animals found in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

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The animals don't glow, they don't have any extra limbs and, for all intents and purposes, they look pretty much identical to the same breeds outside the radioactive zone. A few instances of partial albinism have been documented, but there hasn’t been much else in terms of visible mutations among the animals.


Mutations Do Exist

Even though the mutations caused by radiation poisoning aren't visible in the animals, it doesn't mean that changes haven’t occurred. In fact, several different mutations within the genetics of the animal populations have been recorded by scientists studying the area.

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The genetic mutations in the animals could affect everything from how they breed to their reproductive prowess and everything in between. Although there isn't enough information on the subject yet, the radiation poisoning could actually be a positive when it comes to animal survival in the long term.

Endangered Animals Might Thrive in Chernobyl

The phenomenon of animals surviving in the midst of the Chernobyl disaster and after isn't the only amazing thing that animals are doing in the area. The endangered species known as the Przewalski horse has actually been growing in numbers in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

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Shortly after the explosion, there were only about 30 of the special horses in the area, but the population has expanded, and new baby horses are being born much more frequently in the area than in other parts of the world. This astounding anomaly hasn’t been explained so far.

No Petting the Animals

Although people often ignore the warnings, petting the animals that have been in the Exclusion Zone or even getting close to them is strictly discouraged. The furry creatures that frequent the area may be cute enough to want to pet, but the levels of the radiation are unknown and could be dangerous.

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Radioactive material can actually be found in the fur of these animals, and if the contamination is high enough, that radiation can be absorbed by the skin and lead to possible problems in the future. It’s better to be safe than sorry when it comes to Chernobyl’s animals.


Some Puppies for Adoption

Even though the advice related to the animals in Chernobyl is generally to stay away, the many abandoned dogs in the area continue to procreate, and the puppies are put up for adoption. The animals that can be adopted now are the descendants of all the dogs left behind when people evacuated.

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The puppies up for adoption have been tested for high levels of radiation and cleared. Prior to 2018, no animals could be taken off the property legally. SPCA International and the Clean Futures Fund are leading the adoption campaign.

What About Human Inhabitants?

To this day, it’s illegal to live in the Exclusion Zone at Chernobyl, and it probably will remain that way for thousands of years due to dangerously high radiation levels. Believe it or not, some residents of the area have chosen to play fast and loose with their health and continue to live in the area.

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The houses that are still standing on the edge of the Exclusion Zone have been taken over by some Ukraine citizens, and they are now home to more than 130 people. The residents are mostly female farmers who own pieces of land passed down by their families.

The Belongings of the Evacuated

During the initial evacuation, when more than 200,000 people had to flee the only homes they had ever known with their families, they were forced to leave all their prized possessions behind. Most of what they took with them could only be carried in their hands, and most people were never allowed to go back in to collect anything.

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Because of this, the area in the Exclusion Zone where the residents lived is littered with the eerie remnants of the lives they abandoned. Pictures that circulate on the internet show broken dolls, bed frames, newspapers and other personal belongings scattered and left to the elements.


People Who Still Live There Today

Legal or not, more than 100 people live in the area and dangerously close to the Exclusion Zone today. These people have established homes in the radioactive wasteland in the buildings that are still standing but decrepit from disrepair.

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The people who live there still farm the land, raise cattle and participate in regular activities like soccer in their radiation-filled backyards. The families are mostly older and don't worry much about the long-term effects of radiation poisoning, maybe because they feel their time is limited, and they want to spend the rest of it in their homes.

A Rough Life

The houses in the Chernobyl area that are outside the Exclusion Zone are mostly in desperate need of repair. Although they do have basic amenities, such as gas, electricity and cell towers close enough to get a signal, it’s not an easy life for residents.

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The water in the area isn't up to safe standards for human consumption, and the bathroom situation is pretty dire. All the water comes from a contaminated well and has to be boiled prior to use. Also, the only available washrooms in the area are outdoors.

Choosing Chernobyl to Avoid War

It may not seem like a great place to live and raise a family, but some people who have taken up residence in the area did so for a good reason. The houses in the area are being sold for very little, ranging from $100 to $3,500.

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Additionally, violent conflict has raged in Toshkivka for half a decade that has caused more than 100,000 people to lose their lives and more than a million others to lose their homes. This danger in Toshkivka has pushed people to feel as though Chernobyl is a much safer option.


The "Elephant's Foot" Risk

Living in the area surrounding Chernobyl has serious risks, one being the close proximity to the "Elephant's Foot." This metaphorical term is used to describe a huge chunk of radioactive corium and other metals that packs a mighty punch in terms of radiation poisoning.

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The piece of material is so dangerous that "exposure to it for just 500 seconds would kill someone." The danger that lies in being so close to something that lethal is clear, and it won't give up its killing power for roughly another 100,000 years.

The Chernobyl Scar

Following the disaster, a lot of people died from radiation poisoning. Additionally, a large number of residents who fled still got sick due to the radiation in the air. Others lived to tell the tale, but it still took a terrible toll to survive.

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The Chernobyl Scar, otherwise known as the Chernobyl Necklace, is the scar that's left after someone undergoes surgery to remove cancer in the thyroid gland. It’s so common among people who lived near the site that the scar earned the creepy nickname. It was the most common long-term issue among survivors following the disaster.

Living in the Area Isn't Safe

Despite the fact that the residents of the area surrounding Chernobyl feel it's "safe enough" to live there, the truth isn't quite that simple. The levels of radiation that pushed people out of the area almost 40 years ago haven't dissipated nearly enough to make the area habitable.

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People survive in the short term living in the area, but the animals they raise and the soil they farm are full of cancer-causing radiation that is ingested through the food and milk. It’s only a matter of time before radiation poisoning does some damage.


Weighing Their Options

The people who live in the area know they are taking a huge risk by living next to the Exclusion Zone. The risks of cancer and radiation poisoning are all well known. They aren’t ignorant of the truth, and they know their families could become deadly ill because of it.

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Because of the conflict that has been plaguing the country, these families have simply weighed their options and chosen in favor of Chernobyl. They believe it's better to risk radiation poisoning than live in a place where they risk getting bombed or shot down in the street.

Popular Tourist Destination

It’s nothing new that the public is intrigued by disaster, as evidenced by the many popular disaster-based tourist attractions around the world and the success of big blockbuster films that portray epic disasters. The site of the Chernobyl Disaster is no different.

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The area has become a tourist hot spot because urban explorers from around the globe love the hint of danger they risk to get a look at nature overtaking a previously industrialized space. The juxtaposition of disaster and intrigue surrounding Chernobyl has turned it into a huge draw for travelers across the world who are in the market for a look at the most prominent nuclear disaster in history.

A Full Reactor to This Day

Reactor No. 4 exploded and caused the meltdown, and it still houses more than 200 tons of the same radioactive material it contained when the disaster occurred. The main reason is because it's still too dangerous to enter the area long enough to get most of the waste out.

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In 2017, a program was launched to build a strong, durable structure in the area that will help prevent the material from seeping out of the reactor. It should also allow for the material to be eventually removed from the reactor to avoid any more radiation contamination.