A Generation Later, What Does Chernobyl Look Like Today?

In 1986, the world’s worst nuclear disaster emptied towns surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Today, the scene is different.

May 19, 2023By Madison Whipple, BA History w/ Spanish minor

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The Chernobyl disaster of 1986 still looms over the area where it occurred. It is undeniable that life in this area of Ukraine, about 94 kilometers north of Kyiv, will never be the same. Experts warn that the land surrounding Chernobyl is so toxic that the radiation will not decay for thousands of years. This area, called the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (CEZ), is a 2,634 square-kilometer circle that is now hostile to the life it once fostered. The Chernobyl plant itself is still fighting to contain the radiation from Reactor No. 4. While it may be considered a ghost town, Chernobyl and its surrounding towns are not empty and haven’t been since very recently after the explosion. Today, a morbid curiosity arises: what exactly is in Chernobyl? Like the rest of the world, Chernobyl is much different today than it was in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. This article will peer into the Chernobyl of today to see the people, animals, and problems that lie within it.


The People of Chernobyl Today

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Sofia, one of the self-settlers of Chernobyl, via The New York Times


In the wake of the April 26, 1986 disaster, over 110,000 people living in the newly demarcated CEZ had to be evacuated. At this time, the exclusion zone only encompassed the 30 kilometers around Reactor No. 4. It would later expand, and the entire area within it would be deemed unsafe for humans to settle. During the coming months, over 230,000 more people within the growing CEZ would be evacuated. They were only given a few hours to gather their things, and though some were told that they could return, most never did. The people whose homes were inside the CEZ were uprooted. Many were used to rural life, but after the Chernobyl disaster, they had to adapt to life in cities with new pensions and large Soviet apartment blocks.


This simply did not suit many residents of the towns surrounding Chernobyl, so they returned. About 1,200 people returned to their homes, disregarding the illegality of their actions and the potential risks to their health. As of today, around 130 to 150 residents remain in the exclusion zone, citing their connections to their ancestral homes as too important to give up. The people who returned, mostly men and women over 50, had lived through the harrowing years of Soviet rule and Nazi invasion, and they were not keen to be displaced and attacked again over nuclear health hazards.


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Self-settlers inside the original 30km CEZ in Belarus, 2006, via Chernobyl X


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Many of these self-settlers, as they are called, challenged the authorities to shoot them rather than make them leave their land. The authorities allowed the settlement of mostly older women, and these farmers now live in much the same way as they did before the disaster. Men and women who returned kept running their farms and foraging for food. As of 2012, one of the residents said she made a hole in the fence of the CEZ near her home, through which she can gather berries and mushrooms. They dodge the police, subsist off of the land, and lead lives in which they are comfortable, if not because it is what they know. The effects on their physical health are apparent, with thyroid cancer being especially common, but they don’t seem to care, as long as they can live in peace.


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Workers at Chernobyl take a radiation test before leaving for the day, via the Daily Mail


Another group of former Soviet citizens arrived in Chernobyl as the original residents were being evacuated. Groups of decontamination workers and scientists poured into the disaster site to either help clean up or study the mess and its effects on the surrounding areas. Many workers are still in Chernobyl, assisting in research and containment on the plant’s site and the surrounding towns. While most don’t live in towns like Pripyat full-time, they do work and live there regularly and help to maintain the studies of the area.


Meanwhile, surrounding the CEZ are people from various parts of Ukraine. Beginning in 2014, the conflict with Russia has grown increasingly violent, and people sought out a cheap and semi-normal community to live in. This drove families into houses that had been abandoned since 1986; crumbling, rotting structures that families subsist in with the aid of governmental assistance. It has created a shared resilience in the area, as people of the CEZ and near-CEZ form communities and shared experiences.


The Places Left Behind

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A science classroom in Pripyat in 2009, via Insider


The buildings left behind after the Chernobyl disaster are an eerie reminder of the chaos that the nuclear meltdown caused. They are also disconcerting harbingers of what is to come with the continued abandonment of the area.


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The overgrown city of Pripyat in September of 2015 via The Atlantic


Today, the concrete sarcophagus that entombed Reactor No. 4 is surrounded by the New Safe Confinement (NSC), which houses the containment operations and nuclear waste management conducted by the Ukrainian government. Built in 2016, the structure provides an area for around 3,000 scientists and engineers to work on containing the radiation of the site. In addition, the structure is meant to protect from radiation for the surrounding areas for 100 years. In the interim, the hope is to destroy the concrete sarcophagus after removing the radioactive fuel still inside the reactor.


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The New Safe Confinement (NSC) structure, via Radio Free Europe


The structures left behind in towns near Chernobyl are crumbling but stuck in time. They contain items left behind that make them more like 1980s time capsules and a look into the lives of people who never returned to their homes. As mentioned, many of these homes have been taken over for at least a part of every month as workers move in and out of the CEZ. However, the vast majority of buildings in the nearly 2,700-kilometer zone are still abandoned, left to the effects of time. Photos can be seen of these structures in varying states of decay, which leave the viewer with a feeling of discomfort and gloom. As so many places are taken over by nature, it is inherent that one would fear a space like this, a sort of pseudo-liminal space of post-apocalyptic imagination.


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A tour group walks through Pripyat in 2018, via Newsweek


Moreover, by way of this fear is born a sense of morbid curiosity. This curiosity inspired the booming tourism industry that flourished in and around the CEZ until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. It is a sort of anti-tourism, a look into a potential apocalypse. The abandoned towns around Chernobyl, in this way, take on a strange new role of hosting people, up to 100,000 per year before 2022, who want to behold nuclear fallout as a form of entertainment.


Possibly even more morbid is the economic upturn that came with the abandonment of Chernobyl. Many entrepreneurs saw an opportunity in the abandoned warehouses of the towns in the CEZ, as they were cheap real estate in which to begin a company. It has provided economic power to some within the ruins of long-gone Soviet operations. Whether used for entertainment or business, the footprint of Chernobyl and its surrounding towns is a paradoxical one; as humans left and abandoned the region, others moved in and capitalized on the disaster.


The Animals of Chernobyl

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Przewalski’s horses in the CEZ, via the UN Environment Program


Nature has an uncanny ability to bounce back after a catastrophe, and the natural surroundings of Chernobyl are no different. The CEZ, while mostly abandoned by humans, houses a vast population of animals of all different species. The area of the exclusion zone is now the third-largest nature preserve in mainland Europe and serves as an accidental experiment in re-wilding after nuclear fallout.


Working closely across the border of Belarus with the Polesskiy Radiological Preserve and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the Ukrainian Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources and CEZ agents have established a formal project in the hopes of supporting the boom of flora and fauna. The project, titled Conserving, Enhancing and Managing Carbon Stocks and Biodiversity in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, began in 2015 and has helped establish a transboundary biosphere in the CEZ between Ukraine and Belarus.


The project’s preserves are protected, and beyond fostering animal populations, have allowed nature to grow rampant in the area, in the hopes that natural plants and forests will help clear the contaminated land and water. While this may be the hope, it is still worth noting that several plants and animals were genetically affected by the radiation in the CEZ. Animals are still born with strange genetic mutations that distort their features, and plants are dangerous for human consumption when grown in radioactive soil. While learning the effect of radiation on animals is ongoing, it is apparent that mutations have affected populations, especially in livestock, but not enough to stunt large-scale growth.


Wolves in the CEZ, via the University of Georgia


Between 1987 and 1996, the population of deer in the CEZ exploded, and other species started becoming more common, including over 60 rare species. Wolf populations are now seven times higher than before the accident. Eurasian Lynx, brown bears, Bison, and storks are only a few of the animal species that have repopulated the exclusion zone. While the area was mainly pine plantations before the disaster, thick primary forests have added biodiversity to the area.


Przewalski’s horses, which once roamed the entirety of Eurasia’s plains, were declared extinct in the wild after the last sighting of one in the 1960s. However, when 30 Przewalski’s horses were introduced to the CEZ, the population thrived. The wild population has increased to over 200, with new additions leading researchers to believe that the population will be sustained over several more generations.


This accidental population boom in both plants and animals is an example of growth in unlikely places on a large scale. Ukraine’s government is using the CEZ as a tool to create a more sustainable and friendly environment for future generations.


The Effect of the Russian Invasion on Chernobyl Today

Ukrainian Troops Patrol the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, via NPR


When Russian troops invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, they did so through the exclusion zone surrounding the ruins of Chernobyl. The Russian army occupied the immediate area surrounding the defunct plant for over five weeks, causing an estimated $54 million in damage to the CEZ and the NSC.


The site of the disaster was a logical base for over 1,000 Russian troops, as the NSC houses electrical operations that connect to Kyiv’s main power grid, and aerial attacks from Ukraine would be unlikely. The regular movement of troops and vehicles within the CEZ caused disturbance to the nuclear radiation of the site, stirring up dust and soil that would release more radioactive particles into the air. In addition to looting and destroying much of the lab and computer equipment located inside the NSC, the Russian army also cut electrical power to the plant, making the cooling of the deteriorating nuclear material unreliable.


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Wreckage of Chernobyl left behind by Russian troops, via BBC


While the occupation was active, no irreversible damage was done to the site, and no accidents occurred, but the invasion made the possibility of another nuclear disaster more likely. Scientists say that although the environment of the CEZ was not permanently impacted, the risk for accidents–fires, explosions, or fallout–could have been devastating to the area surrounding Chernobyl. Additionally, though no major disasters occurred, scientists from the NSC said that the Russian invasion certainly damaged the site by deteriorating the efficiency of nuclear containment, stealing technology, and destroying equipment required to keep the plant stable.

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By Madison WhippleBA History w/ Spanish minorMadison is a contributing writer with specialties in American and women’s history. She is especially interested in women’s history in the context of the American Civil War. In her free time, she enjoys going to museums, reading, and jogging.