Chernobyl has a rich history dating from medieval times (first mentioned in 1193), and has had a strong Jewish influence since the 16th century (more on Jewish history in our blog). Chernobyl was strongly affected by World War 2, and under the Soviet Union it became a ship repairing hub based on the river Pripyat. Due to it’s low population and it's easy access to water, it was chosen by the Ministry of Energetics of the USSR for the construction of a power plant, 20 kilometres from the city of Chernobyl. Construction of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant of V.I. Lenin started in 1970. At the same time, Pripyat, a satellite city was erected nearby and after the launch of the first reactor in 1977 the city of Chernobyl was populated with 14,000 inhabitants. With it’s transportation connections - buses, trains and even boats - it became a regional centre with great prospects. The plans of the Soviets regarding the Chernobyl power plant were extensive - it was supposed to become the largest nuclear power plant in the world with 12 reactors, each with 1000 MW energy output. There were 4 reactors running and another 2 were already in construction when it’s destiny changed.
The Chernobyl disaster - what actually happened?
The Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident occurred on April 26, 1986. It was the largest nuclear energy disaster in the history of mankind. The explosion took place in the fourth block of the Chernobyl power plant, located only 120 km from the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, and close to the border with Belarus.
The Chernobyl power plant was at that time one of the largest in the world. It was dedicated to a strategic military program for the Soviet army. The actual explosion happened due to a coincidence of several factors. Besides the fact that the reactor did not have an updated security system, it had a low level of automation. On the fatal night of April 26, there was an experiment going on, which should have tested the inertial range of the turbo-generator unit. Lowering the energy output to almost stoppage of the nuclear chain reaction, followed by an abrupt increase in the energy output by the operators, together with the stoppage of the cooling water to the reactor core, resulted in the overheating of the fuel and the destruction of the reactor core.
At 1:24 AM local time, 40-60 seconds after beginning the experiment, two large explosions took place. According to some accident investigators, taking off all the control rods from the active zone of the reactor, together with the reactor’s growing power capacity, the explosion was unavoidable. It was recorded that safety systems were shut off or even out of service at the time of the initial explosion and the combination of radioactive steam and hydrogen blew the 1,200 ton cover off the reactor and destroyed the roof. After a few seconds there came a second explosion. According to several independent studies, while the first explosion was normal – chemical, the second explosion with the burning of the prompt neutrons had characteristics of a nuclear explosion with a yield of 0.3 kilotons (equal to around 300 tons of TNT). According to witnesses the first explosion was followed by a red blaze and the second explosion had a light-blue blaze, after which a mushroom cloud rose above the reactor.
The nuclear disaster was also a coincidence and the reactor should have been taken through the experiment by a different shift that was specially trained for conducting such kind of work. However, this was postponed by nine hours because of the forthcoming May Day celebrations and the electricity needed to fulfil the production plan. This delay meant that the experiment had to be managed by different shift workers than the ones that had prepared it. The night shift conducting the experiment comprised fewer experienced operators. Right after the accident the other reactors were shut off and the management of the power plant was going under the crisis regime, which was managed from a bunker underneath the power plant (you can visit the bunker control room on our Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and Pripyat Tour)
Chernobyl radioactive cloud travelling around the world
Radioactive dust started to spread out of the destroyed, burning fourth reactor of Chernobyl power plant, which contaminated the environment both near and far. The first step in the liquidation of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl was extinguishing the burning reactor hall and the roof of the central machinery hall. The first to attend the accident site was the special power plant fire department, together with firemen from the nearby town of Chernobyl and city of Pripyat, who extinguished the fire within three hours after the explosion. Yet, in the heart of the reactor, a mixture of nuclear fuel-containing masses was still burning…
Firemen who worked at the accident did not know the cause of the fire and thus they just poured water on the ruins of the reactor. This worsened the situation and several smaller explosions followed, together with severe radioactive contamination. To prevent radioactivity from spreading further into the environment, the reactor was filled with five thousand tons of boron, dolomite, sand, clay and lead compound - thrown from helicopters flying above the reactor in the days immediately after the accident. These loose materials extinguished the burning graphite and absorbed radioactive aerosols. Two weeks after the breakdown, Soviet official bodies decided to conserve the whole crashed block of the power plant into a special sarcophagus – a concrete body with it’s own cooling system.
The explosion at Chernobyl brought up radioactive substances to the altitude of 1.5 kilometer in the air. At this height, wind from the southeast took the radioactive cloud as far as Scandinavia. The cloud flew over Scandinavia and then turned back to Ukraine again. Over the course of the day of the accident, the direction of the wind changed westward. The second contaminated cloud thus flew via Poland to Czechoslovakia and further to Austria. There, it bounced back from the Alps and flew back to Poland. As far as we know today, there is no place in the world where radioactive clouds from Chernobyl were not present. Contaminated clouds flew all over the world.
The most affected territories were Ukraine and Belarus, which decided to evacuate parts of their countries forever because of the contamination of the environment. In the process of contamination, a large role was played by radioactive iodide. This element has a short half-life of decay and relatively soon after the accident it was naturally decomposed into harmless substances. Today, the radioactive pollution consists mainly of substances such as strontium and cesium – these have a 30-year disintegration half-life. These substances continued to pollute the nearby environment for decades after the accident. Isotopes of plutonium and americium will be present at the respective territory probably for several thousand years. However, they have a negligible radiation affect for the human body. Read more on radiation and what it actually is in our blog.
The investigation of the Chernobyl disaster was officially closed with the result that the personnel of the power plant did not follow the necessary safety regulations. The Director of the power plant V. P. Bryukhanov and the Chief engineer N. M. Fomin were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, the deputy chief engineer A.S. Dyatlov 5 years, the reactor room head A.P. Kovalenko and Power plant shift manager B. V. Rogozhkin 3 years and State inspector Y. A. Laushkin 2 years in prison. Paradoxically, the whole Chernobyl trial was held in the Chernobyl culture house, which was originally a synagogue. Events at the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Power Plant were just the beginning of an aftermath that re-wrote not just the safety rules of nuclear energy, but also the history of mankind. Read more in our blog.
Chernobyl means ‘Wormwood’
The City of Chernobyl (Chornobyl - Ukrainian) and the area around it called Polissya, is a flat, pine-forest land with many rivers and swamps in the northern part of Ukraine, at the border with Belarus. The name of the city when translated, means a plant that is called wormwood, which is also easy to find in the nearby territory. This plant is also mentioned in the Bible and many Christians believe the sad destiny of the area was somehow foreseen (for the complete prophecy please download our free ebook 10 Myths and Truths about Chernobyl). Wormwood is a bitter herb with rich healing and detoxicating effects. It is largely used for production of Absinth.
The facts divide on the number of victims of the Chernobyl accident. Of course, the direct victims were mostly the plant workers as well as the firemen, who received deadly doses of radiation. In the first 3 days there were 299 patients hospitalised with clear forms of radiation sickness, all were sent to dedicated hospital No. 6 in Moscow for treatment. Officially there are 28 direct victims of Chernobyl accident. Most of the direct victims are buried at the Mitino cemetery in Moscow. Each body is sealed in concrete coffins, because of their high radiation.
Officially, the Chernobyl disaster affected the lives of about 600,000 people. Official documents divide the victims of radiation into several categories. For example, the largest group is made up of 200-240 thousand liquidators – rescuers, soldiers that have done decontaminating work, firemen as well as police officers. Moreover, there is the group of about 116 thousand inhabitants of the polluted areas near Chernobyl. Another 220 thousand people were evacuated later from the polluted territories of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Still, around 5 million people continue living in the polluted areas at the moment. Altogether over 10 million people are considered to be ill owing to the Chernobyl catastrophe, 3.2 million just in Ukraine (the rest is reported in Belarus and Russia).
City of Ghosts
Pripyat was once a model city of the Soviet government and was erected in 1970 for the workers of the nuclear power plant and their families. The average age of the city's inhabitants was, at the time of the accident only 25 years old. Pripyat had all the luxuries of a modern city – a railway station, port, hospital and even a fairground.
Later, on the day of the Chernobyl accident, the state officials still had not warned the 50,000 inhabitants about the threat of radioactive pollution; neither had they provided them with iodine pills which would have helped against the effects of the radiation. The power plant accident caused the level of radiation to exceed natural levels by up to a thousand times. The evacuation of Pripyat took place the day after the accident – on the afternoon of April 27, 1986 by train, boat and most of all by buses. The inhabitants were allowed to take only necessary items with them, as they were expecting to return in three days. This information was released to avoid panic and to stop people taking too much luggage with them. Later, the authorities decided that the city must remain empty forever.
April 26, 1986 at 14:00
For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kyiv region. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.
During the evacuation, women and children were collected first, but there was a serious lack of buses in this part of the Soviet Union. The buses thus had to come from other parts of the country to evacuate all the 50 thousand inhabitants of Pripyat. The queue for the buses was 20 kilometres long – which means that when the first bus was leaving Pripyat, the last bus couldn’t even see the power plant chimneys from the distance away. In less than three hours the city was empty, and how it will stay forever. After Pripyat was evacuated, the evacuation of other villages within a distance of 30 kilometres from the reactor was conducted, until the beginning of May. Decontamination work was carried out in 1,840 settlements. However, the Chernobyl exclusion zone wasn't formed until 1994 when the inhabitants of the last villages in the western part of it were moved to new apartments in Kyiv and Zhytomir regions.
During the evacuation, the people of Pripyat were not allowed to take pets or cattle with them; due to the fact that these animals could have had their furs contaminated with radioactive dust. Also, to avoid further contamination of the environment special forces had to liquidate every animal in the Chernobyl zone. On May 5th, the evacuation of people living in the exclusion zone (30 km radius around Chernobyl) was finished. Today, people are forbidden to enter the zone, with the exception of ex-residents visiting cemeteries or those with a permit, such as tourists and workers. Around 150 people (mostly pensioners) still live in this exclusion zone and all are living here at their own risk. You can visit them during your 2-day Chernobyl Tour and see how they are living and ask them why they returned. Apart from these inhabitants, there are also around 3000 workers whom are in a special regime and take care of the Chernobyl zone itself. There are around 2500 workers still working at the Chernobyl power plant, even though it has been completely shutdown since 2000. Besides liquidating the nuclear fuel, these workers also ensure radiation safety and electricity flow from Belarus to Ukraine and vice versa. A couple of thousand workers also continued with the construction of the new sarcophagus, which was completed in 2018. More about the new safe confinement on our blog.
Pripyat is now a city of ghosts and despite no-one living there, has it’s own grace and atmosphere. Pripyat did not meet its end like some nearby villages, which were buried underground by bulldozers. Boards on the road with their names and a village map commemorate the abandoned villages. The Police and Army guard Pripyat, as well as the whole 30-kilometer restricted zone. Despite non-stop duty, it did not prevent robbery and plunder, mostly in 1991 after the Soviet Union dissolution when the Chernobyl zone was less secure. The whole city of Pripyat has been plundered and there isn’t a single flat that has not been visited by thieves, taking away all precious items to be found. The residents had a chance in 1987 to go back to get some of their belongings, again just a few bags, but only a small percentage did. A military factory (named Jupiter) had been operating in the city until 1997; the famous swimming pool was operating until 1998, however today it is even more plundered and destroyed than the majority of flats or schools in the city. There are still three parts of the city that are still in operation: the laundry (for Chernobyl nuclear power plant), truck garages and a deep-ground well with pumping station (supply of water for power plant).
The city is full of contemporary (that is 1980’s) writing, signs, books or pictures, mostly with Lenin and Communist motives. Lenin’s statements and portraits are virtually everywhere – in the Palace of Culture, in the hotel, the hospital, at the police station, as well as in the schools and kindergartens. The walk around the city is like a trip back to the past, the only difference is that there’s not a single soul around, not even birds singing. One can only imagine the whole picture of the era when the city was booming, thanks to historic photographs we will show you on our tours. To give you even more of a vivid feeling of the Soviet Union times, we offer Soviet uniforms or a retro car ride on our Retro Chernobyl Tour. The whole city was built on a green field soon after the nuclear power plant was built. Everything is made out of concrete and the houses look the same as in any other city of Soviet origin. Some of these buildings are overgrown with trees and are barely visible from the road. A few of the buildings collapsed due to deterioration and a large amount of snow that fell a few years ago. Chernobyl is a vital example of how Mother Nature can cope with the work of man. In about 20 years time only ruins will remain of this city, if, we do not save it. There is no other place like it in the world.
What is the future?
The Chernobyl exclusion zone is a synonym for tragedy and the largest nuclear energy accident worldwide. After over 30 years it is now becoming a place of hope. It is the only place in the world where one can see how Mother Nature takes back the manmade. This is one of the reasons why the 30 kilometre zone became a natural reservation in 2016. You can find a lot of wildlife, not commonly seen elsewhere in Europe, living together; wolves, deer, bores, turtles, beavers and even wild horses. No mutations were found in these animals; on the contrary, they have a very good birth rate. You, the tourists, bring the zone, especially Pripyat, to life. As the No.1 tourist attraction in Ukraine the Chernobyl exclusion zone is the most visited UrbEx destination on planet Earth with over 50,000 people visiting each year. The tourism of Chernobyl has a significant impact on the local economy. Do not expect a fancy hotel and souvenir shops, Chernobyl is a military guarded area with it’s own rules and conditions. Besides tourism, energy plays a significant role. The Chernobyl power plant today is an electricity distribution hub between Ukraine and Belarus. On top of that, Chinese investors plan to build one of the largest solar power plants, in the territory of the Chernobyl zone due to the power line infrastructure. There is also a project building a spent nuclear fuel storage for Europe in the Chernobyl zone. Today, the new safe confinement (new sarcophagus) will give us another 100 years of safety, and for the Ukraine together with the European Union to find ways to dismantle and clean up, not just the old sarcophagus, but also everything that is left from reactor number 4. Ukraine wants to keep the heritage of Chernobyl as a tourist site for the whole world. The Chernobyl zone and Pripyat are turning into an open-air museum of Cold War times. CHERNOBYLwel.come started it’s mission to show the Chernobyl atmosphere to the world back in 2008 - here is our story.
If you love reading about Chernobyl and it’s history, download our free ebook '10 Myths and Truths about Chernobyl'.
sick people in 3 countries
evacuated people from 100 towns and villages
people still working in Chernobyl zone and Chernobyl nuclear power plant
sq. kilometres of contaminated zone
Chernobyl babushkas still living in the zone