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 its low population and easy access to water, the Chernobyl district was chosen by the Ministry of Energetics of the USSR for the construction of a power plant, only 20 kilometres north 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 bearing the same name as the nearby river was erected in the vicinity and after the launch of the first reactor in 1977 the city of Pripyat 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, Kiev, and close to the border with Belarus.
The Chernobyl power plant was at that time one of the largest in the world. It was also 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 in the reactor no.4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 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 in Chernobyl 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 fulfill 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 consisted of 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 Chernobyl power plant (you can visit the bunker control room on our Chernobyl nuclear power plant tour which you can also add to your 1 day Chernobyl, 2 day Chernobyl or Private Chernobyl tour). The staff of Chernobyl power plant were missing one engineer – Valery Khodemchuk, who was supposed to report the test results from the circulation pumps halls. He became the first official victim of the Chernobyl disaster whose body was never to be found.Chernobyl disaster timeline on 26th April 1986:
- 1:23 Two explosions of unit 4
- 1:26 Fire alarm at the Chernobyl power plant
- 1:28 Arrival of the Chernobyl power plant fire brigade
- 1:35 Arrival of the Pripyat fire brigade
- 2:10 Fire extinguished in the turbine hall
- 5:00 Unit 3 was shut down for safety reasons
- 6:00 Army chemical brigade arriving to the Chernobyl site-getting real measurements of radiation
- 6:35 All fires extinguished at the Chernobyl power plant site. *Destroyed reactor core burning until May 10, 1986
Evening – the commission led by the scientist Valery Legasov arrived to the accident site at the Chernobyl power plant
Chernobyl firefighters and army fighting the invisible enemy
Radioactive dust started to spread out of the destroyed and burning the fourth reactor of the 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 arrive at the accident site were the special Chernobyl power plant fire brigade. Soon firemen from the nearby towns of Chernobyl, the city of Pripyat and Ivankov came to help and together they extinguished the fire within three hours after the explosion. Yet, in the heart of the Chernobyl reactor number 4, a mixture of nuclear fuel-containing masses was still burning…
The firemen who worked at the Chernobyl accident did not know the cause of the fire and thus they just kept pouring water on the ruins of the reactor. This worsened the situation and several smaller explosions followed, together with severe radioactive contamination.
After fire liquidation on the destroyed Chernobyl reactor no.4
Immediately after the firemen extinguished the fire on the destroyed Chernobyl power plant’s fourth reactor, the battle was still not over. Actually it was just starting, as the core with all the melted materials was like boiling magma. Soviet scientists needed the army to prevent the situation to get even worse. To prevent radioactivity from spreading further into the environment, the Chernobyl reactor was filled in the next weeks with five thousand tons of boron, dolomite, sand, clay and lead compound – thrown from helicopters flying above the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl power plant. These loose materials extinguished the burning graphite and absorbed radioactive aerosols. Two weeks after the meltdown, Soviet officials decided to conserve the whole crashed block of the power plant into a special sarcophagus – a concrete body with it’s own cooling system.
Liquidation in the next months and who were the “Chernobyl liquidators“
The Chernobyl accident sparked a chain of events never experienced in human history. Most of the work was carried out by the Red army reserves, who were young men. After the evacuation of a 30 kilometer radius around the fourth reactor of the Chernobyl power plant, the hunting squads were hunting every animal – farmed or wild – in order to stop the spreading of the contamination, especially radiation dust (found on the fur, later, e-g- when grassing also in their flesh and bones) from the Chernobyl zone. Cleaning stations for cars, tanks and trucks dealing with the accident were set up, however, none of the vehicles which got to the zone in the following months after the accident and performed their work never made it out of the zone. All were scrapped after usage and some of them can still be found scattered around the so-called “machinery cemeteries” around the zone.
The liquidation work, which had the highest priority of lowering the radiation with the building of the safety confinement (the Chernobyl sarcophagus) brought tens of thousands of people to the Chernobyl zone – the liquidators. Most of them were military, policemen, drivers, health specialists, builders and engineers. In total over 100 thousand of them were present at one point in the Chernobyl zone, most of them squeezed into the city of Chernobyl where only 14 thousand people lived before the accident. Many professionals who were living in Pripyat and working at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant also came back to work, as bonuses (of up to 100 thousand US dollars) or flats were preferably earned for those who stayed in the “battlefield” at Chernobyl and helped the Chernobyl power plant get back into operation.
Chernobyl radioactivity spread around the world
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 USSR (Ukraine) again. Over the course of the day of the Chernobyl 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 territories most affected by the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl were two Soviet republics: Ukraine and Belarus, which decided to evacuate parts of their countries forever because of the contamination to the environment. In the process of decontamination, a large role was played by the physical laws of radioactivity – the process of stabilising the unstable to more stable elements, like radioactive iodide 135 – read more about how Chernobyl became safe for people in our SAFETY. 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 in the Chernobyl zone consists mainly of substances such as strontium and cesium – as these have a 30-year disintegration half-life. These substances continued to pollute the nearby environment of Chernobyl for decades after the Chernobyl accident. Isotopes of plutonium and americium will be present at the Chernobyl zone territory probably for the next several thousand years. However, they are very hard to find nowadays (sank deep into the soil), and thus have a negligible radiation effect for the human body. Read more on radiation and what it actually is in our BLOG.
Chernobyl accident victims
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 Chernobyl 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 the Chernobyl power plant shift manager B. V. Rogozhkin 3 years and State inspector Y. A. Laushkin 2 years in prison. More details about the Chernobyl trial you can find in our blog section. Paradoxically, the whole Chernobyl trial was held in the Chernobyl culture house, which was originally a synagogue (and you can visit it on your Chernobyl tour). Events at the V.I. Lenin Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant were just the beginning of an aftermath that rewrote not just the safety rules of nuclear energy, but also the history of mankind.
Chernobyl in figures
- 10 000 0000 affected people in 3 countries
- 120 000 evacuated people from 100 towns and villages
- 50 000+ sq. kilometres of the contaminated zone
- 5000+ people still working in the Chernobyl zone and the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
- 100 Chernobyl babushkas still living in the zone
The facts divide the number of victims of the Chernobyl accident. Of course, the direct victims were mostly the Chernobyl power 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 (acute radiation syndrome), all were sent to dedicated hospital number 6 in Moscow for treatment by plane from Kyiv accompanied by the deputy mayor of Pripyat, Alexandr Esaulov, who you can meet on your tour with ChernobylX. Officially, there are 28 direct victims of the Chernobyl accident. Most of the direct victims are buried at the Mitino cemetery in Moscow. Each body of the Chernobyl victims is sealed in a concrete coffin, 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 had done the 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 the Ukraine alone (the rest is reported in Belarus and Russia).
Chernobyl means ‘Wormwood’
The City of Chernobyl (Chornobyl – Ukrainian) and the area around it is called Polissya, which 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 with the Chernobyl disaster was somehow foreseen (for the complete prophecy download our free ebook Myths and Truths about Chernobyl 6. Wormwood is a bitter herb with rich healing and detoxification effects. It is largely used for the production of Absinth.
Pripyat and the Chernobyl accident
Pripyat was once a model city of the Soviet government and was erected in 1970 only 3 kilometers away from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant for the workers and their families. Pripyat had all the luxuries of a modern city – a railway station, port, hospital and even a fairground. It was considered a dream come true for a Soviet citizen to live in a city where there was no shortage of groceries or some products as the city was governed directly by the Ministry of energetics of the USSR in Moscow. It attracted mostly young people from all over the Soviet Union, the average age of the city’s inhabitants was only 25 years old.
Aleksey Moskalenko, the former head of the Pripyat police department, who you can meet on your Chernobyl tour with ChernobylX, remembers that the end of April 1986 was unusually warm and the majority of Pripyat inhabitants spent most of their days outside with their children. There were 4 weddings taking place in Pripyat on the Saturday 26th of April. The rumours in the city already spread the fact that there was some accident in the nearby Chernobyl power plant thanks to workers and people like, A. Moskalenko, who was one of the eyewitnesses of the explosion in reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl power plant while on patrol. The state officials had not warned the 50,000 inhabitants of Pripyat about the threat of radioactive pollution, they just sent the kids back home from school with the recommendation to stay at home. Neither had they provided them with iodine pills which would have helped against the effects of the radiation.
The deputy mayor of Pripyat, A. Esaulov remembers that the supply was not enough for the inhabitants and the city council asked for an additional supply from the government.
The accident at the Chernobyl power plant 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 – when there were enough trains, boats and most of all by busses gathered from all over the Soviet Union. The Pripyat inhabitants were allowed to take only necessary items with them, as they were expecting to return three days later. This information was released to avoid panic and to stop people taking too much luggage with them. Later, the Soviet authorities decided that the city of Pripyat must remain empty forever.
How were the Pripyat inhabitants exactly asked to evacuate on April 27, 1986 at 14:00?
For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at the Chernobyl Power Station the radioactive conditions in the city of Pripyat and its 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 to the nearest towns of the Kiev region.
For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986, 14:00 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 have 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.
Evacuation of Pripyat
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 Chernobyl power plant chimneys from that distance away. In less than three hours the city was empty, and it will stay empty forever. After Pripyat was evacuated, the evacuation of other villages within a distance of 30 kilometres from the reactor was conducted, up 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 Zhytomyr regions. More on evacuation in our BLOG.
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 fur 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 Chernobyl exclusion zone (30 km radius around Chernobyl) was finished.
Life in Chernobyl today
Today, people are forbidden to enter the Chernobyl zone, with the exception of ex-residents visiting cemeteries or those with a permit, such as tourists and workers. Around 100 people (mostly pensioners) called Chernobyl babushkas still live in the Chernobyl exclusion zone and are somehow accepted by the Chernobyl zone administration as most of them were participating in the liquidation works of the Chernobyl disaster. You can visit Chernobyl babushkas during your Chernobyl tour with ChernobylX and see how they are living and ask them why they returned.
Apart from these inhabitants, there are also around 3000 workers who are in a special regime and take care of the Chernobyl zone – forestry, fire brigades, dosimetric workers, cooks and some now even Chernobyl tour guides. There are around 2500 workers still working at the Chernobyl power plant, even though it has been completely shut down 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 – City of Ghosts
Pripyat is now a city of ghosts and despite no-one living there, has its 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 is the only thing that commemorate the abandoned villages nowadays.
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 Pripyat 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 Lazurny was operating until 1998 for the Chernobyl zone workers, however today it is even more plundered and destroyed than the majority of flats or schools in the city. A laundry for the Chernobyl nuclear power plant workers was operating in Pripyat until 2018.
There are still two parts of the city that are still in operation: Truck garages and a deep-ground well with a pumping station (supplying water for the Chernobyl power plant). The ghost city is full of Soviet 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.
Thanks to historic photographs and videos that will accompany you on your Chernobyl tour, you will imagine the whole picture of the glorious Soviet era when the city of Pripyat was booming. An insider’s peek into the houses, ruins but most of all into the destiny of Pripyat inhabitants will gladly be provided by Chernobyl heroes on your Chernobyl tours with a chance to ask anything you are curious about. 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 Chernobyl tours.
When coming to Chernobyl you are a witness of both – the worst case scenario of mankind destroying itself in a nuclear war, and at the same time the best case scenario, where nature thrives in a manmade world. 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. In about 20 years time only ruins will remain of this city. There is no other place like it in the world.
What is the future of Chernobyl?
The Chernobyl exclusion zone is a synonym for tragedy and the largest nuclear energy accident worldwide. After over 35 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 in Chernobyl, not commonly seen elsewhere in Europe, living together; wolves, deer, boars, 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 Chernobyl 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 100,000 (2019) Chernobyl tourists visiting each year, even after the drop during the pandemic 2020 (only 36 thousand Chernobyl tourists). The tourism of Chernobyl has a significant impact on the local economy, our lovely Chernobyl guides, Chernobyl babushkas, every cook in Chernobyl, or cleaning ladies in the Chernobyl hotel would tell you. Do not expect a fancy hotel and souvenir shops, Chernobyl is a military guarded area with its own rules and conditions.
Besides tourism, energy still plays the most significant role in the Chernobyl zone, even after the Chernobyl power plant is no longer producing electricity anymore. 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. In the Chernobyl zone, it is also Europe’s newest spent nuclear fuel storage opened for Ukraine, maybe later for the whole of Europe as well. Today, the new safe Chernobyl confinement (the 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 and we at ChernobylX support Chernobyl to be part of the World heritage sites of UNESCO. The Chernobyl zone and Pripyat are turning into an open-air museum of Cold War times. ChernobylX started its mission to challenge your worldview back in 2008 – here is our story.
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