Visitors seen standing next to a shop with Chernobyl souvenirs on the Dytyatky checkpoint at the Chernobyl exclusion zone in Pripyat.

Image by Pavlo Gonchar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

On April 26, 1986, there was an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. The blast caused the Chernobyl No. 4 reactor to be destroyed, sending catastrophic levels of radioactive debris into the surrounding area and atmosphere. Within the first few weeks of the accident, 28 people had died from direct exposure to radiation. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many more deaths were caused by the Chernobyl accident, but long-term estimates range from 4,000 to over 93,000 deaths. Less than a month after the explosion, over 100,000 people living within a 30 km radius were evacuated and eventually relocated. This radius was later extended, and a further 220,000 people were relocated in the following years. In 2002, 16 years after the incident, Chernobyl was opened to a limited number of visitors, and it became an unusually popular tourist destination. Last year, 70,000 tourists visited the site, and with the success of the recent HBO series Chernobyl, Kiev’s tourism and promotion board is expecting that number to hit 100,000 this year.

The birth of nuclear power

Throughout the 20th century, advances in nuclear technology played a pretty important role in shaping the world as it is today. The Manhattan Project, a U.S.-led program, developed the nuclear bombs that were eventually dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945. These events ultimately led to the end of World War II, but they caused absolute devastation in the communities they hit, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. The Manhattan Project was also responsible for creating the first nuclear power station in 1942, the research reactor known as Chicago Pile-1. In 1954, the first grid-connected power station was constructed in Obninsk, Russia, just 110 km southwest of Moscow. The technology from the Obninsk reactor was refined and later used in the much larger-scale RBMK reactors, which include the four at Chernobyl.

A series of unfortunate events

Construction began on Chernobyl in 1970, and by 1983, four nuclear reactors had been set up. The day before the accident, on April 25, 1986, Chernobyl’s Unit 4 reactor was scheduled to be shut down for routine maintenance. To get the most out of the shutdown, a test was also scheduled to determine whether, in the event of a power loss to the station, the reactor could still be sufficiently cooled until the backup diesel generators kicked in. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go as planned.

The reactor’s shutdown was delayed partway through because the power it was generating was desperately needed for the electrical grid, and the electrical load dispatcher refused to let it continue. It wasn’t until many hours later, at 11 p.m., that the shutdown was allowed to proceed. At midnight there was a shift change, and not long after that, the power was reduced much further than it was supposed to be, possibly due to an operational error. After a further safety violation that led to too many control rods being removed, a design flaw in the rods themselves, and an insistence that the test proceed as planned, a chain of events ensued that led to an intense buildup of steam which caused two explosions in quick succession, sending massive amounts of highly radioactive debris into the air. The Chernobyl disaster was one of just two nuclear disasters in history to be classified as a “Major Accident,” the most severe classification possible, and was the largest uncontrolled radioactive release into the environment in history.

A visitor takes a selfie in front of a wreckage bus in the abandoned city of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plantA visitor takes a selfie in front of a wreckage bus in the abandoned city of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
A visitor takes a selfie in front of a wreckage bus in the abandoned city of Pripyat, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant / Image by STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The aftermath

After the explosion, the first firefighters arrived within a few minutes, and within three hours, 250 firefighters were on the scene. While they were able to put out all the fires, except the one inside the reactor itself, it came at a cost. Within three months, 28 of these first responders, also called liquidators, died of acute radiation syndrome. In the following year, a further 240,000 liquidators from across the Soviet Union were involved in the cleanup of Chernobyl, a number that continued to grow, eventually including over 600,000 people. The other three reactors remained operational, being run by a team of 6,000 workers, until eventually being shut down in 1991, 1997, and 2000, respectively. Unit 4 was covered in a temporary concrete shelter that was completed in October 1986. In 2017, a much more robust shelter known as the New Safe Confinement was erected around the temporary shelter.

The health effects of radiation

The most direct and damaging effect radiation can have on the human body is known as acute radiation syndrome (ARS), which occurs when a person’s entire body is exposed to a large dose of harmful external radiation in a very short period of time. Generally, the minimum amount of radiation required to experience ARS is equivalent to about 7,000 X-rays in the span of just a few minutes. Symptoms can vary depending on the level of radiation the person was exposed to, but they usually include fever, nausea, and vomiting. In more extreme cases, diarrhea, loss of consciousness, and burning skin may also occur very soon after being exposed. At lower radiation doses, recovery is possible, but as the amount increases, survival becomes less likely, and survival time becomes shorter.

The less radiation a person is exposed to, the more difficult it becomes to determine whether any adverse health effects experienced by the individual are the direct result of their radiation exposure, or whether they’re caused by some other factor(s). That’s part of the reason death estimates from Chernobyl vary so widely. For example, an increase of thyroid presence among children in areas affected by Chernobyl has been well established, but evidence of increased mortality, cancers, or birth defects is actually fairly scant and somewhat controversial.

Even the wildlife, which has taken over much of the abandoned areas surrounding Chernobyl, has held up surprisingly well. While most scientists agree that living in an area exposed to constant radiation is less than ideal for the wildlife living there, wolves, horses, stray dogs, and a variety of other animals seem to be thriving in the human-free environment. It seems even a nuclear disaster is no match for humans when it comes to displacing wildlife.

Disaster tourism

For years, a certain breed of traveler has been drawn to destinations that come with a heavy warning label. In North Korea, for example, you can be arrested and detained long-term for such crimes as “unauthorized interaction with the local population,” yet thousands of tourists still travel there every year. Millions of people visit volcanoes, both dormant and active, every year, and 11 people have died trying to climb Mount Everest in 2019 alone.

Michael Edwards, a managing director at Intrepid Travel, which has been offering visits to Chernobyl as part of an Eastern European tour package since 2016, has definitely noticed a change. “When we first debuted the tour, we ran it as a limited-edition departure; given its success, the following year we increased departures by 800%, then by 77% in 2018.” He also noticed a sharp increase shortly following the premiere of the HBO series, with tour sales increasing by 131% that month.

Despite the increased number of tours, Edwards still stressed that as long as you follow the rules, Chernobyl isn’t actually all that dangerous. “We ensure our travelers are guided by our local tour leaders through the site, who provide a detailed safety briefing at the start of the day tour and ensure travelers don’t touch anything. Given the short amount of time visitors spend in the area, however, radiation levels shouldn’t be harmful or unsafe. Long-sleeved clothes and closed shoes are essential.” According to another tourist company’s website, a single day spent in the Chernobyl exclusion zone is equal to about 3-5 hours on an airplane. That means depending on where you’re visiting from, you could be exposed to more radiation from the flight over than from the actual visit. Just remember to pack a long-sleeve shirt.