What is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone?

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is one of the most radioactive places in the world. On April 26, 1986, a disastrous collapse in Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine (in the former USSR) led to two huge explosions that blew 2,000 ton (1,800 metric ton) cover of one of the plant’s reactors, covering the area with reactor debris and its radioactive fuel. The explosion released into the atmosphere 400 times more radiation than that produced by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshimaand nuclear fallout has swept across Europe, according to a report by the European Parliament.

On May 2, 1986, a Soviet commission officially declared a no-go zone around the disaster and called it the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. The area includes an area of ​​approximately 1,040 square miles (2,700 square kilometers) around the 18.6 mile (30 km) radius of the plant; according to US Department of Energy. By April 27 (the day after the explosion), authorities had already evacuated the nearby town of Pripyat, but new orders were issued in May to evacuate all those remaining in the exclusion zone. Over the following weeks and months, around 116,000 people would be relocated from inside the exclusion zone. That number continued to rise, reaching a total of around 200,000 people before the evacuation was complete, according to the international atomic energy agency.

Related: 5 weird things you didn’t know about Chernobyl

The Chernobyl reactor after the explosion of April 26, 1986. (Image credit: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

According to US Department of Energyduring the first year of its existence, the 18.6-mile (30 km) exclusion zone was divided into three separate regions:

— The interior exclusion zone: the high-radiation region within a radius of 10 km around the factory whose population had to be evacuated and whose re-entry was definitively prohibited.

— The temporary evacuation zone: a moderately irradiated region to which the public can return once the radiation has dropped to safe levels.

— The rigorous surveillance zone: a sporadically irradiated region from which children and pregnant women were moved to less irradiated zones in the aftermath of the disaster.

The exclusion zone expanded over the following years. When the Ukrainian exclusion zone is added to the neighboring Belarusian exclusion zone, the combined area amounts to approximately 1,550 square miles (4,000 square kilometers), according to the European Radioecology Exchange Alliance.

In early 2022, rising tensions between Russia and NATO over Ukraine’s potential membership in the Western military alliance also led to an increased guard presence inside the exclusion zone of Chernobyl, according to Sky News. The region, which lies near Ukraine’s northern border with Russia’s ally Belarus and straddles the most direct route between it and Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, has been stationed with 7,500 border guards additional between December 2021 and February 2022.

How dangerous is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone?

A radioactive warning sign inside the exclusion zone. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

More than 100 radioactive elements were released into the atmosphere immediately after the disaster, according to the international atomic energy agency (IAEA). The most dangerous of these were the isotopes of iodine, strontium and cesium, which have respective radioactive half-lives (the period of time it takes for half the material to decay) of 8 days, 29 years, and 30 years. The majority of the released elements were short-lived (meaning their half-lives do not exceed a few weeks or even days), but the long half-lives of strontium and cesium mean that they are still present in the region . At low levels, iodine can cause thyroid cancer; strontium leukemia; and cesium has particularly harmful effects on the liver and spleen, according to the IAEA.

Other radioactive elements released in the explosion have a much longer lifespan, such as plutonium-239 which has a half-life of 24,000 years. So, although the entire Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is far less radioactive today than it was in the days immediately following the disaster, the radioactive material with the longest lifespan at inside the zone could still take thousands of years for half of their atomic nuclei to decay, according to the National geographic. Radiation readings taken in the area show that its most contaminated areas still contain dangerous amounts of radiation.

By late 1986, the USSR had hastily built a concrete sarcophagus around the exploded reactor to contain the remaining radioactive materials, according to Science. Then, in 2017, authorities built a second, larger enclosure, this one made of steel, around the sarcophagus called the New Safe Containment Structure, which was 843 feet (257 meters) wide, 531 feet (162 m) high. long and 356 feet (108 m) high. This enclosure was designed to completely enclose the reactor and its sarcophagus for 100 years, according to World Nuclear News. Even so, much of the nuclear fuel inside the reactor is still smoldering, leaving scientists monitoring the site worried the material could explode again, Previously reported Live Science. If it were to explode, the force could cause the sarcophagus to collapse, burying the nuclear material under even more rubble.

Another cause for concern for scientists observing the exclusion zone is the irradiated trees in the woods surrounding the plant. Shortly after the explosion, many of the trees closest to the power plant absorbed so much radiation that they turned bright orange before dying, earning the area the nickname “Red Forest”. The dead trees were eventually bulldozed and buried, but much of the surviving plant life absorbed large amounts of dangerous radionuclides, which, in the event of a forest fire, could be sent into the air as inhalable aerosols.

Life in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

A moose and calves grazing inside the area. (Image credit: Valeriy Yurko/Polesye State Radioecological Reserve)

Today, the exclusion zone is filled with a variety of wildlife species that have thrived in the absence of mankind. Wolves, boars, beavers, moose, eagles, deer, lynx and bears have all thrived in the thick forests of the area. Packs of dogs, the now feral descendants of the area’s abandoned pets, also roam the area, according to the BBC. British conservationists studying the area have also found that the population of Przewalski’s horse, an endangered species of wild horse native to Mongolia, has exploded inside the area, they reported in 2016 in The biologist.

Although mostly appearing healthy, some of the area’s animals carry high levels of cesium in their bodies, and area birds are 20 times more likely to have genetic mutations, according to a 2001 study. in the newspaper Biological preservation. Insects were among the hardest hit by the sudden spike in radiation levels, with significant reductions in their populations in the most irradiated regions, according to a 2009 study in the journal Biology Letters.

Do people live inside the exclusion zone?

The area isn’t completely empty of people either. In the years following the disaster, around 200 residents, known as “samosely”, illegally returned to their evacuated villages to survive in their formerly abandoned homes. The same are mostly retirees, and they survive mainly on subsistence farming and care packages provided by visitors, according to ABC News.

How to visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

Bumper cars at an amusement park in Pripyat, Ukraine. The Chernobyl reactor explosion in 1986 happened just days before the park was scheduled to open. (Image credit: Edward Neyburg/Getty Images)

Since 2011, when the Exclusion Zone was deemed safe to visit by site managers, an increasing number of tourists have also flocked to visit the area. While parts of the area remain dangerously radioactive, the visit is relatively safe as long as tourists are led by experienced guides, according to Responsible Travel. The area itself is just over two hours drive from Kyiv. Tours last a day, beginning and ending with passes through official checkpoints to measure radiation exposure, according to the Ukrainian State Agency for the Management of Exclusion Zones.

Those who work inside the zone, as scientists, administrators or tourist guides, have been known to call themselves “stalkers” after Andrei Tarkovsky’s film of the same name. The Soviet sci-fi film (released seven years before the 1979 disaster) tells the story of an expedition led by a stalker to a restricted reality-distorted site known as the “Zone”, where there would be a piece that grants a person their deepest desires. Curiosity about the Exclusion Zone was also generated by a 2019 HBO miniseries based on the Chernobyl disaster; and Live Science previously reported that visitation rates jumped 30-40% after the series aired.

Additional Resources

Bibliography

Serhii Plokhy, Chernobyl: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster, Basic Books, 2018

Svetlana Alexievich, Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Catastrophe, Picador Books, 1997

Katie Canales, Photos Show What Daily Life Really Looks Like in the Chernobyl Exclusion ZoneBusiness Insider, April 20, 2020.

Chris Baraniuk, Guards take care of Chernobyl’s abandoned dogsBBC Future, 23 April 2021.

Neel Dhanesha, How nature took over ChernobylPopular Science, July 21, 2021.

Jane Braxton Little, Forest fires release Chernobyl radiationThe Atlantic, August 10, 2020

Adam Tooze, Chartbook #68 Putin’s Challenge to Western Hegemony – The 2022 EditionJanuary 12, 2022.

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