30 years after the worst nuclear disaster: Pripyat and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
The terrifying nuclear disaster happening more than 30 years ago continues to ignite the interest of the world’s engineers, scientists, medical doctors, lawyers, politicians, and, more recently, with the release of the famous HBO “Chernobyl” series, artists and moviemakers.
What happened on April 26, 1986?
On April 26, 1986, the 4th Unit of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (current territory of Ukraine) has experienced a sudden unexpected power surge, due to an operator error. The breakdown of the cooling system led to the overheating of the nuclear core followed by a major explosion, causing a large regional release of radionuclides into the atmosphere.
The formed radioactive clouds covered not only the territory of modern Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, but also the territory of many European countries – Sweden, Austria, Norway, Germany, Finland, Greece, Romania, Slovenia, Lithuania, and Latvia. On the International Nuclear Events Scale (INES), is a scale used for communicating the safety significance of events associated with sources of radiation to the public, this accident was classified at the highest – the seventh level of danger.
According to WHO calculations made in 2005, the total number of deaths attributable to Chernobyl or expected in the future over the lifetime of emergency workers and local residents in the most contaminated areas was estimated to be about 4000. (1)
What measures were taken since then?
To prevent the spread of radiation, the reactor was covered with a special “sarcophagus” at the end of 1986, which, according to the Soviet scientists, can only last 20–30 years without requiring restorative maintenance work. Several years later, in 1998, thanks to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the rood beams were secured from collapsing. However, with more time elapsing the structure started to deteriorate, pushing to create a New Safe Confinement. The latter was designed and built by the French consortium Novarka with partners Vinci Construction Grands Projets and Bouygues Travaux Publics, finishing the work in 2016. (2)
Is Chernobyl Exclusion Zone safe today ?
The radioactive site is gradually getting under the reign of nature. During the time that have passed since the accident, not only short-lived, but also medium-lived radionuclides have completely decayed. The external dose rate has decreased significantly, by several orders of magnitude. Even though you will not see weird creatures like in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R video game, you still would need to be careful when visiting the Exclusion Zone. Not all of the locations are safe to visit today – access to them is remaining restricted for tourists. (3)
(1) Chernobyl: the true scale of the accident, 2005 https://www.who.int/news/item/05-09-2005-chernobyl-the-true-scale-of-the-accident
(2) A new cover for the Chernobyl sarcophagus, 2016 https://www.dw.com/en/a-new-cover-for-the-chernobyl-sarcophagus/a-36567348
(3) Chernobyl Tour- About Zone, https://www.chernobyl-tour.com/about_zone_en.html