The accident occurred in 1986, when a test of the emergency shutdown procedures triggered a massive explosion. A combination of poor design with a failure to follow the correct order of checks meant that an uncontrolled reaction took place. A fire raged for 9 days, during which time radioactive emissions were sent up into the atmosphere and over the surrounding area. Two people were killed immediately in the blast, while a further 29 died soon after from the effects of extreme exposure to radiation.
Though the local area was evacuated and is now a no-go zone, many people were affected by the fallout and we are still learning about the long-term effect, such as cancer. Urban explorers love to trail through the streets and the abandoned, crumbling buildings, though there are about 300 residents still around who had refused to leave their homes or moved back since. They are the only people who spend their full lives inside the exclusion zone, which extends around the blast site and is subject to special regulations even for the workers at the power station.
Needless to say, it’s not a place where you would like to stay for very long, even today. The radiation levels are so high that staying for more than a few days could put you at immediate risk of cancer. This was the biggest nuclear disaster of all time, and it has become legendary not just because of the harm it caused but also for the ghost town left behind. These 20 before and after photos show the destruction done.
20. Before And After: Hotel Block
This image shows a hotel which was built in order to take care of visitors to Pripyat. It was supposed to be a luxury complex, an exciting new development that would bring a touch of glamour for those coming to the area. Beforehand, there was a neat grassy area with flowers carefully planted to bloom in bright colours. There were cars and people coming and going, enjoying a vacation or business trip to an up-and-coming town. Now, trees have grown up around the hotel, even coming up in the middle of the steps to the complex. Moss has taken over the parts of the concrete which have not already been cracked by roots. The hotel sign stands rusty over a stained, damaged building. The hopes and lives that it represented are no longer a reality. The effects of the radiation still linger. In some places, dead and fallen trees will not rot. The wild boar that have started to live in the area are not fit for human consumption, as their meat is laced with radiation.
19. Before And After: Regular Homes
This was once a very average street in Pripyat. Two women stand talking with a man, wearing formal clothes as if they have just come from an office. Small trees have been planted to keep the roads looking neat, and the houses are inhabited by workers and families. Today, those buildings are abandoned, and their once-proud exteriors are coming apart. The plants and trees have grown out of control, and even under a heavy winter snow they still extend from the ground. New efforts are currently underway to build a new case, or sarcophagus, for the damaged reactor. If it is not finished well enough or on time, the nuclear waste could get into the Dnieper River – which is the main source of water for Kiev. Even if completed, it is only expected to last for 100 years before a replacement is required. This means a constant future of exposing more workers to the radiation.
18. After: Pripyat In The Snow
This image is a classic view of the abandoned town, taken by urban explorers long after the nuclear incident. Shot from inside one of the buildings which is no longer inhabited, it offers a view of the fairground as well as the high-rise apartment buildings in the distance. The snow covers everything and almost makes it seem like a normal town. However, we can also see that no one is around, and the snow has not been disturbed. The windowsill shows signs of disrepair, and you can almost sense the deathly quiet that hangs over the town. This is a creepy image of what happens when a town is left to the elements. Already there are many signs of life coming back in the form of trees and plants, even in the depths of winter. Before long, this view might be obscured entirely by the plants that come back and grow even in the radiation-exposed soil.
17. Before And After: A Busy Road
Taken during a busy day in Pripyat, this image indicates just how lively and bustling the town used to be. While the lampposts may still remain, the cobbles have been taken over by trees and grass, and the buildings are obscured by the nature that has grown up around them. The problems that Ukraine is now facing are immense. Not only does the nuclear waste need to be contained as fast as possible in case of a leak, there are problems with the current civil war and Russia’s involvement that could threaten the building work. The current casing is not stable: scientist Olga Kosharna recalls walking across the roof over the reactor and finding holes in the concrete. Her shoes ended up being so contaminated that they were destroyed. Clearly, the current situation is not as safe as we would like to think. With issues surrounding public funding, the education system may not be turning out scientists who are qualified to deal with it in the future.
16. Before: Tending Flowers
This image was taken before the Chernobyl incident, and it shows a group of people in the foreground tending to a flowerbed. They are removing weeds and ensuring that there is enough room for the flowers to grow. This scene gives way to a harsher background – on the other side of the road, an industrial unit can be seen. This is in fact the power plant – the very same one that was later to blow and ruin the whole area. The people in the shot would have been residents, and it’s not clear whether they survived to this day or not – though they certainly seem young enough to be alive naturally. Legend has it that all of those who stopped to watch the so-called fireworks display of the explosion would later die, but there is at least one survivor who remembers watching it happen from a famous bridge near the reactor.
15. After: The Explosive Reaction
This shot was taken as news crews came to cover the incident in their helicopters, as well as the responders who were required to help clear up. The wreckage of the reactor can be seen, still with smoke trailing out of the ruins. It’s incredible to see the effect of the blast and the flames that followed it, with the rest of the complex seemingly untouched. White fragments of dust and debris scatter the scene, giving an idea of how the wreckage touched down around the area to do even more damage. The scientific opinion is that the blast zone may not be suitable for human habitation for at least another 3,000 years. It’s difficult to even contemplate: what will humans look like then? How will we have evolved? Will there even be anyone left to inhabit that zone when the day finally comes that the readings are clear?
14. After: Abandoned Theme Park
This creepy shot shows what happens when humans leave a place behind. Nature starts to take over immediately, and within just a few short decades, the forest has reclaimed the land. Here, a theme park which was set to open just as the nuclear disaster happened lies in ruins. The dodgem cars sit rusting and useless, with scattered leaves across the ground from the trees that are looming all around them. Weeds are growing through cracks in the concrete flooring, and moss covers many of the surfaces. In the background, you can see the ghostly remains of the Ferris wheel with a backdrop of trees and fog. If there was any place you’d be too creeped out to walk around at night, this certainly has to be it. The signs of the abandoned town that really hit home the most are images like this, where something that should have been joyful has been left to rot and ruin.
13. After: Deformed Piglet
This creepy artefact looks like something right out of a horror movie. There’s no way that this could be a real animal, right? It’s got to be a prop that was made just to scare people. But this is an actual museum exhibit of what happened in Pripyat after the nuclear blast took place. A farmer who lived in the area was keeping pigs, and one of them gave birth to this hideously deformed piglet. It has extra limbs, is twisted and malformed, and seems like it would not even be able to walk in a normal fashion. This is what happens when animals are exposed to radiation: horrible mutations form in the genes of their offspring. It’s not just a joke from a movie or a fantasy of what might be: this is the reality of life. When you see what it can do to an animal, there’s no wonder that humans were under strict instructions to leave the area too.
12. After: The Wreckage And Ruin
This black and white photograph shows the wreckage of Reactor Number 4 after the fires were put out. This was taken as the operation to clean it up got underway. It’s almost more creepy and strange to see the way that the ruined building contrasts against the smooth gravel and the vehicle parked neatly alongside it. The extent of the damage is clear: whole parts of the building have been ripped away by the force of the blast, while whatever remained was twisted and melted by both the great heat and the weight of the building coming down. Beyond, it seems that the building is still intact, with parts of the structure still taking the weight. Only this disaster and the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which was triggered by Japan’s tsunami, have registered as level 7 – the highest level – on the International Nuclear Event Scale. More than 500,000 people were involved in the efforts to clean it up.
11. After: Full Destruction
Taken from another angle, this shot from a grainy black and white film shows the damage to the rector and how it spread across to neighbouring parts of the building. We can see not only the collapse of the building that housed it, but also holes in the nearby roofs and areas where rubble has gone plunging through. It’s a sharp contrast to the image of workers cleaning up the flowerbed before it all happened. It took an estimated 18 million rubles to clear the surroundings, first taking out the rubble and debris itself and then undertaking decontamination efforts. Despite these undertakings, the area is still dangerous today. Conservative estimates suggest that thousands of people ended up dying from the effects of radiation; wilder estimates suggest the figure may be hundreds of thousands, if not millions. While we may never know how many would eventually have gotten cancer anyway, it’s clear that there have been a large number of cases in the Ukraine and wider parts of Eastern Europe.
10. After: Scattered Rubble
This shot again shows the wide scale of the destruction from a new angle, making it easier to understand. Here we have a close-up of the reactor as it was immediately after the incident, with smoke curling up into the sky. The blast has scattered bricks and parts of the building’s structure in a wide radius. From here, they look like simple sticks or splinters of wood, but that is certainly not the case. Remember the scale of the reactor from other shots and you will get a better sense of how large those pieces of debris must be! It’s also amazing to see how well-contained the initial blast was. The direct effects of the explosion and fire are limited only to the left-hand side of the shot. It’s the effects we can’t see – the contamination hanging heavy in the air – which are more destructive and much more wide-spread. 49,000 people were evacuated in the first exclusion zone of 10km, which was then extended to 30km, resulting in the evacuation of 68,000 more.
9. After: Clean-Up Begins
Here we can see a new angle on the plant after the clean-up efforts began. A large crane has been installed to start removing broken bits of the building, taking them away to be removed and destroyed. The twisted metal carcass of the building is exposed, while ash and mud have moved together in pools on the ground. After 1986, there was a huge drop in the number of new power plants being built – particularly ones that followed a similar design to that used at Chernobyl. The reactors at the plant had been due to grow, with two more set to be added: reactors number 5 and 6. These ended up being cancelled as safety concerns were too high. Scientists have begun to dispute some of the concerns about Chernobyl and the safety measures that were taken. For example, those who were evacuated from the furthest points of the zone may actually have been safer to stay at home than to be moved to a city like Kiev, where air pollution is high.
8. Before: Man Taming Fire
This statue was erected in joy at the opening of the power plant, which was hailed as a great boon to the area. It would add jobs and would certainly grow the nearby towns, adding more opportunities for work and education. It depicts man taming fire, an ironic image which would later take on a different impression. It seems that fire still had its own wild side, after all, and took its revenge in spectacular fashion. Some estimates suggest that only around 4,000 people will die from the exposure to radiation and the cancers that it causes, with survival rates being factored in. Another study in the International Journal of Cancer in 2006 put the figures at 16,000 thyroid cancers and 25,000 other cancers by an estimated date of 2065. It was thought in 2006 that 5,000 already diagnosed cancer cases could be directly linked to the incident so far.
7. Before: Flowers In Pripyat
This beautiful colour shot shows the city of Pripyat in bloom before the disaster stuck. Cranes can be seen in the distance, bringing the new apartment blocks into existence. They are sitting ready for inhabitants, who flooded into the town along with the jobs created by the four reactors. It is a happy springtime scene, with flowers growing freely in a wild meadow just ahead of the inhabited areas. Looking at it, no one could imagine that one day this would all be reduced to crumbling ruins as citizens fled to safer pastures. The level of radiation was incredible. Considering that if a human is exposed to 500 roentgens over 5 hours the effect will be lethal, these figures are shocking. The reactor core showed 30,000 roentgens per hour; the fuel fragments between 15,000 and 20,000; the debris heaps between 5,000 and 15,000; and even the water in the nearby rooms had 5,000.
6. Before And After: Alexandr Sirota
Here, a man who was living in Pripyat at the time of the disaster stands in the wrecked town with a photograph taken when he was a child. In it, he and his classmates stand together in the school yard. Now, all that is left to show that it existed is one lone fragment of human habitation. The dramatic change created by the invasion of nature has been rapid, and impressive. Sirota was one of the children who were excited to go to the theme park and ride on bumper cards, which were not to be turned on until May Day. Unfortunately, the explosion rocked the town a week before the celebrations took place, so he and his friends never got the chance to ride those dodgems. Sirota later spent months in hospital and was constantly monitored with a Geiger counter – and, sadly, saw his mother succumb to cancer, her beautiful hair coming out in clumps.
5. Before And After: A Main Street
This shot shows one of the main streets in Pripyat, a wide thoroughfare designed to take heavy loads of traffic. The plant was only 16 years old when the explosion happened, and as such, the town itself was still growing and expanding. Here, there are signs of life: cars moving on the road, people walking along together, large signs advertising developments to come, and big hotels, apartments, and business complexes full of inhabitants. The story afterwards is not the same. Now the trees have taken over the carefully pruned lawns, and the road is disappearing under moss and weeds. The building are derelict, their windows merely gaping holes. All of the things that were built here are now useless. When the town was evacuated the day after the disaster, residents were told that they would only be away for a few days. They packed a few changes of clothes and precious belongings into suitcases, unaware that they would never return.
4. Before And After: A Thriving Business
This area was once thriving, busy with people walking around and going about their daily lives. They were calm and unworried about the nuclear power plant that was so nearby. Many of them did not even think about it on a regular basis. 30 years later, nature has taken over what humans abandoned. One of the big issues still facing the Ukrainian government is how to clean up the reactor itself. Out of the 200 tons of enriched uranium that were on the site, 190 still remain. Only 10 tons went out into the atmosphere with the blast, and the rest is still on the ground. There is not yet any known way to safely move this stash of uranium. Despite the efforts of scientists to come up with a plan, it rests there to this day, waiting for an innovation which will make it safe to clean up once and for all.
3. Before And After: A New Town
Cranes rise in the background of a main Pripyat thoroughfare, which is busy with pedestrians walking around and vehicles driving. It is a town full of hope, and promise. Now, that promise lies drastically unfulfilled. Trees rise instead of cranes, and the roads are only passageways for the animals that now roam the streets. Interestingly, there are lots of animals that are thriving in this new atmosphere. In particular, the endangered Przewalski’s Horse has found a new ground to roam and breed in the exclusion zone, outside of the influence of humans. Wolves, bears, and even big cats have also begun to roam, finding a place where they will not be shot, hunted, caught in traps, or chased away by lights and noises. Those who live around the exclusion zone are under strict instructions not to eat the wild animals or the huge catfish in the rivers, though some still do.
2. Before And After: A Shopping District
Sometime between the taking of the first photograph and the explosion of the reactor, this building was taken over and the name of the company running it was placed onto the exterior in large letters. People crossed this area on their way somewhere or other, unaware that in just a few short years this would only be an abandoned concrete wasteland. The fact that the waste is still in need of containment is hugely worrying. For it to be kept safe until 4986 would be a huge undertaking. To look back 3,000 years before the disaster, you would see something very different. The Trojan War was just over, Christ was not even conceived of, and even Rome – one of the oldest and most legendary cities in the world – had not yet been founded. In 3,000 years, the Chernobyl disaster may seem like nothing more than folklore or myth from a disappeared civilization. Even the continents may well have moved – as they certainly will after the 1 million years some scientist suggest would be a more accurate timeframe for safety.
1. Before And After: Town Centre
Another street that was once a busy part of life in the town of Pripyat; another street taken over by rack and ruin. Though there was much publicity in the past, and the incident is well known, many people are not aware of the extent of the danger that Chernobyl presents even now. The Ukrainian government has been eager to curry favour with residents since the 1990s, when they faced unrest over the incident. As a result, they have tried to assuage doubts and fears about the situation. This has meant that many people believe the danger has passed, and that the site only needs to be avoided. They are not aware of the uranium still sitting inside the reactor, just waiting for a nudge to burst out again. We can only hope that the new structure is completed on time and is enough to hold back the waste – and that future generations will arrive at a more permanent solution.