The Chernobyl power plant lies about 130 km north of Kiev, Ukraine, and 20 km south of the border with Belarus. Units 1 and 2 were constructed between 1970 and 1977, while units 3 and 4 were completed in 1983. Two more reactors were under construction at the time of the accident. The town of Chernobyl had a population of 12 500 inhabitants and a new city, Pripyat, was built to accommodate 50 000 plant workers and their families.
The accident, which occurred in the early morning of April 26, 1986, resulted when operators ran the plant at very low power, without adequate safety precautions and without properly coordinating or communicating the procedure with safety personnel.
An uncontrollable power surge led to Reactor 4’s destruction. The power surge caused a sudden increase in heat, which ruptured some of the pressure tubes containing fuel. The hot fuel particles reacted with water and caused a steam explosion, which lifted the 1,000-metric-ton cover off the top of the reactor, rupturing the rest of the 1,660 pressure tubes, causing a second explosion and exposing the reactor core to the environment.
The air temperature 200 m above the reactor reached 200 degrees. Helicopters dropped 5000 tonnes of clay, sand, boric acid and lead in the reactor to contain the fire that burned for 10 days, releasing 400 times the amount of radiation of the bombing in Hiroshima.
In early May, Unit 4’s reactor core was still melting down. Under the reactor was a huge pool of water — coolant for the power plant. The continuous nuclear reaction was approaching the water. Without three brave men volunteering to open the valves and drain the waiter out, another steam explosion would have been triggered, doing unimaginable damage and destroying the entire power station, including the three other reactors. Such a blast may have wiped out half of Europe, leaving it uninhabitable for 500,000 years.
Radiation doses on the first day were estimated to range up to 20,000 millisieverts (mSv), causing 28 deaths by the end of July 1986. (The global average exposure of humans to radiation is about 2.4 – 3mSv per year, 80% of which comes from nature.)
The next task was cleaning up the radioactivity at the site so that the remaining three reactors could be restarted, and the damaged reactor shielded more permanently. About 200,000 liquidators from all over the Soviet Union were involved in the recovery and clean-up during 1986 and 1987. They received high doses of radiation, between 100 mSv and 500 mSv.
There was chaos during the days after the explosion because all official information was denied to the public and the city was not evacuated until 36 hours after the explosion. In total, over 200 000 people were relocated.
The Soviets tried to cover up the disaster. Two days after the explosion, a worker at the Forsmark power plant in Sweden passed one of the radiation monitors. When it showed high levels of radiation coming from his shoes, staff worried an accident had taken place at the power plant. However, after further investigation, they discovered that the real source of the radiation was some 1,100 kilometres away in the Ukrainian town of Chernobyl.
The press photographer Igor Kostin captured haunting images showing the true scale of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The black and white shots revealed the truth behind the tragedy Soviets were trying to cover up. His first images were taken from a helicopter 25 meters above the plant. His camera began to show symptoms of radioactive degradation after only 20 shots, so the helicopter returned to Kiev after the camera failure. Most of the negatives were affected by the high level of radiation, which caused the photographs to appear entirely black like a film exposed to light pre-maturely.
The assembly of a new sarcophagus started in November 2012 and in November 2016 it was placed over the reactor 4. It weights 29 000 tons, with dimensions of 108 meters in height, 257 meters in width and 150 meters in length. About 2 000 workers still work daily to isolate it. By 2065, all the units of the power plant should be dismantled.
Today only 150 people have returned to their homes and live in the Exclusion Zone. Nature has taken over and animals, such as wolves, wild boars, lynx, moose, deers and the nearly extinct Przewalski’s horse abound in the area.
Some parts of the Exclusion Zone can be visited safely with a guided tour. The amount of radiation absorbed during a two day tour is equivalent to the amount absorbed during a long distance flight.
The Exclusion Zone is a very interesting place to visit because the abandoned buildings give an impression of desolation that is balanced with the feeling of serenity coming from the songs of the birds.