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Chernobyl: Life After Death

Updated on March 31, 2012

Chernobyl Today

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Disaster

On the 26th April 1986, a combination of operator and designer mistakes led to the biggest nuclear disaster in history. Reactor Number Four exploded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, causing a firestorm that devastated the local environment .The innards of the reactor spewed over a wide area of the Ukraine, or the USSR as it was then, and also into the sky, where westerly winds ensured that Western Europe would get a very harmful radioactive shower, harmful enough to force reindeer herders in Scandinavia to sacrifice their animals rather than eat them. Forty eight hours later, the city of Pripyat, then home to 50,000 people was evacuated along with the surrounding villages. Panicking Soviet scientists attempted to limit and contain the damage by establishing a 4000 square kilometre zone. Many experts predicted that the land was effectively dead and would be forever contaminated. However, a little over two decades after one of the worst environmental disasters in history, something truly wonderful has happened.

The Location of Chernobyl

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Chernobyl: The Facts

Chernobyl was the worst ever nuclear disaster, and it occurred in what is now northern Ukraine.

  1. It was caused by an experiment that went catastrophically wrong, resulting in an uncontrollable power surge that led to two violent explosions.
  2. The 1000 tonne sealing cap was blown off, destroying the reactor. The melting of the fuel rods at 2000 degrees celsius caused the cooling rods to catch fire.
  3. An almighty plume of fissile material-gases, aerosols and six tonnes of fragmented fuel rose over two miles into the sky and deposited radioactive material across Europe.
  4. It took 400 firefighters 10 days to put out the fire.
  5. 600,000 liquidators worked solidly for seven months to entomb the entire plant in concrete.
  6. The exclusion zone is still high in radiation, particularly the 'hotspots'. These have been mapped by scientists and special permission is required to visit.

Radioactive Wolves

Grey Wolves were once rare in the Chernobyl area, now there are more than 200 of them.
Grey Wolves were once rare in the Chernobyl area, now there are more than 200 of them. | Source

Recovery

Instead of becoming a barren, nuclear wasteland, the area around the stricken, slowly decaying nuclear facility has become a wildlife haven, a paradise for many species rare or under stress elsewhere. These quite remarkable changes did not begin the instant the last civilian was evacuated, instead they commenced only when the last of the decontamination crews left the area, a few years later. Indeed, until 1990, the only notable change in terms of wildlife was an increase in the population of small rodents, particularly mice who enjoyed a bounty of abandoned cereal crops.

Once the area was totally clear of people, researchers began to notice signs of red squirrels, rabbits, hares and their chief enemy, the red fox, followed closely by deer of various species, including the majestic red deer and their close cousin, the moose. By the end of the century, the region was safe enough for the top carnivores to return e.g. wolves, lynx, brown bear, golden and white tailed eagles and also several species of falcon. In less than a decade an empty land had been transformed into a flowering new Eden.

Recent studies of the exclusion zone by scientists have concluded that virtually all of the major animal species are up to ten times more abundant inside the zone than outside. Despite the fact, that radiation equivalent to 400 Hiroshima bombs were released into the environment, the net ecological effect on biodiversity has been overwhelmingly positive.

The area had always been home to a few wolves, but now the area boasts several packs, in total containing over 200 animals. The region is also home to the extremely rare Przewalski’s horse, the ancestor of all domestic horses, introduced from the nearby steppes. The North Western area of the zone crosses into Belarus and is home to the endangered European Bison, the largest land mammal to be found in mainland Europe. Already the ever expanding mixed forests are continuously reshaped by two denizens of the woodland ecosystem, the European beaver and the wild boar. Wild boar are often referred to as ‘nature’s gardeners’, for their ability to transform the floral character of a woodland simply by turning over the soil in their endless foraging. The zone has also witnessed the return of previously rare species of bird, including black storks, swans and owls.

The Famous Ferris Wheel

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The Palace of Culture

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Pripyat

The Ukrainian city of Pripyat has in recent times become an icon; a scarily eerie reminder of just how fragile civilisation is. Today, over twenty years later, the city, that once boasted of being the most modern of its kind in the USSR, is now reduced to a mere corpse gradually returning into the very soil from whence it came. Ghosts seem to lurk everywhere, particularly in the local school, imagine yourself walking slowly through the corridors, poking your nose into a classroom and observing the dust covered desks and chairs, some even have a fine coat of plaster flakes that have gradually fluttered down from the ceiling. Some of the windows either have distinguishable cracks or have pieces missing altogether, allowing owls to enter and utilise the abandoned building as a roosting site. The silence alone would be enough to make you uneasy. Your mind may start to play tricks on you by giving you the impression that you can still here children laughing.

Most of the streets are still clear of vegetation as army patrols occasionally roll by, but the rest of the city is gradually becoming lost under a sea of green, a world of meadows and trees. One of the most iconic of Pripyat’s human artefacts is the amusement park, still dominated by the Ferris wheel. The fair was due to open on Mayday, just a few days after the accident, but sadly never got the chance to entertain the locals, in fact the fading decorations designed to commemorate the event are still in place to this day.

In front of the amusement park, is the Palace of Culture, its gaping windows serving as scars for a quarter of a century of human neglect and variable Ukrainian weather. The once impressive fountains have now transformed into reed-beds, so whilst they may have lost much of their human grandeur, the presence of dragonflies, mayflies and swooping swifts mean that the fountains have gained a rather quaint prettiness.

The city is mostly dominated by one of the symbols of communism, huge, gray high rise tower blocks that may remain standing for a few decades; yet their decay is well under way. A walk to the top of one of these means a battle with dense vegetation, dust, shards of glass and flakes of plaster and paint. But it does offer the perfect view of just how things have changed. Virtually all of the area surrounding the city is cloaked in forest, in fact more than 80 per cent of the region is forested, compared with 20 per cent prior to the accident. Previously rare animals including wolves, deer, lynx and bear frequently venture right into the heart of the city. The nearby Pripyat River and the former cooling pools of Chernobyl is now the domain of seven foot long catfish, living alongside beavers, otters and European mink. Bats, as well as utilising natural roosting sites also rest in abandoned houses. Badgers confidently forage the streets under the cover of darkness and kestrels take the opportunity to nest in abandoned window boxes in the high rise tower blocks.

The Invasion of the Trees

Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people is gradually being consumed by the wild.
Pripyat, once home to 50,000 people is gradually being consumed by the wild. | Source

Chernobyl on Film

Did You Know?

Chernobyl takes its name from the Ukrainian word for the plant mugwort. It's also been translated to mean 'wormwood' also a species of plant. Interestingly this name has an apocalyptic link through its appearance in the Book of Revelations.

Those Who Stayed Behind

In some of the surrounding rural villages, people stayed, but they were few in number, mostly consisting of elderly folk who could not bear to up sticks and move away. Today, the youngest are in their mid seventies and they live simple lives, farming small patches with pigs and cows, and also gathering plants and animals from the forest. They still pick the mushrooms, even though they are radioactive, they can’t resist the taste. They can’t keep dogs as pets through the threat posed by the local wolves. These people are living on borrowed time, once they disappear so will their village.

The exclusion zone, and in particular the city of Pripyat help to give us a remarkable insight into a world without humans. They help us to observe how quickly a concrete jungle can turn into a real jungle, and also how quickly rare or endangered animals can recover and repopulate an area. It helps us to observe how quickly a building deteriorates once you take away the human care and maintenance. But more importantly, it serves as a fantastic reminder of nature’s resilience, despite the fact that officially the area is unsafe for human habitation, the wildlife has returned and thrived. Many wild spaces across the world are under threat from an ever expanding human presence, but the exclusion zone will probably never be repopulated, because it will take more than 200,000 years for radiation levels to die back to normal background levels.

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    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 5 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Amazing to think that after a few years it could have been as if we never lived on this planet. It puts our "civilisation"in perspective to see nature doing so well without us.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks christopher, it really is an amazing story, one of nature's greatest miracles, not only what has happened, but how quickly it happened. It makes you think of how quickly the Earth would recover if we were no longer around. Thanks for dropping by.

    • physics-boy profile image

      physics-boy 5 years ago from England

      You really churn out these hubs jkenny!

      Great work as always.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks physics-boy, appreciate you taking the time to drop by.

    • ChooseHealthyFood profile image

      ChooseHealthyFood 5 years ago from Canada

      Hey JKenny,

      this hub really brought me back to those days in April 1986... I lived 600 km away from Chernobyl. No one informed us, regular people, about this disaster, no one warned us to stay inside. In contrary, we were made to go to the 1st of May demonstration as usual, as if nothing happened. ( May 1 is the international day of workers' solidarity... still celebrated in Cuba)

      Further 10 years were all about Chernobyl. My University classmates were misplaced evacuated kids who were living with relatives and receiving small payment from the government. Birth rates of children with defects were rising.

      One day, my dad bought fresh fish on the market. He came home, cleaned it, and threw a small piece to our cat. Instead of eating like crazy ( those were hungry years for us), a cat jumped away and couldn't be persuaded to touch it.

      My dad took a dosimeter ( every family had one), and measured radiation. The fish was polluted. 10 times the maximum allowed amount of radiation. People caught it in the prohibited places and tried to make quick profit.

      Ever since then, my dad took dosimeter to the market.

      Oh those stories of Chernobyl days.

      Thanks

      Olga

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Olga, how fascinating to hear from someone who lived so close to Chernobyl. Maybe you could write a hub about your own personal experiences.

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 5 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      An intensely awesome read, with fantastic grammar, fantastic news, an interesting update on history, and wonderful images. I've often wondered what happened to Chernobyl and its fauna and flora. This hub filled in all the gaps, and then some. Though I can't help but wonder if all the wildlife is producing healthy offspring!

      I'll definitely be bookmarking and sharing this hub on social media sites. Voted up, interesting, awesome, and beautiful.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Faceless39, thank you very much for the kind words. I do remember reading about how some of the swallows in the area are sometimes born with a white patch on the back of their neck, it could well be linked to the radiation. But it appears that the trait dies out after a generation, presumably because the 'mutant' swallows are more visible to predators. Thanks for dropping by and thanks for the vote and the share.

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 5 years ago from Space Coast

      I live in Florida, where some of us were glad when the building bubble burst. I have been claiming that, if humans disappeared, Florida would be her old self in 50 years.

      We don't have much in the way of nuclear power due to the views and opinions of my generation against it. Now we are being called foolish by powerful factions. We do not need to generate more power, we need to use less.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi William, I totally agree with you on the power issue, we use far too much. Interesting sentiment about Florida. Have you ever read a book called 'The World Without Us' by Alan Weisman- he theorises what would happen if all of humanity disappeared, very interesting, particularly on how quickly our cities disappear.

    • John Sarkis profile image

      John Sarkis 5 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

      This is great. You and phdast7 are two of the most knowledgeable writers on the topic of history.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks John, I've read several of phdast7's articles and I agree with you, she is extremely knowledgeable, especially when it concerns the World War II era. Thanks for dropping by John, and thanks for the follow too.

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      How notable is your statement "In less than a decade"--it is an amazing fact! Reminds me of how the areas around Mt. St. Helens made such a rapid recovery, yet there are distinct differences to be acknowledged. This is an interesting read, giving food for thought on several levels. Enjoyed seeing the photos and thinking about how the earth was created to flourish, but also of how we are to be good stewards.

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 4 years ago from Space Coast

      JKenny - I have not read the book, but I will. I saw on PBS that Detroit has more green space, because they have been tearing down old buildings in vacated areas of the inner city. There is an urban farm movement now. Some residents started small farms, and the city encourages the effort. Also, there was a piece about the "Radioactive Wolves of Chernobyl". They are still hot. I thought of you.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks William, I remember seeing a feature on Detroit in 'Life After People' and it was quite disconcerting to see so many areas of the city allowed to go to ruin. I'm glad that they're putting these areas to better use.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      RTalloni,

      The sad thing about us, is that we're not really good stewards, and Chernobyl highlights the disturbing truth that, most of the time if you remove people from the picture, nature flourishes. I just hope that somewhere along the line we can change our ways. Thanks for popping by.

    • WD Curry 111 profile image

      WD Curry 111 4 years ago from Space Coast

      JK - Native Americans worked with nature. They believed the Earth was sacred. They made it their aim to "leave a soft footprint". Maybe they aren't the ones who are ignorant.

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      That's true, William. Native Americans and indeed many indigenous peoples around the world have a much better relationship with their environment. Sadly, most of us in the west are detached from our environment. Perhaps if we adopted some Native American wisdom, we may stand a chance of saving ourselves and the environment.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 4 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Jkenney - What a fascinating Hub. You did a great job telling the story of Chernobyl Extremely well-written and well-organized. The videos and photographs were amazing.

      I knew that the forests eventually reclaimed old abandoned wooden structures, but it is simply amazing to see the extent to which nature has reclaimed a steel and concrete city in just over 20 years. And I would never have expected such abundant and seemingly healthy wildlife. Just a terrific read. SHARING

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks phdast. I absolutely love the Chernobyl recovery story. It gives me hope that nature will always recover, no matter how much we throw at her. Thanks for visiting and sharing.

    • Jeannieinabottle profile image

      Jeannie InABottle 4 years ago from Baltimore, MD

      This is really interesting. I would have never thought so much wildlife could exist in such a place. I am also impressed by how many trees have grown there. The photograph actually makes it look really peaceful and beautiful. Interesting hub and voted up!

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 4 years ago from new jersey

      I almost cried while reading this... how horrible are we to our world and nature that these animals could survive and even thrive just because those monster humans were gone? radiation is nothing compared to the toxic nature of us... really sad. I watch that program, Life After People... and wonder who the hell we think we are/

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Jeannine, indeed it does look peaceful and the wildlife has done unbelievably well. But its still quite dangerous, apparently it won't be completely safe for another 200,000 years. Scary eh?

    • JKenny profile image
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      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Shea, I watched Life After People too, and found it utterly fascinating. Just goes to show that no matter how badly we think we're damaging the planet, it'll always recover. It's survived worse than us in the past.

    • rahul0324 profile image

      Jessee R 4 years ago from Gurgaon, India

      Hi James! Earlier, whenever I thought about Chernobyl and the aftermath that followed, I was overwhelmed wit sad emotions...

      but as I read your hub... I felt happy, happy that nature had taken over the control and re-established balance in its own way

      Brilliant hub my friend

    • sen.sush23 profile image

      Sushmita 4 years ago from Kolkata, India

      JKenny, when I found this link shared by Rahul0324, the title just forced me to take a look. Your Hub gives so much information that is so interesting; it kind of makes one belief that there will be a tomorrow after the Judgement Day! I have a question, do you know if environmentalists have checked to see if the wild life has signs of radioactive ailments or anything? I must vote your HUB up and useful, awesome and interesting.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Rahul, especially for the share. I've said it before, but Chernobyl is undoubtedly nature's greatest modern miracle. What astounds me is how quickly things have recovered. It's hard to imagine that 30 years ago, Pripyat was a thriving city, now it's a wildlife sanctuary.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi sen.sush32, I have read that environmentalists have reported that overall the wildlife is in excellent health. But they did notice that, apparently some of the swallows that are born there have white patches on their neck, but they don't tend to survive very long, so I doubt whether it will become a permanent evolutionary addition.

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      Wow, this is amazing - the article, the video and the comments. It’s astonishing that animals are living it the area and apparently healthy, and that even some people still live in the zone. You’ve really got me thinking too, and I have so many questions now. Since the area is still radioactive how to they survive and thrive? Do scientists know the answer to that or is it a mystery?

      Overall, as you say, this is so encouraging. Life goes on in spite of all the damage humans do. Thanks for highlighting this story, this is such a wonderful and optimistic hub! Voting up, sharing etc.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Melovy, I think Chernobyl is an example of evolution in action. The animals are all adapting quickly to the conditions found inside the zone. I read last night that apparently the smaller mammals all have shorter lifespans in the zone, but they thrive still because they're breeding earlier in life. Cool eh?

    • Capoeira Moves profile image

      Capoeira Moves 4 years ago

      Wow this is very informative and insightful. To think those hollywood kids are mocking the whole incident with the Chernobyl diaries. Guess the world outside Chernobyl are the un-evolved ones.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      I've never heard of the Chernobyl diaries, if they're mocking the incident- then I probably won't like it, but I'll check it out anyway through curiosity. Thanks!

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      What you say about the animals adapting to the environment - that they breed earlier is - very interesting. Humans are perhaps adapting in a similar way to pollution around the world since girls who grow up near pesticide laden farmlands grow through puberty earlier. But on the other hand that same pesticides and xenoestrogens are causing male fertility to drop. I find this all very interesting.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Yeah I've heard something similar. Have you seen the film 'Children of Men' it explores a world where humanity has become infertile. Pretty scary stuff, well worth a watch. Do you think that such a terrifying event is plausible?

    • Melovy profile image

      Yvonne Spence 4 years ago from UK

      I’ve read that book, but not seen the film. It was certainly a sobering read. I’d like to think that what’s happened around Chernobyl suggests the 'Children of Men’ scenario isn’t likely to happen, but it seems if what’s happening with that animals there is anything to go by perhaps people’s life expectancy will go down instead of continuing to go up.

    • KevinTimothy profile image

      Kevin J Timothy 4 years ago from Tampa Bay, FL

      Really like your hub on a subject that's always intrigued me. Another example of humans getting ahead of themselves. The place will probably never see commerce again.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thanks Kevin, to be honest I'm glad, because what's emerged from one of the biggest environmental disasters in history, is something truly wonderful.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hmmm...I've not heard of the Chernobyl diaries, but from what you've said about it, I'll probably give it a miss. Thanks for popping by.

    • teflindo profile image

      Wayne Duplessis 2 years ago from Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia

      Thank you for this. A fascinating read.

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