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An Inside Look At The Immediate Aftermath of The Chernobyl Disaster

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casting aside fodder

On April 26, 1986, the lives of thousands changed forever as one simulation test “gone wrong” led to the infamous Chernobyl power plant disaster. The catastrophic event resulted in the Ukrainian cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat turning into complete ghost towns. It caused widespread panic and contamination across Europe. So now that the radioactive cloud has settled and the panic has somewhat subsided, it’s time to take an inside look at the photos captured minutes, days, and weeks following the Chernobyl disaster.

1. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

When looking back at the Chernobyl disaster a few decades later, the accident isn’t very surprising. The plant suffered from a number of design flaws and was manned by a poorly trained staff. It almost seemed like something was bound to happen at some point, and it did. This inevitable disaster struck at approximately 1:24 AM during a delayed test simulation of an electrical power outage. 

air shot of chernobyl

SHONE GAMMA / Gamma Rapho via Getty Images

The picture above was taken only three days after the accident and shows exactly how much damage was sustained by the meltdown. Owing to multiple delays, the test was carried out when there were significantly fewer workers in the plant. During the simulation, reactor number four sustained a huge power increase and exploded, releasing tons of radioactivity and other fuels into the air blown down by the wind. 

2. A Delayed Evacuation

Seeing that Chernobyl has been deemed the worst nuclear accident in recorded history, most would assume that the town’s people were awoken from their slumbers and immediately ushered out of town. However, things were played down by officials for 36 hours after the incident and life in Pripyat and Chernobyl went on quite normally. While a number of people woke up to illness, others went about their usual routines.

buses leaving Chernobyl

Igor Kostin / Sygma via GettyImages

The power plant was controlled by officials up in Moscow, so the Ukrainian government had little knowledge of the severity of the matter. It was only after a nuclear expert named Evgeny Belikhov was flown in for further inspection that they discovered an outrageous amount of radiation in the air. The following day, the town’s people were evacuated via 12,000 buses and 200 lorries. Sadly, while the evacuation was initially scheduled for only a few days, most of the evacuees would never see their homes again. 

3. The Displaced People Of Chernobyl

After the cataclysmic disaster, thousands of lives were completely turned upside down in the span of a single day. Neighbors were separated forever as Pripyat and Chernobyl residents were moved to a number of different provinces around the Ukraine. Most ended up near Kiev or Zhytomyr, while others ended up having to stay in a seasonal spa not far from Chernobyl. 

sad family of four

Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty Images

While some found success and happiness at their new locations, others, especially the elderly, had a hard time adapting to bigger cities. Ultimately, Soviet officials built the residents a new town to live in called Slavutych. Sadly, not everyone in the exclusion zone got a new home. The government didn’t even bother to evacuate and rehouse the people living in smaller villages. These folks were left to their own devices and spent years hopping from village to village around Belarus and the Ukraine.

4. One Hazardous Clean Up Job

The Chernobyl disaster came with copious amounts of radioactive pollution. Even today, the radiation level is so high, that Pripyat and Chernobyl will be unsafe for habitation for at least 20,000 years. That said, when cleaning jobs began around Chernobyl, the goal quickly went from saving the city to preventing the spread of radiation. The chopper pictured above is doing just that. The picture captures the helicopter releasing a product that was supposed to prevent the spread of radiation in the air. 

chopper in the sky

STF / AFP / Getty Images

Firefighters were actually the first people on the scene to help clean up Chernobyl, however, they weren’t told about the radiation dangers and went into the plant with no protection. This didn’t end well for a lot of them. In the days that followed, officials sent in military personnel, as well as blue collar workers, namely janitors and miners, to take care of the city. Unfortunately, most of them weren’t prepared for the severity of the situation either. 

5. Unprepared For The Job

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, the people in charge of cleaning up were both misinformed and ill prepared for how dangerous the situation was. This picture portrays a lead covered army tank designed to withstand the radiation levels found in the most contaminated areas around the Chernobyl plant. However, the soldier on the tank is outfitted with a cotton jumpsuit and flimsy gas mask that provided insufficient protection. 

soldier in tank

Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty Images

This is a perfect example of how most of the cleaning was done. Photographer Igor Kostin, who was actually on the scene in 1986, detailed some cleaning tactics in his book Chernobyl: Confessions of a Reporter. He remarked that cleaners were “instructed to throw a shovelful of radioactive dust and then run.”

6. Roof Cats On A Dangerous Mission

The most dangerous job at the time belonged to a group of radiation experts nicknamed “Roof Cats.” These guys would go where few dared to examine the radiation levels throughout the Chernobyl plant. They would even check on the roof of reactor number three on a nightly basis. What’s more, these men would oversee all the sites that the liquidators were working on.

brave roof cats

Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty Images

Unfortunately, there was a price to pay for the daring work these experts undertook. In 1988, Roof Cat Alexander Goureiev passed away as a result of a radiation-related sickness. It’s been reported that even after thirty years of working on the site, some of the Roof Cats are still feeling the adverse affects of their time at Chernobyl. 

7. Homesickness Drives People Back To Exposed Areas

If you think that Chernobyl’s 10-kilometer exclusion zone remained deserted of any human life, you’re wrong. Not long after the evacuation, people began flocking back to their old homes despite the high radiation levels. Most of these people were the elderly, who found adapting to life in a big city too hard. 

elderly woman

Igor Kostin / Sygma via Getty Images

Some of them had lived in the villages and towns surrounding Chernobyl for the majority of their lives. Leaving it all behind at such an old age just didn’t sit well with them. The picture above is from 1990, and it shows an elderly woman returning to her home for the first time since the accident. She is seen cleaning off some pictures, which remained largely untouched following the disaster. 

8. Chernobyl’s Effect On The Wildlife

While most people were evacuated from the chaotic scene, animals were pretty much left to fend for themselves. The contaminated soil and air eventually wiped out all of the wildlife in the area. However, in the wake of the reactor explosion, it was actually the fish in the area that suffered the most.

radioactive fishes

Igor Kostin / Sygma viaGettyImages

Pictured above are a number of fish that tried to escape the artificial lake within the Chernobyl site. Seeing as the lake was used to cool the turbines, these fish weren’t spared any radioactivity. In an attempt to flee the contaminated water, the fish actually jumped onto the shore. When liquidators eventually happened upon the scene, they discovered that the radiation exposure had resulted in over-sized and flabby fish.

9. Chernobyl Remained Operational

Back in 1984, Chernobyl was amidst plans for expansion. However, the plans were permanently halted when unit four exploded. However, the three remaining units were still able to function as normal. As you can probably guess, a lot of the plant workers weren’t too keen to get back to work.

workers working

Sovfoto / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In an effort to get workers back into the factory, the Chernobyl heads offered them double wages. While some didn’t take the bait, others jumped on it and Chernobyl remained in operation for another fourteen years. Unit two was closed down in 1991 after being damaged in a fire. Five years later, unit one was closed as a result of protesters. The third and final unit finally closed in 2000, and Chernobyl was finally put to rest.

10. Keeping Kids Off The Playground

Chernobyl caused widespread panic across the whole European continent. Unsurprisingly, one of the countries that took the most precautions was West Germany. They were incredibly strict about anything coming into the country, especially food products, which were thoroughly inspected upon arrival. To be on the extra safe side, they would also hand out iodine pills to all the citizens.

german kids playground

Roland Witschel / picture alliance via Getty Images

West Germany was even cautious about the air its citizens were breathing. For an extended amount of time, the government closed all of the playgrounds. This picture captures some German youth throwing caution to the wind and playing illegally in the park. On the other side of the wall, life in East Germany was completely different. The citizens were given very little information about Chernobyl and life went on normally.

11. Wrapping Up The Cleaning Efforts

Almost six months after the disaster, liquidation on the site was finally wrapped up. However, before everyone could go home, it was ordered by the authorities that three men had to climb to the top of reactor number four’s chimney and place a red flag there as a symbol of completion. After two attempts with a chopper, they decided to do things the old fashioned way. 

flag for success

Igor Kostin / Sygma via GettyImages

Radiation experts Valeri Starodoumov and Alexander Yourtchenko decided to ascend the chimney via a spiral staircase while holding the flag and pole. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Commander Alexander Sotnikov followed behind with a radio. The journey up was extremely dangerous due to the high radiation levels and once they were up, they had to set up the flag and come back down as quickly as possible. The three were awarded a bottle of Pepsi for their efforts.

12. Assuring No Radioactive Crops

The agricultural industry was hit the hardest by the Chernobyl incident. Before the Chernobyl disaster, a farmer’s biggest woe was bad weather and animals consuming their crops. However, once they had a nuclear cloud raining down on them, farmers had to worry about accidentally selling off a batch of radioactive lettuce, which could ruin their good name and tank their whole farm. 

scanning crops

Dominique / GUTEKUNST GAMMA / Gamma Rapho via Getty Images

With radiation plaguing the air, some farmers had to remove tons of topsoil just to be sure that their next round of crops would come out clean. There was also an issue with livestock, as farmers didn’t want to end up using fertilizer from an infected cow. Thanks to the radioactive cloud, these fears spread way beyond Eastern Europe, like this French farmer scanning his produce for radioactivity. 

13. Radiation’s Effect On Liquidators And Workers

The radiation surrounding Chernobyl wasn’t something that can be washed off in the shower. Even today, the area is extremely dangerous, and therefore the people who took part in the cleanup back in the 1980s were just about guaranteed a bout of radiation sickness. They were exposed to levels of radiation over a thousand times more powerful than a chest x-ray. 

doctor visit

STF / AFP / GettyImages

However, the workers who were actually on location when the reactor blew, as well as the first responders, were in fact exposed to levels exceedingly higher than the cleanup staff. Staff workers who tried to manually lower control rods were exposed to the reactor’s open core and were fully taken by radioactivity. Gamma rays that intense pass through the body and remove electrons from atoms and quickly diminish chemical bonds, and therefore the radiation effected their bone marrow and gastrointestinal tracts the most. 

14. Chernobyl’s Highly Radioactive Elephant Foot

Chernobyl’s Elephant’ Foot is the nickname given to the mass of corium (a lava-like material created in the core of a nuclear reactor) that formed during unit four’s meltdown. It fell from the reactor and penetrated through through six feet of concrete. At the time, if anyone found themselves so much as near this mass meltdown, it instantly spelled game over. However, strangely enough, the elephant foot wasn’t discovered until eight months after the accident. 

the elephant foot

Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

By that time, the mass had solidified and resembled an elephant’s foot. While it looked harmless enough at first glance, the corium was extremely lethal. Within seconds, a person could find themselves overrun with radiation. Despite some of its radioactive components decaying with time, the Elephant’s Foot is still extremely lethal today. 

15. A Radioactive Cloud Over Europe

For a long time after Chernobyl’s meltdown, Europeans just didn’t feel safe. Everything from food to playgrounds were looked upon with suspicious eyes. Things had to be tested and then retested to be trusted. German protesters said it best when they held up signs saying that Chernobyl was everywhere.

playground removal

DB picture alliance via Getty Images

Most of the fear stemmed from the radioactive cloud that floated across Europe after the accident. It even dispersed poisonous rain on the German states of Bavaria and Baden. This sent the country into a tailspin and forced the authorities to ban children playing outside. This image shows a group of German construction workers replacing sand at a local playground. They did the same thing to over a 100 playgrounds across the country. 

16. A Farmer’s Woe

The radioactive cloud didn’t just rain on Germany, but hit a number of locations across Sweden to Wales. This Swedish farmer was captured dressed in a hazmat suit removing fodder that was damaged by the radiation from acid rain. This farmer’s woe was shared by hundreds of farmers across the continent. 

casting aside fodder

STF / AFP / Getty Images

The radioactive cloud was responsible for the majority of Europe’s panic at the time and sparked protests across several nations. From people suffering from radiation sickness, to the illnesses that plagued the animals around Chernobyl, and the food scare, the world experienced the major downside of nuclear energy in 1986 and called for it to be put to an end.

17. Coming Out About Chernobyl

Back in 1986, Russia, Ukraine, and a number of other countries were still part of the Soviet Union, and therefore anything going on within their borders was largely a mystery to outsiders. However, the outrage caused by the Chernobyl incident forced Soviet officials to address the world head on. While statements by the authorities were kept very brief and divulge a lot of details, it was a rare move by the Soviets. In fact, they had a similar incident in the past and said nothing about it. 

Politician talking

AFP / Getty Images

Back in 1957, it was speculated by scientists that a nuclear accident happened in the mountains in Kyshtym, as radioactive contamination spread up to 400 miles from the site. Also, over 40 villages in the area dropped off the map. They didn’t say anything at the time, but we know today that there was an INES level six accident at a nuclear factory in the area. Chernobyl was somewhat of a sequel to that event. 

18. Personal Radiation Monitoring Tricks

The horrors associated with radiation sickness were well-known by the European masses and they were doing whatever they could to avoid it. People all over the continent began monitoring themselves for radiation by wearing film badge dosimeters. This handy gadget, which came into existence back in the 1940s, is made from a holder and photographic film.

guy checking himself


People would usually wear them near their chest area on the outside of their clothing. After a day of walking around, they would chemically develop the film. The color of the film would usually determine the person’s radiation level. Pictured above is a guy from France holding up his film badge. Considering that France and Ukraine are pretty far away from each other, his radiation level would have likely been very low.

19. Ukraine’s Failure To Stop The Spread

Despite having a nuclear plant disaster in the past, the Soviet Union was incredibly unprepared for the Chernobyl incident. In fact, it was handled horribly in almost every single way imaginable. Ukrainian officials did very little to stop the spread of radiation in and out of their country. Thousands of contaminated people, some with radiation sickness, were loaded onto buses and dropped off into heavily populated areas. 

checking a car

STF / AFP / GettyImage

These civilians also had with them contaminated blankets and other items from their homes surrounding Chernobyl. This was a sure way to spread some radiation throughout the country. Also, the Ukrainians initially gave the world no notice of the disaster and didn’t address the situation until they were exposed by Swedish officials who had detected the meltdown. 

20 . Screening Everything Westbound

Everything slowed down when the news of Chernobyl hit Europe. Any products that were brought over from Eastern Europe had to be heavily screened for radiation before being introduced into any markets. This image portrays a screening that occurred in West Germany. As you can see, the truck being hosed down is just one of many during a long day’s work.

checking goods

Patrick PIEL / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The inspectors are taking no chances, fully equipped in their hazmat suits. For quite sometime after the Chernobyl incident, screenings like this took place all over Europe. Today, radiation on Eastern European products is no longer a problem. Anything that isn’t coming directly from the Chernobyl site is completely safe. 

21. All Of Europe Banding Together

Back in 1986, Western Europe was a very different place. Today, most of the continent uses the same currency and live by a shared standard. However, in those days, each country was independent and lived up to its own private standard. In saying that, while Chernobyl came with some dire consequences, it did a good job of banding all Europeans together.

turning the soil

Sovfoto / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

During those times of panic, every country had to work together in order to make things flow smoothly across the continent. Farmers from all over Europe shared the common goal of making sure their crops were clean. Produce from one country had to be thoroughly checked in order for it to be sold somewhere else. 

22. Checking Soil For Radioactivity

The initial lack of urgency surrounding the Chernobyl disaster came with a lot of consequences. If handled promptly, the rapid spread of radiation could have been slowed down significantly. Unfortunately, by the time it was finally treated as the disaster that it was, nobody knew how far the radiation had spread.

checking soil

Mondadori Portfolio by Getty Images

The fear of the unknown was the catalyst behind the extensive process of testing soil and the air for radiation levels, and trying to figure out how far the contamination had spread. In the picture above, we see a liquidator collecting soil for testing. These soil samples would we taken to a lab where the radiation level would be detected. 

23. Chernobyl May Still Be A Treat

While panic over Chernobyl subsided decades ago, the threat might still be very real. For example, the Elephant’s foot that lies beneath the body of the long-destroyed unit number four might look like nothing more than rock, but it’s still extremely dangerous.

checking car

Wolfgang Weihs / picture alliance via Getty Image

The radiation level is high enough to be lethal after only 300 seconds of exposure. That isn’t the biggest concern, though. Even today, there are still chemical reactions occurring within the mass. While there is no certainty behind it, fears have been expressed concerning the possibility of the foot melting deeper into the ground and making contact with the groundwater. This would contaminate a lot of local drinking water.

24. Nature Is Thriving In Chernobyl

Once the reactor blew, wildlife in the area didn’t stand a chance of survival. Sadly, seeing that the Ukrainian government didn’t even bother to evacuate people in small villages, the animals definitely didn’t stand a chance. For years, Chernobyl and all the surrounding cities and villages were free of any life.

guy and lettuce

STF / AFP / Getty Images

However, in recent years animal life has started flourishing in the area once again. Studies have detected bison, horses, wolves, lynxes, bears, and over 200 bird species all inhabiting the area surrounding Chernobyl. Some birds have even built nests inside the highly radioactive factory. Frogs in the area have developed much darker skin, which some conclude could be a natural defense against the high radiation levels.

25. The Reason Behind The USSR’s Downfall

The eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, claimed in 2006 that the Chernobyl disaster was the real reason behind the fall of the Soviet Union. He declared, “The nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl 20 years ago this month, even more than my launch of Perestroika, was perhaps the real cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”

hazmat suit guys

Patrick PIEL / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

While the USSR was already going through some hard times, the Chernobyl incident took things a giant leap backwards. The regime initially tried to save face by playing down the destruction and rejecting foreign aid. However, Gorbachev eventually gave in. He also allowed foreign correspondents into the country and exposed the USSR as a place littered with personal struggles and low quality living standards. There was no facade for the USSR to hide behind anymore, and the Soviet reputation was officially broken.

Sources: Wikipedia,

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