What If You Lived In Chernobyl?

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster shocked the world in 1986, when reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. Fires raged for a week, spewing deadly radioactive material across the USSR and Europe. The nuclear fallout was unlike anything we'd ever seen before. And, despite eventual evacuation and a 1,000 square mile exclusion zone, we're still counting the cost. In this video, Unveiled discovers how dangerous and devastating the Chernobyl disaster was. What happened to the people living in Pripyat and the other surrounding towns? And will the region ever be safe again?

What If You Lived In Chernobyl?

On April 26th, 1986, Reactor 4 of the Ukrainian Chernobyl Nuclear Plant went into meltdown. The explosion killed two workers and devastated the landscape, forcing evacuation as thousands fled the area. And it’s remained that way for over thirty years.

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; What if you lived in Chernobyl?

The Chernobyl disaster struck because of a malfunction during a safety systems test. As a result of multiple mistakes, the reactor couldn’t cool itself down, the nuclear reaction accelerated, and two massive explosions were triggered. Toxic debris and radioactive waste were blasted into the environment, choking the area with a reported 400 times more nuclear material than was released from even the Hiroshima atomic bomb. Fires raged on the complex for more than a week, spreading the radiation further still. All told, the fallout was so widespread it blanketed large parts of the USSR itself and was even detected by other nuclear facilities in Sweden.

Around 350,000 people were evacuated, and the official Zone of Alienation (or Exclusion Zone) stretches for 1,000 square miles. Pripyat, the town closest to the plant itself, is still the most contaminated of all. Official figures say that there were up to 54 fatalities as a direct result of the event, including workers killed by the explosions and dozens who died from acute radiation sickness in the immediate aftermath. However, it’s not known exactly how many people have died or will die because of the disaster in general - and estimates vary widely.

At the time, the Soviet government was criticised for waiting 36 hours before evacuation, meaning that many residents were already suffering from radiation sickness when they were moved out. These early symptoms included nausea, fever, headaches, fatigue, and - in some cases - internal bleeding. For those living nearby and those that refused to leave, the chances of dying from radiation sickness - or from health problems linked to it - were much, much higher. Again, reports differ, but some figures claim that at least 15 children ultimately died of thyroid cancer – a condition that Pripyat residents were found to be at a much higher risk of developing. Today, Greenpeace says that thyroid cancer rates are 100 times higher in the region. The World Health Organization in 2005 also predicted that in the long-term, Chernobyl was responsible for at least 4,000 deaths, mainly from cancer and leukaemia. The Chernobyl Union of Ukraine cites a significantly higher figure though, saying that the disaster could cause the deaths of 845,000 people altogether.

Clearly, there’s ongoing disagreement about the impact that the Chernobyl disaster had and continues to have. And the number of deaths isn’t the only thing authorities differ on. Since 1986, there have been accusations of misinformation, downplaying the danger, and a supposed ‘cover-up’, first against the Soviet Union and now against the local and national government.

For example, in 2001, the Belarusian pathologist Dr Yuri Bandazheuski was imprisoned for 8 years on bribery charges - but he claims his sentence was actually linked to a study he published alleging that there were much higher radiation levels surrounding Chernobyl than first thought. Bandazheuski’s claim disputed official reports that radiation levels had fallen to lower than that of a standard x-ray. Whatever the truth, upon his release Bandazheuski returned to Chernobyl to continue raising awareness of conditions in the zone.

Despite all of the secrecy, however, we do know one thing for sure; the Exclusion Zone isn’t full of radioactive mutants. No matter what sci-fi has us believe, it’s just not how radiation sickness works. While there have been some genetic mutations recorded in the children of Chernobyl plant workers, the physical problems aren’t as extreme as those seen in a superhero origins story.

So, if you lived in the zone during the disaster, you had a high chance of developing radiation sickness in the short term; a fairly low but very real chance of dying of that radiation sickness in the long-term; and you were reportedly at greater risk of developing various cancers. With all of that in mind, it’s perhaps strange that anybody would want to live there… But, the zone has housed a steady population.

While, still, nobody lives in Pripyat itself, those that call the surrounding Zone home are known as the “samosely”, or “self-settlers”. Today there are only around 150 of them, and nearly all are senior citizens who lived in the region before the disaster and either returned despite the warnings or outright refused to evacuate in the first place. Most live in the town of Chernobyl which, despite sharing the name, is further away from the Chernobyl plant itself and is just outside the 100% no-go Black Zone. Perhaps even more surprisingly, there are also a small number of samosely immigrants who move to the Zone because it’s incredibly cheap to live there. It’s a difficult life, though, as there’s almost zero infrastructure, so most samosely have to farm their own food which could potentially be contaminated. It’s a unique and extreme lifestyle.

The Zone isn’t completely closed off to visitors, either. Since the disaster, plenty of people have been allowed temporary entrance, including journalists, soldiers, politicians, researchers, and scientists. The most common reason why people venture beyond the safety parameters is for work; in fact, even the Chernobyl plant itself wasn’t fully decommissioned until the year 2000, fourteen years after it exploded. Today, liquidators are still employed to clean up the area, a goal the Ukrainian government hopes to achieve by 2065. And there have been various construction teams allowed onto the site, although all workers are said to be strictly monitored to ensure they’re not at risk.

The same goes for anybody else entering the Zone, which has been open to tourists since 2010. Increasing numbers have taken trips to Chernobyl to see its abandoned towns for themselves. They’re checked over with Geiger counters before, after and during their visit, and have to sign a lengthy waiver to cover liability if anything happens to them, but it’s become a popular day trip out of Kiev. Interestingly, the Exclusion Zone has also become a unique spot for animals and wildlife - with many species actually flourishing in the wake of nuclear catastrophe. So, there’s another reason why more and more tourists are trying to get in.

That said, there’s no doubt that if you lived in or around Pripyat at the time of the explosion, then you found yourself in a very dangerous situation. And, even if you were evacuated immediately, your chances of developing various major health problems at any point in your life were and are much higher. As for today, if you wanted to move into the Exclusion Zone you’d be doing so at your own risk. And that’s what would happen if you lived in Chernobyl.