Is Chernobyl Safe?

Louise Smyth

The Chernobyl disaster occurred on Saturday 26th April 1986 when a safety test caused nuclear reactor number 4 to overheat, resulting in an explosion and fire that burned for approximately nine days. Known as history’s worst nuclear disaster, only one other catastrophe has ever been rated at the same level of severity.

How the Chernobly disaster happened

The test that led to the explosion was the fourth to be attempted since 1982 and involved an electrical power outage simulation. The possibility of the nuclear core overheating had been identified.

Whilst preparing for the test the reactor power was gradually reduced. However, an unexpected power drop occurred, reaching nearly zero. Successful attempts to partially restore the power were made, but this resulted in an unstable reactor.

The test took place even though the power was lower than it should have been. Once the test was completed the reactor was shut down, however, design flaws of the reactor and the unstable conditions that were created prior to the test resulted in an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction.

A sudden release of energy ruptured the reactor core and vaporised the superheated cooling water, resulting in a steam explosion followed by an open-air reactor core fire.

Exclusion zone

Consequences of the Chernobyl disaster resulted in the highest amount of radioactivity to be unintentionally released to date. 36 hours following the accident, a 6.2 mile exclusion zone was implemented and everyone within that area was evacuated. The zone was later extended to 19 miles.

Today, an exclusion zone still exists in the area immediately surrounding the power plant and both inhabitation and public access is restricted.

Discussions involving redrawing the exclusion zone boundaries have taken place in order to reflect the decreasing levels of radioactivity. However, the zone is still one of the world’s most radioactively contaminated.

Is Chernobyl safe to visit?

Today, tourists can book tours to Chernobyl to experience the impact first hand. The site was deemed safe to visit in 2011 when it was opened to the public. However, you must book a specialist tour rather than exploring on your own.

The CEO of Responsible Travel likens the level of radiation exposure expected from a tour of Chernobyl to that of a long haul flight. He also stated that the highest risk has less to do with radiation and more to do with unsafe structures.

Even though the site is deemed as safe, the danger increases if you remain close to the site for extended periods. Tour guides measure radiation levels throughout the tour using a Geiger counter.

Many are drawn to visit Chernobyl to experience the ‘ghost town’ where wildlife is thriving. There are still some areas that are off-limits to tourists, and visitors will have to undergo radiation tests when they access the outer and inner exclusion zone to ensure everyone remains safe.