Photos show what daily life is really like inside Chernobyl's exclusion zone, one of the most polluted areas in the world

Mstyslav Chernov/APDespite the danger posed by radiation levels in the areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, some people still choose to live in the all-but-abandoned exclusion zone.
  • On April 26, 1986, a power surge at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant resulted in what is the worst nuclear disaster in world history.
  • Thousands abandoned their homes and their worldly possessions, rendering much of the area surrounding the power plant nearly desolate to this day.
  • However, some residents returned to their villages following the explosion, despite the toxic levels of radiation.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On April 26, 1986, reactor number four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, located in the then-Soviet Union, experienced a power surge, resulting in an explosion that sent a cloud of radioactive materials across parts of Europe.

The accident has gone down in history as the world’s worst nuclear disaster.

Around 350,000 people were evacuated following the explosion, with many leaving their homes and all of their worldly belongings behind forever. The areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, including the nearby city of Pripyat, have since deteriorated into abandoned ghost towns.

But some residents have returned to their villages following the explosion and evacuation, despite dangerous levels of radiation, and some remain there today.

Here’s what daily life looks like in one of the most polluted parts of the world.


In April 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant caused an explosion that sent a cloud of radioactive particles across parts of Europe. It was the world’s worst nuclear disaster and the equivalent of 500 nuclear bombs.

APAn aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident, is seen in April 1986, taken just days after the explosion.

Source: Business Insider, Adventure,BBC


Thirty-one people died in the explosion, and the areas surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant were left permanently contaminated— they are now considered to be some of the most polluted areas on the planet.

Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty ImagesPeople in Ukraine are checked for radioactivity following the Chernobyl nuclear explosion.

Source: Reuters


As a result of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, a nuclear exclusion zone was established in 1986 around the area most heavily affected by the radiation. It spanned about a 19-mile radius around the Chernobyl power plant and was later expanded to cover more affected areas. Around 350,000 people were evacuated.

Sean Gallup/Getty ImagesA memorial inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone lists the names of the villages that were evacuated and abandoned following the disaster.

Source: TIME, Reuters, BBC


Without knowing it at the time, most evacuees left their homes and belongings behind forever, leaving hundreds of abandoned towns and villages in their wake.

Igor Kostin/Sygma/ContributorPeople were told to take few personal belongings and identity papers, as it was thought they would be returning several days later, which was not the case.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is now the officially designated exclusion zone in Ukraine.

Google Maps/Andrew Blackwell/Business InsiderThe Chernobyl nuclear power plant is actually closer to the now-abandoned city of Pripyat than it is to the city of Chernobyl.

Source: visitchernobyl.com, BBC,USA Today


It adjoins the exclusion zone in neighbouring Belarus, known as the Palieski State Radioecological Reserve. Though the explosion took place in Ukraine, much of the radiation from the Chernobyl disaster was blown north to Belarus.

Google Maps/Andrew Blackwell/Business InsiderA graphic shows the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

While the exclusion zone is considered to be too polluted for human habitation, the highly toxic air, water, and soil hasn’t stopped some people from returning to their radiation-exposed homes and land.

Igor Kostin/Sygma via Getty ImagesA family of self-settlers in their home inside the exclusion zone in 1990, four years after the disaster.

Source: The Guardian


Ivan Shamyanok, who told Reuters in 2016 that he lives in the Belarusian village of Tulgovich in the exclusion zone, refused the offer to relocate following the explosion.

Vasily Fedosenko/ReutersIvan Shamyanok.

Source: Reuters


He said he has never felt any effects of radiation sickness, a prominent concern following the disaster in 1986.

Vasily Fedosenko/ReutersShamyanok.

Source: Reuters


In fact, Shamyanok said he doesn’t have any problems with his health. “I sing a little, take a turn in the yard, take things slowly like this, and I live,” he told Reuters.

Vasily Fedosenko/ReutersShamyanok’s home.

Source: Reuters


There are an estimated 200 “Samosely,” or self settlers, who made the decision to ignore safety warnings and return to their villages following the 1986 meltdown.

Vasily Fedosenko/ReutersShamyanok’s home.

Source: Adventure


The Samosely live in the estimated 162 villages within the exclusion zone.

Vasily Fedosenko/ReutersA resident near a house near the power plant.

Source: Adventure and Business Insider


Many of the Samosely are elderly.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesZina Guzienko, then 93, photographed in the evacuated village of Illysintsy, Ukraine, in March 2006.

Source: Vice and BBC


And most are women in their 70s and 80s.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesZina Guzienko, then 93, photographed in the evacuated village of Illysintsy, Ukraine, in March 2006.

Source: Vice and BBC


Shamyanok told Reuters in 2016 that he was 90 years old.

Vasily Fedosenko/ReutersShamyanok washes his face in this 2016 photo.

Source: Reuters


He said there weren’t many people left in his village. “Will people move back? No, they won’t come back,” Shamyanok told Reuters in 2016. “The ones who wanted to have died already.”

Vasily Fedosenko/ReutersPictured above: Photos of Shamyanok’s relatives seen in his house in 2016.

Source: Reuters


It’s technically considered illegal to live in the villages within the exclusion zone.

GENIA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty ImagesMaria Urupova, 71, photographed in 2006 in the village of Paryshiv near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Source: BBC


But many who chose to return did so because they felt they had no choice.

GENIA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty ImagesUrupova.

Source: The Guardian


Especially for those who have ancestral ties to the land they were evacuated from.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesA resident.

Source: The Guardian


Ivan Semenyuk, who told Adventure in 2018 that he was 82 years old, said he was reluctant to obey evacuation orders in the days following the explosion in 1986, and he wouldn’t have left if armed guards hadn’t forced them to.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesA photo of Semenyuk taken in 2011.

Source: Adventure


Semenyuk said that he returned to his village of Parishev, about eight miles from the nuclear power plant, two years after the explosion. He said that his wife Marya, pictured below, passed away in 2017.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesA photo of Semenyuk taken in 2011.

Source: Adventure


Semenyuk remembers what happened the night of the explosion — he could hear the glass in the window shaking, but even when he was told what had happened, he said he wasn’t scared.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesA photo of Semenyuk taken in 2011.

Source: Adventure


“I remember them handing out lots of alcohol to guard against the radiation,” Semenyuk told Adventure in 2018.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesA photo of Semenyuk taken in 2011.

Source: Adventure


He said that life inside the exclusion zone is difficult, though he keeps himself busy by cooking for his chickens and chopping firewood.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesAbove: Semenyuk and his wife, Marya, who passed away in 2017.

Source: Adventure


He said he still believes it was the right decision to come back to his village after the explosion.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesA photo of Semenyuk taken in 2011.

Source: Adventure


“I didn’t like the noise in Kyiv,” Semenyuk told Adventure, referring to the Ukranian capital city, which is sometimes spelled Kiev. “If I need fish, I go fishing; if I need mushrooms, I go foraging.”

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesA photo of Semenyuk taken in 2011.

Source: Adventure


Semenyuk said that contrary to popular belief, the radiation levels are low, at least where he was living.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesA photo of Semenyuk taken in 2011.

Source: Adventure


But radiation readings across the affected zones can be sporadic.

Efrem Lukatsky/APThe Duga radar.

Source: Adventure and BBC


And the long-term effects of radiation exposure are heavily debated.

VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty ImagesResidents near the exclusion zone.

Source: Adventure and BBC


According to a United Nations report, for residents living in low contamination areas for 20 years after the explosion, the radiation they were exposed to amounts to the equivalent exposure given off from a CAT scan.

Mstyslav Chernov/APOksana Zabeylo, age 10, gets a yearly check-up in Ivankiv, Ukraine.

Source: AP and WHO


But the environmentalist group Greenpeace concluded in a review that children in the contaminated zone exhibited weak respiratory, digestive, and immune systems.

Mstyslav Chernov/APChildren wait to be examined for radioactive elements at a paediatrician’s office in Ivankiv, Ukraine.

Source: AP and Greenpeace


And a study funded by the European Union found that 81% of 4,000 children living in the contaminated zone over the course of three years showed cardiovascular insufficiencies, meaning the strength of the muscles in their hearts was reduced, which can lead to shortness of breath.

Mstyslav Chernov/APChildren ride bicycles in the village of Pysky, Ukraine.

Source: AP and CardioSecur


Water and land within the zone have shown signs of contamination that are still present today.

Mstyslav Chernov/APIn this photo taken on Thursday, April 7, 2016, a man fishes in a river near Ivankiv, Ukraine.

Source: AP and BBC


The Ukranian Institute of Agricultural Radiology recently found amounts of radioactive caesium-137 in cow’s milk in some areas outside the exclusion zone that could be potentially dangerous when ingested.

GENIA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty ImagesA resident handles produce.

Source: BBC and Science Direct


That means radioactive particles oozed into the ground and grass, which had then been consumed by livestock.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesResidents near the exclusion zone.

Source: BBC


According to Ukraine’s Institute of Agricultural Radiology, high radiation levels have been found in foods grown in the forests within the contaminated zone — two to five times higher than what is considered safe.

Mstyslav Chernov/APIn this photo taken on Thursday, April 7, 2016, a radiation dosimeter measures radiation showing slightly increased levels in an abandoned cow farm near Zalyshany, Ukraine.

Source: AP


Ingesting large quantities of radiation puts residents at risk of serious health issues, like thyroid cancer.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty ImagesMaria Shaporenko in her home in the village of Ilyintsy, Ukraine, in March 2006.

Source: BBC


Victoria Vetrova told the AP in 2016 that her 8-year-old son has an enlarged thyroid, which is a condition that has been linked to radioactive exposure.

Mstyslav Chernov/APVictoria Vetrova.

Source: AP


Vetrova lives in the village of Zalyshany, which is in the fourth zone of the exclusion zone, 32 miles southwest of the ruined power plant. After the nuclear meltdown in 1986, the most heavily affected areas in Ukraine were categorised into four zones. Evacuations were carried out in the first three, with residents there qualifying for resettlement.

Mstyslav Chernov/APAn unoccupied house in Karpylivka, Ukraine.

Source: AP


But the fourth zone wasn’t considered as contaminated as the other three zones, since it’s further away from the power plant, and instead is eligible for government aid to help with health issues stemming from the radioactive fallout.

Mstyslav Chernov/APResidents near the power plant.

Source: AP


But in 2015, a financially weakened Ukranian government cancelled lunches at local schools, cutting off the only source of uncontaminated food for 350,000 children in the area, according to the AP.

Mstyslav Chernov/APVetrova’s children.

Source: AP


So to feed her four children, Vetrova relied upon milk from her family’s two cows and by what she found scavenging the forest, despite the toxicity she said she knows is lurking in the land.

Mstyslav Chernov/APVetrova and her children.

Source: AP


“We are aware of the dangers, but what can we do?” Vetrova told the AP. “There is no other way to survive.”

Mstyslav Chernov/APVetrova’s one-year-old daughter, Natalya, sleeps holding a bottle of cow milk that could be contaminated.

Source: AP


“Hot meals in the schools were the only clean food, which was tested for radiation, for the children,” Natalya Stepanchuk, a teacher in Zalyshany, told the AP in 2016. “Now the children have gone over to the local food, over which there is absolutely no control.”

Mstyslav Chernov/APA school near the power plant in 2016.

Source: AP


The lunch cancellations didn’t affect kindergartens, but the cook for a local kindergarten, Lyubov Shevchuk, said the older children faint from lack of food. “I try to at least give them some hot tea, or take from one child to give to another,” Shevchuk told the AP.

Mstyslav Chernov/APLyubov Shevchuk.

Source: AP


Nine-year-old Olesya Petrova lives in Zalyshany and told the AP that she often goes without lunch. She’s fond of scrounging for berries and other tidbits in the forest, despite the potential radiation ingestion.

Mstyslav Chernov/APPetrova at her school in 2016.

Source: AP


“In the forest, you don’t need money,” Petrova told the AP. “There’s all kinds of food that can feed everyone.”

Mstyslav Chernov/APPetrova at her school in 2016.

Source: AP


People living in the contaminated zone have other ways to be resourceful as well.

VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty ImagesResidents in the exclusion zone.

Source: Getty


In the village of Tulgovich, where Ivan Semenyuk told Reuters he lived, a mobile shop stops by once or twice a week selling residents foodstuffs.

VIKTOR DRACHEV/AFP/Getty ImagesTulgovich villagers are pictured in 2006 purchasing goods from a travelling market.

Source: Getty and Reuters


Shamyanok told Reuters that his granddaughter also comes to cook for him on Saturdays and to clean his house.

Vasily Fedosenko/ReutersShamyanok’s home.

Source: Reuters


But other than that, Shamyanok’s life is a quiet one.

Vasily Fedosenko/ReutersShamyanok’s home.

Source: Reuters


He told Reuters he wakes up at 6 a.m. to eat breakfast and feed his pigs and dog.

Vasily Fedosenko/ReutersShamyanok’s home.

Source: Reuters


He said, in fact, that life didn’t change much for him after the Chernobyl disaster.

Vasily Fedosenko/ReutersShamyanok’s home.

Source: Reuters

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