Pripyat used to be one of the best cities to live in the former Soviet Union. Salaries were high, shops were better stocked than everywhere else. Apartments were well made, and people received plenty of food stamps. There was even an amusement park in the center of town. Sadly, this all changed on April 25, 1986 in what is known today as the worst nuclear disaster in history.
It all started as a test, meant to help design safety precautions in case of a power outage. An unfortunate sequence of events combined with a flaw in the reactor design and breach of protocol resulted in a nuclear chain reaction. Workers tried inserting control rods into the reactor core, but to little effect. The fusion went out of control, releasing enough heat to melt the core, rods, containment vessel and even the concrete floor. The water inside the cooling system was instantly vaporized, leading to a series of explosions. The reactor core was itself exposed, releasing 400 times more radioactive material in the atmosphere than the atomic bomb dropped over Hiroshima - around 30 percent of Chernobyl’s 190 tons of uranium.
At first the soviet authorities tried to cover up the incident, but after two days the radiation cloud had spread outside the borders and was detected by equipment in Sweden and later other countries across all of Europe. Eventually 335,000 people were evacuated and a 30km exclusion zone was established. But for many it was too little, too late. Two people died during the explosion and a further 28 from the immediate responders died within months of the tragedy. Due to the nature of the disaster it is hard to say how many people were affected by the radiation fallout, but it is estimated that there may be as much as 16,000 fatalities all across Europe. Incredibly, the power plant continued to function after the accident and was finally closed down in December 2000. As of 2019, there are still 11 reactors, identical to the ones in Chernobyl, still operating in Russia.
The reactor core melted at temperatures, exceeding 1,200 degrees Celsius. Together with the surrounding metal and concrete it formed a mixture, similar to lava, which started burning through the floor at a speed of 30 cm per hour. It was feared that it would eventually go through the entire structure and contaminate the water, but it was later discovered that it stopped after around 3 meters. The mass was nicknamed the Elephant’s Foot and, unsurprisingly, was extremely radioactive. Readings near it were at approximately 10,000 roentgens, while the average background radiation is about 35 microroentgens. Less than a minute of exposure would have been fatal.