Chernobyl disaster: what happened, where is Chernobyl - and how to watch the Sky mini series

It has been 35 years since the disaster took place

It has been 35 years since the disaster took place (Photo: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Today, 26 April, is International Chernobyl Disaster Remembrance Day, as the 2021 date marks 35 years since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, known as the world’s worst nuclear accident.

This is everything you need to know - from what happened 35 years ago to what Chernobyl is like today.

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What happened?

It's estimated that nuclear clean up will be completed in 2065 (Photo: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images)

The Chernobyl disaster occurred on April 26 1986, when the number four reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located near the city of Pripyat, was destroyed when a sudden surge of power caused an explosion during a reactor systems test.

The explosion spread a radioactive cloud over large areas of the Soviet Union, now the territories of Belarus, Ukraine and the Russian Federation - nearly 8.4 million people across the three countries were exposed to the radiation. It has been estimated that 400 times more radioactive material was released into the air than when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan.

Firefighters tried to put out a series of fires at the plant, and eventually helicopters were drafted in to dump sand and other materials on the blazes in order to try and contain the contamination.

Despite the deaths of those in the explosions, the hospitalisations of workers and firefighters and the fallout from the explosion and fires, the surrounding areas were not evacuated until around 36 hours after the disaster began.

The initial explosion of the reactor resulted in the death of two workers, and 134 servicemen were hospitalised with Acute Radiation Sickness.

Of the 134 hospitalised, 28 of the firefighters and emergency clean up workers died in the first three months after the explosion from Acute Radiation Sickness, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The entire town of Pripyat, with a population of 49,360, was completely evacuated and during the following weeks and months, an additional 67,000 more people were evacuated from their homes.

In December that year, a protective sarcophagus was built and placed over the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in order to reduce the spread of radioactive contamination. Due to deterioration of the sarcophagus, it was further enclosed in 2017 by the Chernobyl New Safe Confinement.

Nuclear clean up is scheduled for completion in 2065.

What is the exclusion zone?

The exclusion zone refers to a 30km radius around the accident site which was evacuated and placed under military control. The zone is also known as the “zone of alienation”.

This was the area that experienced the largest amount of radioactive contamination from the disaster. The zone was established on 2 May 1986, and significant cleanup operations were organised to deal with the fallout.

The zone has largely reverted to forest, and has become overrun with wildlife due to the lack of human intervention.

The IAEA says that today, some residents of the exclusion zone have voluntarily returned to their homes, and that they live in areas with higher than normal environmental radiation levels, “however these levels are not fatal”.

Can I visit Chernobyl?

Today, it is possible for tourists to visit the Chernobyl area and the exclusion zone. The site has been open to the public since 2011, when it was deemed as safe to visit by the authorities. Tourists are able to visit the zone with a specialist tour guide.

However, visitors must abide by a series of strict rules when visiting the site, such as:

- Your body has to be covered by clothing at all times, so trousers instead of skirts or shorts, long sleeved shirts instead of vests or t-shirts, closed footwear (so no sandals) and a hat to cover your head

- No touching objects, structures, vegetation or the ground - sitting on the ground is also not permitted

- No taking any items from within the zone

While it is dangerous to stay near the site for extended periods of time, Justin Francis, CEO of Responsible Travel, says that the amount of radiation tourists are exposed to on a tour “is similar to on a long haul flight”.

There are safety measures in place for visitors, and guides will always carry a Geiger counter to measure radiation.

The Chernobyl Power Complex is found 130km north of Kiev in Ukraine, which is near the border with Belarus.

How to watch the Sky Chernobyl series?

The disaster became the subject of a co-produced Sky and HBO series which dramatised the story of the 1986 nuclear accident.

It premiered on 6 May 2019 and received critical acclaim, picking up awards including Emmy and BAFTA awards.

The series stars Jared Harris (The Crown, Mad Men) as Valery Legasov, a leaving Soviet nuclear physicist, Emily Watson (Apple Tree Yard, War Horse) as Ulana Khomyuk, a Soviet nuclear physicist committed to solving the mystery of the disaster, and Stellan Skarsgard (Good Will Hunting, River) as Boris Shcherbina, Soviety Deputy Prime Minister.

It also cast:

- Jessie Buckley (Fargo, I’m Thinking of Ending Things)

- Adam Nagaitis (The Terror, Houdini and Doyle)

- Paul Ritter (Friday Night Dinner, Belgravia)

- Robert Emms (His Dark Materials, Cleaning Up)

- Sam Troughton (The Trial of Christine Keeler, The Little Drummer Girl)

Viewers in the UK can watch the five part series on Sky Atlantic and NOW TV, but it’s also available to rent or buy on Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Play.