What you see when you visit the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

While many people are watching the new HBO show Chernobyl—poised to become the new Game of Thrones based on its ratings and reviews—I went to Ukraine to see the actual Exclusion Zone.

Located at the 30-kilometer (18-mile) perimeter is a border control station where officers inspect your passport and tour registration. At the same checkpoint, visitors are checked for radiation upon exiting. Those entering are required to wear long pants and long sleeves, and eating and drinking outside is forbidden. You are not allowed to touch anything, much less take it with you.

Reaching the 10-kilometer (six-mile) perimeter, the Geiger counter displays higher levels of radiation, but only at certain hotspots that the tour guides were eager to point out to us. People in Chernobyl work and live normally again, subject to certain restrictions, and after the 2016 installation of the New Safe Confinement, even the levels around the exploded reactor are lower than those produced by a flight at an altitude of six miles. During the eight-hour visit, the dose of radiation I received was 25 times lower than a chest x-ray. The visits today are arguably safe, but it wasn’t always like that.

Chernobyl by HBO very accurately portrays how the population of Pripyat, the town where the workers of the nuclear power plant lived, was kept in the dark and even compelled to participate in outside activities despite dangerously high levels of radiation. At the dose inhabitants received, radiation alters the composition of blood, which can quickly lead to fatal and painful forms of cancer.

The communist apparatchiks of the Soviet Union did not want to admit any wrongdoing or failure in their behavior. Moscow had made it clear to the population that nuclear energy was safe and that the state couldn’t make mistakes. It was only when the radioactive rain hit Western and Northern Europe that the Soviet machine could no longer use its Iron Curtain to veil the truth from the eyes of the world.

The reasons for the accident are two-factorial: Both the lack of financial resources of the Soviet Union (and the infrastructure savings made from that) and the incompetence and arrogance of the leading figures in the reactor provoked the disaster. Anatoly Dyatlov was the deputy chief engineer of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and oversaw the safety test of the RBMK nuclear power reactor during the night of the accident on April 26, 1986.

The test was intended to eliminate a potential safety problem: During a power outage, the emergency generator needed 60 seconds to pump water back through the core of the plant. Dyatlov failed to follow test procedure, producing an uncontained nuclear chain reaction. Major flaws in the construction of the plant, hidden by the Soviet secrecy machinery, led to the explosion of the reactor core.

According to the tour guides in Chernobyl, the HBO show overly dramatizes the event and adds elements that are factually untrue. There is no evidence that high levels of radiation can lead to the taste of metal in your mouth. While radiation can influence your neurological functions and make you imagine things, it is very unlikely that all firemen would experience the same phenomenon simultaneously. The explosion at the reactor also would not produce a bright light shooting up into the sky as depicted in the miniseries.

However, the behavior of the Soviet propaganda machine is accurately depicted.

The fanatic trust in the state, as well the government cover-up, led to death and fatal diseases for many people and could have resulted in the deadliest man-made incident in human history (the series does explain how the worst-case scenario was avoided at great human cost).

Just how many people died because of the Chernobyl disaster remains the subject of debate, which is political. The Soviet Union recognized 31 deaths, which includes personnel of the nuclear plant and the first-responding firemen who died from radiation poisoning. This is inaccurately portrayed in the HBO series, which gives the impression that all first-responders died when only 20 percent of first-responders ended up dying from radiation.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the real number of people who died because of Chernobyl is 4,000. One of the major findings of international research, which went on for 20 years after the incident, was this:

Approximately 1000 on-site reactor staff and emergency workers were heavily exposed to high-level radiation on the first day of the accident; among the more than 200 000 emergency and recovery operation workers exposed during the period from 1986-1987, an estimated 2200 radiation-caused deaths can be expected during their lifetime.

The Soviet Union covered up the consequences of the disaster, and the Russian Federation does not want to have any of the responsibility (which would be financial) related to Chernobyl. Today, engineering and funding are coming from the international community, and the now independent Ukraine shoulders the consequences for the region.

On the other hand, consequences get overblown for anti-nuclear energy activism purposes. Michael Shellenberger questions the validity of UN estimates in Forbes and sets the record straight on many of the false claims the HBO miniseries makes. In fact, Chernobyl is used in an effort to make nuclear energy less credible and trusted. In reality, the USSR incident has little if nothing to do with modern nuclear power plants. But Shellenberger is also too grim when it comes to the effects of the series.

HBO’s Chernobylportrays the incompetence of a collectivized superstate just as well as it exaggerates and dramatizes the consequences of radiation.

Whoever visits the site today sees that the human disaster caused by the Soviet Union was very real and palpable. The quick nature of the evacuation can still be felt in the ghost town of Pripyat today amid abandoned supermarkets, hospitals, and kids’ toys. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was one of the worst fiascos of communism. The authoritarianism inherent in the system was projected into lower ranks, which promoted the denial of wrongdoing throughout any procedure. If the communist apparatchiks hadn’t been so eager to save face, much human suffering could have been avoided.

Chernobyl is not the failure of the technology (which has also undergone vast improvement since 1986 and was never in a similar situation in the West in the 1980s) but the failure of collectivism and blind trust in the authority of the state. It should serve as a lesson that all good and efficient things can be destroyed by communism’s wrath.


This article was first published by the Foundation for Economic Education.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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