It is sad when you see an abandoned building, crumbling under the pressure of years of neglect and nature slowly taking over it. It’s even sadder to see an abandoned city, once filled with dog barks and laughter, now covered in weeds and buildings crumbling. But when it comes to areas where nuclear energy was the beginning of the end, sad and desolating becomes gripping and dangerous, almost feeling like a forbidden fruit that’s ripe to be picket. Perhaps it’s the sense of danger looming that makes these places so exciting to think of – and perhaps attractive to visit. Today, we have three such exclusion zones in the world.
East Ural Radioactive Trace (since 1958)
The East Ural Radioactive Trace became an exclusion zone because of an explosion at the Mayak plutonium production plant in the Soviet Union that happened in 1957. The explosion was the result of an ignored malfunction at one of the tanks storing radioactive waste (mostly cesium-137 and strontium-90) that caused the content to overheat. The blast had an estimated power of up to 100 tons of TNT and sent a radioactive plume in the air, spreading radiation across hundreds of kilometers. The fallout from the explosion contaminated up to 20,000 square kilometers of land, exposing dozens of villages to radiation, leading to the evacuation of 10,000 residents. The area is still contaminated with radioactivity.
The Kyshtym disaster, named after the town closest to the blast, was the third biggest nuclear accident ever recorded (a Level 6).
The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (since 1986)
The Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster was clearly the biggest such event in the 20th century, the first Level 7 event ever to occur. The causes for the explosion were multiple, including design flaws at the power plant and the turning off of the safety equipment for a simulated blackout. The resulting plumes and dust clouds covered the Western areas of the Soviet Union and many European countries in radiation. The inhabitants of the area around the plant were evacuated, and a 2,600 square kilometer (1,000 square miles) exclusion zone was established around the site.
The disaster caused almost 100,000 people to be evacuated from the area, leaving a population of around 400 (people who refused to leave or others that illegally settled in the Zone) consisting mostly of elderly. Even today, only scientists and journalists are allowed to (officially) enter the Zone, although raiders and poachers routinely infiltrate it for prey.
The Fukushima Exclusion Zone (since 2011)
The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is the biggest such event in the 21st century so far. Like the Chernobyl explosion, this one was also a Level 7 event. The explosion was caused by a tsunami following the Tōhoku earthquake. The active reactors automatically shut down their fission reactions immediately after the quake but the tsunami knocked out the power of the coolant pumps, which has led to three nuclear meltdowns, explosions, and the release of radioactive materials in the atmosphere.
On the first day after the disaster, around 150,000 people were evacuated due to the radiation, and further hundreds of thousands due to the tsunami. A 20-kilometer exclusion zone was set up around the Daiichi power plant, and cleanup operations have been started that are expected to last for decades.