12 Facts About Chernobyl’s Exclusion Zone 30 Years After the Disaster

It was 30 years ago, on April 26, 1986, that disaster struck nuclear reactor number 4 in Chernobyl. At first, Soviet officials attempted to hide the cataclysmic events unfolding in Ukraine, but when radioactive clouds were detected as far away as Sweden, news spread that the unthinkable had happened: a lethal explosion at a nuclear power plant.

Residents at the neighboring workers’ town of Pripyat weren’t told of the deadly radiation covering their homes at first. As official buses began evacuating the area, people were instructed to bring only a suitcase, since they would be able to return in a few days. But as the extent of the explosion became clear, the Soviet military established an official Exclusion Zone, a roughly 18-mile radius around the stricken power plant. About 115,000 people were evacuated in 1986, and another 220,000 in the following years, creating a desolate landscape of abandoned towns and villages.

Thirty years after the disaster, much of the Exclusion Zone—now encompassing 1000 miles and also called the Zone of Alienation—is still strictly off-limits. The area remains a chilling reminder of nuclear disaster, while at the same time drawing thousands of tourists each year and demonstrating the resiliency of nature.

1. YOU CAN STAY THERE ...

Hotel Chernobyl. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Yes, there’s a hotel. It’s simple, best described as being in the “Soviet” style. According to the website Chernobyl-Tour.com, "visitors are provided with the iron-starched linen stamped by the Chernobyl special industrial complex." There is, however, Wi-Fi, enabling explorers the unique experience of being able to email friends and relatives from deep inside the Zone. The hotel is the only place for intrepid explorers to the Zone to stay, but its staff are only allowed to work on a strict rotation of 15 days in the Zone and 15 outside, to keep radiation levels to a minimum. Workers inside the Zone live in basic dormitories in the town of Chernobyl.

2. ... BUT YOU HAVE TO GET PERMISSION IN ADVANCE TO VISIT.

The first checkpoint. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Chernobyl is still impossible for tourists to get to without an official guide. There are strict military-style checkpoints at the 30km zone, at 10km, and at the entrance to the ghostly worker's town of Pripyat. Your name and passport have to be submitted to controlling authorities seven to 10 days in advance, and the guards check you and your passport numbers at each checkpoint. The early days of the Zone saw a large problem with local intruders who infiltrated the vast perimeter to ransack Pripyat and other areas, but since 2007 the Ukrainian government has severely clamped down on illegal intruders.

3. THE ZONE INCLUDES MORE THAN JUST CHERNOBYL.

The gymnasium at Pripyat. Photo by Luke Spencer.

Chernobyl was the largest town in what’s now the zone. Dating back to the 12th century, it was once a vibrant, largely Jewish town. The peaceful farming town, however, suffered at the start of the 20th century, when many of the inhabitants were murdered by first the Red Army and then during the Nazi occupation. At the time of the disaster, the population had increased, largely due to the nuclear industry, to approximately 14,000.

A deserted house in Chernobyl. Photo by Luke Spencer.

Today, the ghost town of Pripyat attracts the most attention. Opened in 1970, Pripyat was designed as a model example of Communist city life. It was also surprisingly youthful: The average age of the roughly 50,000 inhabitants of Pripyat was about 26. The now-empty town had a discotheque, gymnasium, movie theatre, sports field, and the famous amusement park. One of the most-frequented parts of Pripyat, according to tour guides there, was the maternity ward, with the youthful population of Pripyat producing around 1000 babies each year.

As roads have steadily deteriorated, the smaller towns deep in the Exclusion Zone have become cut off and remain mostly unvisited to even the seasoned tour guides. Across the border in Belarus, the effects of the explosion were similarly catastrophic, if not more so. An estimated 70 percent of the fallout descended on Belarus, contaminating approximately a quarter of the country. The most heavily hit areas in Belarus are now part of the 834-square mile Polesie State Radiation Ecological Reserve, a mixture of forests and deserted industrialized areas.

4. THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WORK IN THE ZONE …

A worker in the zone. Alex Kühni via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Roughly 5000 people still work in the Exclusion Zone: mostly sentry guards, workers on the massive new sarcophagus, firemen protecting the still-volatile area from deadly forest fires, and service staff for the workers. Like the hotel staff, they live in the Zone on a rotation pattern of 15 days in, 15 days out, to keep their radiation levels manageable, staying in dilapidated concrete dormitories next to the hotel.

5. ... AND SOME PEOPLE LIVE THERE.

About 180 older residents also live full-time in the zone, having returned to their ancestral villages despite warnings from the Ukranian government, which has now largely allowed them to return to their homes to die in peace. A recent documentary, The Babushka of Chernobyl, tells their story.

6. SO IT’S NOT EXACTLY DESERTED.

Aside from the hotel, there is one bar, a post office that still makes one daily noon collection, and a supermarket, where produce is scarce but with the shelves are filled with alcohol. There is even a museum (never open) and something virtually non-existent in post-1991 Ukraine: a statue of Lenin. Because it remains frozen in time, Chernobyl is one of the few places where hammer and sickles can still be seen.

7. TOURISM IS BIG BUSINESS.

Nikolai, a tour guide in the zone. Photo by Luke Spencer.

The Exclusion Zone began allowing officially sanctioned visits, mostly for scientists and reporters, almost as soon as it was created. In recent years, tour groups have begun organizing brief, strictly controlled visits. One tour guide mental_floss interviewed, named Nikolai, says a couple has even gotten engaged on one of his tours. Beforehand, the proposer asked Nikolai if he could take them to the most contaminated area possible for the big moment. This year, the 30th anniversary, it’s thought that an estimated 10,000 visitors will step inside the Exclusion Zone.

8. THERE’S A CURFEW.

Inside Chernobyl, there is a strict curfew of 8 p.m. At night in the town square, one of the only things you can hear aside from the stray dogs barking is a strange sequence of rising electronic beeps coming from the forest somewhere to the north, which sounds a bit like the famous 5-note sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. A tour guide said they come from the scientist's camp, which is constantly monitoring radiation levels.

9. EVERYONE GETS THEIR RADIATION MONITORED—EVEN THE TOUR GUIDES.

Every visitor coming out of the Exclusion Zone goes through a radiation screening at each checkpoint. If your levels are too high, clothes and boots are either washed or left behind. Taking anything out of Chernobyl is forbidden. Tour guides like Nikolai are checked regularly, and say they don’t receive anywhere near the annual levels of radiation deemed too dangerous.

10. TOURISM THERE MAY NOT LAST.

Luke Spencer

Despite the growing numbers of tourists, the Zone is still highly toxic and dangerous. The landscape is dotted with warning signs indicating where the “hot spots” are. Walking around is for the most part safe, but the greatest danger comes from ingesting radioactive particles. Nikolai has had to warn visitors against posing for photographs licking trees, eating berries, and rolling around in the earth. He particularly warns against following in the footsteps of “Bionerd23,” who posts videos of herself online fearlessly eating Chernobyl’s apples. Radiation levels in many places are safe, but parts of the Zone, particularly near reactor 4, and in basements of buildings such as Pripyat’s hospital, remain dangerously high.

11. THE REACTORS AREN’T THE CREEPIEST PART.

The eerie Duga-3 radar base. Photo by Luke Spencer.

One of the most remarkable parts of the Exclusion Zone is southeast of the reactors: the eerie Duga-3 radar station. Once one of the most secretive spots in the old Soviet Union, this vast construction of antennae and aerials was once pointed in the direction of the United States, listening in for incoming planes and missiles. On maps, it was marked down as a children's summer camp, while the locals were told it was a radio tower. Around 1500 high-grade technicians, scientists, and military personnel worked and lived here, wrapped in the highest levels of Cold War secrecy. There was even a kindergarten. Today, there is just one soldier guarding the peculiar complex, the propaganda murals on the walls decayed and long-forgotten.

Inside the abandoned military compound of Duga -3. Photo by Luke Spencer.

12. THE FUTURE OF THE ZONE IS UNCLEAR.

The zone will continue to be contaminated by the radiation from the disaster for about 300 years. Without many humans around, wildlife has returned to the area, which now teems with foxes, wolves, lynx, boar, moose, and rabbits, among other creatures.

While some would like to turn the area into a nature preserve, its future remains a divisive topic in the Ukrainian government, with such plans under threat from Ukraine’s nuclear industry, which would prefer to use the toxic landscape as a fuel dump for radioactive waste. Today, Ukraine remains one of the countries most dependent on nuclear power for their electricity—which means all that waste has to go somewhere.

14 Things You Might Not Have Known About James K. Polk

Matthew Brady/Getty Images
Matthew Brady/Getty Images

James K. Polk may have served just one term, but he was one of history’s most consequential U.S. presidents. Polish up on Young Hickory, America's 11th Commander in Chief.

1. James K. Polk had surgery to remove urinary bladder stones when he was 16.

Born on November 2, 1795, James Knox Polk was the oldest of 10 children born to Samuel Polk, a farmer and surveyor, and his wife, Jane. When James was 10, the family moved to Tennessee and settled on a farm in Maury County. As a child, James was too ill to attend formal school; just before he turned 17, he had urinary bladder stones surgically removed by Ephraim McDowell, a prominent Kentucky surgeon. Anesthesia wasn’t available at that time, so the future president reportedly dulled the pain with brandy. The surgery allowed the formerly ill Polk to attend formal schooling for the first time. He entered the University of North Carolina as a sophomore after just 2.5 years of formal schooling. According to Britannica, "as a graduating senior in 1818 he was the Latin salutatorian of his class—a preeminent scholar in both the classics and mathematics." After graduation, he returned to Tennessee to study law and eventually opened up his own practice.

2. James K. Polk won a seat on the Tennessee Legislature at 27, and the U.S. House of Representatives at 29.

During his time in the state legislature, he met—and befriended—future president Andrew Jackson. He also began courting his future wife, Sarah Childress. The daughter of a prominent planter, she had been educated at the prestigious Moravian Female Academy in Salem, North Carolina, and was an eager and active participant in his political campaigns. Polk and Sarah married in 1824. In 1825, Polk was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; he was speaker of the House from 1835 until he left in 1839 to become governor of Tennessee.

3. James K. Polk's nomination for president surprised everyone—including himself.

Months before the democratic national convention of 1844, Polk was at a low point. He had just lost his bid to be re-elected governor of Tennessee (he had been voted out of office in 1841 and tried—and failed—to be elected again in 1843). But when the delegates at the convention couldn’t agree on a nominee—the party was deadlocked between Martin Van Buren and Lewis Cass—they eventually decided to compromise by picking a “dark horse” candidate: Polk.

4. Everyone thought James K. Polk would lose his bid for the presidency.

Despite being a seven-time congressman, a former Speaker of the House, and an ex-governor, Polk was a relative nobody. His opponent Henry Clay lamented that Democrats had failed to choose someone “more worthy of a contest.” Despite the doubts, Polk won the popular vote by nearly 40,000 and the Electoral College 170-105.

5. During James K. Polk's White House "office hours," any American could stop by.

During Polk’s day, anybody was permitted to visit the White House for “office hours.” For two days every week, concerned citizens and lobbyists could drop by to vouch for a cause or ask for political favors. “Job seekers were the worst, in Polk’s view, and he found their incessant interruptions far more annoying than his Whig opponents in Congress,” writes Walter R. Borneman in his book Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America.

6. James K. Polk was remarkably boring.

Polk had as much charisma as a puddle of mud. He was straight-laced, somber, and humorless. As Speaker, an editor in Washington called him the "most unpretending man, for his talents, this, or perhaps any country, has ever seen." Some attributed Polk’s boringness to his refusal to drink socially. The politician Sam Houston supposedly called him “a victim of the use of water as a beverage.” (Sarah banned hard liquor—and dancing—from the White House.)

7. James K. Polk worked 12 hour days and didn't take much time off from the presidency.

Polk regularly spent 12 hours a day at the office. He rarely left Washington, took advice, or delegated. When he wanted to lobby for policy, he’d visit Congress and do it himself. Over the course of his single term, Polk took a total of just 27 days off. “No President who performs his duty faithfully and conscientiously can have any leisure,” Polk wrote.

8. James K. Polk acquired America's first patch of Pacific coastline.

In the early 19th century, the Pacific Northwest was jointly occupied by British and American settlers. But as the century progressed, Americans began to outnumber the British, and they increasingly felt like the rightful owners of the “Oregon Country.” Thankfully, neither country was interested in battling over the land. In 1846, Polk and the British drew a border at the 49th parallel (with some adjustment for Vancouver Island)—what is now Washington State’s boundary with Canada. With that, the United States obtained its first uncontested patch of Pacific coastline.

9. James K. Polk waged a controversial—and consequential—war with Mexico.

In the 1840s, Mexico’s border encompassed California, the American southwest, and even parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Polk wanted this land. In 1845, he offered to buy some disputed territory near the Texas-Mexico border, as well as land in California; when Mexico refused, Polk sent troops into the disputed territory. Mexico retaliated. Polk then requested Congress to declare war. His critics (including a young Abraham Lincoln) complained that Polk had deliberately provoked Mexico. Whatever Polk’s motivations, the United States lost 13,000 men and approximately $100 million in the ensuing war—but succeeded in taking one-third of Mexico’s land.

10. James K. Polk is the reason the United States stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

In the course of just one term, Polk oversaw one of the greatest territorial expansions of any president—an increase of 1.2 million square miles. His administration extended the United States boundary to the Pacific Ocean and laid the groundwork for states such as California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Montana.

11. James K. Polk's ambivalence toward the issue of slavery may have sparked the Civil War.

When Polk’s administration began pushing westward, debate raged over how these new territories could alter the power balance between free and slave states. Polk, who considered slavery a side issue, refused to give the rancor much time or attention. (No doubt because of his own relationship with slavery. He owned more than 20 enslaved people and brought them to the White House.) Polk’s ambivalence helped sow so much discord that historians now consider his rapid expansion westward as the first steps toward the Civil War.

12. James K. Polk signed bills that reshaped Washington, D.C.

Polk accomplished a lot in just four years. During his tenure, he signed the Smithsonian Institution into law. He was instrumental to the construction of the Washington Monument and helped establish the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He also re-established an independent U.S. Treasury, which was partly intended to reduce the role of speculation in the economy.

13. James K. Polk's administration introduced Americans to the postage stamp.

One of Polk’s unofficial campaign managers was a Nosferatu-lookalike named Cave Johnson, who Polk rewarded with a job as Postmaster General. It was a tough gig. The post office’s budget was swimming in red ink. (At the time, mail recipients paid postage: If a mail carrier failed to find a recipient, no money was made. This happened a lot.) Johnson fixed the financial problem by introducing the prepaid postage stamp, which flipped the responsibility of paying to senders. According to historian C. L. Grant, in 1845, Johnson estimated that the department would have a deficit of over a million dollars. By the time he left that was down to $30,000.

14. The location of James K. Polk's grave is causing a stir in Tennessee.

Polk died, likely of cholera, in 1849, just months after leaving office. Because he died of an infectious disease, the president was hastily buried in a city cemetery near the outskirts of Nashville. Months later, he was re-interred near his Nashville mansion, Polk Place. In 1893, his tomb was moved again to the state Capitol grounds. Today, Tennessee legislators are actively debating whether to move Polk’s bones a fourth time, this time to his old family home in Columbia, Tennessee.

10 Complicated Facts About Shaft

Richard Roundtree stars in Shaft (1971).
Richard Roundtree stars in Shaft (1971).
MGM

On July 2, 1971, moviegoers caught their first glimpse of John Shaft, the "black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks." Today, Shaft is considered one of the grandfathers of the blaxploitation genre—and it’s got one of the most recognizable soundtracks of all time. While Samuel L. Jackson has taken on the role for a new generation here are some interesting facts about the original film's creation and release. If you picked up on why Shaft and his associates call everyone "mother," you’re smarter than at least one unfortunate reporter.

1. A white newspaper reporter created Shaft.

John Shaft made his debut in Shaft, a novel by Ernest Tidyman. Tidyman was a reporter for The Cleveland News, The New York Post, and The New York Times before he began writing the Shaft series, which included seven detective stories. Along with John D.F. Black, he adapted his first Shaft book into the screenplay for the first film. He would later go on to write the screenplays for The French Connection (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973) as well as Shaft’s Big Score! (1972) and the Shaft TV series (1973-1974). His work earned him an NAACP Image Award.

2. The studio wanted to shoot Shaft in Los Angeles.

Shaft was filmed entirely in New York City, which is clearly illustrated by the shots of Times Square and Greenwich Village. But it nearly wasn’t. In his autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, director Gordon Parks recalled how he received word from MGM mere hours before he was set to commence filming that he was to return to Los Angeles and shoot the movie there. Apparently it was a budgetary issue, but Parks wasn’t having it. He flew back to the West Coast and essentially told the studio heads he would quit if he couldn’t shoot in Manhattan. "It has to have the smell of New York," Parks insisted. The director won out, and his nightmare of a Harlem in Hollywood was never realized.

3. Shaft's mustache was non-negotiable.

The Los Angeles fiasco was behind him, but Parks immediately faced another scare when he spied his star, Richard Roundtree, heading to the bathroom with a towel and razor. Producer Joel Freeman had asked him to get rid of his soon-to-be legendary mustache. Parks told Roundtree emphatically, “Shave it off and you’re out of a job.” And with that, the ‘stache stayed in the picture.

4. Gordon Parks put his magazine in the movie.

In the movie’s opening sequence, Shaft stops to talk to a blind newsstand vendor. The magazine Essence is prominently displayed—and that’s no accident; Parks helped found the publication and served as its editorial director for its first three years in print.

5. Bumpy Jonas was based on a real mobster.

Shaft spends most of the movie tracking down a kidnapped girl. She’s the daughter of Harlem crime kingpin Bumpy Jonas, and Bumpy was not a Hollywood invention. He was based on Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, who ruled the Harlem crime scene from the 1930s through the 1960s. He had ties to the infamous murder of Dutch Schultz and mentored Frank Lucas, the notorious heroin dealer Denzel Washington played in American Gangster. Fictionalized versions of Johnson have also appeared in movies like The Cotton Club and Hoodlum.

6. Gordon Parks made a cameo.

Parks appears briefly in the montage of Shaft searching for Ben Buford. He’s the landlord with the pipe, who complains that he’s also looking for Buford, who owes him six months of rent.

7. Muhammad Ali's trainer had a bit role.

Drew Bundini Brown was a well-known member of Muhammad Ali’s entourage. He worked as an assistant trainer, and was famous for the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” bit he performed with Ali for the cameras. But when he wasn’t in Ali’s corner, Brown was busy racking up movie credits. His first was Shaft, where he played one of Bumpy Jonas's men.

8. "Skloot Insurance" was a nod to a crew member.

Shaft’s office is sandwiched in between Acme Imports Exports Inc. and Skloot Insurance. The latter is a reference to Steven P. Skloot, the movie’s unit production manager.

9. Parks had to explain what "shaft" and "mother" meant to a reporter.

When Parks flew to London to do publicity for the film, he ended up giving an impromptu vocabulary lesson. At a press screening, a confused British reporter asked the director what “shaft” really meant. Parks replied by smiling and sticking his middle finger up in the air, explaining that was “the most honest answer” he could give. But the reporter was persistent and followed up by asking why the characters called each other “mother.” Parks really didn’t know how to answer that one, but luckily, a woman in the audience swooped in. “You’ve heard of Smucker’s jam, young man,” she said. “Just snip out the first two letters and add an ‘f’ and you’ll get the message.”

10. Isaac Hayes was the first black composer to win an Oscar.

Isaac Hayes’s ubiquitous “Theme from Shaft” earned him a 1972 Academy Award for Best Original Song. This win was historic for many reasons: For one, Hayes was the first black composer to score an Oscar. But he was also only the third African American to win an Oscar, period. Prior to 1973, the only other black Academy Award winners were Hattie McDaniel (Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind) and Sidney Poitier (Best Actor for Lilies of the Field).

This story has been updated for 2019.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER