On April 26,1986, Reactor Number Four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the Ukraine-Belarus border exploded, and the reactor burned for days afterwards. It was the worst accident in the history of nuclear power, releasing radionuclides over parts of what today are Belarus, Ukraine, and the Russian Federation. The accident affected hundreds of thousands of people, including forcing the evacuation of 116,000 residents from a highly contaminated area, and causing some 4,000 confirmed cases of childhood thyroid cancer. The Soviet Union built a shelter, commonly referred to as a sarcophagus, around the reactor, and the Ukranian government permanently closed the site in 2000.
On April 28, 2009, the Advanced Land Imager (ALI) on NASA’s Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite took this true-color picture of the nuclear reactor. The large body of water in the right half of the image is the northwestern end of a 12-kilometer- (7.5-mile-) long cooling pond, and water channels run through the network of reactor-related buildings west of the pond. Reactor number four appears on the west end of a long building northeast of an L-shaped water channel.
Mixing with the network of abandoned buildings, water channels, and roads, areas of green appear—a testament to the vegetation that was growing around the site some 20 years after the accident. After the evacuation of the region affected by Chernobyl, satellite imagery revealed widespread abandonment of agricultural fields, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That did not, however, halt vegetation growth near the site. A wider view of the area acquired by Landsat in 2004 showed green fields around Chernobyl. In fact, plants and animals appeared to have made something of a comeback, according to some studies. Residents who defied evacuation orders and remained in the region described wildlife encounters in a 2007 article from The Washington Post, although experts debated the health of the wildlife in the region.
NASA image created by Jesse Allen, using EO-1 ALI data provided courtesy of the NASA EO-1 Team. Caption by Michon Scott.
Twenty-three years after the explosion at Reactor Number Four, a NASA satellite glimpsed the remains.