- Chernobyl was one of the worst nuclear disasters the world has ever seen, resulting in widespread contamination throughout Europe.
- Today, the site is still being cleaned up, but experts say that certain areas are safe to visit.
- A recent study found evidence that Chernobyl is now less radioactive than the Marshall Islands, where the US conducted 67 nuclear tests following World War II.
- After testing soil for radioactive elements like plutonium and cesium, researchers warned people against spending time on four of the islands.
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The roof of the power plant, they argue, has become "the most dangerous place on earth" — a place where two minutes of exposure would cut a person’s life expectancy in half.
In the years since, those dangers have gone down significantly. Though Chernobyl is still home to a 1,000-square-mile restricted zone, the site’s abandoned schoolyards, amusement parks, and classrooms are now open to visitors 18 or older.
"You will probably get more radiation from the flight that you take," said Claire Corkhill, a nuclear-waste-disposal researcher at the University of Sheffield who’s been assisting with the Chernobyl cleanup.
That might not be the case in certain areas of the Marshall Islands, a site in the Pacific Ocean where the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests following World War II.
A recent study from researchers at Columbia University found that parts the islands contain far more radiation than the land contaminated by the Chernobyl disaster.
The researchers detected "elevated levels" of radioactive elements like americium, cesium, and two types of plutonium in 38 soil samples taken from 11 different islands. The highest radiation dose was found on Bikini Island, where the US conducted its largest hydrogen bomb test and later sunk dozens of radioactive ships.
These radioactive elements were also involved in the Chernobyl accident, which released around 5,300 petabecquerels of radioactive material.
Within three months of the Chernobyl disaster, more than 30 people died of acute radiation sickness. Today, scientists estimate that tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of people were severely affected by the catastrophe.
Nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands could have provoked more long-term environmental damage.
After testing for americium-241, the researchers found that certain islands contained much higher levels of the isotope than were found at Chernobyl in 2009. Their tests also showed that Bikini Island contained up to 1,000 times more plutonium than was discovered at either Chernobyl or Fukushima (a Japanese prefecture where an earthquake set off a nuclear disaster in 2011).
In a separate study, the researchers found that fruits on some of the islands contained more cesium-137 than is permitted by international safety standards. Some of the islands also contained more cesium-137 than was discovered in Chernobyl ten years after the accident.
Ultimately, the researchers determined that four northern islands — Runit, Enjebi, Bikini, and Naen — carried more contamination than areas near the Chernobyl power plant. Though the islands are mostly uninhabited, the researchers wrote, nearby residents should be "warned against spending time" in these sites.
Read more Chernobyl coverage:
- Chernobyl’s power plant managers ‘hid’ their radiation levels so they could protect cleanup workers, according to former deputy director
- 7 toxic chemicals hiding in your waterproof, stain-resistant, and wrinkle-free clothes
- The earthquakes in southern California were centered near a naval station contaminated with ‘forever chemicals’