When Will Chernobyl Stop Being Radioactive?

HBO's miniseries Chernobyl will conclude next Monday, but the real-life disaster is far from over. More than 30 years after the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded on April 26, 1986, the area surrounding the reactor remains radioactive. It's that lingering radioactivity that has many fans asking the question as to when Chernobyl will stop being radioactive and presumably safe, but it turns out that's not really an easy question to answer -- or a happy one.

To answer the question of when Chernobyl will cease to be a radioactive danger, you first have to establish what specific part of the area you are asking about. When it comes to the most commonly thrown out number of 20,000 years, according to Newsweek, that number refers to what is called the Elephant's Foot -- the extremely radioactive remains of the actual reactor itself. That is currently "contained" with the New Safe Confinement, a structure that was completed in 2018 to prevent the release of radioactive contamination.

As for the surrounding area? The number of years until things are no longer radioactive varies. Most experts estimate that the range is between 20 and several hundred years largely because levels of contamination are not consistent. There are some areas surrounding Chernobyl that still have pieces of the reactor embedded in the ground which means that they are continuing to leak radiation into the environment. Other areas do not have those embedded pieces and will be clear of radiation sooner.

It's that less-than-direct answer to the "how long" question that makes living in the exclusion zone potentially dangerous. In the Ukrainian Exclusion Zone, some people have returned. Nearly 100, mostly elderly people have returned to the exclusion zone and live there today. On the Belarus side, however, more people reside largely because Belarus has what Dutch journalist Franka Hummels told Newsweek is a "strange" relationship with Chernobyl.

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“Belarus has this strange relationship with Chernobyl and the Exclusion Zone because of the dictatorship, because it’s a propaganda dictatorship,” Hummels added, describing the Belarusian government of Alexander Lukashenko, who is often described as Europe’s last dictator. “So if the government says it’s safe, your life is easier if you just go along with it. So people just choose to believe the government that it’s safe.”

Chernobyl airs Mondays on HBO.