Radioactive Survival Lessons from the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

Radioactive Survival Lessons from the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

by Matt Collins

Chernobyl was home to the most catastrophic nuclear disaster of the 20th Century.

And now, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, history may be destined to repeat itself.

Just weeks into the conflict, the Russian army laid siege to Europe’s largest power plant in Zaporizhzhia, setting it ablaze and denying access to firefighters who arrived to put out the blaze. Russians ultimately took control of the power plant—but not before inflicting enough damage to force the shutdown of two of its six reactors.

As Russian forces retreated to the east, we received confirmation that soldiers were encamped in the Red Forest a few weeks later. That’s in Chernobyl’s alienation zone, one of the most irradiated locations on Earth.

Following the explosion and fire at Chernobyl’s No. 4 reactor, the Red Forest was contaminated with the equivalent of 20 times the radioactive material released during the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings combined.

The Red Forest

(Image source: Image Courtesy of Wikimedia)

In order to reduce the risk of spreading radiation, “liquidators” were deployed to bulldoze the area, and a thick layer of sand and pine saplings was used to cover the contaminated plant matter.

Yet despite the almost universal recognition of this disaster and its deadly aftermath, the Russian army was still sent in to dig, entrench, and encamp during the invasion. Their soldiers even collected contaminated souvenirs to take home.

And while they’ve largely abandoned the capture of nearby Kyiv as a military objective, (as of the publication of this article) the Russian army remains in Ukraine. As such, the possibility of another large-scale city assault is still very much in the open in the months to come. That means we could see soldiers back inside the alienation zone in the near future, not to mention the ongoing conflict over the Zaporizhzhia plant.

With these dangerous elements of the conflict in play, we want to provide you with a deeper look into the Chernobyl disaster—and the potential outcome of continued conflict in the area.

We’ll look at everything from the anatomy of the disaster itself to the radioactive elements released and the near-term fallout. From the Red Forest to the dangerous assault on Zaporizhzhia, we’ll cover the reality of the conflict.

And perhaps most importantly, we’ll show how you can be prepared for a similar incident.

So let’s get started …


  • 01

    A Recipe for Disaster

  • 02


  • 03

    Dangerous Elements Released

  • 04

    Practical Chernobyl Protection

  • 05

    How the Red Forest Got its Name

  • 06

    Russia’s Invasion

  • 07


  • 08

    Back in Chernobyl

  • 09

    Worldwide Implications

A Recipe for Disaster

The Soviet Union broke ground on Chernobyl in 1970.

They constructed the power plant at the same time as the nearby city of Pripyat, built to house the facility’s workers and their families.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of Wikimedia)

The facility was intended to house five RBMK-1000 nuclear reactors, though only four were completed at the time of the disaster. These Generation II reactors featured an intentionally minimalist design—using regular water for cooling and graphite for moderation. This allowed plants to be built quickly at a relatively low cost, and the reactors could run on lower-priced, low-enriched uranium.

These RBMK reactors were a godsend to the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s. Their empire was hurting from the financial and political cost of a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan, and they were struggling to keep up with rapid modernization in the West.

So when the Russians had the opportunity to obtain the cheap and practically limitless power provided by RBMK reactors, it was an offer too good to refuse. By 1986, the power plant in Chernobyl was providing 10% of Ukraine’s power. And it wasn’t even fully operational yet.

Over three decades after the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown, only 8 of the initially planned 26 RBMK reactors are still in operation today. But those reactors have never been constructed outside the Soviet Union.

For the background of the actual disaster itself, we’re keeping things pretty straightforward—and steering clear of the heavy science for the sake of simplicity.

HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl is widely regarded as one of the best documentary accounts of the subject, even though it’s technically not really a documentary. We highly suggest checking it out after reading this, not just because of the subject matter but also because it’s amazing television. And the final episode contains one of the most concise, most straightforward explanations of the disaster.

(Video courtesy of HBO)

Without spoiling the show or going too deep into nuclear physics, we can say the following …

At the time of the Chernobyl disaster, it was widely believed that nuclear reactors were functionally incapable of such catastrophic malfunctions. In hindsight, that sentiment seems crazy—but you’ve got to remember that nothing like Chernobyl had ever happened. And nuclear power plants were designed by some of the most intelligent people on the planet. They were built to sustain unlikely reactions in a negative feedback situation.

That meant that if anything went wrong, a nuclear reactor might endure a partial meltdown (like the one on Three Mile Island in 1979), but there wasn’t any risk of a runaway chain reaction.

Well, in the course of testing the reactor’s water pumps on April 26th, chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov found a way to induce that chain reaction.

Ignoring feedback from his staff and the guidelines for safe reactor operation, Dyatlov pressed ahead with the test. Following a complex set of steps, Dyatlov precipitated a unique condition in which one of the RBMK reactors—rated at 3,000 megawatts—soared to 10, possibly even 100 times its rated power output.

We all know what happened next...


At roughly 1:23:45 am on April 26, 1986, Chernobyl’s reactor number four exploded.

Before we go any further, it’s essential to stop and acknowledge the fact that no one really knows what happened in that instant.

Most believe that the explosion resulted from the reactor’s water being flash-boiled, the sheer pressure expanding until the reactor vessel could no longer contain it. Others think that the runaway reaction inside the vessel turned the reactor core into a makeshift nuclear bomb. Some believe that both occurred—with a secondary nuclear explosion equivalent to 0.3 kilotons occurring once the reactor was exposed.

Even among the world’s leading nuclear scientists, there’s still no clear consensus. That’s a material lesson in just how complicated these forces are—and how unpredictable a disaster can be.

Regardless of the immediate cause, reactor four’s explosion was powerful enough to fire the reactor’s 1200-ton biological shield straight through the roof of the building.

Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

(Image source: Image Courtesy of The Atlantic)

In that instant, the explosion ejected approximately 25% of the red-hot graphite and core material into the atmosphere—immediately ionizing a pillar of air that glowed ghostly blue, rising into the sky directly above the disaster site.

The glowing shrapnel and exposed core set the building on fire in minutes. Despite safety regulations, bitumen (a combustible material) was still used in the roof’s construction. Multiple fires started on the roof of reactor number three, threatening the cooling system below.

Local firefighters were called and sent in without being told of the reactor’s explosion. They were given respirators and potassium iodide tablets and then made to walk right by the red-hot chunks of graphite that only minutes before had been on the inside of a nuclear reactor. One firefighter (who later died of radiation poisoning) went on to say the radiation tasted like metal and it felt like pins and needles all over his face.

(Video courtesy of HBO)

While firefighters on the ground successfully contained the blaze, the scorching hot reactor didn’t relent for the next nine days. It was ultimately quenched by 11 million pounds of sand, clay, and neutron-absorbing boron dropped by 600 Russian pilots from helicopters.

But the damage was done.

The plume of smoke persisted for over a week, carrying 70% of the fallout into neighboring Belarus and reaching as far away as Scandinavia.

Two reactor engineers were killed in the initial blast, with two more severely burned. Additionally, 134 station staff and firefighters were hospitalized with acute radiation sickness, resulting in 42 of them eventually perishing. According to Soviet figures and history, that number is surprisingly low given the catastrophic nature of the event.

But as we’ll see in a moment, that number doesn’t include the 60,000 liquidators who ultimately perished in the cleanup efforts following the disaster.

All of this was due to some extremely toxic waste products released after the disaster.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Dangerous Elements Released

The RBMK reactors at Chernobyl ran on Uranium-235.

It’s a highly unstable isotope that makes up less than 1% of the world’s natural uranium. Enriched U-235 was used in Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. And it’s a popular choice for several types of nuclear reactors.

So when reactor number four exploded, it ejected 25% of its core material into the surrounding area. The open core continued to react and release gas, byproducts, and other radioactive fallout in a massive plume of smoke for nine days.

To really understand the breadth and depth of this disaster, it’s important to understand just what was released. And the effect it must have had on the surrounding areas…

As a byproduct, U-235 reactors produce strontium-90. That isotope has a half-life of just under 30 years and is commonly linked to bone cancer and leukemia. It’s about 5% of the reactor’s waste product, and it’s a soft metal that tends to present as dust.

Another isotope produced is iodine-131, which has a half-life of just over a week. Iodine-131 can be potentially deadly since it accumulates in your body’s thyroid, then emits about 10% of its energy as gamma radiation and the remaining 90% as damaging beta radiation. It’s linked with high incidences of thyroid cancer—and frankly, it’s one of the PRIMARY CBRN threats we address here at MIRA Safety.

If you’ve watched the HBO miniseries, you’ll notice the characters taking small white pills at different moments in the first few episodes. These are potassium iodide pills, which flood your thyroid with healthy iodine to the point that it’s incapable of absorbing potentially deadly iodine-131.

That’s what our Thyrosafe pills are designed to do.

(Image source: Image courtesy of The Iridium Group)

In the immediate aftermath of a nuclear disaster, these pills can buy you crucial hours to make your way to safety or seek protective equipment. And it was impressive to see them in the series.

Unfortunately, they do not work for the third byproduct of a U-235 reactor.

Cesium-137 is the grim reaper of radioactive waste. In 1989, just three years after the Chernobyl disaster, a small vial was discovered inside the wall of an apartment building in Kramatorsk, Ukraine. Six of the building’s residents would ultimately die from radiation poisoning, with another 17 subjected to varying doses of radiation.

Cesium-137 has a relatively low boiling point, and once it’s volatilized at a high temperature, it can travel for miles, spreading fallout wherever the wind blows. Once it lands, it’s highly water-soluble, allowing it to leach through soil and into the water table.

It’s a different kind of poison. One that hadn’t naturally occurred on Earth for some 1.7 billion years before the construction of the first nuclear reactor in 1942. While strontium-90 attacks your bones and bone marrow, cesium-137 attacks the body indiscriminately, focusing primarily on soft tissue.

The best way to minimize the potential damage from both isotopes is simple—don’t ingest them in the first place.

Practical Chernobyl Protection

For the next few hundred years, cesium-137 and strontium-90 will continue to be the primary radiation sources in Chernobyl’s alienation zone.

Gamma radiation is estimated to be 20 times the normal level in the areas surrounding Chernobyl. Before Russia’s invasion, the site had become relatively safe—safe enough for regular tourism, and it was even featured on Amazon’s Grand Tour motoring show with Jeremey Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May:

But what if things got out of control?

Or what if you had to deal with high concentrations of the same isotopes—all of which are extremely common byproducts of nuclear reaction—from one of America’s 94 operating nuclear reactors.

We already mentioned how Thyrosafe tablets could help protect you from minor doses of iodine-131. These are probably the best investment you can make to protect yourself and your family from potential nuclear disasters in terms of pure cost-benefit.

But for more concentrated doses—like those experienced by firefighters in the aftermath of the disaster, potassium-iodide simply won’t cut it.

Instead, gas mask filters with the P3 Reactor element are an absolute necessity. Gas mask filters will often have a long and complicated ABEK rating, but without that specific word “Reactor,” you cannot trust them to protect you from radioactive iodine. Our NBC-77 SOF Gas Mask Filter is Reactor-rated, and it provides the protection you’ll need for everything we’re talking about today.

((Image Courtesy of The Iridium Group)

Cesium-137 and strontium-90 are a whole different challenge, though.

The former can be volatilized to the point of practically becoming a vapor, while the latter will often take the form of metallic dust. Ultimately, though, they’re both particulates. So once again, a P3 filter—especially with a Reactor rating—is the ideal choice.

When it comes to the gas mask you’re using that filter with—you’ll want one you can trust. We’re biased, but we only trust the MIRA Safety CM-6M and CM-7M.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of Iridium Group)

Avoiding bodily exposure is your next highest priority. A HAZ-SUIT with HAZ-Gloves and Kappler Chemtape to seal the gaps are all necessary precautions.

With these measures, you can prevent fallout from landing or resting directly on your skin or being ingested directly into your body. But you likely can’t prevent beta and gamma radiation from taking their toll. 

To learn more about practical HAZMAT Suit protection and how to use it, check out our HAZMAT Suit Buyer's Guide and our How to Use PPE Kit.

(Image source: Image Courtesy of Blue Line Syndicate Group)

So just like any other disaster, time is crucial.

For an early warning threat indicator, we highly recommend the MIRA Safety Geiger-1 Portable Dosimeter. This device will detect harsh radioactive particles in the atmosphere, allowing the user valuable time to prepare their PPE gear before they risk exposure to the outside world. 

It is absolutely vital to use what time you have to get away from the threat as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, Chernobyl’s neighboring city of Pripyat wasn’t given this luxury. Despite multiple reports of acute radiation sickness from its 49,000 residents, authorities waited nearly 36 hours to evacuate the townspeople.

And as we’ll see in a moment, that was just the beginning.

How the Red Forest Got its Name

Imagine a virus that can infect everything.

Not just humans or animals. Not just bird flu or a coronavirus, but something that can infect everything. Trees, rocks, dirt, leaves. A poison that can infect any physical object and then stay there for months or even years to come.

It’s invisible, odorless, and tasteless aside from a slight metallic taste in the back of your mouth.

Then, depending on the amount of this virus you’re exposed to, you could die in a matter of days, months, or years—and from a variety of causes.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Chernobyl Story Tours)

That is how radiation works when it comes to nuclear fallout. And Chernobyl created some of the most devastating fallout in the history of nuclear disasters. Remember, we’re talking about cesium-137, strontium-90, and iodine-131. They were all practically atomized, floating on the wind for over a week after the disaster.

As far away as Sweden, citizens were warned not to pick berries due to fear of contamination from Chernobyl’s nuclear fallout from over 1,500 miles away.

In other words, a massive portion of the countryside was carpeted with highly radioactive nuclear fallout. Without preventative measures, as mentioned above, these contaminants could leach into the water supply and continue to spread. The Soviet Union was determined to take decisive action in response.

After the disaster, 600 thousand recovery workers were employed in the cleanup process. They were called the “liquidators” of Chernobyl.

(Video courtesy of HBO)

These workers performed various tasks, from euthanizing contaminated wildlife to relocating local families from their farms in the countryside. Remember—radiation can contaminate anything.

From livestock to live trees, the entire area needed to be “liquidated,” and this army of cleanup workers was up to the task. Sixty thousand ultimately died from their exposure, and another 165,000 were disabled.

One of their most dangerous tasks involved liquidating the “Red Forest,” a 10-kilometer square around the Chernobyl power plant. The area got its name after the trees turned a peculiar ginger color in the wake of the disaster. The ionizing radiation had killed them all and caused the otherworldly hue in their bark.

Ultimately, the entire area needed to be liquidated.

The Red Forest was bulldozed, and the ginger-colored trees were buried under thick layers of sand and a new generation of saplings. It was the best they could do and an often-overlooked heroic effort.

Most people don’t realize what the Soviet Union did to clean up after the disaster and how many lives they saved by doing so.

That is until Russian infantry came in and dug it all up.

Russia’s Invasion

Over almost four decades, Chernobyl was a relatively peaceful place.

The “sarcophagus” containment structure over reactor number four provided semi-permanent protection from the still highly radioactive mess inside. By 2017, the sarcophagus was replaced with a “new safe containment” that was expected to last for years.

As mentioned above, it became a destination for tourists and television shows. It almost seemed like the world was coming to terms with a disaster site that would stay irradiated for generations to come.

Then, in February of 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Defense News)

The Russian army’s initial assault was threefold. First, they secured the friendly, Russian-speaking areas of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. Next, they made a decisive charge through the south of Ukraine towards Odessa while simultaneously leading a massive convoy to attack the capital city of Kyiv.

In taking Kyiv, Russia’s army would’ve denied the defenders a key central hub from which they have received and distributed NATO weapons—like the highly successful Javelin and NLAW missile systems.

And by re-opening the North Crimean Canal, Russia achieved an early victory that was crucial for popular support. At the same time, they also strengthened their case for control of the Black Sea’s massive offshore oil and gas reserves.

One thing they didn’t do was attack the local power grid or communications infrastructure.

Perhaps it was a deliberate choice on the part of the command. Maybe they assumed the citizens were pro-Russian and didn’t want to tick everyone off. Maybe they even wanted Ukrainian citizens to share “shock and awe” social media posts to make the invasion easier and help drive momentum.

Once they finally did start attacking Ukraine’s power grid, the Russians did so in what can only be described as the most insane attack on infrastructure in the entire history of humanity.


Zaporizhzhia is home to the largest power plant in Europe, one of the ten largest in the world.

It’s home to six VVER-1000 pressurized light water reactors. They’re slightly more sophisticated than the RBMK-1000, completed between 1985 and 1989.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Poynter)

Situated just over 100 miles from the Donbas region of Ukraine, the power plant is no stranger to unrest. But it wasn’t until midnight on March 4, 2022, that the power plant was directly attacked.

The attack almost seems like it must’ve been some kind of massive miscommunication. As if the army’s high command had ordered “go after the power,” and some lower-ranking officer decided to shoot a tank at a working nuclear reactor.

Whatever the cause, a column of 10 Russian armored vehicles and two tanks rolled up outside of Zaporizhzhia at 11:28 pm on March 23rd. The Ukrainians were first to open fire, with an infrared video showing Russians returning fire on the facility with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons.

During the firefight, a training building caught fire. Firefighters were denied entry by the Russians at first, but the fire was put out in just a few hours—but it made headlines worldwide as the standoff continued.

The Russians couldn’t bomb or directly attack the facility because of the risk of destabilizing one of the reactors. But they had the defenders surrounded. By March 12th, Ukrainian newspapers reported that the plant was in Russian hands.

This might seem like a relatively benign end to a stressful situation—but it’s still not over.

In hindsight, Russia’s attack may look decisive and cunning. But it also may have simply been lucky—and it may have been a few stray tank shells away from triggering the next Chernobyl. Directly attacking any nuclear facility, especially Europe’s largest nuclear facility, can be extremely unpredictable.

A video from Energoatom, Ukraine’s state-owned utility in charge of the plant, showed the attack’s aftermath. In the video, we see an artillery shell that landed mere inches from a row of pipes along a walkway. That’s just a few hundred feet away from a building used to process toxic waste. So even if the attack hadn’t unleashed a major nuclear disaster, it still could’ve had lasting consequences locally.

And that’s not all, either.

To retain control of the power plant, the Russians will need to be able to support it and control the surrounding areas. And for that, things need to be going according to plan.

Back in Chernobyl

By early April, it was clear that Russia’s war wasn’t going quite to plan.

Their army had lost hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles. Some of their most elite units, like the VDV and Spetsnaz, were struggling in the face of fierce Ukrainian resistance. And a once-intimidating convoy of soldiers and supplies on the way to Kyiv was suddenly dead in its tracks.

As it happens, Chernobyl is on the road to Kyiv from Belarus. So it has been a major strategic asset from the war’s start.

Russian forces captured the power plant on February 24th, sending radiation levels skyrocketing simply by disturbing the contaminated soil. Their invasion of the area was praised early on since it was assumed Ukrainians wouldn’t dare to shell or bomb Chernobyl’s irradiated soil.

Even though the plant is no longer in operation—it hasn’t been for years—it still needs a steady power supply.

That’s because reactor number four is home to some 20 tons of highly radioactive and extremely toxic waste. Without constant cooling, the waste from the disaster will vaporize into the atmosphere. Ukrainian authorities claim a disruption in cooling could potentially release as much radiation as another Fukushima disaster.

Upon invading the area and “securing” the plant, the Russians effectively began holding the staff hostage. One hundred staff members were held captive and limited to one meal a day until fleeing the plant at the start of April.

Before leaving the area, Russian forces dug trenches in the Red Forest, disturbed massive amounts of contaminated soil and plant matter, and even planted a network of landmines throughout the area as a “surprise” for Ukrainian forces.

It appears that Russian forces camped out in the area for weeks, likely without realizing their mission's potentially devastating long-term effects.

Worldwide Implications

Russia’s war on Ukraine is far from over.

But it’s also far from the only point to consider.

Currently, 440 nuclear power plants are active worldwide, with a wide variety of them in potential “hotspots” for conflict. A disaster at any one of these plants—military or otherwise—could have devastating consequences for neighboring countries.

Fifty-five of those nuclear power plants are right here in America.

(Image source: Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

And even though invasion is far less likely here, cyberattacks are still a very real factor. Likewise, infrastructure failures could potentially put our nuclear power plants at risk.

When it comes to Chernobyl, you can’t help but feel like history is repeating itself.

The disaster came about in the first place because of failures in management, primarily Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov. After 36 years and a regime change, Russia’s military leadership is endangering both Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia.

As their war continues, Russia will likely continue to pay little regard to the consequences of these kinds of attacks.

The only answer in this situation, the only answer we ever advocate, is to simply be prepared.

Take preparation into your own hands and be ready for these kinds of threats. A good gas mask like a CM-6M or a CM-7M, some NBC-77 SOF filters, and some Thyrosafe tablets are all you need to see you through.

For more information regarding radioactive fallout, be sure to check out our guides on surviving nuclear war and nuclear fallout.