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THE B-LIST: 32 years later, Chernobyl remains an apocalyptic warning

A look back at the world’s worst nuclear accident

It was supposed to be a routine test.

The safety system of Pripyat's Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was intentionally turned off as the technicians simulated a stationwide blackout. But thanks to a number of design flaws and several missteps in the testing process, the water expelled by the cooling system boiled into pressurized steam within 30 seconds.

At 1:23 a.m. April 26, 1986, Reactor 4 was reduced to rubble by two massive explosions that destroyed the containment framing and spewed radioactive isotopes far and wide. Survivor Alexander Yuvchenko reported seeing laser-like blue beams "flood up into infinity."

Two plant workers died as a direct result of the explosion, while another 31 first responders and "liquidators" — Ukrainian scientists who worked to recover the worst of the nuclear material — succumbed to radiation poisoning in those first few weeks of cleanup.

About 64,000 square miles of the surrounding area remains contaminated, known as the exclusion zone or zone of alienation, and optimistic estimates say Pripyat itself will be uninhabitable for 24,000 years. The city of nearly 50,000 people was evacuated within hours of the disaster, with homes and businesses utterly abandoned. To this day, the buildings are full of furniture and personal belongings.

Chernobyl has become a shorthand for manmade self-destruction; a vivid testament to the devastation we can wreak with our own hands. The exclusion zone and city of Pripyat have provided limitless fodder for horror films, survival fiction and scientific research. If you find Chernobyl as interesting as I do, be sure to check out:

6. THE ELEPHANT'S FOOT: This massive lump of fused nuclear fuel, concrete and graphite sits in the sub-basement beneath the exploded reactor. Giving off thousands of roentgens (a unit of radiation dose) per hour, it will literally kill anyone who comes too close for too long — too long being more than five minutes. It continues to sink further into the ground, and may one day contaminate the ground water.

5. THE SARCOPHAGUS AND NEW SAFE CONFINEMENT: In the initial months after the accident, a concrete "sarcophagus" was installed around Reactor 4 in an attempt to contain the radiation. It was a temporary fix, and by August 2016 the New Safe Confinement — a massive metal arch that allows technicians to dismantle the reactor with remote equipment — was finally completed.

4. THE "RADIOACTIVE WOLVES" OF CHERNOBYL: With humans gone, nature has surprisingly flourished in the exclusion zone, now a pseudo nature preserve. Wild boar, foxes, horses, birds and wolves all thrive in the blighted area. The PBS documentary "Radioactive Wolves" is fascinating and worth a watch.

3. ZONE OF ALIENATION TOURS: Yes, you really can explore the abandoned city. Since 2011, tours are regularly allowed in the outlying areas, though entry to Chernobyl itself is still highly restricted to scientists and liquidators. All tourists must follow safety precautions, carry particle detectors and leave after a handful of hours to avoid dangerous radiation poisoning.

2. THE PRIPYAT AMUSEMENT PARK: Not far from the power plant sits a rusting, ominous fairground complete with bumper cars and a Ferris wheel. It's one of the most haunting spots in the ghostly city, oft replicated in post-apocalyptic movies and video games — and it never saw a single customer. Newly constructed, it was slated to open for May Day: five days after the disaster.

1. "THE GHOSTS OF CHERNOBYL" ("DESTINATION TRUTH" SEASON 3, EPISODE 4). Evacuees who settled nearby have reported seeing and hearing ghostly figures after sneaking back into their erstwhile home. Host Josh Gates and his crew of paranormal investigators conducted an overnight exploration of Pripyat, recording unusual footage in the decaying buildings. Even if you don't believe in ghosts, this is still a compelling look at the desolation — and an eloquent testament to the human cost of the accident.

• ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at

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