The Chernobyl nuclear disaster 33 years on - in pictures

Pripyat, once a city of 50,000 people, lies abandoned

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What grabs you about Chernobyl at first is its dead silence.

The 30-kilometre exclusion zone around Chernobyl reactor 4 – which exploded in the early hours of April 26, 1986 – is almost devoid of people. For miles around there is unbroken, silent forest full of wildlife which is thriving now that people have largely gone.

Pripyat, once a city of 50,000 people, lies abandoned. Its '80s, Soviet aesthetic remains unchanged and is as much of a draw for visitors as is the chilling story of how Europe narrowly avoided a nuclear catastrophe.

When the Chernobyl reactor exploded, it pumped radioactivity into the atmosphere for 10 days. The area’s inhabitants were bussed out and told they would be back in three days – the vast majority never returned.

Most of the people who go to Chernobyl now are visitors drawn by the region’s sepulchral atmosphere. The “sarcophagus” which covered the reactor blast site has itself been covered up by a more modern structure.

But the abandoned schools and homes look like something from a war zone, except that this was a conflict where the enemy could be neither seen nor heard.

Chernobyl's dead silence is not confined to this 30km zone of Ukraine. Across the border in Belarus is another restricted area, one which remains almost totally unexplored.

The disaster retains a morbid fascination for many people. A new HBO miniseries coming out this month dramatises the conflict among the Soviet authorities trying to deal with the crisis, while a new game called Chernobylite allows players to explore a digital version of the exclusion zone.

But such a place can never be normalised. If Chernobyl offers us one thing, it is a glimpse into what the world could look like once humanity has gone.