Thirty-one years ago today, a sudden meltdown at reactor 4 in the Chernobyl nuclear power station caused a massive fire at the plant located in northern Ukraine, which was then a part of the Soviet Union (USSR).

Prior to the meltdown, the nearby city Pripyat was a thriving place of almost 50,000 residents. (Courtesy of: Pripyat Municipality)

Large amounts of radioactive material were released into other parts of the USSR, including Russia and Belarus, as well as northern Europe. The city of Pripyat and surrounding areas became unsafe for human habitation – and it will remain so for several centuries.

Flowers placed on the monument for victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster during a ceremony at the memorial to Chernobyl firefighters in the city of Slavutich, Ukraine, April 26, 2013. The workers who entered areas designated as ‘contaminated’ between 1986 and 1989 to help reduce the consequences of the explosion are named as “liquidators.” (AP)

Human error and poor reactor design were blamed for the accident. It is the deadliest nuclear power plant accident in history. In the immediate aftermath of the explosion 49 people were killed, but since then thousands more have died. Thousands more were also displaced, leaving the nearby city of Pripyat a ghost town.

Nadia, in a Ukrainian orphanage. In the years following the explosion, there was an increase in malformations of newly-born children in Ukraine and Belarus. Many of these children were subsequently abandoned by their parents and left in special-care institutions. (Getty Images)

Early mitigation measures taken by the Soviet authorities have helped the radiation levels to lessen. However, radioactivity still pollutes many locations where people face high rates of cancer, birth defects and other health problems.

Vika Chervinska, an eight-year-old Ukrainian girl suffering from cancer, waits to receive treatment with her mother at the children’s hospital in Kiev, April 18, 2006. (AP)

The total number of those killed by radiation-related illnesses such as cancer is still unclear. A Greenpeace report published last year estimates the total cancer deaths from the disaster at 115,000, in contrast with the World Health Organisation’s estimate of 9,000.

A view of an amusement park in the centre of the abandoned town of Pripyat. (AP)

The accident forced tens of thousands to flee their homes. Officials closed off the area within 30 kilometres of the plant except for persons with official business. “The 30 kilometre exclusion zone around the Chernobyl reactor remains highly contaminated and unsuitable to live in,” Greenpeace said last year.

The government’s reaction to the disaster highlighted flaws in the Soviet system, with its unaccountable bureaucrats and an entrenched culture of secrecy. For example, the evacuation order came 36 hours after the accident.

A crib is seen in a house in the abandoned village of Zalesye. (Reuters)

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev has said he considered Chernobyl one of the main nails in the coffin of the Soviet Union, which eventually collapsed in 1991.

Elena Kupriyanova, 42, was only 12 when she was evacuated from Pripyat. (Reuters)

Since 2011, tourists have been allowed to visit Chernobyl, and about 160 residents are estimated to have returned to their homes in the control zone that is deemed unsafe for human habitation.

Musical instruments, skates and an oxygen mask lay unused at the schoolroom in Pripyat, September 1989. (AP)

“We decided to save the history of Chernobyl,” says Oleksandra Lozbin, one of the returnees. “We hope that people will come back here and will live here, and their children and grandchildren will see what life was like here, in what kind of cots people were raised here, in what kind of boxes people stored their personal belongings and books,” she adds.

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