Today Chornobyl's soil, water, and air are among the most highly contaminated on Earth. The reactor is at the centre of a 1,000-square-mile "exclusion zone", a quarantined no-man's land complete with border guards, passport control and radiation monitoring.
But amid the environmental devastation, the human story of Chornobyl is often lost. That story is embodied in an unlikely community of some 130 people, known as "self-settlers", who defiantly live inside the exclusion zone.
Almost all of them are women. About 116,000 people were evacuated from the zone at the time of the accident, but about 1,200 of them refused to stay away. The women who remain, now in their 70s and 80s, are the last survivors of those who illegally returned to their ancestral homes shortly after the accident.
A new film by Holly Morris and Anne Bogart, screening in London this weekend, follows the unlikely group of rebels as they continue to go about their daily lives in the toxic and lonely environment.
The film depicts the zone's scattered ghost villages, now silent, eerie and contaminated. Many villages have eight or 12 babushkas, or babas - the Russian and Ukrainian words for "grandmother" - still living in them.
One self-settler depicted in the documentary, Hanna Zavorotnya, explained how she snuck through the bushes back to her village in the summer of 1986. "Shoot us and dig the grave," she told the soldiers who tried to evacuate her and other family members, "otherwise we're staying."
Why did she choose to live on this deadly land? Is she unaware of the risks, or crazy enough to ignore them, or both? When asked about radiation, Zavorotnya replied: "Radiation doesn't scare me. Starvation does."
Zavorotnya and the other women lived through Stalin's Holodomor - the genocide-by-famine of the 1930s that wiped out millions of Ukrainians - and then the Nazis in the 1940s. When the Chernobyl accident happened a few decades into Soviet rule, many were simply unwilling to flee an enemy that was invisible.
Trauma of relocation
As long as they were well beyond child bearing age, self-settlers were allowed to stay "semi-illegally". But what about their health? The complications from an environment laced with radioactive contaminants, such as cesium, strontium and americium. Health studies vary. The World Health Organisation predicts more than 4,000 deaths will eventually be linked to the Chernobyl disaster.
Greenpeace and others put that projection into the tens of thousands. All agree thyroid cancers are sky high, and that Chernobyl evacuees have suffered the trauma of relocated peoples everywhere, including anxiety and depression.
Radioactive contamination from the accident has been deadly, but the trauma of relocation is another fallout of Chernobyl. Of the old people who relocated, one Chernobyl medical technician, whose job is to give annual radiation exposure tests to zone workers said: "Quite simply, they die of anguish."
Other babushkas have said: "If you leave you die"; "Those who left are worse off now. They are all dying of sadness"; "Motherland is Motherland. I will never leave."
Radiation or not, these women are at the end of their lives. But their continued existence and spirit indicate the transformative connections to home, and about the strength of self-determination. They are unexpected lessons from a nuclear tragedy.
This article from The Guardian is based on director Holly Morris' Ted Talk about the women of Chernobyl. For more about the film visit www.thebabushkasofchernobyl.com or follow @hollymorris on Twitter