for National Geographic News
Twenty years ago today, reactor number four at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. The blast covered vast areas of Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia (see map) with dangerous radioactive material.
The effects of the Chernobyl catastrophe are still being felt todaywhole towns lie abandoned, and cancer rates in people living close to the affected areas are abnormally high.
But it turns out that the radioactive cloud may have a silver lining. Recent studies suggest that the 19-mile (30-kilometer) "exclusion zone" set up around the reactor has turned into a wildlife haven.
Roe deer bounce though the deserted houses while bats roost in the rafters (related photos: inside today's Chernobyl).
Plants and trees have sprung back to life, and rare species, such as lynx, Przewalski's horses, and eagle owls, are thriving where most humans fear to tread.
From Red to Green
The situation is a far cry from the way things looked just after the accident. Initially many animals died from the huge doses of radiation they received.
The red color of withered pine needles earned one large area near the reactor the name Red Forest.
"Now it is not the Red Forest but a real green forest, due to [growing] birch trees," said Sergey Gaschak from the International Radioecology Laboratory in Kiev, Ukraine.
And in the towns where humans have moved out, plants and animals seem to have moved in.
"Wild boar like to live in former villages, and I have found many birds' nests in the buildings," Gaschak said.
Even the site of the explosion seems to be bursting with life.
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