Discover 12+ of the most radioactive places on Earth
- Radioactivity is a natural phenomenon that has existed since the birth of our planet.
- However, human activities such as nuclear weapons testing, nuclear power generation, and industrial accidents have created highly radioactive areas that are unsafe for human habitation.
- These places, also known as "radioactive hotspots," pose significant health risks to anyone who ventures near them.
Exposure to radiation is a part of everyday life. Going outside exposes you to low levels of ionizing radiation from the sun, and you can't even eat some foods without exposing yourself to radiation (albeit in tiny quantities).
But you should probably thank your lucky stars that you don't live near any of these most radioactive places on the planet.
What are the most radioactive places on Earth?
And so, without further ado, here are some of the world's most radioactive places. The following list is in no particular order and is not exhaustive.
1. Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant, Japan is one of the world's most radioactive places
When a 9.1 magnitude earthquake caused a tsunami in 2011, it overwhelmed the existing safety features of the Fukushima Daini Nuclear Power Plant and caused the worst nuclear power plant disaster since Chernobyl.
Although the plant did survive the initial earthquake, the resulting tsunami was more than twice as powerful as the plant was designed to tolerate. This event caused the plant's seawater pumps — designed to keep the reactors cool during the shutdown — to fail.
This led to the plant's three reactors leaking radioactive material and spillovers of the plant's contaminated wastewater — all escaping into the Pacific Ocean.
The nuclear plant was completely shut down, but massive amounts of radioactive waste still spilled into the environment. It is estimated that it will take four decades to completely decommission the power plant.
2. Chernobyl, Pripyat, Ukraine is also pretty radiated
In April of 1986 one of the worst, and most famous, catastrophic nuclear power plant accidents shocked the world. The event occurred during a late-night safety test at the plant that was meant to simulate a station power-failure.
This led to the actual deactivation of the plant's actual safety systems, leading to a massive steam explosion and an open-air graphite fire. The fire sent plumes of radioactive materials high into the atmosphere, creating dangerous fallout across the USSR and parts of Europe.
It is estimated that over five million people in the former USSR alone were exposed to radiation, and there have been higher than normal rates of some cancers and other diseases in this group, on top of the high death rates in those charged with cleaning up the site. Today the site immediately surrounding the former plant remains one of the most radioactive places in the world.
3. The Polygon, Semiplataninsk, Kazakhstan is another radiation polluted area
It has been estimated that around 450 nuclear tests occurred here between 1949 and 1989. The full impact of radiation exposure on nearby residents was hidden for many years by Soviet authorities and has only come to light since the test site closed in 1991.
The Polygon has since become one of the most-studied atomic testing sites in the world.
4. Another radiation zone to avoid is the Hanford Site, Washington, USA
The Hanford Site in Washington, USA is another of the world's most radioactive places in the world. During the Cold War, it was the United States' main Plutonium production facility for their nuclear weapon arsenal.
Plutonium for around 60,000 nuclear weapons was produced here, including the batch used in the "Fat Man" bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Although decommissioned, it still holds around 60% of the high-level radioactive waste (by volume), it's currently managed by the US Department of Energy.
The vast majority of the production waste has been buried underground, but large areas of groundwater have since become contaminated.
5. The Siberian Chemical Combine, Seversk, Russia is another place with high levels of radiation
The Siberian Chemical Combine is a nuclear production facility in Seversk, Russia. It was one of the production facilities used to produce weapon-grade nuclear products for the Soviet nuclear weapons program.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the facility stopped production of Plutonium and highly enriched Uranium, and is today a major site for the storage and handling of weapons-grade nuclear materials.
Today, the facility supplies Russia's low-enriched uranium fuel needs and enriches reprocessed uranium for foreign customers. It is also one of the largest sites for the storage of low and intermediate level nuclear wastes stored via deep-well injection.
6. Zapadnyi Mining and Chemical Combine, Mailuu-Suu, Kyrgyzstan
Mailuu-Suu in Kyrgyzstan, unlike other sites on this list, was neither a nuclear testing facility, production facility, or power station, but rather a rich source of uranium.
Throughout the Cold War, a large mining operation was set up by the Soviet Union, and large amounts of Uranium ore were excavated from the area. Heavily contaminated waste mining products were buried around the excavated areas, but significant amounts were left above ground.
The region is also prone to seismic activity, and any disruption of the containment could expose the material or cause some of the waste to seep into rivers, contaminating water used by hundreds of thousands of people.
7. The Somali Coast is another of the world's most radiation polluted areas
It is rumored that the Italian criminal organization the 'Ndrangheta, among others, has been using the unprotected soils and waters off the Somalian coast for illegal dumping of nuclear waste and other toxic materials for years.
It is thought no less than 600 barrels of toxic and nuclear waste may have been dumped here, as well as hospital waste containing nuclear materials. The area may well be a future environmental disaster in the making.
The United Nations’ Environment Program believes that the rusting barrels of waste washed up on the Somalian coastline during the 2004 tsunami were dumped as far back as the 1990s.
8. Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia, Goias, Brazil is another dangerous radiation zone
The Instituto Goiano de Radioterapia was the site of a robbery that eventually led to the spread of radiation over a large area. Thieves searching for scrap metal took a teletherapy unit containing cesium-137 from the abandoned medical clinic. Not knowing what they had, they opened the machine, removed the lead capsule containing the cesium, and unknowingly spread the radioactive material over a large area.
The incident occurred in September of 1987.
There were four confirmed deaths from the incident, and it was found that around 250 people received significant exposure to radioactive contamination. The cleanup operation included removing topsoil from several sites, and the demolition of a number of houses.
Time magazine identified the accident as one of the world's "worst nuclear disasters," and the International Atomic Energy Agency called it "one of the world's worst radiological incidents."
9. Sellafield, United Kingdom is another of the world's most radioactive places
Sellafield used to produce weapons-grade nuclear material for the UK's nuclear weapon program during the Cold War. Today it is used as a nuclear fuel reprocessing and decommissioning site and is located close to the small village of Seascale on the coast of the Irish Sea.
Sellafield was the world's first commercial nuclear power station to be used for electrical generation, but this part of the facility has since been decommissioned and is currently being dismantled.
The plant releases some 2.3 million gallons (9 million liters) of contaminated waste into the sea on a daily basis, making the Irish Sea the most radioactive sea in the world.
10. Mayak, Russia is another place with high levels of radiation
The industrial complex in Mayak, Ozyorsk, Russia, was one of the country's primary nuclear plants for plutonium production and nuclear fuel reprocessing. It was also the site of one of the world's worst nuclear accidents, known as the Kyshtym incident.
It has been classified as a Level 6 disaster by the International Nuclear Event Scale, officially making it the third-worst nuclear accident ever.
More than 80 tons of radioactive waste were released by an explosion, spreading large amounts of nuclear material over an area of more than 20,000 sq mi (52,000 sq km).
The accident occurred in 1957 and was kept a secret well into the 1970s. Starting in the 1950s, waste from the plant was also dumped in the surrounding area and into Lake Karachay.
This has led to contamination of the water supply that thousands rely on daily.
11. BOMARC Site RW-01, The McGuire Air Force Base, Burlington County, New Jersey is also very irradiated
BOMARC Site RW-01 is a fenced-off annex to the McGuire Air Force Base. It was identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as one of the most contaminated bases in 2007.
In June of 1960, a fire destroyed a nuclear warhead-equipped missile in shelter 204 at the facility. The accident released radioactive plutonium into the environment, while heat from the fire and fire suppression activities led to the dispersion of plutonium over a 7-acre area.
A remediation campaign was launched immediately but the base still has some contamination to this day.
12. Church Rock Uranium Mill, Church Rock, New Mexico is another radiation polluted area
The Church Rock Uranium Mill in New Mexico was the site of a very severe environmental contamination event. In 1979, a large spill sent thousands of tons of solid radioactive mill waste and gallons of acidic solution tailings into the Puerco River.
The contamination spread over some 80 mi (130 km) downstream, reaching as far as Navajo County in Arizona.
Local residents using the river for recreation suffered effects of radiation exposure, including some serious infections which required amputations; and herds of sheep and cattle died after drinking the contaminated water. The spill also contaminated aquifers used for drinking water. The river was still found to be contaminated in 2003.
13. Fort d’Aubervilliers, Paris, is another very toxic place
During the 1920s and 1930s, Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie studied radioactivity at Fort d'Aubervilliers, experimenting with salts of Radium-226.
Later on, experiments were also conducted by the French Army to help support their nuclear tests in Algeria. These were later found to have seriously contaminated the fort.
Decontamination efforts began in earnest during the 1990s, after 61 barrels of Cesium-137 and Radium-226 were found to still be stored there, as well as about 160,000 gallons (60 cubic meters) of contaminated soil.
In 2006, new contaminated areas were also uncovered, and there were allegations in the Le Parisien that there were higher than average incidents of cancer in the surrounding area.
And that's all for now, folks.
The most radioactive places on Earth are a testament to the destructive power of radiation and its far-reaching consequences. While many of these areas may never be habitable again, they remind us of the importance of responsible nuclear materials and waste management.
It is our responsibility to learn from past mistakes and work towards a safer, cleaner, and more sustainable future for ourselves and future generations. As we continue to explore and utilize nuclear technology, let us remember the lessons of these radioactive places and strive to prevent such disasters from occurring again.