In 2012, a radioactivity-obsessed YouTuber who goes by the moniker Bionerd23 posted a video from the depths of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the evacuated area most at risk from contamination after the fallout of the 1986 nuclear power plant accident. In her video, Bionerd23 measures the radiation levels of a kindergarten in what was once the village of Kopachi, filming herself wandering around with a Geiger counter.
In the years since her first Chernobyl video aired, Bionerd23 has become a minor YouTube sensation. Thousands of people watch her do little more than wander around radioactive sites taking measurements. In 2014, she appeared in an episode of Discovery Channel’s YouTube-focused show Outrageous Acts of Science (called You Have Been Warned in some parts of the world). Her most-viewed video from Chernobyl garnered more than 442,000 views: In it, she tosses bread from somewhere off-camera to a large catfish in a Chernobyl cooling pond, explaining that the fish are large because they have no predators and plenty of food from curious tourists, not because they’re mutated from radiation.
After an Atlas Obscura interview in April of this year described her videos as “strange” and “dangerous,” mental_floss got in contact with the vlogger to find out more about the story behind her unusual travel/science series—and to figure out just how dangerous “stunts” like eating apples from the Exclusion Zone really are.
Bionerd23, who steadfastly maintains her anonymity and avoids mentioning her age or exact location, is a physics student at a university in Germany. She became obsessed with nuclear physics before she even got to college, driven by her natural skepticism. “I was highly suspicious at school—whether it was physics or religion, I’d be like ‘prove it or I don't believe you’ towards my teachers,” she tells mental_floss in an email. With equipment like homemade Geiger counters, “you can PROVE the existence of the atom as nuclear physics describes it—in your own home.”
Her first videos include footage of her playing with mercury, even holding it in her hand, and traveling to the German state of Saxony to measure the radioactivity of abandoned uranium mines. Her first visit to Chernobyl was part of a small Dutch television project that involved comparing the radiation levels in Brazil and in the Exclusion Zone. She put some of her personal footage from the trip on YouTube, beginning her role as an online chronicler of Chernobyl adventures.
“I try to post the videos that would get ME excited about physics if I was a teenager, or an adult working in a different field,” she says. Most of the footage she films herself, or she’ll hand the camera over to someone she’s traveling with, including tourists and scientists. She’s currently collaborating with American videographer Lucas Brunelle, who’s best known for cycling films and stunts.
On a typical trip, Bionerd23 will stay in Chernobyl around a week, exploring areas like a former radio factory, a hospital, and the power plant itself. She’s found odd things such as a flask of human prostate cancer cells, and encountered horses, moose, and even wolves in the evacuated region, which has become something of a nature preserve since most of the humans left 30 years ago. She describes the Exclusion Zone as “a time capsule full of infinite wonders.”
Where Bionerd23's videos diverge from those of typical urban explorers is that she finds science lessons in the ruins. “People don't understand the exponential function” of radiation risk, she explains. “They don't understand how the radiation levels 30 years ago were deadly, killing people directly exposed in the vicinity of the reactor—and how they can be rather harmless levels nowadays.” Her videos also compare the radiation levels of different parts of Chernobyl with a broader context. When she measures the radiation of Exclusion Zone apples, for instance, she also measures the higher radiation levels of German-foraged mushrooms.
Eating apples off a tree near the Chernobyl plant may seem more dangerous than it is, according to Ron Chesser, a professor of biological sciences who studies radiation dispersion and nuclear accidents at Texas Tech University. “The typical day-long excursion through the Chernobyl Zone will convey about half of a chest x-ray even if you eat a bushel of apples along the way,” he tells mental_floss in an email.
However, years of living in the Zone and eating things that live there can pose a real risk, he continues. “Some dietary products (mushrooms, boar, some fishes) may have much higher radioactivity levels than apples,” he explains. “Obviously, a steady diet of zone products and constant presence in some portions of the zone could incur some real risks to inhabitants after years of living in contaminated areas.”
Though the Exclusion Zone has been officially evacuated for 29 years, there are still a few people eking out a life there, however dangerous long-term radiation exposure may be. More than a hundred people, mostly elderly women, have returned to the zone to live in the now-contaminated communities surrounding the plant. (A recent film, Babushkas of Chernobyl, tells their story.)
As for Bionerd23, she says she just wants to show what the Exclusion Zone is really like today, beyond the outdated mythology that surrounds it. When she’s there, she says, “every step is exciting.”
Banner image screenshot via YouTube