For the past couple of years, a young woman known only as “Bionerd23” has been making strange, dangerous videos in and around one of the most infamous nuclear zones on Earth—the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
Nothing is too radioactive or risky for her. She has shown herself getting injected with the radionuclide technetium, eating radioactive apples from a tree in Chernobyl, being chased by a possibly rabid fox, and picking up fragments of the nuclear plant’s reactor fuel with her bare hands. When a freakishly large catfish appears on camera, she calmly explains that it’s probably not a mutant—“They are just that way because nobody catches them,” she says in a video, watching a six-foot-long catfish, eerily like a shark, swim around a murky pool of water.
In a few non-Chernobyl-related videos, she pours liquid mercury over her bare hands, comparing the feat to smoking a single cigarette: not dangerous in limited doses, she claims. Her most popular videos are driven by a need to explain why things commonly seen as dangerous are in fact not, hence her typical lack of protective gear. It’s so odd to see her protecting herself, in fact, that she will begin some videos with an explanation about why she felt the need to don something as basic as a pair of gloves.
What is her secret? “Push away your fears and everything you've heard, and embrace the Zone,” she writes Atlas Obscura in an email.
While her style runs counter to many YouTube hosts (her flat affect can sometimes verge on robotic), Bionerd23 has become mildly famous in the various corners of the internet dedicated to radioactive spelunking. Since the spring of 2012, she has posted over 60 videos on YouTube documenting her trips in and around the plant, measuring radioactivity levels of various debris, as well as frequently experimenting on herself and measuring her own radioactivity. None have gone truly viral but they have not been ignored either: her more audacious Chernobyl stunts net somewhere north of 100,000 views, some twice that.
Bionerd23 (as she wants to be known) might be German, or, at least, has spent a great of time in Berlin. She is a student, probably, though of what and where, I don’t know. Opening queries (who are you, where are you from, how did you get into this) went nowhere. “I don’t talk about that, because my person is entirely unimportant,” she wrote, “Nobody should adore a scientist, one should adore his or her work. The person is of no importance.” She posts frequently on a forum called Fusor, which has a section next to each post for basic information, including “real name.” She leaves this blank.
But her face and voice are well-known to the radioactive fan community. She is referenced in scattered blog posts around the internet, and also actively participates in the comments section underneath her videos, which has the effect of making them remarkably civil, for YouTube. Comments range from unexpectedly knowledgeable suggestions about how to chemically isolate graphite using nitric acid to fanfare like “You already have superpowers - you are an awesome, badass girl!!”
Chernobyl, at this point, is a kind of tourist destination (buses run through) but Bionerd23 pushes farther than most. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is huge, around 1,000 square miles emanating out from the site of the 1986 disaster. It is perfectly legal to enter the Zone, even to go very close to the reactor, though official visits are heavily regulated through government tour guides. (There is even a stubborn group of "re-settlers" who have returned to their homes there.) Trespassing and poaching of animals, which include deer, bears, foxes, and various birds, are both illegal and common. Bionerd23 does not mention her legal status in any of her videos, but research in the Zone is popular and ongoing. “At first, it was just about the radiation, the contamination, measuring what is going on,” she wrote. “By now, it's a love for the place.”
Her speciality is unearthing bits and pieces of Chernobyl that would normally go unseen. A video titled “chernobyl 2013: radioactive ant bites & 115 mSv/h of pure gamma radiation” begins with this quote: “Oh, shit, yeah. This is hot.” She finds a fragment of uranium sitting in the grass a few kilometers from the reactor, “guarded by radioactive ants.” Dressed in military hues and armed with an array of blocky handheld sensors, she squats down, where ants promptly crawl into her (rarely wielded) gloves and bite her. The fragment of uranium immediately maxes out all of her sensors; she is not scared, but excited. She actually says, “Yay!”
But her fears are not about radiation poisoning, nor developing cancer, but more about the simple structural damage in the Zone. “Some of the old buildings are rather unsafe to enter, as they are starting to fall apart,” she wrote, and also mentioned that she is quite scared of rabid animals. One popular video finds her fleeing a red fox that, in her mind, showed far too much comfort around humans. She ends up locking herself in a car and swearing.
Bionerd23’s risky ways have not gone unnoticed by YouTube commenters, who often ask why she risks her life to go tromping through a crumbling basement in the Zone. Frequently, she replies with a Marie Curie quote: "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.”
Her reasons for continuing to document Chernobyl are more personal, though. “If you've been there and experienced the zone as it truly is—a time capsule—you will understand,” she wrote. “Time stopped the moment the reactor blew, and I don’t just mean the readings on the clocks... And if you embrace it, you can understand the Zone's true meaning.”