In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the Soviet Union exploded. Radiation fumes were released into the air traveling northwest, across the nearby town of Pripyat, up to the border with Belarus, and beyond.

A 1986 aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear plant. | (AP Photo/Volodymyr Repik)

In the wake of the explosion in what is now Ukraine, the Soviet Union was painfully slow to react, calling the "radiation situation" merely an "accident." Residents in Chernobyl and Pripyat (which numbered more than 60,000 combined) weren't told to evacuate for 36 hours. It was only three days after the explosion, when radiation alarms were triggered at a nuclear plant in Sweden more than 600 miles away, that officials were forced to admit the severity of the disaster. Thirty-one people died as an immediate result of the explosion, but there are likely thousands of cases of cancer linked to the radiation exposure, though the precise number is impossible to calculate.

A few hundred people did return to their homes, despite the radiation exposure. And the plant continued to run until 2000 when it was finally shut down for good.

Today, 30 years after the Chernobyl disaster, while the rotting towns surrounding the nuclear site remain largely abandoned, Chernobyl has welcomed some new breeds of residents. The dense woodlands are now home to thriving populations of bison, wolves, boars, eagles, and other animals. Defying scientific expectations, these animals are reproducing. Indeed, there are more animals living there now than before the explosion. Scientists are studying the animals to see if people could eventually safely repopulate the site of the world's biggest nuclear disaster. Below, a look at the eerie beauty of the wild Chernobyl.

A white-tailed eagle sits on an abandoned school's roof just 19 miles from the exclusion zone in Tulgovichi, Belarus, on Jan. 29, 2016. The Chernobyl exclusion zone is an officially designated area that spreads out approximately 1,000 square miles from the nuclear site. | (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

Wild boars walk in the forest of the state radiation ecology reserve in the exclusion zone near the village of Babchin, Belarus, on Feb. 22, 2011. | (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

A white-tailed eagle lands on a wolf's carcass in the exclusion zone in the abandoned village of Dronki, Belarus, on Feb. 15, 2016. | (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

Moose peek through the brush near the abandoned village of Dronki, Belarus, on Jan. 28, 2016. | (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

Birds nests dot the trees in a park outside the village of Babchin, Belarus, on Jan. 26, 2016. | (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

Wolves walk in the exclusion zone in the abandoned village of Orevichi, Belarus, on Feb. 25, 2016. | (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

Bison meander in the exclusion zone near the abandoned village of Dronki, Belarus, on Jan. 28, 2016. | (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

A white-tailed eagle picks the carcass of a fox near the village of Babchin, Belarus, on Jan. 12, 2009. | (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

A moose runs in the exclusion zone near the village of Babchin, Belarus, on Jan. 27, 2016. | (REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko)

Editor's note: A previous version of this article misidentified a species. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.