Abstract The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was the worst industrial accident of the last century that involved radiation. The unprecedented release of multiple different radioisotopes led to radioactive contamination of large areas surrounding the accident site. The exposure of the residents of these areas was varied and therefore the consequences for health and radioecology could not be reliably estimated quickly. Even though some studies have now been ongoing for 25 years and have provided a better understanding of the situation, these are yet neither complete nor comprehensive enough to determine the long-term risk. A true assessment can only be provided after following the observed population for their natural lifespan. Here we review the technical aspects of the accident and provide relevant information on radioactive releases that resulted in exposure of this large population to radiation. A number of different groups of people were exposed to radiation: workers involved in the initial clean-up response, and members of the general population who were either evacuated from the settlements in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant vicinity shortly after the accident, or continued to live in the affected territories of Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. Through domestic efforts and extensive international co-operation, essential information on radiation dose and health status for this population has been collected. This has permitted the identification of high-risk groups and the use of more specialised means of collecting information, diagnosis, treatment and follow-up. Because radiation-associated thyroid cancer is one of the major health consequences of the Chernobyl accident, a particular emphasis is placed on this malignancy. The initial epidemiological studies are reviewed, as are the most significant studies and/or aid programmes in the three affected countries.