Pripyat, Ukraine: A Chilling Reminder of the Chernobyl Disaster

31 years since the worst nuclear disaster in history, the ghost town of Pripyat is an eerie time capsule. 

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Hastily abandoned toys at a kindergarten in Pripyat, Ukraine after the explosion at Reactor No 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant on 26 April 1986. (Photo: Reuters)

Wednesday, 26 April 2017, marks 31 years of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. The tragedy is one of the only two events that have been classified as a Level 7 disaster (the highest) on the International Nuclear Event Scale. The only other event at this level is the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, that was prompted by a devastating earthquake and consequent tsunami in Japan.

While Fukushima was a natural disaster, the incident at Chernobyl, however, was the proverbial climactic moment in the story of Icarus – we flew too close to the sun.

An archival photo from 1986 showing the damaged, uncovered and still leaking reactor at the plane, after a systems stress test went terribly wrong. (Photo: Reuters)
An archival photo from 1986 showing the damaged, uncovered and still leaking reactor at the plane, after a systems stress test went terribly wrong. (Photo: Reuters)

“We knew, with certainty, with arrogant certainty, that we were in control of the power we were playing with. We could make the forces of nature bend to our will. There was nothing we could not do. This was the day, of course, when we learned we were wrong,” Sergiy Parashyn toldThe Kansas City Star. Parashyn was an engineer at the plant on the day of the explosion.

A file photo showing an aerial view of the damage at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, after an explosion and fire broke out, exposing the surrounding areas to fatal radioactive debris. (Photo: AP)
A file photo showing an aerial view of the damage at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, after an explosion and fire broke out, exposing the surrounding areas to fatal radioactive debris. (Photo: AP)

31 years on, the story of the ghost town of Pripyat in Ukraine is the most chilling reminder of 26 April 1986, when a systems test at nuclear reactor number four went awry. It resulted in a fire that burned for nine days straight, sending clouds of nuclear fuel, fission products and radioactive isotopes into the sky.

Scientists say the amount of radiation that leaked that night was 400 times that of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

A 30-kilometre exclusion zone was cordoned off and placed under military control. This was later expanded to an area of 2,600 square kilometres; the government assessed that was how far the radiation had spread. Several townships were evacuated, bulldozed and made to disappear. Pripyat was one such town.

Once a symbol of USSR’s control over nuclear energy, and its entry into the ‘modern’ world, the town of Pripyat was evacuated 36 hours after the explosion in the nuclear plant. The people were not told anything about it, and were simply made to leave instantly. (Photo: Reuters)
Once a symbol of USSR’s control over nuclear energy, and its entry into the ‘modern’ world, the town of Pripyat was evacuated 36 hours after the explosion in the nuclear plant. The people were not told anything about it, and were simply made to leave instantly. (Photo: Reuters)

Pripyat was built in the 1970s, as a modern Soviet township, three kilometres from the nuclear plant. Its purpose was to house nearly 50,000 technicians, support staff and firefighters, along with their families, who worked at the plant. Since it was built on the border of USSR, a deliberately isolated area, the need of the hour was to tempt people to come here and take up potentially fatal jobs. The town was built with sprawling boulevards, apartment buildings, 20 schools, one technical college, one hospital, two sports stadiums, 25 stores and malls, swimming pools, theatres,recreational parks, 27 cafes and restaurants, and an amusement park. The abandoned Ferris wheel of this park would soon become the icon of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

It worked. Pripyat soon became the youngest city in theSoviet Union with a population of approximately 50,000 people – the average age of the population was only 26 years. The nuclear township captured the imagination of the Soviet youth.

White apartment buildings with modern fittings, tree-boulevards, recreational parks, and the iconic amusement park with the Ferris wheel, all lay in tragic abandon. (Photo: Reuters)
White apartment buildings with modern fittings, tree-boulevards, recreational parks, and the iconic amusement park with the Ferris wheel, all lay in tragic abandon. (Photo: Reuters)

Life was good, until 1:23 am on 26 April 1986. Firefighters were called in to fight a fire at the reactor. The entire sky glowed with flames. They were not told anything about the radiation leak, so they went without their protective gear. Several would die either immediately that night, or of radiation burns and ulcers in the hospital a few days later.

Rumour spread that it was sabotage, typical of the Cold War era. Soon, word spread about what really unfolded that night. During a systems test to see how much power would be needed to keep Reactor No 4 operating in the event of a blackout, there was a sharp power surge. A second, bigger power surge occurred when an emergency shutdown was attempted. This led to an explosion in the reactor vessel and the reactor cap was blown off, exposing the graphite moderator to the air. It immediately ignited, and the rest is history.

A file photo showing the collapsed roof of Reactor No 4 after the blast. (Photo: AP)
A file photo showing the collapsed roof of Reactor No 4 after the blast. (Photo: AP)

The next day, there was a little panic among the residents. They knew something was wrong. The families of the firefighters and others on duty that night, thronged the hospital in which they had been quarantined. Army personnel stopped them. No one told them anything about radiation, or the blast. More military trucks, a fleet of buses, and more firefighters appeared on the roads.

Trees grow into and onto derelict apartments in Pripyat, as the damaged reactor stands in the background, with the under-construction containment shield. (Photo: AP)
Trees grow into and onto derelict apartments in Pripyat, as the damaged reactor stands in the background, with the under-construction containment shield. (Photo: AP)

The others continued with their lives, until later that morning when evacuation was made compulsory, effective immediately. People rushed to see the graphite fire bellowing out from the reactor, more intrigued than informed. They were unknowingly absorbing alarming levels of radiation by the second.

The only amusement park in Pripyat opened on the day of the accident. It was supposed to open a week later on May Day. The government opened it early and used it to distract the residents from the real scale of what had transpired.

Thirty-six hours after the accident, and trying to cover and contain it, the government told the people of Pripyat that they were all going to be evacuated, but only for three to five days. They were asked to pack light as they were going to be living in tents in the woods. People were excited at the prospect of a camping trip, especially so close to May Day! They were lied to – to reduce the amount of possibly contaminated items they would otherwise take out of sentimental value.

The hasty evacuation of Pripyat is evident even today as the ghost-scape is visited by a few enthusiastic tourists and photographers. It’s almost as if someone hit the stop button. All clocks in town are frozen at 11:55 am, when the electricity was cut off.

A crucifix and a radiation warning sign at the entrance to Pripyat, a scene of hushed desolation and frozen time. (Photo: AP)
A crucifix and a radiation warning sign at the entrance to Pripyat, a scene of hushed desolation and frozen time. (Photo: AP)
An abandoned bedroom in a derelict apartment in Pripyat, Ukraine. (Photo: Reuters)
An abandoned bedroom in a derelict apartment in Pripyat, Ukraine. (Photo: Reuters)

The town has slowly been reclaimed by nature, but evidence of abruptly disrupted human routines and stories remain. The doctor’s office at Medical Centre Number 2 still have bottles filled with vaccines and medicines, as a tree grows through the window and over a broken chair.

Libraries with books open rot, as classrooms with open notebooks of children lay still, exactly where they were left. Stuffed toys and books are littered on the floors of houses and kindergartens; an abandoned kettle in a kitchen rusts, as trees force their way through the rotting and peeling walls of apartments.
A family’s photo album collects dust and debris, 30 years after the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. It lies next to an ominous gas mask, common in nuclear townships in USSR. (Photo: Reuters)
A family’s photo album collects dust and debris, 30 years after the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster. It lies next to an ominous gas mask, common in nuclear townships in USSR. (Photo: Reuters)

The town is a moment frozen in time, almost as a perpetual reminder for us to be more careful while playing with fire out of blind greed.

Estimates suggest that this town will be uninhabitable for the next 24,000 years. The Centre for Research on Globalisation suggests as many as 9,85,000 deaths, mainly due to cancer, as a result of the disaster.

As many as five million people still live in areas that are considered “contaminated”. 6,00,000 liquidators, or people hired to clean up the reactor, have been employed till now – but the reactor is still leaking.

A look at the pictures of Pripyat, or a guided tour to the ghost-scape, is enough to imagine the hurried exit of  scared people who knew something big had happened when they saw the graphite “fireworks” light up the sky above the nuclear reactor. (Photo: Reuters)
A look at the pictures of Pripyat, or a guided tour to the ghost-scape, is enough to imagine the hurried exit of scared people who knew something big had happened when they saw the graphite “fireworks” light up the sky above the nuclear reactor. (Photo: Reuters)
Abandoned portraits of Soviet leaders covered in radioactive dust at a home in Pripyat, Ukraine. The pictures were to be paraded at the celebratory May Day rally that would cross the town, a week later. (Photo: AP)
Abandoned portraits of Soviet leaders covered in radioactive dust at a home in Pripyat, Ukraine. The pictures were to be paraded at the celebratory May Day rally that would cross the town, a week later. (Photo: AP)

A hasty concrete structure was built to contain the leaking radioactive liquid and gas; but it failed to do so. A 30,000-tonne containment arch has been in construction since 2010. The arch will be slid over Reactor Number 4 on completion.

The destroyed Reactor No 4 and the new containment shield being built can be seen at the horizon from the dangerously close township of Pripyat. Due to this proximity, people inhaled up to 500 roentgen an hour following the explosion – a lethal dose of radiation for humans. (Photo: Reuters)
The destroyed Reactor No 4 and the new containment shield being built can be seen at the horizon from the dangerously close township of Pripyat. Due to this proximity, people inhaled up to 500 roentgen an hour following the explosion – a lethal dose of radiation for humans. (Photo: Reuters)

Where once was a bustling town, symbolic of the modern prowess of USSR, now stands an eerie time capsule. Photos bring it all flashing back – the fire, the vomiting, the deaths, the hair loss and ulcers, the hasty change of people’s destiny, and mostly, the lies to cover up a mistake. A mistake we are yet to learn from, even 31 years later.

(This article was first published on 26 April 2016. It is being reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the 31st anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.)

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