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Pripyat: The City Made Uninhabitable By Chernobyl

In the field of nuclear energy, the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl looms large in the popular memory. From the catastrophe has spawned several popular works from the STALKER video game series to the highest rated TV show of all time giving an overview of the accident. But there’s another part to the Chernobyl disaster, one that tends to slip by in the discourse whenever it comes up, and that is the city that was built nearby – and subsequently made uninhabitable for decades. This is the story of Pripyat, the Soviet city built in conjunction with the Chernobyl nuclear plant.

An Atomic City

In 1970, the Soviet Union began construction of the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Atomic Power Plant in a remote, swampy region of northern Ukraine, the first such one to be built in the country. However, it soon gained an unofficial nickname derived from its being built some fifteen miles away from a small Ukrainian village, called “Chernobyl”. The plant was built on the river Pripyat, which was to serve as the water source for the nuclear reactors, and was also an ideal distance away from the city of Kiev – not too far away to connect, not too close to be a danger in case of any disaster. But hey, how could that ever happen?

That being said, there’s one thing missing from this nuclear reactor – people. As you might guess, something as complex and potentially dangerous as a nuclear reactor requires huge teams of highly educated workers, and those workers obviously aren’t working at the station full-time; they would need a place to stay. Here was the Soviet solution – a new city, built from the ground up, to house the workers, their families, and everyone else who would be needed to create a functional economy in said city. Store clerks, firefighters, police officers, yoga instructors, you get the point.

Now, building cities entirely or almost entirely from scratch was kind of a thing for the Soviet Union; see Magnitogorsk and Chelyabinsk. But this city was going to be different. The USSR had previously constructed eight “atomograds” or atomic cities, towns built for the express purpose of supporting nearby nuclear reactors. These cities, unusual for the Soviet Union, tended to be incredibly opulent places to live, relatively speaking. This was because Soviet leaders put a lot of propaganda value on their nuclear reactors, citing them as examples of the supremacy of Soviet engineering. This new city, to be named Pripyat, was designed in much the same way, but this time, the planners decided that they were going all out.

The Happiness of All Mankind

Construction of Pripyat took place at the same time as the Chernobyl plant, around 3 kilometers away from the reactor, officially gaining city rights in 1979. As Pripyat was a brand new city and also carried the prestige associated with hosting a Soviet nuclear reactor, this town had an incredible amount of amenities that often simply weren’t present in other parts of the USSR.

Let’s start with education. The town of Pripyat had 15 kindergartens, 5 schools for various ages, a college and vocational school, and even an art school for children. The eagle-eyed among you may have noticed the proliferation of kindergartens relative to everything else; that’s because Pripyat was, demographically speaking, one of the youngest cities in the Soviet Union. As stated before, Pripyat and Chernobyl were specifically decided to be built in the middle of nowhere, to minimize risks to other huge cities like Kiev. Side note here: Chernobyl was originally planned to be built only 25 km (16 mi) from Kiev, but a bunch of local scientists said that was way too close to such an important city. In hindsight, they were absolutely right, but we get ahead of ourselves.

So, Pripyat was a remote city, very far away from huge population centers. That made it difficult to convince experienced plant operators from other parts of the Soviet Union to actually move there. So, the vast majority of Chernobyl’s workers were straight out of university, putting the average age of Pripyat’s population at only 26. That would also probably explain the city’s 35 playgrounds.

In terms of retail stores, Pripyat was spared no expense, containing 25 shops selling everything from books to sports equipment to televisions and radios, as well as 27 restaurants, cafes, or other eateries located variously throughout. The city also had various centers for entertainment, including, most interestingly, ten shooting ranges. Ten, in a city of 50,000 people. To put that into perspective, Houston, a city of more than 2 million people, has eighteen. That’s right, Texas, you’ve been outgunned by Chernobyl. Which is probably a good thing, I mean, you don’t really want to square up anything with Chernobyl, but we know how you are over there. Just, take it easy.

Anyways, aside from having more shooting ranges per capita than probably anywhere on earth, Pripyat also had ten gyms and three swimming pools for local residents to exercise, as well as two stadiums, four libraries, and a cinema. Impressive, right? Well, now we need to hit you with the asterisk. Several buildings in Pripyat had multiple purposes and designations, which is partly what puts the total number of facilities so high. For example, the Pripyat “Palace of Culture”, which has the distinction of looking nothing like a palace, was a true Swiss Army Knife of a building. It was, all at once, a cinema, a theatre, a concert hall, a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a boxing ring, a study hall, and a shooting range. It’s honestly surprising they didn’t try to fit a second nuclear power station in there, too, though I’m sure the thought crossed their minds.

With all of that being said, it is broadly true that Pripyat enjoyed a great deal of attention from upper Communist leadership, and was one of the nicest cities in the Soviet Union to live in. Well, up to a certain point, but that happens later.

Well, we’ve given you the raw numbers of things, but what was life actually like in the city? Well, picture any mid-sized city, really. People woke up, read the local newspaper, went to work, stayed out at bars at night, and did everything you’d expect small towners to do. There was one major difference, in that there was a big emphasis on Pripyat’s status as an atomic city. Parades would be held in honor of the nuclear power station and Soviet engineering, more broadly, but other than that, Pripyat seemed to be just an average, mid-sized city, with people living their lives like they would anywhere else – until a catastrophic accident would force them to abandon it.

1:23:45

At 1:23 AM on April 26, 1986, Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant exploded. The reasons for its explosion are complex and fascinating and we could never do it justice here, but all you need to know is that it was a combination of design flaws in the reactor and intentional disregard for safety procedures by management.

The damaged unit 4 reactor at Pripyat Chernobyl nuclear plant
The damaged unit 4 reactor

The authorities did not inform the residents of Pripyat what had happened, as they were concerned about causing a panic. The residents themselves knew that something had gone seriously wrong, but were told nothing. Some people tried to leave, for one reason or another, only to find that the police had set up roadblocks: no one could get in, or out. And so, the morning after the accident, everyone just went about their day, with a cloud of lethal ionizing radiation climbing ever higher into the sky. 

Valery Legasov, one of the most important characters in managing the disaster, said that “mothers could be seen pushing prams and children were playing in the street – just like any other Sunday”. Valentyna Shevchenko, a bureaucrat in the Ukrainian government, said that when she asked about the residents upon learning of the accident, she was told that “Some are celebrating a wedding, others are gardening, and others are fishing in the Pripyat River.”

By the time a commission was established by the central government and had arrived at the site, dozens of people had been hospitalized and two had died. As the day went on, evidence mounted that the reactor was open and venting radiation into the atmosphere, and they insisted that the city be evacuated.

And so, on the morning of April 27, some 36 hours after the disaster, the order was given for Pripyat to be evacuated. The initial evacuation length was set to three days; it was never rescinded. Residents were told only to bring what was absolutely necessary – their IDs, some clothes, some food, and practically nothing else. The evacuation was sudden; cars were left on the streets, children dropped their toys on the sidewalks – nearly every personal belonging was left behind, turning Pripyat into a ghost town.

The process of defusing the reactor began and concluded shortly afterwards. This consisted of famously airdropping over five thousand tons of sand over the open reactor, and then creating a makeshift containment unit to buy them time. Then, after this was done, the real challenge began – that of decontaminating the entire city of Pripyat. The hundreds of thousands of workers who carried out this job came to be known as “Liquidators”.

First, every radioactive car was relocated to the outskirts of the city, which had by that point been fenced off. These would later be buried, along with other highly radioactive machinery. Then, the workers proceeded to dig up and replace every patch of dirt in Pripyat, as it had been contaminated with radiation. Just take a moment to appreciate the irony there; such a simple and thankless task, scaled upwards to monumental quantities. Yet, it had to be done; nothing could be left behind. That included what the residents had left behind, such as family pets.

In one of the most heartbreaking chapters of the disaster, hunting parties proceeded to scour the 30 kilometer exclusion zone set up around the plant, shooting every animal they found; dogs, cats, deer, everything. A necessary evil, as they were all nearly certain to be afflicted with radiation sickness by that point and suffering greatly from the effects.

The Liquidators themselves often had inadequate protection for the job they were doing – three sets of clothes and often no anti-radiation gear. In that classic Russian carefree attitude towards death, many simply decided that the little protection they had, specifically gas masks, were more trouble than they were worth.

The work was grueling and endless. In addition, whenever it rained in the vicinity, new spots of radiation would pop up, caused by the fact that the clouds above were still heavily radioactive. This meant that even completed work would be undone occasionally. But time went on, and the work continued, until eventually the city and surrounding area were mostly cleaned up. They still weren’t “safe” by any reasonable human standards, but given the scope of the disaster and it being such a completely novel danger, it was the best that could be done.

Eternal Memory

Pripyat amusement park, as seen from the City Center Gymnasium

After the work was complete, Pripyat was sealed off to the world – a closed city, for all the wrong reasons. To this day, no one lives in Pripyat permanently, and its official population is listed at 0. It’s rather eerie, seeing that number in places like its Wikipedia page, knowing all the context behind it.

A new city, named Slavutych, was built 45 kilometers away to house some of the evacuated residents. To this day, it is very much defined by the events of Chernobyl. Around 8,000 people who live there were children when the reactor meltdown occurred, and there is a memorial in the town dedicated to those who lost their lives in the disaster – a reminder that, even in total nuclear meltdown, life continues and time goes on. One day, tens of thousands of years from now when the radiation has decayed, Pripyat and Chernobyl will be safe again. Until then, it will stand as a monument to the greatest man-made disaster in history.

Monument dedicated to the Chernobyl Victims at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Reactor 4, Chernobyl exclusion zone, Ukraine
Monument dedicated to the Chernobyl Victims at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Reactor 4, Chernobyl exclusion zone, Ukraine

Credits:

Alexey Akindinov. Chernobyl. Last day of Pripyat. 2013-2014 by Alex Akindinov is licensed under CC-BY-SA

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