Pripyat: the ghost town and the Chernobyl disaster

<<There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable.>>
  (Albert Einstein)
In these days of apprehension for the risk of a disaster at Fukushima nuclear plant, in Japan, the theme of nuclear energy, whether or not such a dangerous source of energy should still be used, is again a central theme throughout the world. Apparently we can’t seem to learn from our past errors, even if all of us know the story of that place which, in 1986, experienced one of human history’s most sever disasters…we barely remember its name, since most know it simply as Chernobyl, but around that infamous plant there used to be a big city, now nothing more than a ghost town: Pripyat.
Pripyat rose in Ukraine, close to Byelorussia’s northern borders, about 110 km away from the capital of Kiev. The city’s construction began in 1970 to house the nuclear plant workers and their families. In the following years, many other people settled there and the population quickly rose to some 47.000 inhabitants. Pripyat was a modern and functional city, with two hospitals, a shopping centre, two hotels, many bars, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and a multipurpose centre which housed an indoor swimming pool that remained surprisingly operational up to the year 2000.
April 26th 1986 was the beginning of the end for Pripyat…

At 1:23:45, during a “security” test, paradoxically all the security rules were violated, causing the fourth reactor to an uncontrolled power rise. In the reactor’s core the water used for cooling split into hydrogen and oxygen at such pressure to break the cooling rods. The contact between hydrogen and white-hot graphite with air caused an explosion powerful enough to uncover the reactor. What followed was catastrophe: a cloud of radioactive materials escaped the reactor and fell on a large area around the power plant, seriously contaminating it. Radioactive clouds reached Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, and even Italy, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, the Balkans, and part of the East Coast or North America. Pripyat was evacuated only 36 hours later: 45.000 people were forcibly carried away, and in the following days 130.000 more had to leave their homes in a 30 km radius. No one really understood what was going on.
On the night the reactor exploded, tens of people even remained to watch the shining light above it. Death, at times, can be spectacular…
The Chernobyl incident was classified at level 7, the highest in the INES scale, and released a radioactivity a hundred times stronger than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs in 1945. The official report draws a toll of 65 verified deaths, plus 4.000 supposed ones for tumours and leukaemia within the space of 80 years. However, this balance was often contested. Greenpeace estimates 6.000.000 world-wide deaths over a period of 70 years! The radiations will remain in the area for about 48.000 years, and man will be able to live there again only in about 600 years. The truth is, the consequences of this disaster will never be ascertained, and the exact number of those who risk developing serious medical conditions won’t be known until 2016, if not later. What’s sure is that the concrete sarcophagus built to contain the core will not last and its deterioration is now clear.

Pripyat is today the world’s spookiest ghost town. The houses and the streets are still full of furniture, cars, photographs, appliances, toys, personal objects all left by inhabitants who were told they’d be back in three weeks but instead never saw their homes again. In spite of the prohibitions, there are still about four hundred people who returned to live there, eating food from the land and drinking from the highly polluted rivers. The military vehicles used for the rescues lie since 1986 in a large dumping ground due to the high radioactivity level. Special permissions are needed to access the area, and before exiting visitors are required to be checked and eventually to take a shower against radiations. Many structures are not safe or show a concentration of radioactivity too high to be visited. If staying outdoors is relatively safe, entering any building can be extremely dangerous. The most radioactive place in town is the playground that was built for May Day, because, being exposed directly to the power plant, on that fateful day the wind brought the first radioactive particles there. The Ferris wheel, in particular, shows an extremely high concentration. All the trees of the forest that stood behind the playground died in a matter of a few days, and the place is now known as the “Red forest” due to the colour change it underwent due to the effect of the fallout. If Pripyat became a hell for men, both flora and fauna proliferated immensely, to the point of being studied to elaborate hypothesis on how Earth would be without mankind. 
Pripyat is the symbol of the devastation nuclear energy can cause, but also an example of a new form of extreme tourism: Forbes considered it the most exotic place to spend a holiday…indeed, notwithstanding the risks, Pripyat can be visited for a day through guided tours organised by the city website. There is no staying for long, though, due to the danger of contamination.
The Chernobyl disaster shows the dark side of modern life, how catastrophically can technology fail. Radioactive agents are odourless and colourless, but lethal; they are invisible and silent assassins that kill slowly and for generations to come…

Image gallery on ORIGINAL POST


( Translation by Marco Salvadori )

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