Preserved like a modern-day Pompeii, the abandoned city of Pripyat, in northern Ukraine, is a chilling monument to the world’s worst nuclear accident, which happened 30 years ago next Tuesday ...
Built on the river of the same name, in 1970, and declared a city in 1979, Pripyat was one of nine atomic cities built by the former Soviet Union to house the workers (and their families) of the Chernobyl nuclear-powerstation.
With an average age of 26, in April, 1986, almost all of its 50,000 residents had some connection to the nuclear powerstation, three kilometres away.
Pripyat had 13,000 apartments in 160 blocks, a dozen halls of residence for single men and women, eight for married couples, 15 primary schools for 5,000 children, and five secondary schools.
It had a 410-bed hospital, dozens of shops and malls, cafes and restaurants, and a Palace of Culture with a stunning glass facade overlooking a magnificent public plaza, with a public amusement park to the rear — home to a huge Ferris wheel.
Together with sports halls, three indoor swimming pools, shooting galleries, stadiums, a huge public park and 30 playgrounds, Pripyat was a source of immense national pride — a shining example of Soviet industry and modernity.
All that ended in the early hours of April 26, 1986, when a safety drill at the nuclear powerplant went disastrously wrong.
Pripyat bore the brunt of the accident, which triggered a tsunami of social, economic, and health disasters, and the effects are still being felt today.
The accident occurred during a controlled test shutdown of Chernobyl’s number-four reactor.
A catastrophic series of flawed decisions triggered the deadly explosion, and sparked a ferocious inferno, which sent vast clouds of radioactive graphite and uranium up to 9km into the atmosphere.
The deadly radioactive cloud spread quickly over the surrounding area, then moved north, into nearby, southern Belarus, before later spreading across Europe, reaching as far as Britain and Ireland.
Three percent of the reactor’s 190 tonnes of fuel was expelled. The rest still lies in the shattered plant.
Within hours, it was evident that Pripyat was doomed. However, by the following day its residents had still not been warned about the dangers.
As hundreds of volunteer fire-fighters battled to save the powerplant from meltdown — most of the so-called liquidators would be dead within weeks from radiation-linked illnesses — state officials tried to keep the scale of the disaster quiet, despite radiation levels in Pripyat being a thousand times above natural levels.
It wasn’t until the afternoon of April 27 that a city-wide evacuation order was issued.
To avoid mass panic, residents were told to take only essential items with them, as if they would be allowed return within three days.
Queues for a fleet of 1,000 buses stretched over 120km. The entire evacuation took less than three hours.
The residents never returned. The city hasn’t been lived in since — an abandoned city at the heart of a vast exclusion zone, which extends for up to 30km. It is the most radioactive city in the most radioactive zone in the world. It has been likened to a giant set for a post-apocalyptic horror film. It is one of the eeriest places on Earth.
Today, because radiation levels have dropped considerably, it is considered safe to visit the 30km exclusion zone, but by permit only, and this is granted under strict conditions.
Access to Pripyat and nearby Chernobyl town, at the heart of the zone, is even more strictly controlled, with visitors allowed only in the company of a guide.
Various Ukrainian companies offer guided tours of the Pripyat Zone of Alienation, with a spike in visitor applications reported ahead of the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.
Irish humanitarian, Adi Roche, who founded the Chernobyl Children International charity, which has delivered €100m of aid to the region and become the largest global contributor to victims of the nuclear disaster, led an historic Irish civic delegation, including the lord mayor of Cork, Chris O’Leary, and the city’s chief executive, Ann Doherty, into Pripyat, as part of a week-long visit in February. It is rare for a delegation of this kind to get such unprecedented access.
The delegation had to pass through several outer checkpoints, to reach the inner cordon, which was manned by guards armed with geiger counters.
The guards screen every vehicle entering the inner exclusion zone, just a few kilometres from the powerplant. A curfew is in effect from 8pm every night. No-one is allowed in or out.
The delegation drove the road from Chernobyl town, along the sweeping Pripyat river, to the city, passing dozens of yellow radiation signs planted in the scrub, on the roadside where hundreds of homes were bulldozed.
While 4,000 adults live in Chernobyl town — most are either scientists working on long-term monitoring projects, or are workers involved in the multinational project to build a giant shield to cap the Chernobyl powerplant — Pripyat is a ghost town.
It has featured in countless documentaries and music videos. Top Gear filmed there some years ago and the city is also the setting for two missions in Playstation’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
However, 30 years on, nature is reclaiming the poisoned land. It is the only sign of life in the once-thriving city.
Past the city’s outer barrier, where a crucifix stands alongside yet another radiation warning sign, the delegation entered an invisibly poisoned land to walk amid its abandoned streets and decaying buildings.
There isn’t a sound in the air. No birds in the trees, no cats or dogs roaming the streets.
The guides enforce strict visitor rules. You can only follow certain routes. You are not allowed to touch vegetation or buildings. There is a specific warning against touching any metal — most of which is still highly irradiated.
Weeds grow through cracks in the city’s wide, boulevard-style Lenin Avenue, its footpaths overgrown with trees and bushes.
Vacant apartment blocks, some up to 15 storeys high, stand like silent sentinels overlooking the streets.
Twisted iron bars and rubble block the stairwells. Looters have taken most of the personal belongings.
Haunting scenes inside the city’s former kindergartens and schools underline the sheer scale of the human disaster to befall this city.
Cots stand rusting in the kindergarten rooms that once echoed to the sounds of children’s laughter.
Ragged teddy bears and broken dolls sit on shelves where they were left, while toy building bricks and toddlers’ shoes litter the dusty floors, alongside heaps of gas masks that were used by those overseeing the evacuation.
In one school, a shredded curtain flaps inside a shattered window, close to rows of numbered coat-hangers.
Books sit on the shelves. Faint chalk marks are still visible on the blackboards. Water drips through cracks in the ceilings onto piles of copybooks, which still lie open on the desks.
In one classroom, it is clear the children were last engaged in an English language lesson. In another room, they were learning to read music.
In the playgrounds outside, swings and slides rust in the harsh Ukrainian weather, and the net on a basketball ring flaps in the biting-cold wind.
The city’s now iconic Ferris wheel, frozen as it was on evacuation day, soars high above the city, in a playground area behind the Palace of Culture — the wind whistling through its giant, steel bars.
Leaves are strewn across the floor of the dodgem-cars attraction — a handful of yellow and red cars resting where they were abandoned.
Inside the once magnificent Palace of Culture, paint peels from its faded murals, which show happy families dancing together. In a vast atrium on the first floor, overlooking the derelict public square, where patrons once gathered in excitement before attending operas and ballet performances, tiles are lifting from an imposing staircase, and concrete is crumbling from the walls.
It’s from here that Adi Roche surveys the eerie scene — the silence broken only by the sound of shattered glass cracking under her boots.
“I can visualise people living here. They must have had a beautiful life,” she says.
“To come back and see it bereft of people, in decline, it leaves me pained, sad, heartbroken, really, for what the people lost. Lives changed for ever in a millisecond.
“That one accident, a kilometre away, has left such an imprint embedded on the people. The radiation, invisible in nature, and yet it’s doing insidious violence in every aspect of life.
“The loss of families, scattered to the four winds, the loss of community. Every time I come back, I feel a really deep sense of sadness for what happened to humanity here.
“The impact of one accident can never be undone and it has left a radioactive footprint embedded in the land and people. It has cast a long, dark shadow over future generations,” she said.
In the distance, you can see tower cranes rising high above the remains of the Chernobyl powerplant.
Here, a large, multi-national workforce is engaged in the mammoth, €1.5bn project to build a giant containment shield, or sarcophagus, a few hundreds metres to the side of reactor number four, in a bid to contain the threat. Ireland has contributed €8m to the project.
Dogged by delays, it is hoped the international community’s New Safe Confinement structure, as it’s technically called, will be completed by next year.
The 100-metre-high, steel, arch-shaped shield — long enough to house two Croke Parks and tall enough to encase the Statue of Liberty — will be moved by a complex system of hydraulic pullies, along tracks, to rest over the reactor.
Designed to replace the existing and leaking shield, which was built in haste over the reactor, it is hoped the giant arch will contain the radioactive material for at least a century.
The construction workers, most of whom are earning a reported €1,000 a day, rotate in and out of the site, like tag teams, to minimise their exposure to radiation.
They also wear two dosimeters [radiation-measuring device] each, to ensure they are never exposed to fatal levels of radiation.
However, just a few kilometres south, where geiger counters still register dangerous levels of radiation, elderly couple, Ivan Simenyuk, 75, and his wife, Maria, who married in 1958, ignore such concerns.
Among the first people to be evacuated after the accident, they were also among the first to move back to their ancestral home. They continue to eke out a living from the poisoned land.
The grinding poverty is obvious. Mr Simenyuk invites us inside his traditional farmhouse and offers us the Belarusian equivalent of poitín.
We decline politely, on the advice of our guide. It’s not just the radiation he’s worried about. It’s the strength of the alcohol.
Mr Simenyuk sits on a low, wooden stool in their kitchen, his wife standing close by, her hands clasped, and tells us he remembers everything from that fateful night in April, 1986.
Speaking through our interpreter, he says: “They had had several explosions in the plant before the big one, so we were kind of used to it.
“In the morning, we were told it had happened. Children in nearby schools were getting iodine, by that time. But children from this village were not getting iodine, so we reckoned it was okay here.
“But, after three days, the children from this village started getting the same medication, as well.
“I had to travel by the nuclear plant on my own business, and I could see the fire in the reactor. A few days later, we got an order from the government to evacuate. The military came and removed all the cattle. Buses came later to evacuate the residents to other villages,” he says.
The couple and their family were moved to a village 30kms away, along with hundreds of their neighbours.
“Some refused to take us in. They were afraid that we were contaminated. But a government order warned these people that if they didn’t take us in, they would be drafted in to fight the fire at the power plant,” Mr Simenyuk says.
The evacuees were eventually settled, and were fed once a day in a canteen. Some got work in a factory, while others built houses. When the work dried up, they were offered places in a village further away.
By 1988, the evacuees had received military assurances that radiation in their own village had returned to accepted norms, and Mr Simenyuk, his wife, and their youngest son were among 144 families to return. Their eldest son, who had started college, stayed.
“We were told our village was clean and, if you wish, you can go back — so we moved back,” Mr Simenyuk says.
“I asked the military people to check the soil for radiation levels. We were sure and certain that radiation was quite okay. That’s why I decided to stay and live in this place.”
Mr Simenyuk got a job in Chernobyl town, building houses, and demolishing others in nearby villages, and also worked on the nuclear plant itself.
“I worked for 40 minutes on the plant, because of the radiation. I also spent a lot of time working near the nuclear plant,” he says.
“I reckon my health is fine. I believe the radiation and pollution went upwards, and was driven by the wind to other places. All the nuclear dust went away with the wind.
“The helicopter pilots who were fighting the fire, and the people who were loading sand, died in the first couple of weeks. People who tried to steal spare parts from the contaminated machines got exposed to radiation, which killed them.
“But those who worked on the ground, in close proximity, those survived.”
His youngest son secured a training-college place in Kiev, about an hour south, and joined the army afterwards, doing his national service in East Germany.
However, two of Mr Simenyuk’s four grandchildren have since been born with complications — his youngest granddaughter has a heart defect, and one of his grandsons has impaired hearing.
He says he can’t be definite that fallout from the nuclear accident caused the defects.
“It might be connected to radiation pollution. It might not be. I’m just not sure,” he said.
As the Belarusian government, under controversial president, Alexander Lukashenko, begins to declassify vast swatches of contaminated land in southern Belarus, and to axe the payment of state supports to those living in the zones, new research from Ukraine, released in the run-up to the 30th anniversary, shows that the rate of thyroid cancer — a radiation-induced cancer — has almost doubled since 2000 among children in the region.
“Children exposed to radiation in 1986 still have a high risk of cancer and need continued observation,” said Sergiy Cherenko, of the Ukrainian Scientific and Practical Centre of Endocrine Surgery, in Kiev.
Children were more at risk than adults at the time of the disaster, because they absorb five to six times more radioactivity, due to their lower weight, smaller height, and more active metabolisms.
Dr Cherenko said the medical community anxiously awaited the 10-to 15-year post-Chernobyl, expected peak of thyroid cancer, especially among the children born between 1982 and 1986.
However, when he and his colleagues looked at cases after that, they observed no decline in thyroid cancer rates among people who were children at the time of Chernobyl.
Health radiation experts at the US National Academy of Sciences say that most cancers resulting from radiation exposure will not develop for up to 30 years.
The highest incidence of cancer has yet to occur and no accurate assessment can be made until this period has expired.
Dr Mario Silva, professor of endocrinology at the University of Milan, says he is not surprised that the latency of radiation-induced thyroid cancer continues, even 30 years after the Chernobyl disaster.
“If radiation is taken up by the thyroid, the risk of cancer will continue,” he said.
Prof Yuri Bandazhevsky, the world’s leading scientist on the effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the human body through the food chain, says that there should be no trace of the deadly radioactive element caesium 137.
“There should be no caesium in the body and there should be no question of temporary or acceptable levels. The silent killer is radiation. Any dose is an overdose,” he says.
Ms Roche says the studies prove Chernobyl is not something from the past.
“Chernobyl ‘was forever’, Chernobyl ‘is forever’,” she says.
“The impact of that single, shocking nuclear accident can never be undone; its radioactive footprint is embedded in our world forever and countless millions of people are still being affected by its deadly legacy,” she says.
As the world prepares to mark the 30th anniversary of the disaster, UN consultations are underway for a new development plan for the region.
A GENERATION LEFT WITHOUT HOPE
Parents urge their children to leave controlled country for a better life, writes
They are a generation too young to remember the nuclear accident. But Belarusian 30-somethings are acutely aware of the shadow it still casts over their country today.
Speaking on condition of anonymity amid fears of repercussions from the state’s security apparatus, an educated married father-of-two says most of his generation have lost hope for a brighter future, and want their children to emigrate and build a better future abroad.
“Most of the territory of our country was affected by the radioactive dust and rain,” he says.
“The state isn’t doing enough to change things. On the contrary, they are trying to hide the facts, and some of the territory is being recognised now as free of pollution, and it isn’t.
“Anyone who has a brain would tell you that the radiation cannot disappear within 30 years from the places which were heavily polluted by such strong substances such as strontium, and some other substances.”
The country is run by controversial Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, who was elected for a five-year term in 1994. But under his watch, the constitution was changed, eliminating fixed terms. He has been president ever since.
The country has been described as a soft-dictatorship. Opposition leaders are often jailed. Forced early elections have been observed.
In last year’s presidential elections, the government allowed an unauthorised opposition rally in Minsk to go ahead on the eve of the election, without police intervention, but Lukashenko warned that post-election protests would not be tolerated.
It is against this backdrop that the father-of-two outlines the deep sense of hopelessness and despair which, like the invisible radiation spewed out from Chernobyl 30 years ago, has seeped slowly in to his generation’s thought processes in the last decade.
“When I was younger, I thought that if we go to the streets and protest, at least if we have a peaceful protest, we can change things in the country,” he says.
“But this did not happen and we are still in the same place where we were 10 or 20 years ago.
“I lost the hope, and would prefer that my kids would go and look for their future somewhere else, rather than wasting another 20 years here.
“This is the most productive period for a person, and if you spend 20 years hoping that something will change here, and it doesn’t, then you are frustrated.
“Most of the young generation would think the same way.”
His parents’ generation think differently, still haunted by the horror wrought on their country during World War 11, when a quarter of the population was killed, he says.
“They prefer to stay calm, not to protest or speak out. They prefer to live a quiet life and to have their bread and butter on the table,” he says.
“But for most young people, bread and butter isn’t enough. Not everything is about bread and butter in our life... There are things of more importance, like freedom, in every aspect — freedom of speech, freedom of choosing your education, your profession, whatever.
“But families don’t speak out because nothing changes.”
He says while he has lost hope that things will change for the better in Belarus, he still feels people, especially those with an education, and with access to the internet and information, should speak out.
“If we keep thinking this way, it will keep going on and in 10 years, there will be no change,” he says.
“We should speak about this — at least between ourselves. If we can’t speak publicly, we can speak in our kitchens, talking between neighbours, and sharing the information and our concerns about this problem.”
He said the international community must continue its pressure on the regime to strive to improve conditions for its citizens.
“We hope the progress being brought to Belarus by the west, through information and education, will eventually change the whole country,” he says.
“I hope so... Sooner or later, change should arrive here, I hope so.
“Information is being hidden from us, but fortunately enough, our generation has access to the internet and to the information from abroad.
“If people know the facts, and visit such places, and spread in the information, it will play a big role in our life.”
In the meantime, his hope is that his children leave Belarus.
“It’s up to them to decide. But I would prefer them to leave this country whenever they can, and get a proper education, get proper chances to establish themselves in life.
“Any person being a parent would say the same. A parent would want his or her children to have a brighter future and better opportunities somewhere, even though it’s far away from their homeland but they can start a new life.
“We have plans for their education, so if they get educated and if they get good jobs, they can probably change their life a little bit.
“It’s a pity that we can’t make any changes ourselves.”
Irish charity, Chernobyl Children International (CCI), the only UN-recognised NGO working in the region, has been battling for almost 20 years to bring hope to the region.
Its voluntary CEO, Adi Roche, who led an historic Irish delegation to the region ahead of the 30th anniversary says: “Our message is that there is always hope.”