City of Ghosts: Chernobyl and the Evacuation of Pripyat

Chernobl equipment

Photo courtesy of Efrem Lukatsky/Fotalia

City of Ghosts: Chernobyl and
the Evacuation of Pripyat
| published May 28, 2015 |

By Kevin Robbie Thursday Review contributor

The environmental, economic and social consequences of the explosion and fires at the Chernobyl nuclear facility in 1986 can still be felt today, and those long-term effects have been extensively studied by scientists and academicians over the years. Irradiated equipment and machinery which have been used in cleaning up the reactor site over the years are stored at various “equipment graveyards” throughout Russia and Ukraine as an effort to manage radioactive waste. Two of the biggest ones are at Burakivka and Rossakha. At the former site, much equipment lies buried in clay-lined trenches. As individual items become gradually decontaminated, they are cut up, melted down and sold for scrap. The decontamination typically involves the metal being washed by rain. The resulting runoff, however, seeps into the ground, extending the effects of the radiation and creating another environmental issue, the consequences of which may last much longer.

The explosion caused by the core meltdown on April 26, 1986, spewed radioactive particles into the air, consisting primarily of particulate matter and gaseous isotopes. A huge radioactive cloud formed over the areas near the reactor, and that toxic cloud ultimately drifted over much of Europe. The fallout settled on the ground, seeping into the soil, absorbed by trees, grasses and plants, and finding its way into the water and many of the man-made structures as well, including buildings, apartments and houses.

An example of one of the more extreme environmental effects of the disaster is found in the so-called “Red Forest.” This area, previously known as Worm Wood Forest and located immediately behind the reactor complex, lies within the 10 km exclusion zone and was killed off by massive amounts of radioactive fallout. The forest is so named because in the days following the disaster the trees appeared to take on a deep red hue as they died because of the extremely high amounts of radiation they absorbed. In the clean-up work after the incident, most of the 4 km² forest was bulldozed and buried in deep trenches covered over with sand. Many scientists believe that there may be some leeching of fallout into groundwater as the trees decay.

The typical exposure for humans to radiation is around 200 milliroentgens per year, primarily from radon, consumer products and natural radiation in the environment. A typical reading for the Red Forest is 10 milliroentgens per hour. Thus, a human in this area would be exposed to the same amount of radiation in one day as would be experienced normally in one year. The Zone of Alienation, in which the forest is located, received fallout amounts 20 times greater than was recorded at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

An ironic result of the Chernobyl disaster is that the Red Forest and surrounding wooded areas have become involuntary parks, meaning they have begun to revert to wild, feral states due to the absence of human impact. The flora and fauna of the area seem to have flourished and scientists have noted an increase in the forest’s biodiversity. The wild boar population increased eight-fold between 1986 and 1988. However, much of the surface soil is still contaminated and some animals, including certain bird species, have been seen with physical defects such as stunted feathers. Even in a region contaminated with radiation, life adapts and survives.

Humans affected by the disaster have found means to survive as well. Still, the social impact of Chernobyl was significant. The plant's nighttime staff was woefully unprepared—or underprepared—to respond appropriately to a nuclear accident, and ultimately when the response finally came, it arrived late. In the highly centralized political system of the USSR, local and regional officials waited for direction from Moscow. The decision to wait for specific instructions from the Kremlin and other top Soviet officials proved to be a mistake, however, because it caused a delay in carrying out even the most basic of safety procedures in place at the minutes and hours immediately after the explosion.

It was discovered in the subsequent investigation that even as radiation leaked from the crippled reactor, children were being sent to school, an outdoor wedding was held, a soccer match took place, and local residents went fishing in the nuclear plant's cooling ponds. According to United Nations reports, it was actually two full days—after one reactor had already blown up, and a second was on fire—before Moscow even acknowledged that "something" had happened in Chernobyl, much less revealed the magnitude of the disaster.

A tangible reminder of the incident’s social impact was the death of the town of Pripyat, located just south of the river of the same name. Pripyat was a planned community, built in 1970 in order to house workers of the huge Chernobyl plant, which was located about one-and-a-half miles from the outskirts of Pripyat. It was not found on any contemporary maps, though, because it was regarded as a “closed city” due to its status as a community for workers at the nuclear plant and their families. Special documents and papers were required of non-residents to access the town from the outside. Pripyat was considered a model of socialist urban planning and by 1986, its population had expanded to 48,000 inhabitants, mostly young couples with families. It was originally planned to be the home of 75 to 78,000 people, and was designed optimistically to be easily expanded. The average age of Pripyat’s residents was only 26, and the town experienced a very high birth rate of nearly a thousand babies a year, making it a high growth community. The town had a large cinema, two sports stadiums, thirty-five playgrounds for kids, and nearly 18,000 trees—making it something of an urban forest. The local theater was popular, as were the various sports played on local fields.

On the eve of the event, Friday, April 25th, people in Pripyat went to work, children attended school and the day began like any other day. When the explosion occurred in the very early hours of the 26th, some people from the town gathered on a nearby railroad bridge, its elevation affording them a better view of the reactor site. They witnessed rainbow-colored flames generated by the burning reactor core. The flames reached a height greater than that of the smokestack, a height of over 200 feet. The people who saw that scene were unwittingly exposed to a radiation dose of 500 roentgens, a dose which is fatal to humans and proved as such to the witnesses.

The witnesses on the bridge were not the only fatalities. Workers at the plant, in addition to the aforementioned witnesses and rescue workers sent to the site, were rushed to the hospital in Pripyat. However, the hospital itself had already received heavy amounts of radiation. Eventually all of the exposed witnesses, plant employees and rescue crew personnel treated at the hospital died from radiation poisoning. Several hospital staff also perished.

By Saturday evening, the radiation level in the city exceeded the natural background radiation by a factor of 1,000 and civil defense personnel were being deployed in and outside the city. In certain areas of the city, the readings were so high local technicians believed their equipment wasn’t functioning properly. The first government photographer on the scene was taken aloft in a helicopter over the stricken Reactor Four. After several minutes and only twelve photographs, his camera stopped working due to the intense radiation. Authorities in Moscow had been alerted but were at first given misleading information as messages separately described an “accident” and a “fire” but the word “explosion” wasn’t contained in the earliest reports.

Once the scope of the event was revealed, an announcement was made on Sunday at noon via radio that the city was to be immediately evacuated and additional civil defense workers were deployed throughout Pripyat. The residents were told to take enough provisions to last three days, after which they would likely be able to return to their homes. They were to be prepared to leave as of 2:00 p.m. Carefully and efficiently assembled, the residents boarded over 1,200 buses, most of them from Kiev. At approximately 2:00, Pripyat’s bewildered and anxious population began leaking out of the city as lethal radiation from Chernobyl continued leaking into the environment. Their quiet, mundane weekend routines abruptly interrupted, the citizens were initially taken to nearby cities and towns which had been suddenly directed to prepare for large numbers of evacuees. It was Sunday, April 27th, thirty-six hours after the initial explosion. The around-the-clock evacuation was completed in two days, underscoring the immediacy and danger of the catastrophe. However, the residents of Pripyat didn’t return to their homes in three days. They have in fact never returned. In the few hours between the official evacuation announcement and their departure from the city, the residents’ lives had been hastily and irreversibly uprooted.

Today, Pripyat is a city of ghosts. Radiation levels have now decreased to the point where small groups of tourists are taken to the area. They have often described the city as having an “apocalyptic ambiance.” The city sits deserted, empty cars still parked on the streets and boats either rooted to the riverbanks or grounded in the shallows. Inside the child-care facility, toys and dolls remain scattered and fading where children, now adults, dropped them when they were ordered to leave. Silent apartment buildings no longer reverberate with sounds of laughter or conversation, but instead stand in mute silence and marginal decay. Shops are empty and crumbling.

Playground toys are now stirred only by the wind instead of by children. Among the lifeless reminders tourists see is the large amusement park, slated to open with great fanfare on May 1st, 1986. The gates will never open, the bumper cars will never move and the huge ferris wheel will never turn. Likewise, the citizens of Pripyat will never return to their former lives. Scientists estimate it could be 300 years before the area is again fit for human habitation.

Meanwhile, thousands of pieces of heavy equipment sit in those mass graveyards in the Ukraine in varying states of decay. Among the rusted materials heaped, stacked, or neatly arranged: personnel carriers and buses, Jeeps, trucks, bulldozers and backhoes, trenching machines and borers, fire trucks, ambulances, delivery trucks, and dozens of Soviet-era helicopters. The scene remains a potent reminder that during the Cold War there were things much worse than exchanges of gunfire between clients of the great East West struggle.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Zone of Alienation: The Chernobyl Disaster, April 26, 1986; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; April 27, 2015.

Miracle 1980: Cold War on Ice; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; February 22, 2015.