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Pripyat: The Nuclear City and its Guided Tours

In 1970, the Soviet Union founded a settlement that would one day be the city of Pripyat (Прип'ять).  Pripyat is in the extreme north of the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic, named after the nearby Pripyat River, which originates in Ukraine, and flows mostly through modern-day Belarus.  The city of Pripyat officially became a city in 1979, after enough people had moved there.  Pripyat was the ninth Nuclear City in the Soviet Union.  Nuclear cities are quite literally that: cities built around nuclear power plants.  Throughout the 1970s, the main reason one might live in Pripyat was to service the nearby Chernobyl nuclear power plant.  By the time the population had hit 49,000 in 1979, it was officially a city.

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Pripyat, Ukraine SSR, circa 1980

Pripyat was what was called a “closed city”.  This doesn’t mean access was restricted, like it might be around a military base.  You were free to come and go; all that was “closed” was the purpose of the city: producing nuclear energy.  Nuclear energy was seen as peaceful and harmless by the Soviet government, and they promoted it as such.  Pripyat was a pleasant, shining city on a riverbed.  The Chernobyl plant was built there to serve the needs of the city of Kiev.  It wasn’t built closer to Kiev because the locals were worried about the plant being too close—what if there was an accident?

The bustling metropolis of Pripyat wasn’t worried.  Its official city status came the same year as the famous Threemile Island disaster in Pennsylvania, but accidents like this didn’t happen in the Soviet Union, which hadn’t seen a nuclear reactor accident since 1961.  No accidents until 1986, when, during a routine stress test, the Chernobyl reactor’s safety mechanisms were shut off, but the testing procedures were not done by the book, and an accident happened.  Uncontrolled nuclear reactions resulted in nine days of radioactive steam coming from the site.  Pripyat, however, was evacuated in just two.  No one was left in town except the poor souls who were trying to stop the disaster from getting even worse.  Fallout spread all over the western Soviet Union and parts of Europe.  The Chernobyl disaster would be classed as a Level 7 nuclear incident—the most extreme nuclear accident category there is.  Chernobyl was the first accident to get the Level 7 classification.  The only other disaster to hit Level 7 was the Fukushima disaster in Japan in 2011.

What was once known as a Nuclear City was reclassified as a Zone of Alienation following the disaster.  It was still occupied by workers trying to clean the place up.  These were called Chernobyl Liquidators, officially sanctioned by the Soviet (and later Russian) military to clean up the radiation.  In all, there were 600,000 Liquidators assigned to clean up Chernobyl.  Today, 10% of them are dead, and nearly 20% of them are handicapped.  The cancer rate among Liquidators is alarmingly high, at roughly four times the rate of the rest of the population in Russia and in the former Soviet countries.

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Pripyat Street, Pripyat, before and after.

The Zone of Alienation is not so alienated, anymore.  There’s an outfit called Chernobyl Tour, which has been offering guided tours of the area for about $125 a day.  Their website boasts 16 smiling tour guides who will lead you through Pripyat, showing you the largely vacant city, and bringing you up to speed on the developments in the thirty-year history of this famous calamity.  Their website insists that the radiation levels aren’t so bad, and that you won’t get acute radiation poisoning unless you get too close to the old nuclear plant.  Otherwise, you’re fine!

There are some people who have moved into the empty buildings of Pripyat.  They enjoy a certain celebrity in Russian media.  Competition for dwellings there isn’t stark; there’s plenty of space available.  These settlers, known colloquially as samosely, occupy a zone that’s over ten kilometers from the nuclear plant.  It’s a lonely, isolated life, as you might imagine.  Chernobyl Tours paints their lives as idyllic, bucolic ones, communing with nature and having “special relationships” with their pets.  Samosely translates as self-settler, so these might be people who are more inclined to be left alone in the first place.  They live in small clusters of about ten each.  A couple of them, like the famous Grandpa Savva, live in Pripyat.  It’s a good way to go if you like living in a city but you don’t like having neighbors.  And if you don’t mind a little radiation.  But don’t worry—the radiation around Chernobyl is expected to break down in anywhere from 150 to 290 years.  Wait it out!

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Tourists and the intrepid Chernobyl tour guides, inside the Zone of Alienation, 2013.


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