In 1986, an accident occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant inside the boundaries of present-day Ukraine and marked as one of history’s greatest tragedies of humanity.
The idea of going to Pripyat, the city where Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was located, for a photo book project was exciting as well as scary. Because, the radiation around the plant was still above the normal level and even above the danger limit in some places. I organized a trip to Pripyat with two of my friends in May 2013 after receiving necessary approvals from the Ukrainian authorities providing that we travel in relatively safe areas accompanied by a guide. We spent two days in pursuit of traces of abandoned lives in dilapidated buildings almost lost in the woods, smelling of damp. We were careful not to touch any object while we were wandering in places full of dust, rust and mold, which were plundered in the course of time.
The city was so deserted and we were so alone that only the rattling of geiger counter and shutter sounds were breaking the silence.
We compiled the photos we took in the ghost town of Pripyat, which was quickly abandoned within a few days after the accident. I share below the photos I took, the book’s preface and epilogue written by my dear friend fmajor.
Science Fiction movies quite often feature the subject of people looking for different places to live as a result of the world’s contamination with nuclear wastes. This imaginary scenario, which takes place in centuries to come, is the reality itself for the people of Ukraine and took place 27 years ago.
The worst nuclear accident in the history of humanity occurred at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, also called Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant by Russia. The plant was established in 18 km northwest of the city of Chernobyl, 16 km away from Ukraine – Belarus border and 110 km north of Kiev.
The plant was producing some 10% of Ukraine’s electricity during the accident. Construction started in 1970. The reactors entered service in 1977, 1978, 1981 and 1983 respectively. The accident took place in reactor number 4, which was the newest one, while constructions of reactors number 5 and 6 were still continuing.
Each reactor had 1,000-megawatt power. This plant, which can generate 4,000 megawatt-hour electricity, generated 2 times more power compared to Hoover Dam. Reactors in the plant were in fact similar to the reactors designed to produce nuclear weapons. They were efficient but dangerous reactors.
Accident occurred on April 26, 1986 during a security test. Cause of the explosion is very controversial. Some people say there was a nuclear explosion and others say a steam explosion occurred due to overheating of the reactor. Based on current information, the accident is a result of both operating and design errors. The fire lasted for days and became one of the major causes of pollution. Due to the nature of Soviet Russia, the accident was hidden from the world until April 30.
With Mikhail Gorbachev’s own words, $18 billion was spent just for cleaning procedures. According to Wikipedia, area of around 500,000 hectares was evacuated. The wildlife surrounding the reactor was also severely affected and domesticated or non-domesticated animals were shot and killed during all cleaning activities. 4 square kilometers of pine forest turned red by due to wind after the accident died into red and it was named ‘Red Forest’. These trees were cut and buried where they were. According to the international atomic energy agency, an area of 150,000 square kilometers was contaminated. The agency reported that the number of evacuated settlements was 187. For the moment, people are not allowed to live within a radius of 10 kilometers. 500,000 people worked in the first 7 months in order to eliminate pollution caused by this explosion. This number does not include soldiers in taking employees into the reactor sarcophagus. It is not possible to give an exact number about the deaths due to the accident. The results are controversial except the 30 people who have died due to acute radiation disease related to radiation within 3 months after the accident and those who talk about high numbers are right. Impacts of the accident could not be measured exactly as records were hidden, destroyed, shown less than the real number; the accident affected many countries at the same time and some effects came to light in a long term.
There is a town right at the foot of this plant, the name of which most of us have not even heard: Pripyat. Home to approximately 50,000 people, this town paid a heavy price for this accident.
Ukraine is really a very beautiful country. Passing through the country, Dnieper River reaches to the region where the plant is located. Pripyat is located between the country’s forests and fertile lands. The inhabitants of this town were polite, educated and proud of Russia and Ukraine. The plant, which was constantly working in the peaceful nature of the country, was run by people who lived here.
With its theaters, cultural centers, libraries, hotels, conservatory, cinemas, swimming pools, nursery schools, skyscrapers, hobby gardens, supermarket, gym, art centers, dance centers, research laboratories, train stations, bus terminals and hospitals; Pripyat had a very rich social, cultural and physical infrastructure that we can not find in many cities today.
Exactly 36 hours after the accident, Pripyat was evacuated by the army. According to the announcements, this situation was temporary. For this reason, they were not allowed to take anything other than daily clothes. People learned much later that they were exposed to radiation during these 36 hours and had left their homes forever. The town has been lonely since then.
It takes 900 years for the plant and its surroundings to become eligible for human life again. Although decades have past, people are only allowed to enter the region temporarily and in short periods. The region and the town were plundered. Nevertheless, you can feel the pain of the people at every point in Pripyat.
You cannot feel so alone and betrayed anywhere outside of Pripyat.
On April 27th, 1986, the following announcement was heard from the speakers of Pripyat:
“For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.”
Now I imagine I am on one of those buses that day. I do not know yet that the only thing left to me about my past would be my clothes. Maybe I’m thinking about what my cat or my canary will do at home. I don’t have a single photo of me or my family. I don’t have my favorite tie. The painting my son made for me is left at home.
First, I learn I can never return home. Then I learn my health will deteriorate. I start to wait for the day I and my child will get cancer.
Now, you have witnessed to what happened. Now, you know that nuclear power cost billions of dollars, thousands of lives and tragedy, destruction of nature never to be restored.
Testimony and knowing gives you responsibility.
If we are talking about radioactive contamination 500 kilometers away from an exploding reactor, none of us is safe.