You’ve most likely heard of the Chernobyl disaster that struck within Ukraine over 30 years ago. It’s said to be the worst nuclear disaster that we’ve ever seen and made quite the impact on its surrounding environment and residents, leaving behind sickened soils, illuminated foliage and ghost towns, most famously of which includes the city of Pripyat.
The image it paints in your head is likely something you’d expect from an apocalyptic movie or game. However, this is very real and is only a minor example of the kind of destruction that we could cause globally if we continue to be so careless. With such an instantly catastrophic result, it also raises a question – will this land ever be habitable ever again? Will we ever see surviving residents of Pripyat reclaim their old homes?
Before we press on let’s just remind ourselves of what exactly happened in the early hours of April 26th, 1986.
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant was designed and built during the 70’s and 80’s, with a nearby man-made reservoir fed by the Pripyat river to provide cooling water for its reactor. It is located 81 miles north of the city of Kiev and 12 miles south of the border to Belarus, with its nearest city being the newly-built Pripyat – home to 50,000 people.
The day before the disaster, plant operators were preparing for a one-time shut down to allow routine maintenance to be carried out on Reactor 4. However, in violation of safety regulations, the plant equipment was disabled which included the automatic shut down mechanisms.
At 1:23am on April 26th, 1986, very hot fuel rods were lowered into cooling water that created a lot of steam. Due to design flaws in the reactor there was far too much reactivity in the core of Reactor 4, resulting in an explosion that spewed radiation into the atmosphere. Seconds later, a second explosion brought down the entire reactor building, scattering parts of the reactor everywhere and starting a lot of intense fires.
Unfortunately, several plant workers were killed as they attempted to contain any radiation leaks and fires. A lot were considered heroes as they did everything they could to help prevent the disaster worsening, knowing full well of the amount of radiation they were exposed to would be their demise.
Within 36 hours of the explosions, the residents of nearby and newly-built city Pripyat were immediately ordered to evacuate. Most were already suffering side effects of radiation sickness such as vomiting and headaches. Everyone was told they’d be allowed back a few days later, meaning all belongings, pets and valuables were left behind.
Obviously, that never happened.
Even though, according to Glynn, popular culture finds ways to make Pripyat seem exciting since the disaster – such as 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare using it as a bad guy convention for Russian Spetsnaz terrorists in a 90’s flashback – the reality was a lot quieter.
Straight after the disaster, high levels of radiation would have made it extremely difficult to survive, with only ravenous and abandoned pet dogs to keep you company. That is if they haven’t already decided to make you their meal. Apart from that, the land was coated with isotopes that had poisoned forests, swamps and lakes over miles and miles of northern Ukraine, resulting in an exclusion zone, patrolled by armed guards.
Today isn’t drastically different. Any surviving feral pets have been taken care of and it is possible for tourists to visit Pripyat as part of an “extreme tour“. The natural process of radioactive decay has removed some toxic particles from the environment, with only a few effects from the radiation taking place, such as stunted tree growth. Sightings of animals including wolves, deer, lynx, beaver, eagles, boar, elk and bears have been documented to thrive around the dense woodland near the silent plant.
As of the 29th November 2016, a giant shelter now covers the site of the reactor (visibly being constructed to the left on the horizon in the above picture). With a span of 800 feet, 500 feet in length and 350 feet high, it is the largest land-based moving structure.
The structure was designed more than two decades ago but started its inception in 2010, with intent to cover the current deteriorating steel and concrete sarcophagus that was hastily built after the disaster. With an intended lifespan of 100 years – 300 at a push – the shelter will prevent any spewing of additional toxic material from the reactor’s core.
It has cost well over $1.5 billion, with many western countries, Ukraine and Russia each contributing.
A Possible Return Home?
Questions are raised as to whether the surviving citizens of Pripyat will ever be able to return home. It seems a shame for a newly built city at the time to be instantly left to rot in the wild.
Realistically, the answer is they most likely won’t. Even though nature is making a comeback with trees thriving through the buildings and populations of wildlife making their way into the woodland and roaming the streets of abandoned towns, it still isn’t completely safe for human habitation.
Long-lived radiation surrounding the former plant could take as long as 20,000 years to completely disappear. A time frame so large, humans as we know may become extinct long before then.