Pripyat – The Abandoned City In The Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone

In the early hours of 26 April 1986, a standard test at the No. 4 nuclear reactor in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant went wrong, causing what is considered to be the biggest nuclear disaster in history. The nearby city of Pripyat was evacuated, leaving the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone abandoned. It is, alongside the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan, one of only two nuclear disasters rated at the highest level of seven on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

Pripyat was founded on 4 February 1970 for the purpose of serving the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Located in the Ukrainian SSR in the Soviet Union, today it is in Ukraine close to the border with Belarus. It was named after the nearby Pripyat River and was proclaimed a city in 1979. It was the source of much pride in the USSR, a city of tomorrow with the latest innovations in urban planning and technology. Pripyat was a showcase for the Soviet dream, a modern utopia with a contented population and the finest achievements in engineering and design.

Initial plans suggested that the nuclear power plant be built 25 km (16 miles) from Kiev however there was significant opposition from the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and so a more isolated area was chosen. The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and the accompanying city of Pripyat were therefore built 100 km (62 miles) away from Kiev, a decision which potentially saved thousands of lives later on. Administration of the Chernobyl Nuclear Exclusion Zone passed from the Soviet Union to Ukraine upon independence in 1991, just 5 years after the disaster. It is seen by many as one of the reasons behind the eventual dissolution of the USSR.

The accident began at 1:23 am on the 26th of April 1986 during a safety test on an RBMK-type nuclear reactor. Because of a delay, the operating team which had prepared the test was not present and procedures were not adequately followed. Anatoly Dyatlov was in charge at the time of the accident and it was his insistence to continue with the test despite warnings from the team about abnormal test conditions that led to catastrophe. The disabling of safety systems coupled with design flaws in the RBMK reactor caused an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. The reactor core ruptured, resulting in a disastrous steam explosion. It was followed by an open-air reactor core fire that burned for nine days, spewing radioactive contamination into the atmosphere.

The first fire fighters arrived at the scene at 1:45 am, unaware of the scale of the accident or the significant danger posed by the escaping radiation. They believed it to be an electrical fire at first but pieces of graphite littered on the ground suggested otherwise. A number of men from the Chernobyl Power Station fire brigade would die soon after from acute radiation sickness. The immediate risk was the fire on the roof and around reactor No. 4 spreading to reactor No. 3. Despite warnings, chief engineer, Nikolai Fomin, refused to shut down reactor No. 3 and eventually, the chief of the night shift, Yuri Bagdasarov, decided to go against orders and shut down regardless at 5 am, just as the fires on the roof were extinguished. The fire inside reactor No. 4 burned until 10th May 1986.

At first, the accident was played down by the authorities but a commission was put in place to investigate, headed by Valery Legasov, First Deputy Director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. By the time they arrived in Pripyat, 2 people had died, 52 had been hospitalised and many residents were complaining of headaches and a metallic taste in their mouths. The commission gave the call to evacuate the city and everyone within a 10km (6.2 miles) radius. The evacuation of Pripyat began at 11 am on April 27th with 49,000 people being taken away by bus in an astonishing 3.5 hours, thanks in part to the innovative urban planning and modern layout which the city had been famed for before the accident. The exclusion zone was later expanded to a 30 km (19 miles) radius.

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