On April 27, 1986, residents of the Ukrainian city of Pripyat were living large when compared to other Soviet citizens. Pripyat was a company town, built in 1970 to house workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant less than 2 km away.
By 1986, Pripyat had 49,000 residents, 15 primary schools, 5 secondary schools, a large hospital complex, 25 stores, 10 gyms, parks, cinemas, three indoor swimming pools, two stadiums, and an amusement park under construction. Workers lived in high-rise apartment complexes.
A Model Town Becomes a Ghost Town
The Soviets were proud of their nuclear power stations, and their ability to harness the atom for peaceful purposes.
Not long after midnight on April 27, 1986, Pripyat was rocked by an explosion. Fire and an eerie blue glow could be seen coming out of Reactor No. 4, one of the four operating nuclear reactors at the power station.
As the world now knows, the explosion and subsequent meltdown of the reactor core released deadly radiation into the atmosphere.
36 hours after the explosion, authorities, using loudspeakers, told the residents of Pripyat to pack three days worth of clothing and food, and to board buses that were waiting for them. They would never see their homes, belongings or pets again.
A 30-mile exclusion zone was created around the crippled reactor, and Pripyat was abandoned. Lampposts are still decorated with hammers and sickles in preparation for the 1986 May Day celebration that would never come.
At the kindergartens and schools, toys are strewn on the floor where they were dropped by children who are now adults. The uniforms of plant workers are still in the laundry facility, and all clocks are stopped at 11:55, the time when power was cut to the city.
During the cleanup after the accident, Pripyat housed military personnel, police, and scientists, and it is now almost completely abandoned by humans. But, that doesn't mean it is completely abandoned.
After three decades, the trees and plants of the forest are starting to swallow Pripyat. Immediately after the accident, and despite the high radiation levels, deer and wild boar appeared, soon followed by elk and moose. Their predators came next – wolves, foxes, and lynx.
A New Garden of Eden
Today, some elderly residents have chosen to return to their homes within the exclusion zone. Nature and solitude, to say nothing of the cheap real estate prices, have attracted homesteaders from other areas of Ukraine. The conflict that began in 2014 in eastern Ukraine has sent thousands of people in search of new homes.
While there is no longer a risk from radiation in the atmosphere, there are still radiation hot spots in the soil.
Recently, dangerous levels of radioactive caesium-137 have been reported in cow's milk. It comes from caesium particles that have been absorbed by grass, which is then eaten by cows.
The risk of radiation in vegetables grown by homesteaders is low, but wild food, such as mushrooms and berries, might not be safe.
You Can Visit Pripyat
Today, you can visit Pripyat by going through one of five tour operators. Current radiation levels are 15 to several hundred micro-roentgens per hour. A micro-roentgen is a millionth of a roentgen, and between 300 and 500 roentgens per hour is considered a lethal dose of radiation.
All five tours visit pretty much the same sites: the power plant, where visitors must remain at least 200m away, the schools, the hospital, and the uncompleted amusement park. Visitors are no longer allowed to enter the buildings because their condition has become unstable.
The vehicle scrap yard, where abandoned helicopters, trucks and ambulances were dumped, is also off limits due to its high level of radiation.
The tour companies make sure to mention that the lunch served during the tour comes from outside the exclusion zone.