In early February 2022, as Russian troops massed on the Ukraine-Belarus border a short distance away, Ukrainian soldiers trained for the confrontation that was to come. They roamed through a deserted city, firing their guns and launching grenades and mortars in the shadows of abandoned, decaying buildings, some of which displayed the old hammer-and-sickle symbol of the defunct Soviet Union. As they went through their drills, a special radiation control unit monitored the levels to which the soldiers were being exposed, as this Reuters dispatch detailed.
The site of this eerie scene was a place called Pripyat, located near the heart of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a circle with a radius of nearly 19 miles (30 kilometers) around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that suffered a catastrophic accident April 26, 1986. The area was evacuated because of high radiation levels, and Pripyat, once a thriving city of 50,000, including many workers at the nuclear plant, was abandoned. Over time, its urban landscape became overgrown with trees and vines.
Though in recent years, people increasingly have ventured into the zone, the onetime Soviet atomgrad – Russian for "atomic city" – has never been repopulated. Instead, its crumbling buildings serve as a reminder of the danger of nuclear power when it's not properly managed and safeguards prove inadequate.
Pripyat Was a Modern City Before Disaster Struck
There was a time when Pripyat was a showcase of Soviet atomic-age futurism. "It was a very nice place," recalls Andrei Korobkov, a professor of political science and international relations at Middle Tennessee State University, who visited the city in the late 1970s, less than a decade after it was built to accommodate nuclear workers. "It was a very modern city, built from scratch." Pripyat's modern architecture — a contrast to the much smaller town of Chernobyl, which dated back to the late 12th century – was designed "to emphasize that it was associated with high-tech, and modern achievements."
Pripyat was a complete community with a shopping district, medical facilities, schools and a residential area composed mostly of apartment buildings, Korobkov recalls. Unlike some other atomgrads, Pripyat wasn't connected to the Soviet nuclear weapons program, so it wasn't closed to outsiders.
How Much Radiation Was Pripyat Exposed To?
When the accident at Chernobyl occurred, Pripyat – located just under 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the nuclear plant – was in a perilous spot.
"Since the radiation doses and levels of contamination are generally highest in the region within a few miles of an radiological release, individuals located that close were clearly in serious danger from both exposure to the radioactive plumes and to contamination of the ground and structures," explains Edwin Lyman, a physicist and director of nuclear power safety for the Union of Concerned Scientists, who visited the city 20 years later.
"However, at the time of the Unit 4 explosion early in the morning on April 26," he says, "the prevailing winds were to the west and did not blow directly in the direction of Pripyat, so fortunately the town did not encounter the highest dose rates immediately following the accident, and the residents were largely spared the worst consequences."
Even so, Lyman notes, air dose rates ranged up to 0.01 rem per hour in Pripyat on the day of the explosion – hundreds of times the normal background rate.
"To put that in perspective, international standards generally recommend that members of the public do not receive more than 0.1 rem from artificial sources in an entire year, and standards such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's protective action guides recommend evacuation if the expected dose will exceed 1 rem (whole-body exposure) in four days," Lyman writes in an email. "In addition, there was a distinct risk from inhalation of radioactive iodine in the plume. Thus, prompt evacuation of these areas was clearly appropriate."
The authorities hesitated to order an evacuation until late evening on the day of the accident, Lyman says. Though the town was cleared of people by the following day, the average whole-body dose to the Pripyat evacuees was estimated at around 2 rem, according to Lyman.
"This was well below the dose at which acute effects occur, but could increase the lifetime risk of cancer by a few percent," Lyman says. "However, thyroid exposures were more significant, especially for young children. Even though the evacuees were given stable potassium iodide, they delayed taking it until it was too late."
How much the radiation affected their health remains unclear. A 2021 paper published in Frontiers in Endocrinology found that the rate of thyroid cancer increased in people who lived in the Chernobyl region, but the health of Pripyat's evacuees wasn't broken out in the study.
What Is the Town Like Now?
In recent years, adventurous travelers have been visiting the uninhabited city to get a peek at the ruins. Adam Mark, an urban explorer whose YouTube channel, Adam Mark Explores, is devoted to abandoned places, roamed around Pripyat in the fall of 2021, months before the Russian invasion.
"Exploring Chernobyl and Pripyat was something I've always wanted to do," Mark explains in an email. "I didn't really think of the danger. When considering the trip, I thought of some of the guides that have been entering the exclusion zone for years that seem to be fine, which did put my mind at ease as well. I didn't experience any after effects; we were constantly checked when entering and leaving the zone."
Mark found that even 36 years after Pripyat was abandoned, evidence of the everyday lives of its inhabitants remained. "One of the most surprising things I saw was the kindergarten. Seeing all the children's toys, cots and shoes still left was a real eye opener and the closest thing I've seen to an apocalyptic world," he says. "The whole city was surreal. Another surprise was seeing the hospital with the equipment left, and the morgue."
But Mark also saw abandoned buildings in various states of decay. "It was eerily beautiful seeing nature do what it does and take back these huge [human]-made structures," he recalls.
Mark was careful to monitor the radiation levels to which he was exposed during the visit, and not to stay for too long. Living there for an extended period would be more hazardous, according to Lyman.
Will Pripyat Ever Be Reinhabited?
"This area received some of the highest contamination levels," Lyman says. "After a few years, the main isotope of concern for habitability is cesium-137, which emits a powerful gamma ray, and has a half-life of 30 years, meaning that today about half the cesium-137 released during the accident is still in the environment, although much of it has been dispersed and some of it has been removed and buried. Even so, the average dose rates in the area today remain several times above typical background levels, and there are numerous hot spots. Therefore, the risk to a casual visitor for a short time is pretty low, which is why tourism has been allowed. But most of the area has not been resettled. However, when I was there in 2006, I did see some signs of people living in the exclusion zone, although not in Pripyat proper."
Though it's conceivable that Pripyat someday could be resettled, Lyman doesn't think that's a good idea.
"Over time, the radiation levels are decreasing, and it's always possible to decontaminate an area – it's primarily a matter of cost," he says. "But given its location, its proximity to the ruined reactor site, and its location near the center of the exclusion zone that still has more highly contaminated areas, I don't think there is much reason to try to restore it to habitability."
Instead, "perhaps it's best left as a museum and a stark reminder of the consequences that can occur if nuclear power plants are not regulated and operated to the highest safety standard," Lyman says. "It is a chilling place to visit -- a once-thriving town that is a snapshot in time of a terrible moment in history and has been left to be reclaimed by nature."