The forgotten city
 
The town of Prypiat, Ukraine, awaits deserted and decaying, a modern-day ghost town. It may well be waiting for several decades, if not centuries- there are just a few older residents still here, and on occasion people have ventured to take photos, but that is all. Some former residents have driven through, just for a chance to see the homes that they abandoned twenty years ago, when a small but growing town was hit by one of the greatest disasters the world has ever seen.
 
On April 26th 1986, twenty years ago this week, not far away from Prypiat, an experiment gone awry was compounded by human errors and operational faults at the nuclear power plant a few miles north of the town of Chernobyl, a settlement founded eight centuries ago. The series of events caused a power surge that resulted in an explosion in one of the reactors.
 
No one will ever know exactly what went wrong that April night, but the lack of a containment building meant that the resulting plume of radioactive fallout spread over the Northern skies and drifted over the former Soviet Union, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, the UK and even the US. Most landed in what is now Belarus.
 
Over a hundred thousand people were evacuated over the next few days. The death toll over the first few days was put at thirty-two. Estimates since have put the death toll so far at between fifty and well over two hundred. It has been estimated that as many as nine thousand people may still die as a result of radiation poisoning. One recent estimate put the figure at several times that.
 
In 1986, the town of Prypiat was booming. The population had reached over 45, 000. Today there are only a few people there, all of whom live outside the ten kilometre exclusion zone. Outside this dead zone, these old men and women refuse to move out, squatting illegally in an area that may not be safe until hundreds of years from now. According to a report by Andrew Osborn in the Independent, most of the elderly people who have refused to leave “talk about the radiation as if it were about as harmful as rain”.
 
But for the few hundred people still residing there, Prypiat is a ghost town. There are abandoned houses and apartments there, some of which were yet to be inhabited, swimming pools and hospitals. Photos from inside the homes of the men and women who used to make a living working at the plant, show records and books still stacked on tables, toys left on chairs and sofas, signs of life. And yet the area is mostly silent. In a children’s playground, birdsongs have taken the place of children’s laughter.
 
Twenty years ago the sound was that of crying, not laughter. And in some cases, in hospitals around Europe, it still is. Two decades later, the radiation is still destroying lives.
 
Twenty years on, as epidemiologists study the cancer rates in Ukraine and Belarus with alarm, there are some signs that the area is coming to life again. The area is springing to life again. Twenty years ago, nothing would grow around the disaster site, but now the grass is green and the wildlife has returned- bison, elk and wolves are roaming freely.   
 
Chernobyl opened up a can of worms, raising questions as to the safety of nuclear energy and the reliability of the people who produce it. Accidents can and do happen, but they had never happened on such a scale before.
 
Those that champion nuclear energy make some, often effective, arguments about how it produces no greenhouse gases, how it can rescue us from our dependency on fossil fuels, how efficient and cheap it is to produce and how rarely accidents have happened.
 
Those against nuclear power point out the health risks, argue against the economic and environmental costs of decommissioning and suggest other ways of producing energy cheaply and cleanly, such as by harnessing wind or solar power. Some also suggest that nuclear power and research into such technology is likely to help more nations develop still more powerful nuclear weapons, weapons which could destroy the world.

 

Sometimes arguing is purposeless. There are nearly 450 reactors worldwide. All that is necessary is to take a look at the modern ruins of Prypiat and of the long-term impacts of the Chernobyl disaster for a sobering reminder of the risks of trying to harness the power of the atom. 

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