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Welcome To Pripyat, Chernobyl’s Ghost Town

The worst nuclear accident in history is frozen in time in this Ukrainian city. Is this the fate that awaits the Japanese towns near the Fukushima plant?

Remains of Pripyat city administration building
Remains of Pripyat city administration building
Pierre Avril

PRIPYAT - In 25 years, Fukushima could look like Pripyat, the Ukrainian city where all 50,000 residents fled overnight on April 27 1986. Living within two miles of reactor number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant, all the inhabitants were forced to flee on buses, leaving their belongings behind for good, forever contaminated by the leaking radiation leaking.

Inside the gym of this pioneer Soviet town, built in 1970 along with the plant, a tree has grown through the wooden floors. The handball goal posts remain, as does the gym's motto up on the wall: "Strong, courageous and clever." At the bottom of the pool, below the five-meter-high diving board, a pile of broken glass and walls covered in graffiti.

In the local school, once the pride of the city's residents, a piano still stands in one of the classrooms. On the stool, a doll. In the cupboards, scattered books. One of them tells the story of "the summer of pioneers" and starts like this: "the world's number one socialist country has become the world's number one country for a happy childhood."

As the radioactive dust cloud was floating over the city, students were learning the basis of Russian grammar. In an open notebook, these innocent words. "I am taking a walk, you are resting." Resolutions from the Soviet Union's 22nd Communist Party Congress are up in the school's hallways. On the floor, a portrait of Lenin. Marx and Engel were luckier; their portraits have stayed up on the walls.

Everywhere, the dosimeter is off the charts, especially near patches of moss that have grown in the city's main square, near the bumper-cars stand. Rust covers the Ferris wheel and the skeletons of other attractions. Radiation levels are far above the authorized norms, between 2 and 5 sieverts. Slowly vegetation has taken over the streets of Pripyat. Buildings are deserted and apartments left wide open. We look up to the oddest of views: a bathtub stuck in between trees, probably the work of thieves.

"The dark side of life"

Despite spending 13 years at the nuclear plant, Yuri Tatarchy, the vice-president of the Chernobyl Information Agency is still fascinated by this ghost town. Unlike in Pripyat, 3,000 people still work in the Chernobyl nuclear plant exclusion zone. They're part of a Franco-Russian consortium trying to renovate the reactor's damaged containment structure. They live in Slavutych, about 55km (34 miles) away. 4,000 others are in charge of surveillance and management of the plant's enlarged perimeter where residents have moved. Tatarchy doesn't really seem to care about radioactivity. "It's like vodka, some can stand it, others can't," he jokes.

Last year, 10,000 people visited Pripyat through Ukrainian tour operators based in Kiev. For 130 euros ($184), these tourists get the thrill of a brush with death. "I recently read in Forbes Magazine that Pripyat was one of the 10 places on earth to see before you die," says Piotr, a Polish student. A 60-year-old Danish woman, mourning the loss of several loved ones came to Pripyat to discover "the dark side of life."

During the bus ride from Kiev to Chernobyl 100km (62 miles) away, three young Ukrainians swallow down iodine pills with a bottle of red wine. According to popular belief in Russia and Ukraine, this cocktail protects against the effects of radioactivity. The tour operator made sure to tell visitors that it could not be held responsible for future health problems.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Timm Seuss

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Cfoto/DDP via ZUMA
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