A second life for the inhabitants of Chernobyl

Article published on April 24, 2006
community published
Article published on April 24, 2006

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Built 50 km from the Chernobyl plant, the town of Slavutych welcomed inhabitants displaced after the catastrophe of 1986. 20 years on, the ashes still cannot stop burning

20 years after the disaster at Chernobyl, Ochsana Naumovitch has not forgotten a single detail from that day, 26 April 1986. Although she and her family had lived in Pripyat for 10 years, a few kilometres from the nuclear power plant, the explosion of Reactor 4 was to change their life: "My husband, who worked at the plant, was off that day. He was fixing the kitchen," Ochsana recalls. "I was in the transistor factory. We only learned about the disaster on the 27 when it was announced that we were being evacuated." With her children, aged 4 and 8, in her arms, she took the bus and left the town without looking back. Like them, 50,000 other inhabitants had to pack up and go. Since then, they have never been able to return to Pripyat, a ghost town within the Chernobyl exclusion zone. "I went back there on 26 April 2000 with my daughter. The town had been pillaged. Everything had gone to rack and ruin; even the windows were broken." Ochsana, who had come to mourn, refuses to go back there again. "I don't think the pain will ever go away."

Pioneer town

Constructed for all those displaced by the disaster, Slavutych was built 50 km east of Chernobyl in an area that was affected little by the "cloud". In October 1986, the USSR wanted to erase the disastrous image of an accident that was a result of its own failures. Ukraine was swelled with emotion. Workers and young people came from all across the USSR to put a roof over the heads of the people displaced.

Lidija Leonets was one of these pioneers. With emotion, she takes a faded photo album of the town's history from an old metal wardrobe: "eight states came to help with the construction, and the town districts are named after their capitals: Kiev, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Yerevan, Baku, Tbilisi, and Moscow. Each built in their own architectural style." On 23 March 1988, 500 families from Pripyat settled alongside the workers. "For us, it was the city of the 21st century. Each district had a nursery, a swimming pool, and a gym," recalls Lidija.

Today, a quarter of the town's 26,000 inhabitants are under 16 years of age. The new town did not have to suffer the difficult transition of 1989: the town and its social services continued to be functional. "We were able to attract lots of businesses thanks to the living conditions. Children are better off here than anywhere else in Ukraine. Everything is within 10 minutes' reach and the construction of housing to welcome our companies' employees is being resumed," emphasises the mayor, Volodimir Udovychenko.

GIs and Doctor Strangelove

Somewhat ironically, the accident at Chernobyl gave rise to a unique experimentation ground for finding ways to reduce the risks and effects of a nuclear disaster. Troops, particularly American troops, use the town of Pripyat in the neighbouring exclusion zone as a training ground. It is also used for scientific research.

Just off the main square, some surviving pine trees from the old forest which still covered this area a few years ago surround brand new laboratories that are funded by the international community and Ukraine. Since it was founded, the Chernobyl Centre for Nuclear Security has been the driving force behind the town's economic development. "We have counted on our staff, qualified in the nuclear field, to develop other areas," explains the mayor.

Although unemployment at Slavutych is at 4.4%, yesterday's pioneers must now face up to a new threat today: the decline of the plant. Shut down in 2000 under pressure from Europe, Chernobyl still continues to employee workers to dismantle the plant. The planned building of a second sarcophagus in 2006, funded to the tune of 710 million euros by EBRD and the Ukrainian government, should create jobs. But Victor Tonkikh, former engineer at Chernobyl and now head of a repair business for the nuclear power plant, knows that this is not enough to give the town a boost. "Once the sarcophagus is built, we will not have any more jobs in this sector. The number of employees at the plant has gone from 12,500 to 3,800 today, that is one third of jobs in Slavutych. We must therefore diversify further because the only aid we receive is in order to liquidate the plant."

A burning issue

Lidija Leonets, who is in charge of social aid, senses the end of an era: "Since the plant was closed, I have sensed difficulties. Some people have found work. Others have gone into retirement at the age of 45. They draw a pension, like war veterans. But how can we occupy them? While some are working on their vegetable gardens, others are on the slippery slope to alcoholism."

In the office next door, Ochsana Naumovitch, working at the town hall, is trying to quit her job early. Her husband, retired from the plant, is waiting for her at home. Their two daughters have left. One is a student; the other, a judo champion, is a lawyer in Kiev. "Our eldest has thyroid problems, but we are trying to be optimistic," Ochsana confides discreetly.

On 26th April, as every year, a delegation from Slavutych will go to Moscow to gather at the tomb of the Pripyat firemen whose sacrifice enabled the first sarcophagus to be built to protect the site. The Naumovitches will commemorate the day opposite the town memorial, where the faces of the 30 victims from Pripyat are engraved onto the granite for all eternity. Behind the memorial stand two large steles. On one, men wearing anti-radiation suits indicate that no one should approach. On the other, an electrician, a believer in the enlightening myth of communism, calls out, with an electric cable between his hands: "From the ashes of the past, we will build a new world!" Yet in Slavutych, 20 years on, the ashes still cannot stop burning.