The town Chernobyl built: how former Soviet paradise Slavutych could save the nuclear industry
When Yuri Fomichev first came to Slavutych, in 1993, he expected to see mutants roaming the street. He was 17, and had travelled 500 miles from his home in Odessa to meet his girlfriend Maya. Her family were among the 50,000-or-so ordered to leave their apartment in Pripyat in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. Slavutych was built just a year later to house refugees of the meltdown, which hocked four hundred times more radioactive material into the skies above the Ukrainian and Belarusian SSRs than the Little Boy atomic bomb had on Hiroshima.
Fomichev found no apocalypse in Slavutych. It was an architectural marvel and the Kremlin had spared no expense: Eight architects drafted eight districts, to be modelled on eight Soviet cities. There were timber huts in Riga District, cherry-stoned blocks in Yerevan and central Asian tiles in Tbilisi.
Wildlife is thriving in the Chernobyl exclusion zone
People couldn’t eat the berries or mushrooms that grew from Slavutych’s irradiated soil, but the 25,000-population city was otherwise a paradise – the Politburo’s attempt to birth a utopia from the ashes of Chernobyl. The city, cleaved from a single square mile of thick, Scythian forest, had things unheard of in Ukraine including playgrounds, good schools and front lawns. “In a land filled with charmless settlements,” wrote American writer Matthew Brzezinski, “Slavutych could almost have passed for the west.”
It was “some kind of shock,” Fomichev told me when we met in Slavutych in March. He married Maya and became the city’s mayor in 2015. Slavutych is “a little Paris,” he added proudly. That is hyperbolic but the city is unlike any other on earth, a communist paradise – if one that is, these days, a little frayed around the edges.
It was a crisp Saturday morning and around 50 people had gathered in a room above Old Tallinn, an Estonian restaurant, to hear Fomichev outline his vision for Slavutych’s future as part of an event entitled “New Life For Atomic Cities”. Slavutych is staring at oblivion. In November, the New Safe Confinement, a huge hangar ten years in the making, was finally rolled over Reactor Unit 4, entombing it for a century.
That has wiped out many jobs at Chernobyl that have kept Slavutych alive – even after the plant stopped producing energy in 2001. Fomichev, who is ruddy-faced and has a booming voice, told the room it was time for change. “We will be the city of energy,” he said, adding: “Not just nuclear energy.”
But among the many plans for Slavutych’s survival – from tech hub to atelier and even film set – Fomichev’s plan to make the city a centre for global nuclear research is most likely to succeed. Slavutych sits amid the world’s largest radiological laboratory.
Harnessing it could save not just the city but the entire nuclear industry.
If, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “the Earth laughs in flowers,” then radioactive waste is surely its excrement. Since the Soviet Union opened the first nuclear power plant near Moscow in 1954, nobody has found a successful way to dispose of its spent fuel, which now numbers some 240,000 tonnes.
The best answer to date is ‘deep geological disposal’: digging a deep hole and sealing the waste in. Onkalo repository, cut 520m beneath the Finnish countryside, is the most advanced example. It, and other sites such as Yucca Mountain in Nevada, and Sellafield in Cumbria, aim to bury waste away from the biosphere for 100,000 years.
Such sites are costly. Onkalo, which will dispose of a tiny fraction of the world’s spent fuel when it opens in 2023, will cost €3bn (£2.5bn). And nobody knows for sure if it will work. “How can we know what will happen in the next thousand years’ time,” Paul Dorfman, an honorary senior research fellow at UCL’s Energy Institute, asked. “It’s a big experiment, and nobody really knows.”
“Concepts” like Onkalo, as Dorfman calls them, are just that: we do not know how giant caches of radioactive material will act on their surroundings in a decade, a century or even millennia. Copper and bentonite clay are used at Onkalo, but both have their detractors. If radiation were to permeate the biosphere, the resulting damage to public health could be catastrophic.
Partly as a result of this uncertainty, nuclear energy is at a crossroads. Some states, such as France, South Korea and India, have pushed on with the construction of nuclear plants. Others, like Germany, which has pledged to cut nuclear production to zero by 2022, have retreated wholesale. Globally, 30 countries operate 449 nuclear reactors, which provide around 11 per cent of the earth’s electricity.
Another 60 are under construction, including Hinkley Point C plant, in Somerset, due to begin service in 2025 at a cost of £18bn. Dorfman argues that EDF, the French provider building Hinkley Point C, and other nuclear firms, are underestimating the problems their waste will cause.
In January, a French National Assembly committee agreed with him, arguing that EDF showed “excessive optimism” in decommissioning its existing nuclear facilities. British taxpayers will soon foot a £110bn nuclear cleanup bill. “Some day this is all going to come home to roost,” says Dorfman.
The understanding of nuclear waste, and how it reacts with the environment, has “lagged behind other scientific disciplines,” Rodney C. Ewing, a professor in nuclear security and geological sciences at Stanford University, said. “I think it’s a major issue.”
It is extremely difficult to recreate realistic radioactive environments, in which to conduct radiological experiments and test measurement equipment. US sites are primarily located on military facilities, and tough to access. Former nuclear bomb test sites, such as Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan or the Nevada Desert, have been used several times; their soil turned over and wildlife flattened.
Not so at the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a ring 18 miles around the plant that has become, ironically, one of the world’s most vibrant nature reserves. Within 36 hours almost all settlements in the zone were evacuated. Nature took over. Boars, bears and wolves proliferated.
The Exclusion Zone has become the world’s best place in which to research nuclear radiology. Carl Willis, a nuclear engineer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a proud “five-timer” at Slavutych. He stays there while running radiological workshops and research in the exclusion zone.
Equipment like gamma spectrometers, and scintillators – which record the luminescence of irradiated objects – have been green-lit in the US only to fail at Chernobyl, experts told WIRED. Willis has also found that certain materials conduct radiation better than others. Moss attracts Cesium and deer antlers are excellent repositories for Strontium 90, which has uses in cancer treatment as well as nuclear energy.
Even the area surrounding the Fukushima Daiichi Plant in Japan, which melted down in 2011, has just a tenth of the radiation at Chernobyl. “There’s no place like Chernobyl to do this,” Willis said. “It’s a pre-manufactured environment that is ideally suited.”
Slavutych is the perfect base for such research. Its Elektrichka train has been ferrying commuters 45 minutes to and from Chernobyl since the city was inaugurated in 1987. And while its early radiation levels resulted in higher-than-average instances of cancers, modern readings in the city are rarely above that expected of most built-up areas.
Aleksandr Kupny is one of those who has seen Slavutych through all of its reinventions. He is a dosimetrist – somebody who measures absorbed levels of ionised radiation – who moved into an apartment in Slavutych’s Tbilisi District in 1988, travelling each day to work in Reactor Unit 4.
Some 11,000 people joined Kupny on the Elektrichka each morning. Some of Kupny’s friends got ill and died (31 deaths have been attributed directly to the blast, and 237 workers involved in the cleanup later diagnosed with acute radiation poisoning) but, aged 57, he is in good health. He still lives in Tbilisi District and is tall and avuncular with a carefully-trimmed beard and Bob Ross smile. He is proud of his work back then. “I came here to help,” he said. “There was a collective feeling.”
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In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine became an independent nation. The cost of the Chernobyl disaster has been estimated at $235bn (£181bn): Mikhail Gorbachev has since said it “was perhaps the collapse of the Soviet Union five years later.”
Ukraine was such a lawless place in the 1990s, that at one point its shadow economy represented almost half its GDP. Average salaries were as low as $200 (£142) a month. Not so in Slavutych; 85 per cent of whose budget came from the still-operating Chernobyl. Salaries could run as high as $2,000 (£1,420) and as a result, many people, like Kupny, had children. Slavutych was the richest place in Ukraine, and its youngest: the average age was just 30.
Each first weekend of June, Slavutych held a ‘City Day’. One year LaToya Jackson performed. Another, French jazz singer Patricia Kaas was flown in by helicopter. “People never asked where the money came from,” Kupny told me. “All the people cared about was, ‘What kind of star will sing for us today?’”
But in 2000, the Ukrainian government, under international pressure, announced Chernobyl would be retired. 8,500 of 15,000 lost their jobs. The plant’s largesse dropped to 25 per cent of the city’s budget. It was a “second tragedy,” Fomichev told me. Kupny was one of the fortunate few who retained their roles.
In 2007, French consortium Novarka was selected to construct the New Safe Confinement (NSC), a giant, steel hangar that would envelop both Reactor Unit 4, and the Soviet concrete-and-metal “sarcophagus” erected 24 days after the disaster. Over 40 countries pitched in to its €1.6bn (£1bn) cost. Workers from 24 nations worked alongside locals once more. Many stayed in Slavutych.
Construction on the arch, which is 257m wide and tall enough, at 110m, to store the Statue of Liberty, began in 2010. It was placed on tracks around 300m from Reactor 4 to avoid workers ingesting dangerous levels of radiation. In November, it was rolled into place: experts are now dismantling the sarcophagus using robots. It is expected to hold firm for a hundred years.
Once again Slavutych’s engineers and experts have lost a vital source of revenue. Old Tallinn no longer throngs with international drinkers. Salaries have dropped to $300-500 (£231-386): barely above the national average. Fomichev’s rule began with a crisis.
A Chinese one-gigawatt solar farm has promised jobs but few are forthcoming. The foreign workers who would once flock to Old Tallinn have gone home, or are on short-term contracts.
“I heard some people who say, “Ah, we’re going to die. We’re doomed. The end is near.”” Kupny told me. He has since retired and reinvented himself as a photographer. He has built a studio in his living room and published a book about the 300,000-or-so ‘Liquidators’ who, in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, risked their lives to prevent further fires.
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Slavutych must reinvent itself too. The coughs of drug addicts ring round the city’s railway station and alcoholism is chronic. Last December, a local man blew up his apartment in Riga District while trying to make grenades, then shot himself dead. Paramilitaries train in the forests nearby. Many have left to fight in Ukraine’s ongoing eastern conflict. “Most people are bored,” Alexandra Krolikowska, an artist who moved to Slavutych in 2015 told me.
She and husband Alexander want an artists’ residence in the city. Roman Zinchenko, a Kiev-based tech entrepreneur, thinks Slavutych can be a hub for IT professionals and nuclear tourists. It could even bring in money as a film set. “If you were planning not the Game of Thrones, but Game of the KGB, you can have eight stylistic and architectural realities within one site,” he told me.
Principally, though, Fomichev wants to bring the nuclear industry back to Slavutych. He plans to open a branch of the Kiev Polytechnic Institute to the city alongside a research fission reactor, currently at the capital’s International Nuclear Safety Center.
“We have a few enterprises here and we have unique staff that were fighting with this Chernobyl tragedy…we’re really keen on transferring the knowledge that we have to anyone who is interested in it,” he told me. He is as optimistic as anyone about Slavutych’s future. It’s his job to be so.
Slavutych’s wildest nights are to be had in its surrounding forest, whose trails are littered with vodka bottles and bongs. Many head to Huta, a former dacha on the edge of town. There they drink moonshine and swap tales of Chernobyl.
Carl Willis has joined them on several occasions. “Hearing people talk about their experiences with these almost mythical nuclear situations is just spectacular,” he told me. Willis hopes the city will survive but concedes he’s “pessimistic. The Chernobyl centre is still going to be there and there’s still going to be research into the Exclusion Zone…but it does not come close to filling that city with a vibrant population.”
Even Kupny admitted he’d leave if it weren’t for his father, who needs daily care. He hasn’t been worried about his own health for years: he even eats the mushrooms.
Fomichev will not rest until Slavutych returns to prosperity. He believes its best assets are its citizens. “People who came to this town came here to change their lives,” he told me one evening in Old Tallinn. Should Fomichev succeed, Slavutych can become a city of global significance and a leader in nuclear research. Failure means the city could go the way of Pripyat, and become a Soviet Pompeii.
As we finished our conversation he leant back on his chair, looked out the window, and sighed. “We need to go a long way,” he said. “But looking back at the path we had to overcome, I am confident we have a chance.”