⎯ Gasmasks at School nr. 3 in Pripyat in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

⎯ Gasmasks at School nr. 3 in Pripyat in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

 21.04.2015  26.04.2015

PRIPYAT. The forest grounds



The Chernobyl (Chornobyl) nuclear disaster began in the early hours of Saturday 26 April 1986 within the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. An explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere, which spread over much of western USSR and Europe. It is considered the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, and is one of only two classified as a level 7 event on the International Nuclear Event Scale (the other being the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011).

Named after the nearby Pripyat River, Pripyat was founded on 4 February 1970 in northern Ukraine. Built to house the employees of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant 4 kilometres away it became the ninth nuclear city in the Soviet Union. It was officially proclaimed a city in 1979, and had grown to a population of roughly 49,400 before being evacuated in the days following the nuclear disaster in 1986. Pripyat now lies within the Exclusion zone and remains uninhabited due to the high levels of radiation.

Along with being a home to the nuclear power plant’s employees, Pripyat was also a major railroad and river cargo port. It was a young and prosperous city with the average age of the population approximately 26 years old ...

Continue reading below

⎯ Pripyat. Main road before the disaster.

A routine steam discharge

The population of Pripyat, over 49,000 people, were not immediately evacuated after the explosion at the nuclear power plant in the early hours of Saturday the 26th April 1986. The majority of people, unaware of the explosion or its scale, went about their usual business the following day. Weddings were held, children played outside and gardeners worked on their plots. The smoke rising from the Power Plant, a highly radioactive plume, was explained away by officials as a routine steam discharge. However, within hours of the explosion, dozens of people began to fall ill. Later, reporting severe headaches and metallic tastes in their mouths, along with uncontrollable fits of coughing and vomiting. A few residents gathered on bridges and roof tops in order to view the burning reactor exposing themselves, in some cases, to doses of radiation that would later prove fatal.

Levels rising

In the early hours of Sunday 27th the first of over 1200 buses began to arrive in Pripyat in preparation for a possible evacuation. Trains at the Yanov railway station were also prepared. 

However, on Soviet TV's First Programme Vremya the accident was barely mentioned that day. At a meeting between 10:00-12:00 on Sunday morning the chairman of the Governmental Commission provided the local party and Soviet authorities with an update and the evacuation order for Pripyat was announced (the official time and date of the announcement is considered to be 12.00, midday, on the 27 April). At the same time radiation levels began to drop and there was briefly hope that an evacuation would not be necessary. But just two hours later radiation levels rose to what would later be recognised as their highest ever level.

“I told them they had begun an evacuation, the whole town was being moved out for three to five days.”

The evacuation of Pripyat

Local radio reported the order to evacuation to residents just after 1pm as police began to work their way from house to house. Residents gathered at the entrances to their homes at 1.50pm and the official evacuation began at 2pm when the first buses and trucks collected the residents and their belongings.The residents of Pripyat were asked to carry with them only what was required for two or three days away, some food, a change of underwear, and their identity papers. Dosimeters were confiscated. The evacuation of Pripyat’s residents took 3.5 hours and used all 1,200 buses. Residents recall that everyone was in a hurry, but nobody was panicking. No one would live in Pripyat again. In the weeks following the evacuation most valuable articles, such as cars and electrical appliances were deliberately crushed or broken to prevent looting but many former residents believe a considerable amount of their belongings were in fact stolen.

Later that year the city of Slavutich was constructed, 45 kilometres, from Pripyat to house the personnel of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and their families, evacuated from Pripyat. As of 2005 Slavutych had about 25,000 inhabitants with its economic and social situation remains closely linked to the decommissioning of power plants and other facilities within the Zone. Once a year, close to the disasters anniversary, former residents are allowed to return to Pripyat.

Today there are still working approximately 1.000 people at the Chernobyl power plant. They are busy doing maintenance to the reactors and cleaning the site. The nuclear plant will be completely cleaned by 2065. 


→ Share


A selection of this series was nominated for the Dutch SO 2015 Awards.

Published on P3 Fotografia, Portugal (2015).

Published in NRC Handelsblad, the Netherlands (2016)

Published in NRC.next, the Netherlands (2016)

Published as a photo essay on nrc.nl, the Netherlands (2016)

Published as a story on the Chernobyl disaster on nrc.nl, the Netherlands (2016)

A selection published with a 'farewell' essay of Raymond van den Boogaard on nrc.nl (2016)