Fate of Pripyat

Molly Mitchel
February 16, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017

The Accident

Fig. 1: View of Pripyat from building roof, 2002. (Source: Wikimedia Commons )

On April 26, 1986, the most disastrous nuclear power plant accident in history occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, near the town of Pripyat, Ukraine. The accident occurred in reactor four, during a typically routine systems test. An unexpected power surge resulted in a fire that sent radioactive fallout into the atmosphere for ten days. The fallout was dispersed across the European continent, and the countries most brutally impacted by the disaster were Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. After the explosion, citizens of the town of Pripyat were forced to flee, leaving their homes and many of their possessions behind. While they were told to pack for a three-day trip, they ended up never returning. [1]

Pripyat Today

As seen in Fig. 1, Pripyat remains uninhabited, many of its buildings crumbling and falling to decay. An old Ferris wheel and bumper car course destined to open on May 1, 1986, are rusted, never used by the town's families. Unfortunately, people will never be able to move back to Pripyat. However, some families, against advisory of the Ukrainian government, have moved back to homes that exist in the wider Chernobyl exclusion zone. While Pripyat will never again have human occupants, it now serves a new service. In an age where fear of dirty bombs has grown dramatically in the past few decades, Pripyat will now serve as a laboratory. Scientists will use the town as a model for the dispersion of nuclear material that would likely result from a dirty bomb explosion or other nuclear attack. One U.S. state department official claims: "Pripyat offers an unparalleled opportunity to fully understand the passage of radioactive debris through an urban area." [2] Never before has there been the opportunity to examine firsthand how the layout of an urban area influences the impact of a nuclear accident or explosion. Scientists are also able to use the surrounding environment of Pripyat to examine radiation's effects on nature. For example, in the nearby Red Forest, scientists have determined that nearly all wildlife has been wiped out. [2] However, Pripyat itself has become a sanctuary for animals including moose, wild boars, and other mammals native to the Ukraine. Yet debate about the genetic wellbeing of these animals continues today. [3]

In recent years, Pripyat has drawn tourists eager to see the abandoned town. Many speculate that tourism at Pripyat arises from tourist desires to view a post-apocalyptic world, albeit a small one. [4] In an interview with tour operators, journalists Ganna Yankovska and Kevin Hannam discovered that there are two primary groups visiting Pripyat and the wider Chernobyl exclusion zone. The first group comprises younger visitors interested in the "fun, fear, and thrill" of the experience. [4] The second consists of older visitors, who often visit for the "remembrance of the tragedy." [4] The vast majority of visitors, however, come for the history and experience of viewing a Soviet town that has remained at a standstill for decades. [4]


Ultimately, the town of Pripyat, despite it's scientific potential and the rise in tourism in recent years, serves as a reminder of incompetence and disaster. Pripyat remains radioactive and uninhabitable, an example of the deadly impact that a nuclear power disaster or explosion can have on an urban area.

© Molly Mitchel. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. Petryna, "Sarcophagus: Chernobyl in Historical Light," Cult. Anthropol., 10, 196 (1995).

[2] R. Stone, "A Radioactive Ghost Town's Improbable New Life," Science 308, 1106 (2005).

[3] R. Stone, "Living in the Shadow of Chernobyl," Science 292, 420 (2001).

[4] G. Yankovska and K. Hannam, "Dark and Toxic Tourism in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone," Curr. Issues Tour., 17, 929 (2013).