Pripyat, Russia: Toxic Town (Chernobyl)


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


Pripyat, Russia is an example of a toxic town (see toxic town entry in this dictionary). Pripyat is the site of the well-known Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. The town is deserted as a consequence of the nuclear disaster that occurred there.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster is considered the worst nuclear disaster in world history. The radiation emitted by the incident was approximately 400 times the radiation associated with the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The disaster was cause by a series of events that lead to the shutdown of a nuclear reactor. The problem began when a nuclear vessel rupture and a subsequent fire in the reactor chamber followed (for extensive details on the reactor incident see, detailed description). As a result of the fire, a radioactive plume of smoke drifted across parts of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. It has been estimated that in the 14 years following the incident approximately 350,000 people have been relocated from contaminated areas in these countries (International Atomic Energy Agency, 2006).

The accident was extensive and required more than 550,000 emergency response workers to address. The United Nations Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation estimates that the total number of radiation deaths since the incident totals 64. The long term consequences of radiation exposure from this incident are widely debated. In a 2006 study, Cardis et al. estimate the potential health costs of the incident as involving 1,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 4,000 cases of other cancers. This is about a quarter of the cases of cancer the incident is expected to cause by 2065. In a related study published in the same year, Tronko et al. examined thyroid cancer rates among a cohort of 32,385 individuals under the age of 18 who resided in the most heavily contaminated areas of Ukraine at the time of the accident. The number of thyroid cases was four times higher among the exposed group than if such exposure were absent.

Despite the severity of the accident, the residents in the nearby town of Pripyat were not immediately evacuated. State official kept the incident a secret for two days. The evacuation of Pripyat residents waited until a scientific team assessed the extent of radiation fallout. Within a day of the incident, the evacuation of Pripyat was ordered. The evacuation did not begin until the following day and took about 3 days to evacuate Pripyat’s 49,400 residents. The initial evacuation only included the zone closest to the plant (within 3 kilometers). In the following months, an additional 67,000 residents were evacuated from other locations (the 10 kilometer zone), and it has been estimated that the total number of people evacuated reached approximately 200,000.

Today, the city remains empty, and there is about a 19 mile “zone of exclusion” where people may not live or travel. The exclusion zone remains one of the most highly contaminated nuclear sites in the world.
Further Reading

In this dictionary see:”Toxic Towns” entry


Cardis, E., D. Krewski, M. Boniol, V. Drozdovitch, S. C. Darby, E. S. Gilbert, S. Akiba, J. Benichou, J. Ferlay, S. Gandini, C. Hill, G. Howe, A. Kesminiene, M. Moser, M. Sanchez, H. Storm, L. Voisin, and P. Boyle. 2006 Estimates of the cancer burden in Europe from radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl accident. International Journal of Cancer 119, 6: 1224-1235.

International Atomic Energy Agency. 2006. Environmental consequences of the Chernobyl accident and their remediation: Twenty years of experience. Report of the Chernobyl Forum Expert Group on ‘Environment’. Vienna: International Atomic Energy Agency.

Tronko, M.D., G. R. Howe, T. I. Bogdanova, A. C. Bouville. O. V. Epstein, A. B. Brill, I A. Likhtarev, D. J. Frank, V. V. Markov, E. Greenebaum, V. A. Olijnyk, I. J. Masnyk, V. M. Shpak, R .J. McConnell, V. P. Tereshchenko, J. Robbins, O. V. Zvinchuk, L. B. Zablotska, M. Hatch, N. K. Luckyanov, E. Ron, T. L. Thomas, P. G. Voillequé and G. W. Beebe. 2006. A cohort study of thyroid cancer and other thyroid diseases after the chornobyl accident: thyroid cancer in Ukraine detected during first screening. Journal of the National Cancer Institute 98, 13: 897-903.

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