The Town Chernobyl Built

Photographs by John Wendle for The Wall Street Journal
  1. Thirty years ago, a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant exploded, destroying the neighboring company town of Pripyat.
    Its population of 50,000 people had to be evacuated.
  2. Three years later, a new community was carved out of a nearby forest that was outside the exclusion zone to become the new home to the plant’s workers and cleanup personnel.
  3. Today, in a country gripped by a protracted economic crisis, the town of Slavutych is an oasis of prosperity.
  4. The town of 25,000 people is a quiet, suburban place, with a relatively young population.
    The streets—unusually, for Ukraine—are free of potholes.
  5. Paychecks are steady and jobs are secure.
    Leonid Ivanov, a nuclear physicist, says, “You can’t close a nuclear power plant like you close a door.”
  6. Local produce is farmed and eaten, although serious concerns remain.
  7. While radiation is low in those areas, recent tests by Greenpeace have shown elevated levels of radiation in the produce in the surrounding region.
  8. Even the architecture is unique.
    The city was built by the different republics of the U.S.S.R., some built by Armenians, some by Kazakhs, some by Russians.
  9. The city is also surprisingly international.
    Along with Russian and Ukrainian, it is common to hear people speaking a variety of foreign languages around town. Besides being a home for workers at the Chernobyl plant, where cleanup work continues, the town attracts many foreign engineers who are working on the massive steel arch that will seal the disaster site.
  10. Slavutych was built to service Chernobyl and Chernobyl is still its life blood.
  11. Trains depart for Chernobyl as early as 6:30 a.m. and carry a few thousand people into the exclusion zone each day.
    (The 11:15 a.m. departure is for hangovers, goes the running joke in town).
  12. Many workers do 15-day rotations at the plant.
  13. After the 45-minute ride to the site, they enter a changing area where they strip down to their underwear, change into heavy work clothes, protective eye wear, and steel-toed boots.
    They don special detectors to ensure they don’t exceed allowable doses of radiation.
  14. While work is steady, some residents aren’t so sure about the future of a town so dependent on the rehabilitation of the Chernobyl complex.
  15. “If people lose their jobs, they’ll leave town.”
    “We don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” says Aleksey Nichiporenko, a second-generation engineer, who was born in Slavutych while his father helped build the town right after the disaster.