SLAVUTYCH, UKRAINE—In one of the last acts of camaraderie in a fracturing nation, Soviet laborers from the Baltics to the Caucasus converged on a pine forest in the late 1980s to build a Ukrainian town from scratch. Slavutych was a new home for workers from the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant and their families after its 1986 explosion turned Pripyat, the town next to the plant, into a radioactive wasteland. In March, Slavutych’s 20,000 residents endured a different breed of terror, as Russian troops massed outside the town.
Heroic dashes around enemy lines to secure supplies—and a potent display of solidarity in the town’s central square—staved off disaster. Now, Slavutych, like the rest of Ukraine, is girding for a grueling winter of electricity outages. But Mayor Yuri Fomichev and Anatolii Nosovskyi, a radiation warrior with decades of experience at Chornobyl, are already planning Slavutych’s postwar rebirth as a science center, one that would focus on a formidable challenge: dismantling the radioactive remains of Chornobyl’s destroyed Unit 4 reactor.
Lessons learned at Chornobyl—the mother of all decommissioning projects—can be applied globally, at dozens of nuclear plants that are slated to shut down in the coming years, says Nosovskyi, director of Ukraine’s Institute for Safety Problems of Nuclear Power Plants (ISPNPP) in Kyiv. “Our idea is to bring together specialists from across Ukraine in Slavutych. It’s what the town was always meant to be—a research cluster.”
Creating a science center “in an environment that’s unique in the world would very much make sense,” says Kai Vetter, a nuclear physicist at University of California, Berkeley, whose team has donated instruments and supplies to ISPNPP since the war started. “It’s a fantastic idea,” adds Nick Tomkinson, a nonproliferation expert at Global Nuclear Security Partners, a London consulting firm that hopes to map radioactive contamination around Chornobyl.
On 24 February, Russian troops swarmed across the border with Belarus and seized the Chornobyl plant. Nosovskyi, who began his career working on nuclear submarine radiation safety, worried the invaders would reawaken the radioactive nightmare he witnessed when he was dispatched to Chornobyl in 1987. There, he monitored the radiation received by tens of thousands of scientists and soldiers as they erected a concrete shelter over Unit 4’s seething remains. Over the years, he worked hand in hand with Russian scientists—cooperation that ceased after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. “We figured out how to manage the Chornobyl problem on our own,” he says.
In April, after Russian soldiers retreated from the region, Nosovskyi ventured back to a satellite ISPNPP facility in Chornobyl. Smashed instruments and glass shards carpeted its chemistry lab’s floor. Looters had made off with a dozen vehicles and the facility’s newest computers. Scores more computers had been stripped of hard drives. “I gave up smoking 4 years ago. Took it up again after seeing what happened to the lab,” Nosovskyi says, lighting up a cigarette. (As he talked to Science at an outdoor café on 10 October, three Russian cruise missiles whizzed by overhead on their way to targets in western Ukraine [see video below].)
Nosovskyi believes Russia raided the Chornobyl lab for evidence that Ukraine was working to secretly develop nuclear weapons, as three Russian newspapers falsely alleged in late February. “Of course, they made that up,” he says, pointing out that Ukraine’s nuclear facilities are monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Russia’s military also took plant workers and guards hostage. A chilling moment came when two officers demanded access to one of Chornobyl’s two spent fuel repositories, which harbor ferociously radioactive material. The crew chief rebuffed them, says Valeriy Seyda, Chornobyl’s acting director, and the suspicious pair left without incident.
But the occupiers stole equipment from the plant and tracked in radioactive contamination after digging trenches and laying mines in the nearby Red Forest—named for pines killed by a plume of radiation from the 1986 accident. Since the soldiers’ retreat, the plant complex has been cleaned up and parts of Chornobyl village have been demined, but it remains a headache to transport staff from Slavutych to Chornobyl for decommissioning tasks at the plant’s four shuttered reactors and maintaining the spent fuel repositories. Before the war, workers could make the 50-kilometer commute by train through Belarus. With that border closed, staff endure a 340-kilometer, 6-hour bus ride around Belarus, and work 8-day shifts requiring them to bunk in Chornobyl.
Slavutych, meanwhile, was devastated economically. In the months before the invasion, the town had become a base camp for foreign tourists inspired to visit by the HBO miniseries Chernobyl. The war crushed that cottage industry. In late February, a bridge on the only road into Slavutych was blown up, and a Russian battalion camped outside the town. As supplies diminished, volunteers undertook perilous drives on logging roads—dodging shells and Russian patrols—to reach villages outside the blockade and spirit back staples such as milk, potatoes, and flour. “That allowed us to survive,” Fomichev says.
In early March, natural gas supplies to Slavutych were interrupted, shutting down the town’s communal heating plant. Engineers rigged a boiler to run on firewood, which managed to supply just enough heat to keep apartment blocks from freezing. Then Russian troops sabotaged the main powerline to Slavutych. The lights went out—as did electric stoves. Residents resorted to cooking over open fires on the streets in frigid temperatures.
In the meantime, Slavutych organized a militia: about 200 volunteers, a handful of whom had military training. Equipped only with Kalashnikov rifles, they engaged Russian tanks and artillery on the town’s outskirts. “We put up a brave fight,” Fomichev says. Five died in skirmishes, and badly outgunned, the militia on 25 March agreed to a Russian demand to leave the city. But when a Russian convoy entered the town square, it encountered a throng of unarmed protesters chanting “Slavutych is Ukrainian, go home!” “The commander had no idea what to do. Apparently, he didn’t have the stomach to slaughter unarmed civilians,” Fomichev says. Two days later, the battalion withdrew.
The town’s struggles are not over. Over the past several weeks, Russian bombardments have left Slavutych without electricity most hours of the day, and town officials worry about further disruptions to the supply of natural gas.
But Fomichev and Nosovskyi are already proselytizing for their vision of Slavutych as a nuclear science hub specializing in radiation medicine, radioecology, and the monumental task of decommissioning the Unit 4 reactor, an effort expected to last at least 40 years. Research is sorely needed in such areas as radiation-hardened robotics and the properties of irradiated graphite from the destroyed reactor’s core. “We really don’t know how to safely handle such material,” Nosovskyi says. “There are enormous opportunities to develop and demonstrate advanced technologies,” Vetter says.
Nosovskyi dreams of eventually installing a small modular reactor, built in a factory elsewhere and shipped to Slavutych to generate power and to use as a training facility. He envisions launching a training program on reactor decommissioning with the help of the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv Polytechnic Institute, which already has a branch in the town. With the train link down for the foreseeable future, Fomichev is exploring a ferry service on the Dnieper River that would speed the commute between Slavutych and Chornobyl.
Realizing the vision would require government or international funding, a possibility only after the war ends, Nosovskyi acknowledges. But the war has strengthened his resolve. He mentions the grandson his daughter gave birth to in Kyiv in March while holed up in an underground shelter. “The little boy doesn’t know yet how brave he was. How brave his mother was. But she named him Lev,” the Ukrainian word for lion. “So he will know, and remember, someday.”
Richard Stone is senior science editor at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Tangled Bank Studios in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
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