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No Strangers Here: What It's Like to Live and Work at Chernobyl Power Plant
26 April, 2019

25-year-old Vadym Trofymenko has been working at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant for three years. He lives in the neighboring northern Ukrainian town of Slavutych, 57 km away from the 1986 disaster site. 

It started with his grandfather who moved to the newly-established city to work at the power plant. Vadym never dreamt or thought of working at the Chernobyl plant, neither did his parents push him. It just happened: a position opened up at the plant and he started working. Hromadske tells why and how Slavutych natives return to the city to work at the accident-torn power plant. 

Vadym Trofymenko in Slavutych on April 22, 2019 Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

A City Comes Alive

Slavutych is located in the midst of pine forests in the Chernihiv region, but the city is administered by Kyiv. It was created immediately after the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl plant in order to relocate families from the exclusion zone there. Architects and construction workers from eight different Soviet republics were involved in the erection of the city.

READ MORE: “Chernobyl Was A Warning” – German MP Rebecca Harms

Fast-forward two years, and a city emerges with 13 blocks, all styled and named after the cities where its creators came from. Among them are, for example, Tbilisi, Baku, Yerevan, and Vilnius.

A forest around Slavutych, April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Architects and builders from eight Soviet republics were involved in the erection of Slavutych. Slavutych, April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Gradually, people started to inhabit the young city, mostly those working at the power plant. And that's when Vadym’s family arrived too. First, his grandparents who were offered a job at the plant with an apartment as a bonus. They were followed by Vadym’s mother and father, who also got jobs there.

None of Vadym’s family members were hurt in the Chernobyl accident and he himself was born a few years after it – in the early 1990s.

“When I was 14-15 years old, I did not take the accident at the plant seriously. After I matured, I became more interested in it. In the city, of course, they perceive the accident very seriously, because many of the current residents had lost their loved ones in 1986,” Vadym says.

A blooming apricot tree in one of the districts of Slavutych, 22 April, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Before enrolling in university, Vadym lived and studied in Slavutych – he went to school and never thought of working at the power plant.

“There was always an option that the plant would close down and all of a sudden there would be no jobs left,” Vadym said.

READ MORE: New Life near the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone

But even after 2000, when the plant was finally closed, life continued in Slavutych. However, jobs were gradually reduced, specialists dispersed, but there was still some work for the residents.  

"The power plant continues functioning, despite everything. Even my grandfather didn't think my father would work there. As in, why? But he's been working there for nearly 25 years and, I think, will continue for another 10," Vadym says.

A memorial in central Slavutych, dedicated to the workers who died during the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant accident. April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Old cars in one of the residential blocks in Slavutych, Ukraine on April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

After finishing school, Vadym went to study computer engineering at the Chernihiv National Technology University. During his studies, he worked as an art director at a nightclub taking care of its marketing development.

“The only possibility to get a job at the power plant was if someone retired and their vacancy was left free”.

One day, Vadym said, a position appeared for him. He received a phone call where he was offered to work at the power plant.

“I thought for a while and agreed because the work at a nightclub was really unstable and having long-term plan there was impossible,” he recalls.

Slavutych residents on April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

A City On The Job

At around six in the evening, Vadym comes back. He has already worked his shift.

“At first, it was difficult and even depressive to change Chernihiv for Slavutych,” Vadym says. “I am very used to the constant movement of people. And here it's much more calm. Here people either work or sit at home”.

A tower clock in central Slavutych, Ukraine on April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Vadym Trofymenko in Slavutych, Ukraine on April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

The first six months after Vadym started working at the electrical unit – the largest and the oldest at the power plant – he was getting used to his new regime. He had to wake up at 6, then leave for work and get a train at 7, and only get back home after 5 in the evening. This was very different to his previous job and daily routine. But that’s how Slavutych has been living for the last three decades.

READ MORE: Chernobyl Through Decades: Life and Work

“The windows in my flat face the road. So when I open the windows in the summer, I can guess what time it is straightaway. At 6-7 a.m., it’s very noisy, many cars leave for the train station. And just an hour later, it’s very quiet. And that’s how it is until the evening when cars start coming back and everyone heads to pick up their children from schools and kindergartens,” Vadym says.

Teenagers sit on the swings in the Tbilisi neigborhood of Slavutych, Ukraine on April 22 , 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

A dog looks through the fence of a residential building in Slavutych, April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

He first worked at the electrical unit as a serviceman. His job consisted of taking care of the equipment that distributes electricity all over Ukraine. Later, a job posting opened up in his specialization subunit, so he started working as  an operator, i.e. servicing the equipment that helped connect with Kyiv, Slavutych and other cities.

“The power plant for me is about career progression, stability, and development. Here, you can really become a professional in your skill area. I view it as a long-term workplace, for the next 10 years at least.”

Vadym is among the youngest of the employees here. The rest, he says, are around his age or a little older whose experience he can learn from – and not just in terms of career.

Mannequins in the shop window in Slavutych, April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

“I see this construction every day, see the people who can speak about the accident. A colleague of mine lived in Pripyat when the explosion happened. She told me how they left the town when people were evacuated. That’s when it hit home and I realized what kind of place I spend my time in every day.”

Vadym does not believe that the power plant could shut down quickly. He positively views the construction of storage facilities for used up nuclear fuel, which is what happening across the Chernobyl territory now

A cat sits outside the building in the Tbilisi neighborhood of Slavutych on April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

A City In Waiting

Slavutych is a town where you won’t find political advertisements, shuttle buses, bright shops, or buildings that are over nine storeys tall. There you have neat yards, cycle lanes, kindergartens, schools, parks, a couple of supermarkets, an entertainment center. But yet there’s a feeling that the city was made solely for the power plant workers who spend every weekend in the forest.

Vadym reassures – there are places for leisure in Slavutych.

“I have a side job I DJ in a restaurant every weekend. Every Friday and Saturday, I’m behind the deck. I’m so used to this regime that every Monday morning I have no trouble getting up early."

At the same time, Vadym agrees that Slavutych, compared to other Ukrainian cities, has a slower and quieter pace of life. He also often spends time with his family.

“Almost immediately after returning to Slavutych from Chernihiv, I found a girlfriend who soon became my wife. Now we work in the exclusion zone together.”

A yard near a residential building in the Tbilisi neighborhood of Slavutych on April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

A boy on top of a fence in the Tbilisi neighborhood of Slavutych, April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Vadym’s wife doesn’t commute to work every day, her shifts are different. Four days she lives and works on the ground, the next three she has off so returns home. Vadym says they have gotten accustomed to such lifestyle now. He adds that despite the fact that one in two or three households owns a car, every evening the city goes quiet and the roads go empty. Everybody goes to bed early.

“Very few people here are ordinary citizens. Most are here for a purpose.”

Vadym is also in Slavutych for a reason. Despite the city’s serenity and quietness, he has found his comfort in Slavutych. He likes going for walks on the city’s streets. His favorite neighborhood is Yerevanskyi where the buildings have a purple tint as they were made of tufa rocks. Vadym assures of the importance of preserving the city’s architecture and reiterates that Slavutych definitely has a future. Regardless of what happens to the power plant.

A  building in the Yerevan neighborhood of Slavutych on April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Vadym Trofymenko in the Yerevan district of Slavutych, April 22, 2019. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

READ MORE: From the War Zone to Chernobyl

/By Olesia Bida and Anastasia Vlasova