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Will Detroit Become a Replica of Chernobyl's Ghost Town?

Empty lots, derelict buildings, and homes overrun with trees are effortless to find today in Pripyat, the Ukrainian city that was evacuated within two days of the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986.  Unfortunately, the city of Detroit is starting to show similarities to this Ukrainian ghost town, as vacancies are on the rise and wildlife has overtaken some of the neighborhoods.

Since 1950, Detroit’s population has fallen from 1.85 million to around 900,000, and approximately one in three lots in the city are empty lots or abandoned homes.  Detroit has been victimized by serious depopulation and disinvestment, and now Mayor Dave Bing feels forced to take measures to shrink the city. 

City services are being drastically reduced as Bing now proposes to downsize the school system by half.  With a treasury that is $300 million short of the money needed to provide the most basic public services, the mayor is now urging and incentivizing residents to move from some of the blighted neighborhoods to more stable areas.

Bing intends for the limited public funds to be focused on the neighborhoods where the Detroit school district plans to build schools.  After the city demolishes a total of 15,000 buildings, including unsafe homes and empty structures, Bing hopes to promote the urban and natural reclamation of the empty land.

In the meantime, Detroit faces vacancy and environmental intrusion.  The once regal McGregor Public Library now has its elaborate carvings and Corinthian architecture covered by plywood and grates, and the charismatic Hotel Granwood now houses squatters in its roofless structure that is overrun with trees and weeds.  This is reminiscent of Pripyat’s abandonment, and with the current debate regarding the potential for repossession of Pripyat, it is hard not to think of Detroit and the prospective for eventual reclamation.

Located a little over a mile from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Pripyat was developed in the 1970s as a town to house the plant workers and their families.  Thirty-six hours after the April 26, 1986, nuclear reactor explosion at Chernobyl, all 50,000 of Pripyat’s residents were told to evacuate within two and a half hours.  Unfortunately for the people of Pripyat, they would never be able to return.  These citizens left behind not only their homes, beloved pets, farm animals, and family photos, but their entire community as well.

Dr. Robert Gale, a bone-marrow specialist, traveled soon after the disaster to help the Soviet doctors cope with the Chernobyl victims.

 “At first glance it was a normal city with white high-rise apartment buildings, parks, schools, and geometrically signed streets,” Gale reveals. “But there were no signs of life.  The city was deserted, devoid of people.”

Schools, playgrounds, hotels, and homes are still standing, although they have suffered from severe deterioration and vandalism.  Pripyat is located within the Exclusion Zone, but is now considered safe enough for guided tours.  Tourists and those who have returned to see their old hometown are disheartened by the dilapidated state and phantom atmosphere of Pripyat.

The growth of the environment in Pripyathas not gone unnoticed, and the potential for the safe, natural repossession of the city has spurred debate about the real level of nuclear danger.  Reports by the United Nations and the IAEA have conveyed more optimistic conclusions on the extent of the damage than had been originally estimated, indicating both a drop in radiation levels and that a sustainable ecosystem is viable.  A meeting of the UN Chernobyl Forum in 2005 addressed the problems still facing the contaminated areas like Pripyat, but nevertheless concluded that the issues were more economic and psychological rather than health or environmental concerns.  

However, Dr. Timothy Mousseau of the Chernobyl Research Initiative at the University of South Carolina took issue with these optimistic conclusions and the lack of research done on Chernobyl’s long-term effects on free-living organisms. 

“The Chernobyl Forum reports deliberately claimed that there were no environmental consequences, while failing to mention that no studies had been done to look for a link between radioactive contamination and the environment,” Mousseau remarks, “and therefore assumed that contamination must not have any effect on the environment.  That is just bad science and it’s inexcusable.” 

Most American scientists, along with the UN and the IAEA, feel that the consequences of the disaster are relatively insignificant.  While Mousseau counts himself as a minority among them, he shares the views of Eastern European scientists, whose findings have generally been ignored.  However, the New York Academy of Scientists recently published a book, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment, in which the Russian scientist Alexey Yablokov compiled hundreds of studies, all of which support the hypothesis that radioactive contamination has had a  traumatic cost on the area.

Despite these concrete findings, scientists still have to explain the existence of any wildlife in Pripyat, and Mousseau believes that it is due to a “dispersal period” common among all organisms when they migrate from an adjacent area to settle in a new area.    

To prove that these animals were only passing through the empty areas of Chernobyl and not trying to settle there, Mousseau analyzed feathers from barn swallows using a mass spectrometer to determine the variants of elements in their feathers.

“The elements present in feathers have deviations that allow for a kind of DNA fingerprint or chemical signature that reveal where the feathers molted,” Mousseau explained.  “I found greater variability among the feathers’ signatures in the radioactive environment than among the signatures in the pre-explosion, supporting my hypothesis that they migrated from other environments.”

As for the reports of plenty of wildlife, Mousseau argues that there is absolutely no evidence proving that there are more animals in these contaminated zones than had been there prior to the nuclear incident. 

While the restitution of Detroit relies on the successes of the city’s plan, Pripyat’s restoration depends on the levels and effects of the radioactive contamination, which Mousseau’s study reveals are far from being harmless. 

From 1991-2004, Mousseau and his team completed a study on the survival rates of barn swallows in the contaminated areas of Ukraine.  Not only did they discover that the survival rates were lower in these radioactive zones, but they also found that the percentage of non-reproducing adults was a close zero percent in Kiev but a shocking 23 percent in the contaminated areas around Chernobyl. 

Mousseau notes that “we found that the birds living in these contaminated areas had a higher frequency of developmental abnormalities than birds from other clean areas.” 

In order to solidify his findings, Mousseau replicated his observations in Belarus, where the only factors that remained constant were the barn swallows and the level of radioactive contamination.

“Once we found the same pattern among the barn swallows in these two different radioactive areas, we knew that we had very strong evidence that something important was going on,” Mousseau remarked.

Among the 20,000 examined barn swallows, Mousseau found crippled toes, deformed beaks and tails, unevenly shaped eyes, and even patches of albino feathers which appeared on their throats and heads. 

Considering these findings, Mousseau reveals his doubts about the misleading claims made by the UN and the IAEA of a healthy environment in Pripyat.

“I don’t think Pripyat and much of the surrounding area can be reclaimed any time soon” Mousseau says.

While he notes that there are bacteria which can capture radioactive contamination, Mousseau emphasizes that such a technique is expensive and could only really be done on a small scale. 

“It could be possible to take a small part of the contaminated area and clean it up to make it habitable, but the fact that there is 200,000 kilometers affected by the contamination the cost of such a proposal would be astronomical.”

Whereas Pripyat may not be safe enough to recover because of the radioactive effects seen on its wildlife, the abandoned areas of Detroit have real potential for urban and natural restoration if the city is able to get back on its feet.

The debate over the effects of the nuclear disaster clearly suggests a disconnect between those who optimistically propagate its sustainable habitat, and those like Mousseau who describe Pripyat as an “Orwellian disaster.”  While an answer has not been cemented, it is clear that collaboration is needed among scientists and international organizations to merge important findings and streamline future research.

The desertion of Pripyat carries a certain, albeit radioactive, connection to the desertion of Detroit, and it will not be long until Detroit marks a stark resemblance to this lifeless city.  However, the fact that Detroit is not immersed in radiation gives the American city a greater chance for natural and urban restoration.  Only when Mayor Bing’s request for abandonment is implemented and the public funds allocated in their designated areas will Detroit’s real fate will become known.