Haunting photos reveal what nuclear-disaster ghost towns look like years after being abandoned

Aria Bendix
Namie Fukushima

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Hours after the accident at the Chernobyl power plant, the worst nuclear disaster in history, residents of the city of Pripyat were going about their Saturdays as normal. Children picked wildflowers and played outside. Adults gardened, fished, and even got married.

By the following day, however, they were rounded onto buses and told to bring just a few belongings — important paperwork, personal mementos, and a bit of food. The move was only temporary, the city council said, but most residents would never return.

Today, Pripyat is still relatively abandoned, aside from tour groups that walk along designated pathways and gather inside blighted kindergartens, hospitals, and schools.

The city is perhaps the world's most famous nuclear ghost town, but it's not the only one.

Other major nuclear accidents have prompted evacuations that abruptly emptied cities and villages. Here's what some of these abandoned areas look like.

In the wake of the Chernobyl disaster, Pripyat residents were given less than an hour to pack.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Residents left behind Soviet-era posters, ballot boxes, and flags. 



The city's buildings, homes, and amusement park have been deserted ever since.

"Abandoned Places"

"We didn't just lose a town, we lost our whole lives," one evacuee recalled in the book "Voices from Chernobyl" by Svetlana Alexievich.



Some artifacts have survived the test of time, while others have disintegrated.

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

 

 



Graffiti artists have drawn strange shadowy figures on the walls of buildings.

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One motif seen throughout the area is a series of childlike figures that are said to represent the ghosts of former residents.



Adult tourists can view scattered remnants from Pripyat's former occupants. Visitors are required to wear closed footwear and cover their arms and legs to avoid any skin contact with radioactive material.

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Tourists are also instructed not to touch any artifacts, trees, or walls. 



Creepy dolls can be found on windowsills and beds, but they were likely staged by visitors.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters

A group of "disaster tourists" arranged some the haunting dolls on the beds in an abandoned kindergarten for dramatic effect.



Nearby, the ghost town of Kopachi is also open for tours.

Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Tours of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone — a 1,000-square-mile restricted area surrounding the nuclear power plant — often take visitors to Kopachi, which is on the road from Pripyat to Chernobyl.

Read more: Photos of the abandoned towns around Chernobyl show time standing still



Most of the village's homes were bulldozed and buried after Chernobyl.

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The action was supposed to prevent the spread the contamination, but it wound up having the opposite effect — the efforts pushed radiation deeper into the soil and closer to groundwater. 



Few buildings remain, aside from an abandoned kindergarten.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

There is also a memorial that honors the Soviet soldiers who liberated the village during World War II.

Ronald Woan/Flickr

Meanwhile, an abandoned trolley bus sits in the middle of a forested area.

Ernestas/Flickr

Twenty-five years after Chernobyl, a power plant disaster in Fukushima, Japan, forced the evacuation of multiple towns in 2011.

Yusuke Harada/NurPhoto/Getty Images

On March 11, 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami resulted in three nuclear meltdowns and multiple hydrogen explosions at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.

 

 



The morning after the disaster, Japanese authorities evacuated the entire town of Namie, which is downwind from the power plant.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Residents weren't allowed back for six years.

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In 2017, the government partially lifted the evacuation orders, allowing around 21,000 former residents to reoccupy certain areas. About 1,000 people chose to move back. 

 



Namie is divided into three zones, two of which have been re-opened.

Toru Hanai/Reuters

The third zone, which makes up around 80% of the district, is still off-limits due to elevated levels of radiation



With humans gone, wild boars began roaming the streets.

Toru Hanai/Reuters

The animals started foraging for food in Namie after the disaster, so local hunters began trapping and killing them.



Many former residents are still too scared to return.

Shiho Fukada/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Some former residents remain skeptical of claims that the area is safe, while others find it too painful to live among the demolished homes and empty school buildings. 

 



In addition to Namie, Japanese authorities designated other municipalities as "difficult-to-return" zones.

Toru Hanai/Reuters

One of those zones was Futaba, was home to about 7,000 people at the time of the accident.

Damir Sagolj/Reuters

Futaba is now an eerie shell of its former self.



Many buildings there are strewn with discarded objects, and abandoned vehicles have been enveloped by overgrown weeds.

The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

The vast majority of the town is still under an evacuation advisory.

Sergey Ponomarev/AP Photo

Authorities are working to make the site livable by 2022, but few residents are expected to return.

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"If this was two or three years after the disaster, I might have a choice to return. But my house became run-down and I got old," a 69-year-old evacuee told The Japan Times in 2017. "Realistically speaking, I don't think I can live there now."



The Japanese town of Ōkuma has already reopened to the public after sitting empty for eight years.

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Ōkuma lies to the south of Namie and Futaba. The town was home to about 10,000 residents at the time of the Fukushima disaster.

Earlier this year, Japanese authorities determined that radiation levels in two of Ōkuma's districts were low enough for people to return



Many of Ōkuma's sites are still shuttered, though.

Shiho Fukada/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Around 50 people began moving into new homes in April, but most former residents have chosen to stay away. 

 



Though Ōkuma has a new corner shop and town hall, its hospital and town center still aren't safe to enter due to radiation.

Issei Kato/Reuters

An explosion at the Mayak nuclear facility in Russia is considered the world's third-worst nuclear accident, behind Fukushima and Chernobyl.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

The explosion released around 2 million curies of radioactive waste.

 



It took Russian authorities more than 50 years to evacuate the nearby village of Muslyumovo, which was contaminated by the nuclear explosion in 1957.

Denis Sinyakov/Reuters

Details about the incident didn't emerge until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. 

Read more: 13 of the largest abandoned cities and ghost towns around the world, and the eerie stories behind them



In 2009, residents were relocated about a mile away to an area dubbed "New Muslyumovo."

Denis Sinyakov/Reuters

Much of the old territory was torn down. Homes were demolished, and the remains were thrown into pits, then buried.

Denis Sinyakov/Reuters

But a few families belonging to a local ethnic group, the Tatars, chose to remain in the ghost town.

Denis Sinyakov/Reuters

The ghost town of Atomic City, Idaho, meanwhile, didn't empty out all at once.

David Hanson

In 1955, a small nuclear meltdown took place just outside Atomic City, at the Experimental Breeder Reactor-1, the world's first electricity-generating nuclear power plant.

David Hanson

Then in 1961, three people died in a steam explosion and meltdown at a nuclear power reactor in nearby Idaho Falls.

David Hanson

Those accidents led to a steady decline in the town's population: It went from around 140 residents in 1960 to just two dozen in 1970. The population has hovered around 25 ever since.

David Hanson

Today, the area is full of abandoned cars and dilapidated homes and trailers.

David Hanson

Photographer David Hanson told Insider that when he visited the site in the mid-80s, there wasn't a person in sight.

Read more: 10 haunting photos of Idaho's Atomic City, 30 years after nuclear disaster drove everyone away