Slavutych, The Town that Chernobyl Built, Makes a Bid for a Tech Future

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In Slavutych, the nuclear town created as a communist utopia 30 years ago, talk is usually fixed on half-lives. This weekend, in a function room above an Estonian restaurant, around 50 people met to discuss the town’s second incarnation.

At a two day forum entitled “New Life for Atomic Cities”, experts and entrepreneurs debated ways Slavutych, created as a safe haven for those fleeing the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, could revamp its economy.

The power station, whose meltdown in 1986 was the world’s worst such tragedy, has since last November been encased in the New Safe Confinement, the world’s largest mobile metal structure. It is a big success in the fight against radiation poisoning.

But for the residents of Slavutych, the majority of whom still work at the plant (it only stopped supplying energy in 2000 and still provides thousands of jobs), the confinement’s victory is pyrrhic: jobs will disappear. And Slavutych, which has received large endowments from the station, is set to lose its biggest asset.

And so, this weekend, entrepreneurs and local leaders pushed a new narrative: tech.

While we usually perceive larger cities as startup hubs, Slavutych has a promise of growing startup ecosystem of its own and winning leadership position among Ukraine’s smaller towns,” says Roman Zinchenko, co-founder of Greencubator, a Kiev-based group responsible for a new wave of Ukrainian energy startups.

Slavutych, which has a population of around 25,000, is Europe’s youngest town. It would be, according to the Kremlin, a ‘21st century city’, whose sleek, modern living would annul the disaster and show the world the alacrity of Soviet justice.

The Politburo made no compromises: in came pink marble from Caucasian quarries, ceramic tiles from Central Asia, Baltic timber and wrought-iron lampposts resembling the ones that lined Saint Petersburg’s famous Nevsky Prospekt. Architects from eight Soviet republics were drafted in to design the Union’s newest city. Its eight neighborhoods were named for the cities of their birth.

Just two years later Slavutych was open. Three-bed homes stood behind front lawns and gardens. Playgrounds were packed with swings and seesaws. Outdoor basketball courts boasted cutting-edge rubber flooring. There was even a baseball diamond.

In the 90s, as communism crumbled and independent Ukraine fell into chronic corruption, crime and economic ruin, Slavutych continued to thrive. Chernobyl still provided salaries far above any other in the country. Each year a festival welcomed performers from far afield. Once, LaToya Jackson appeared.

But now Slavutych stands on a precipice. With Chernobyl closing, and jobs on its confinement disappearing, the heyday will soon end. A solar plant being built by China will not provide many roles for locals.

It is time to diversify. That will be difficult given a local mindset that is more Soviet than entrepreneurial–and a capricious national economy suffering Ukraine’s protracted eastern war.

“People are more interested in sending their children to work in the station,” says Sergeii Chesharokov, a local trade union leader. “No-one wants to be a businessman.”

At the event Zinchenko and fellow tech leaders urged Slavutych’s highly-technical population to think of a future without Chernobyl. Without the plant, he says, the town’s finances can still go nuclear.

Citing Amsterdam, one of Europe’s most successful startup cities, Zinchenko believes Slavutych has what it takes to become a tech hub. It has great fiber-to-home, LAN-to-home and WiMax coverage, he says, and Ukraine’s youngest population.

Education levels are far higher than the national average, he adds. And Chernobyl’s large number of foreign workers has encouraged Slavutych’s youth to perform well in foreign languages. “It’s an attractive place for young tech families with kids–affordable, with clean air, practically crime-free, with infrastructure for children education, sports and day-care,” he says. “I’d suggest to the city launching some relocate marking campaign for freelancers: it’s ideal for many of them in terms of cost of life and connectivity infrastructure.

“I also think that Slavutych can be a good location for software houses working in the energy field,” adds Zinchenko. “Some Ukrainian software firms are developing energy-related products for major international companies– in fields like grid core management, smart grids, grid communications etc–and they could benefit from people with energy background they are currently seeking for.”

Chernobyl will continue to be a key component of Slavutych’s economy: decommissioning projects will run until 2064, and require high-tech talent. Mayor Yuri Fomichev believes he can make the town a center for nuclear research. Many agree with him.

The Chernobyl facility, and the Chernobyl community has a unique body of knowledge,” says Edward Geist, McArthur Nuclear Security Fellow at Stanford University. “One of the reasons I go back is because you can only get hands-on training there.”

A lack of regulation means that vital equipment testing may only be carried out around Chernobyl, Geist adds. Dozens of Japanese experts have arrived to mitigate the effects of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. They stay in Slavutych. “I think book learning isn’t good enough,” Geist adds. “But are there enough people going to justify Slavutych’s future? That’s a question I can’t answer right now.”

Fomichev, who opened and closed the forum, is remaining upbeat. He knows Slavutych faces an uphill battle to secure its future. But by combining scientific research with a small, but competitive, startup landscape, he believes the town can secure its second life–and many more to follow.

“We are the energy,” he says. “We need to create energy, no matter which.”