The world learned of the disaster only after heightened radiation was detected in Sweden.
The world learned of the disaster only after heightened radiation was detected in Sweden.

35 years on, the ruins of Chernobyl draw warnings, tourists

  • One of the prime draws for tourists is to see the ruins of Pripyat, the once-modern town of 50,000 now being taken over by decay and vegetation.
AP | , Kyiv
PUBLISHED ON APR 26, 2021 03:24 AM IST

The vast and empty Chernobyl Exclusion Zone around the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident is a baleful monument to human mistakes. Yet 35 years after a power plant reactor exploded, Ukrainians also look to it for inspiration, solace and income.

Reactor No. 4 at the power plant 110km north of the capital Kyiv exploded and caught fire deep in the night on April 26, 1986, shattering the building and spewing radioactive material high into the sky.

Soviet authorities made the catastrophe even worse by failing to tell the public what had happened — although the nearby plant workers’ town of Pripyat was evacuated the next day, the 2 million residents of Kyiv weren’t informed despite the fallout danger. The world learned of the disaster only after heightened radiation was detected in Sweden.

Eventually, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the vicinity and a 2,600-square-kilometer exclusion zone was established where the only activity was workers disposing of waste and tending to a hastily built sarcophagus covering the reactor. Radiation continued to leak from the reactor building until 2019, when the entire building was covered by an enormous arch-shaped shelter. As robots inside the shelter began dismantling the reactor, officials felt new optimism about the zone.

“This is a place of tragedy and memory, but it is also a place where you can see how a person can overcome the consequences of a global catastrophe,” said Bohdan Borukhovskyi, Ukraine’s deputy environment minister.

“We want a new narrative to appear — it was not a zone of exclusion, but a zone of development and revival,” he said. For him, that narrative includes encouraging tourism.

“Our tourism is unique, it is not a classic concept of tourism,” he said. “This is an area of meditation and reflection, an area where you can see the impact of human error, but you can also see the human heroism that corrects it.”

The Chernobyl zone saw its tourism increase twofold after the lauded TV miniseries of 2019 and officials hope that level of interest will continue.

One of the prime draws for tourists is to see the ruins of Pripyat, the once-modern town of 50,000 now being taken over by decay and vegetation. Work is underway to build paths to make it easier for visitors to navigate the ruins. The Chernobyl plant is out of service, but there is still much work to be done at the decommissioned plant.

“We are doing everything possible so that this territory, where it is now impossible for people to live, is used with benefit and gives the country a profit,” said Serhiy Kostyuk, head of the agency that manages the exclusion zone.

Although the radiation level in the zone is low enough that tourists can visit and workers can carry out their jobs, permanent residence is banned. However, more than 100 people still live in the zone that extends 30 kilometers around the nuclear power plant, despite orders to leave the site.

Among them is 85-year-old former teacher Yevgeny Markevich, who said “It’s a great happiness to live at home, but it’s sad that it’s not as it used to be.

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