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You Can Now Visit Chernobyl’s Control Room, if You’re Quick About It

Visitors will have five minutes to look around the contaminated spot where the worst nuclear disaster in history took place

An employee of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant walks in the control room of the destroyed 4th block of the plant on February 24, 2011, ahead of the 25th anniversary of the meltdown of reactor number four. (SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

The control room of reactor 4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant—one of most ominous places on Earth—has become tourist attraction.

As we reported over the summer, tourism at Chernobyl is booming. And now, as Jack Guy at CNN reports, companies have begun allowing people to briefly visit the highly radioactive control room where the worst nuclear disaster in history unfolded. But they must take precautions: Visitors have to wear protective suits, helmets and masks and are limited to five minutes inside the space. Afterward, they will undergo two mandatory radiology tests to gauge their exposure.

The tour option is part of big changes at the site of the disaster. This July, Ukrainian authorities took charge of the New Safe Confinement dome, which now covers the contaminated reactor building. The massive $1.6 billion structure took 22 years of planning and construction and is expected to safeguard the damaged reactor for 100 years, when experts suggest it may be safe enough to demolish.

The dome is the reason that the area is safe enough to allow more tourism to Chernobyl. Soon after accepting the symbolic keys to the dome, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine signed a decree designating the site a tourist attraction. “We must give this territory of Ukraine a new life,” Zelensky announced. “Until now, Chernobyl was a negative part of Ukraine's brand. It's time to change it.”

To that end, Ukraine has begun developing new tourist routes and waterways in the area, and will be building and upgrading radiation checkpoints in the area.

The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has been open to tourists since 2011, according to David Grossman at Popular Mechanics. Earlier this year, researchers found that the 1,000 square mile zone, where humans are not allowed to live, has become a de facto wildlife refuge.

The hit HBO’s miniseries “Chernobyl,” released in May of this year, has led to a tourism boom in the area, with a 30 to 40 percent increase in visitors. “Many people come here, they ask a lot of questions about the TV show, about all the events. People are getting more and more curious,” tour guide Viktoria Brozhko told Max Hunder for Reuters.

Most day-tripping tours visit several abandoned villages, memorials to those who combated the disaster and the now-abandoned city of Pripyat. In total, Brozhko estimates most visitors receive 2 microsieverts of radiation exposure, about the same they’d receive while sitting at home for a day.

Radiation in the control room, however, could be 40,000 times normal levels. While the room remains pretty much as it was in 1986, Brozhko has observed that many plastic control knobs have been removed, likely by decontamination workers and rogue tourists looking for a souvenir.

Chernobyl may now be a tourist attraction, but for many, the spot of the disaster remains an open wound. Because the Soviet Union was unwilling to share data on the nuclear incident, its true toll may never be known. The Soviets claimed 31 people died when the reactor exploded and in the immediate aftermath of the disaster in 1986. As David Brennan at Newsweek reports, in 2008 the U.N. revised that number up to 54. The long-term effects remain hard to quantify. While a multi-agency group called the Chernobyl Forum estimates 4,000 to 9,000 people have or will eventually die from cancer related to Chernobyl exposure, the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that number is closer to 27,000, and an analysis by Greenpeace suggests the number is closer to 93,000.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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