Ukraine Seeks to Designate Chernobyl as a Unesco World Heritage Site

“People should leave with an awareness of the historic significance of the place,” says the country’s culture minister

An abandoned building near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
An abandoned building near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Honza Groh via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

In April 1986, an unprecedented accident rocked the Soviet-era Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, killing 31 people within days, displacing some 350,000, exposing millions to high levels of radiation and permanently altering the surrounding region. The disaster would go down in history as the worst of its kind.

To ensure that future generations preserve the site, Ukraine has announced the planned proposal of parts of the so-called “exclusion zone” as a possible Unesco World Heritage Site, report Dmytro Gorshkov and Ania Tsoukanova for Agence France-Presse.

The Eastern European country’s government will propose specific zones to Unesco in March, but a final decision from the international organization may not arrive until 2023. According to Unesco’s website, a site qualifies for World Heritage status if it offers “outstanding universal value” and meets at least one out of ten criteria. (Among others, the list of guidelines includes representing “a masterpiece of human creative genius,” bearing witness to a vanished civilization, and having a direct or tangible association with significant events.)

Ukrainian officials say that the coveted designation would both encourage tourism and help regulate traffic to the deserted, 1,000-square-mile area. Last year, a record-breaking 124,000 tourists visited Chernobyl—a boost in “disaster tourism” partly attributable to the success of HBO’s 2019 mini-series about the tragedy.

This image of the eerie remains of an amusement park in Pripyat dates to 2017. Before the fateful nuclear accident of 1986, this town was home to 50,000—mostly people employed by the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Abandoned bumper cars in the Pripyat amusement park Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Radiation from the explosions still wreaks lingering havoc on the exclusion site’s natural environment. Per AFP, authorities say it could take as long as 24,000 years for humans to be able to live in the area safely. Tourists, however, are allowed to visit for brief periods; in June 2019, Victor Korol, director of tour company SoloEast, told CNN’s Tamara Hardingham-Gill that “it’s absolutely safe.” As he added, visitors are exposed to less radiation during a tour of Chernobyl than they are during a chest X-ray.

Pripyat, a nearby city that once housed 50,000 people, has proven particularly attractive to tourists. Now a ghost town, it boasts eerie remnants of residents’ former lives, including an amusement park with decaying bumper cars and a Ferris wheel that appears to be frozen in time.

This uptick in tourism comes with downsides: Some locals have accused interlopers of littering in abandoned towns and removing artifacts from the site. In a video interview with AFP, Ukraine’s culture minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, says that officially designating the exclusion zone as a cultural heritage site would discourage people from approaching it “as treasure hunters walking into some kind of sealed-off area.”

“People should leave with an awareness of the historic significance of the place,” he adds.

Local businesspeople also hope that World Heritage status will incentivize the government to restore Soviet-era structures that are exposed to the elements and, in some places, on the verge of falling apart.

“The Chernobyl zone is already a world famous landmark,” tour guide Maksym Polivko tells AFP. “But today this area has no official status.”

An upgraded status would push officials to preserve the site, he says, adding, “All these objects … require some repair.”