Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Chernobyl Gearing up to be the ‘Hot’ New Tourist Site of 2011

Sorry for the bad pun, but it’s to prove a point, really. Which is, do Ukrainian officials really think people will visit the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster?

I don’t know: Did the mayor of New York think people would visit Ground Zero, site of America’s worst terrorist attack?

The answer turned out to be yes, and people showed up in droves to view the wreckage and pay homage to the dead. And people are still showing up nine years later. (If you visit today, of course, you’ll see something more uplifting: construction of what will be a museum housing permanent exhibitions of stories and artifacts, and a memorial that will remember and honor the nearly 3,000 people who died on 9/11.)

For all the similarities you could draw between Ground Zero and Chernobyl—a preventable tragedy, thousands dead, thousands more forever altered—there is one striking difference: Ground Zero has been cleaned up and is safe for construction workers and visitors (who still view the site from behind barrier fencing), whereas the Chernobyl reactor that blew up is still leaking radiation.

You read that right: radiation is rife at Chernobyl. And Ukrainian officials want to turn it into a tourist attraction.

The Chernobyl nuclear reactor after the disaster

And not just any tourist attraction. A site where visitors will be able to walk around and see where, 24 years ago, a nuclear reactor exploded, spewing radiation over a huge part of northern Europe. Visitors will hear stories about the hundreds of thousands of people who were resettled from areas contaminated with radiation fallout in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. They’ll hear about the health problems that still persist. They’ll see evacuees that, despite a government ban and risk of recontamination, have returned to their villages in the area of the plant. They’ll see the iron-and-concrete structure that was hastily built over the exploded reactor, a “shell” that is leaking radiation and is in threat of collapsing. Tourists might even bump into one of the 2,500 employees who still work at the now-closed nuclear plant, and work in shifts to minimize their risk of radiation exposure.

And visitors will be asked to follow a strict travel path (one that hasn’t been fully developed yet) and not stray from their tour group lest they want to be exposed to radiation themselves.

Look: I live ten minutes from Limerick nuclear power plant. I feel like can I weigh in on this subject, because the threat of nuclear fallout is a reality I live with every day.

The twin reactors at Limerick stick up into the sky like a beacon and are visible from every angle within a ten mile radius. The towers have become such a common site in the skyline that most residents don’t even think about them anymore. Even when they’re spewing smoke (visible from distances of up to 50 miles), because we know that means things are running smoothly and some fancy scientific thing is taking place to create energy for millions of homes. Even when, on the first Monday of the month at 2 p.m., the nuclear plant sounds its unmistakable siren, because we know that’s normal too—just the facility testing its emergency siren system.

And yes, from time to time, Limerick Generating Station has opened itself up to tours for specialty groups.

The Limerick Nuclear Power Plant

But here’s the thing: Tours of a well-guarded, professionally staffed, fully functional, safe nuclear power plant are one thing. Why not? Maybe we all would learn a thing or two. But to walk around a burned out shell of a site that’s leaking radiation?

I don’t know.

No, wait. I do know. It’s irresponsible. It’s unconscionable. And it could be a deadly liability.

The Emergency Situations Ministry, the Ukrainian governmental group wanting to offer tours of Chernobyl, claims the tours will be medically safe for visitors, and will educate Ukrainians and foreign visitors about the tragedy. Even the U.N. supports the plan, seeing it as an opportunity to tell a story, raise awareness about nuclear safety, and be an economic boon for the community.

All I can say is this: If Limerick blows its top, my husband and I plan on driving right into the line of fire, Thelma and Louise style, and going out in a blaze of glory. There’s no way we want to suffer with radiation fallout the way those poor Ukrainians did. I’d rather end my life than suffer for the rest of it.

So if there’s even a remote chance that I can get radiation poisoning from visiting Chernobyl, you won’t be catching me there anytime soon.

Then again, if the U.N. agrees with it and thinks it’s okay…

Sign me up. Sounds like it could be a real gas. (Ouch. I’m gonna catch a lot of shit for that one.)

Who’s up for a road trip? Show of hands?

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