April 26, 2016 marked the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, the most devastating nuclear power plant meltdown in global history. To celebrate the disaster site’s big “3-0,” Chernobyl has opened its doors to welcome tourists from around the world. While Prypyat, Ukraine, home of the Chernobyl power plant, was deemed a tourist site in 2011, the increased interest in dark tourism has drawn crowds at astonishing numbers over the past year. Kiev-based touring company, SoloEast, estimates that they will be escorting at least 10,000 tourists annually to the abandoned ghost-town and they are not alone in this business venture.
Three decades removed, the Chernobyl disaster has faded from front-page headlines. The 1986 meltdown is believed to be a consequence of flawed Soviet engineering, lack of safety culture during the Cold War, and detrimental mistakes made by the plant operators during routine testing. During the test, a lethal interaction of cooling water and hot fuel mixed in the reactor, leading to overwhelming pressure and eventual destruction of the reactor, entitled Chernobyl 4.
Researchers have calculated that the exposure of the inner reactor following the explosive pressure released a mere 5% of the radioactive reactor core. The materials released are believed to be 400 times more radioactive than the materials released from the atomic bomb used to attack Hiroshima, Japan in World War II.
On the evening of the incident, two plant workers were killed and, throughout the following weeks, 28 more people died due to acute radiation poisoning. Further, in 2005, 4000 lives were taken from cancer strongly correlated with the exposure of the incident. The meltdown has also led to an epidemic of thyroid cancer in radiation-exposed children (estimates totaling at least 1800 children) and caused over a third of a million people to flee from their homes, leaving their possessions behind.
Knowing full well of the ongoing devastation and the health risks of radioactive exposure, tour groups continue to flock to Prypyat in astounding and increasing numbers to see first-hand the remnants of the Ukrainian town.
Initially, it seems crass and disrespectful, but here’s the thing: this draw to the morbidity and darkness of human history is not a new development.
Think about it:
- New York City’s Ground Zero
- Auschwitz Concentration Camp
- Alcatraz Island
- London Dungeon
To name a few, all of these sites are hugely popular stops for tourists. Yes, it is bothersome that there are some companies capitalizing on the exploitation of human disaster areas as a source of revenue, but the macro-level impact of exposing the masses to the darker side of history generally outweigh this concern. Giving people the opportunity to experience walking along the paths of human atrocity can stimulate conversations and create forums for sharing ideas on how to improve international human relations.
Louisiana State University’s faculty member, Michael Bowman made a statement to U.S. News critiquing the term dark tourism, “It’s more than just gawking at the misery of other people…One of the most profoundly human things we can do is to walk in another person’s shoes, even if only for an hour-long tour.” In fact, many tour operators in Chernobyl have personal ties to the area.
So then, why is the draw to visiting Chernobyl so disconcerting? Well, visiting Chernobyl gives rise to potentially dangerous radiation exposure and increased health risks. Since the incident, the United Nations Scientific Committee of the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has been monitoring the and short- and long-term effects of acute radiation exposure. While the health effects are not as severe as researchers assumed post-meltdown, there are still increased risks of developing cancer and other disturbing health risks.
Chernobyl is not simply a touring area. Tour businesses are capitalizing on the dark tourism movement and are putting their customers in danger. The effects of radiation exposure have been measured and Chernobyl continues to hold high levels of radiation. Admittedly, researchers who have been monitoring Chernobyl feel the long-terms effects of the radiation should not hold such high concern and the outlook is relatively positive compared to the previously assumed horrors.
However, researchers from both the U.S. and Japan monitoring the long-term radiation health effects of atomic bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki for over 60 years fear there are continued risks including, but not limited to, accelerated immunological aging, higher likelihood of cardiovascular disease, thyroid disease, cataracts, and various cancers. Some of these diseases have developed over 50-55 years post radiation exposure and are continuing to do so at higher than average rates. Also, let’s not forget that Chernobyl released materials that were 400 times more radioactive than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
While the tour groups and researchers promise safe trips to Chernobyl, they really have no way of knowing how much risk they are exposing their tourists to. Dark tourism is meant for learning about the history of human death and destruction…not to continue the death and destruction.
Margery Beltran is a third year law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law (Candidate for J.D., May 2017). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Family Science with a minor in Psychology from Towson University. Her interests include mental health and disability law and international alternative dispute resolution. Margie currently serves as the Volume V Comments Editor for the University of Baltimore’s Journal of International Law. She participated in the 2016 Summer Abroad Program at the University of Aberdeen School of Law in Aberdeen, Scotland. She is currently an intern in Washington D.C. for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Alternative Dispute Resolution Division.
 http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/safety-and-security/safety-of-plants/chernobyl-accident.aspx (Acute radiation poisoning is a rare illness primarily found in people near places where nuclear industrial accidents have occurred or those exposed to the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in WWII. Radiation sickness is caused by exposure to large doses of radiation usually over a small period of time. Symptoms vary depending on the amount of radiation the body absorbed, whether contamination is external or internal, and the sensitivity of the tissue affected. In cases of very severe exposure, weakness, fatigue, disorientation, hair loss, bloody vomit and stools, infections, and poor wound healing are among the immediate effects of radiation exposure. See, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/radiation-sickness/basics/definition/con-20022901).