Nuclear Tourism

Sep 22, 2014

You can read George Johnson's full article and see more photos from his trip at this link: The Nuclear Tourist and also in the October print issue of National Geographic.

On April 26th, 1986, shortly after 1am, Reactor Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power complex experienced a sudden, and catastrophic, power surge. The accident set off a series of explosions, a fire, and released massive amounts of radioactive material into the environment.  Within months of the meltdown, twenty eight workers died from radiation and more than 350,000 people were relocated. Over the ensuing years, related deaths have been harder to pin down, with estimates ranging from 4,000 to over 200,000. 28 years later, it is a tourist destination. George Johnson recently visited Chernobyl, and its surrounding villages, he spoke with Virginia about his trip. You can listen to the segment below.

The following is an excerpt from The Nuclear Tourist from the October issue of National Geographic magazine:

"At first they came to scavenge, later for the thrill. They drink from the Pripyat River and swim in Pripyat bay, daring the radiation and the guards to get them. A stalker I met later in Kiev said he’d been to Chernobyl a hundred times. “I imagined the zone to be a vast, burnt-out place—empty, horrible,” he told me. Instead he found forests and rivers, all this contaminated beauty.

Our tour group walked along the edge of a bone-dry public swimming pool, its high dive and racing clock still intact, and across the rotting floor of a gymnasium. Building after building, all decomposing. We visited the ruins of the Palace of Culture, imagining it alive with music and laughter, and the small amusement park with its big yellow Ferris wheel. Walking up 16 flights of steps—more glass crunching underfoot—we reached the top of one of the highest apartment buildings. The metal handrails had been stripped away for salvage. Jimmied doors opened onto gaping elevator shafts. I kept thinking how unlikely a tour like this would be in the United States. It was refreshing really. We were not even wearing hard hats.

From the rooftop we looked out at what had once been grand, landscaped avenues and parks—all overgrown now. Pripyat, once hailed as a model Soviet city, a worker’s paradise, is slowly being reabsorbed by the earth. "