'Chernobyl' snags 19 Emmy nominations, inspiring tourism wave. But is disaster site safe?
On Tuesday, HBO's "Chernobyl" earned 19 Emmy nominations, including best limited series and actors Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson.
By the time the big night arrives in September, thousands more tourists will have passed through the site of the most catastrophic man-made disaster in history, inspired by the miniseries.
Interest in Chernobyl and the surrounding ghost town of Pripyat, located near Ukraine's northern border with Belarus, had already spiked 30% since the cable network began airing its popular, five-part miniseries about the explosion and the Soviet Union's handling of its aftermath. Tour operators forecast the number of tourists visiting Chernobyl may double this year, reaching 150,000 visitors.
Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he no longer wants the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant to be a dark-tourism destination. He said he wants it to become a legitimate tourist attraction: “Chernobyl has been a negative part of Ukraine’s brand. The time has come to change this," according to the BBC and Lonely Planet.
But is Chernobyl ready for the spotlight?
Zelensky said his government plans to implement an electronic ticketing system and checkpoints for visitors in an effort to regulate access. He also said the government will relax restrictions on filming inside the exclusion zone (the HBO miniseries was shot in the former Soviet republic of Lithuania), boost mobile phone reception in the area and build walking trails for the influx of tourists.
"The main purpose of this change in protocol is to facilitate the rapid processing of the many hundreds of tour buses loaded with tourists that need to be checked through the gates by guards," said University of South Carolina-Columbia biological sciences professor Timothy Mousseau, who has made annual research trips to Chernobyl since 1999. "The guard stations have been overwhelmed by the massive increase in tourists and this new system is mostly about increasing efficiency rather than anything else."
That boost in tourism has been made safer by the completion of the New Safe Confinement dome. The structure, which took nearly a decade to build, replaced a leaky steel-and-concrete sarcophagus rushed into place after Reactor 4 exploded just before 1:30 a.m. on April 26, 1986.
During an overnight test of the reactor's emergency water cooling system, steam built up and blew through the reactor's 1,000-ton lid, exposing the core to oxygen, which caused the graphite rods used to control reactions to catch fire and, eventually, it sparked a second explosion. The contamination traveled fast on the wind: within two days, radiation from Chernobyl was detected at a Swedish nuclear power plant.
The initial disaster killed at least 28 people – including plant workers and first responders – but it sickened thousands more through radiation-related conditions such as cancer, compromised immune systems and birth defects in the ensuing three decades.
How Chernobyl happened: Timeline of a nuclear nightmare
The new dome was designed to last up to 100 years, allowing time for the eventual dismantling of the reactor while keeping radioactive contaminants in and water out.
It also makes the area safer for the growing number of tourists expressing interest in visiting the 20-mile "exclusion zone" around the nuclear power plant, which scientists predicted at the time would not be fully safe for human habitation for another 20,000 years.
Today, University of Sheffield researcher Claire Corkhill tells Business Insider that tourists are likely to be exposed to more radiation on the transatlantic flight to Ukraine than during their visit. Still, precautions should be taken.
In addition to the existing requirements that visitors wear long-sleeves, pants and closed-toe shoes, Mousseau recommends bringing a dosimeter to measure radioactivity "as well as a surgical mask to reduce ingestion of dust."
He added, "No food should be consumed on-site as this provides an additional pathway for ingestion of radionuclides. If a tourist comes into contact with a contaminated object, the clothes should be disposed of."
And if tourists find themselves scheduled to go on a windy day, they should reconsider their plans.
"On dry, windy days, there can be a lot of dust and in this region," he explained. "The dust may contain radioactive particles. ... Ingested dust particles could pose a health risk."
Radiation isn't the only danger
Pripyat, the town built to house Chernobyl plant employees, was abandoned overnight thanks to mandatory evacuations.
After all the people left, Pripyat for years was a snapshot of a planned Soviet town frozen in time. Looters have since stripped it bare of all the Soviet memorabilia. There's also broken glass, rusty nails, unsupported floors and roofs that will probably fall down "soon."
In fact, the dilapidated buildings are as much of a safety threat as radiation, notes Mousseau.
"Many of the buildings in the zone are in danger of collapse and they are often filled with hazardous materials, including radioactive materials. In addition, nails and broken glass pose a significant hazard and all tourists should have had a tetanus vaccination before coming to the zone."
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Nature reborn but not necessarily safe
In the 33 years since humans were evacuated, plants and wildlife have reclaimed the town once home to 50,000 humans, a sentiment Zelensky promoted with his remarks.
"Chernobyl is a unique place on the planet where nature has been reborn after a huge man-made disaster," Zelensky said. "We have to show this place to the world: to scientists, ecologists, historians and tourists.”
However, just because wildlife is returning in Chernobyl's exclusion zone decades after the nuclear disaster does not mean it is thriving.
"There is little evidence to suggest that wildlife (is) thriving in the Chernobyl zone," said Mousseau, who just returned from the area and plans to return in August. "It is a very rare event for any of the tourists to see any wildlife during their visit other than the occasional tame fox or hare. The feral dogs are the closest thing to wildlife that tourists will normally see."
From a pragmatic perspective, Mousseau added, "Tourism of some sort seems inevitable and, as such, the best approach is to provide guidelines and best practices that reduce potential harm to the general public as well as minimize the impacts of tourists to the exclusion zone."
"Chernobyl" writer/producer Craig Mazin echoed that sentiment in a June tweet acknowledging his series' impact on Chernobyl.
"It's wonderful that #ChernobylHBO has inspired a wave of tourism to the Zone of Exclusion. But yes, I've seen the photos going around," he tweeted after a wave of Chernobyl selfies started popping up on Instagram after the miniseries.
"If you visit, please remember that a terrible tragedy occurred there. Comport yourselves with respect for all who suffered and sacrificed."
But while Mousseau has problems with the handling of Chernobyl tourism, he does not blame the miniseries, which he praises as "an amazingly accurate “docudrama," adding, "Most such efforts stray very far from the truth for the purpose of entertainment. I did not feel this way (about) 'Chernobyl.' "
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Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY