CHERNOBYL, Ukraine--Tours to the site of a nuclear disaster might not be on everyone’s list of must-places to visit.
But that hasn't stopped Ukrainian authorities from offering trips to the exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of a catastrophic accident in 1986.
I wondered why the tours were attracting so many visitors from around the world and what Ukrainian authorities hoped to achieve through them.
So, on a late autumn day as light rain fell, I joined a daylong tour to the zone within 30 kilometers of the stricken facility.
Twelve people participated: Ukrainians, Russians, an Australian and myself.
Our guide was an official of a branch of the Ministry of Emergencies, who frequently checked radiation levels with his dosimeter.
“Oh, the radiation is not so high as I had thought,” a Ukrainian woman said merrily, a first-time participant traveling with her boyfriend.
The radiation reading in front of a ruined kindergarten was 0.16 microsievert per hour, almost the same level as in the capital, Kiev. But in a forest a little way ahead, the reading immediately went up 10-fold.
“Wow! Amazing!” the woman said with excitement.
Our group also viewed the wreckage of the No. 4 reactor building, which exploded in the disaster.
We were allowed to stand 300 meters from the site. Members of our party snapped photos and checked their dosimeters. The reading showed 3.15 microsieverts.
“It’s lower than I expected,” a Russian man exclaimed.
We also visited Pripyat, which was transformed into a ghost town after the disaster.
A number of trees stood higher than a five-story apartment building.
We visited a former residential area, an open space and an amusement park. We encountered several other groups along the way. Some of the visitors wore face masks.
An official of the Ministry of Emergencies said radiation readings remain low and that no one should fear for their health as long as they do not pick mushrooms to eat that are growing in the exclusion zone or drink the water.
The official said all possible safety measures have been taken and that the guide is trained to cope with any emergency.
The ministry set the exposure limit during the tour at 100 microsieverts, an impossibly high level unless members of the party strayed off course and stayed in an area with very high readings for a prolonged period.
The tours kicked off in December 2011.
Two of the ministry’s affiliates entrust the task of attracting tour participants to some 20 travel companies. The fee, which includes lunch, works out at around $150 per person. Buses and vans are provided for transportation between Kiev and Chernobyl.
An official said the travel firms have been flooded with applications from around the world. In busy periods, up to 20 tours operate daily, attracting 300 or so participants.
The official said that in the year through last November, some 13,000 people had taken the tours. The number of participants from Japan has recently increased, apparently due to the March 2011 disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, the official added.
Until late 2011, the Ukrainian government allowed only certain officials, experts and journalists to enter the exclusion zone.
Although 26 years have passed since the accident, the government still strictly controls and limits people’s entry into the zone.
One reason the government began to allow controlled visits to the zone is that Ukraine must now depend on nuclear energy and officials are seeking to gain the understanding of ordinary people for the policy.
Ukraine used to rely on natural gas from Russia for its domestic energy consumption. But the two countries clashed on a number of issues, including overdue payments. This prompted Russia to halt supply a number of times. The problem grew bigger, involving other European countries that got Russian gas through Ukraine.
Yulia Tymoshenko, who was prime minister in 2009, signed a contract with Russia for stable gas supplies at a higher rate than that for other European countries, putting a heavy burden on the state budget. This led to increases in electricity and other prices, which greatly affected the lives of ordinary people.
The current administration, led by President Viktor Yanukovych, has been negotiating with Moscow for a lower rate, but to no avail, which has forced it to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.
Authorities in Ukraine now advocate greater use of nuclear power as well as the development of coal and shale gas.
Ukraine operates 15 nuclear reactors, is building two more and has plans to construct nuclear plants at up to seven sites.
To achieve this long-term goal, it will be essential for the country to gain the understanding of its nuclear policy, not only from its own people but also the world.
Dmitry Bobro, first deputy chief of the agency on exclusion zone management, emphasized that the Chernobyl disaster site will be used to draw “negative lessons.”
By allowing people to witness the present condition of the site, the government apparently wants to show that its efforts toward recovery are making progress: Radiation levels have dropped significantly, and construction of a massive concrete cover for the stricken reactor is under way.
“We have no choice but to make our nuclear policy transparent if we hope to obtain public understanding,” Bobro said. “We believe opening the site to people is the first step for that purpose.”
On the other hand, Arthur Denisenko, a 28-year-old senior official of the Kiev-based anti-nuclear civic group National Ecological Center of Ukraine, criticized the government for using the tours to promote its nuclear policy.
“The tours should serve for a greater understanding of the risk of nuclear power generation,” he said. “Trying to build new nuclear plants is immoral. It means putting responsibility on future generations, even though numerous problems caused by the Chernobyl accident remain. We have many more choices that will allow us not to rely on nuclear power. For example, society as a whole could step up energy-saving efforts.”
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