Chernobyl: From Nuclear Ghost Town to Tourist Attraction

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Despite being one of the most radioactive areas on Earth, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone attracts thousands of visitors each year. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

On April 26, 1986, a sudden power surge caused a breakdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine, starting fires and releasing massive amounts of radioaction into the environment. 

Immediately following the disaster, civilians were evacuated from an 1,000-square mile area surrounding the plant known as the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It's estimated 115,000 people fled the most contaminated areas in the months following the accident, with another 220,000 leaving in the years to come.  

Among those evacuated were the 49,360 residents of Pripyat, founded in the 1970s as a home for power-plant employees and their families. With little time to prepare, they left behind clothes, books, toys, even pets. (Officials feared radiation would be trapped in their fur.)

Today, Pripyat is still a ghost town. But it's attracting a strange breed of tourist. 

In 2011, the Ukrainian government opened the Exclusion Zone to tourists over the age of 18. Last year alone, some 72,000 people visited the region, despite it being one of the most radioactive places on Earth. Some relish traipsing through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Others are curious to get see what life was like behind the Iron Curtain. Books are still piled up in empty classrooms. Soviet era statuary, pulled down elsewhere, still stand unmolested.

Bumper cars sit rusting in an amusement park slated to open just days after the disaster. 

In the years following the meltdown, high levels of radiation caused death, disease and mutation in both humans and animals. Today, parts of the Exclusion Zone teems with wildlife—wolves, moose, foxes, wild pigs, deer, even lynxes. (The sight of brown bears made headlines a few years back.) Untamed vegetation encroaches everywhere, a hint at what urban centers would look like if—or, perhaps, when—humanity finally wipes itself out.

Though there are still "hot" spots, officials insist radiation in most places has dropped below dangerous levels, and a growing number of companies now offer tours of the region. There are even modest hotels to house intrepid travelers looking to stay overnight.

Of course, visitors face strict security, body scans and signs warning them to avoid touching or sitting on anything. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Rather than capitalizing on tragedy, these guides are educating visitors about the disaster, "correctly interpreted for you by experts," according to Chernobyl Tour, founded in 2008 by chemist Sergii Mirnyi, an early responder to the 1986 disaster.

In addition to maps, Mirnyi's outfit also provides radiation dosimeters to guests.

"This accurate, precise, reliable and convenient instrument... will give an immediate feeling of an invisible radioactive landscape," advises the Chernobyl Tour website. "The device will become one more organ of your senses, and you will develop a specific 'feeling of radiation environment' you can get only in the Chernobyl Zone."

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A fairground at the abandoned town of Pripyat, 2km from Chernobyl.

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An interior in a kindergarden at the abandoned town of Pripyat, 2km from Chernobyl. 

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A library interior at the abandoned town of Pripyat, 2km from Chernobyl.

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Soviet-style posters at the abandoned town of Pripyat, 2km from Chernobyl.

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A fairground at the abandoned town of Pripyat, 2km from Chernobyl. 

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Eco graffiti at the abandoned town of Pripyat, 2km from Chernobyl. 

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The Chernobyl Museum on July 01, 2001 in Kiev, Ukraine. Children's toys from the abandoned city of Pripyat. 

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A barge, a remnant of the 1986 nuclear disaster, lies sunk in a side-arm of the Pripyat river near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 17, 2017, near Chornobyl', Ukraine. 

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A Geiger counter maxes out at 999,000 counts per minute inside a metal claw contaminated with radioactivity in the ghost town of Pripyat not far from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017, in Pripyat, Ukraine. 

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A doll, likely arranged by a tourist, dressed with a gas mask sits on a chair among and old television and hundreds of gas masks lying on the floor of abandoned School Number 3 in the ghost town of Pripyat not far from the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on August 18, 2017, in Pripyat, Ukraine.