Ukraine Officials Want Chernobyl to Become World Heritage Site, With an Eye Toward Increasing Tourism

It has been 35 years since a power plant reactor exploded at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant north of Kyiv, Ukraine, and country officials want the site of the world's worst former nuclear disaster to become a UNESCO World Heritage site in the hopes of increasing tourism, the Associated Press reported.

The disaster occurred near the town of Pripyat in 1986 after Reactor No. 4 exploded and caught fire, which spread radioactive material and caused more than 100,000 people to evacuate, rendering an empty Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to be established. Now, Ukrainian officials want to revive the area.

"We are doing everything possible so that this territory, where it is now impossible for people to live, is used with benefit and gives the country a profit," said Serhiy Kostyuk, the head of the agency that is in charge of the exclusion zone, AP reported.

The ruins of Pripyat will be one of the main tourist areas around the Chernobyl site and paths to explore the ruins are being developed for visiting tourists since the radiation level in the zone is low enough.

"People should leave the exclusion zone with the awareness of the historical memory of this place and its importance for all mankind," said Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko, according to AP.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Ghost Town of Pripyat
A visitor takes a photo of an abandoned building in the ghost town of Pripyat near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant on April 26, 2021, during an event to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

The vast and empty Chernobyl Exclusion Zone around the site of the world's worst nuclear accident is a baleful monument to human mistakes. Yet 35 years after a power plant reactor exploded, Ukrainians also look to it for inspiration, solace and income.

Soviet authorities made the catastrophe even worse by failing to tell the public what had happened—although the nearby plant workers' town of Pripyat was evacuated the next day, the 2 million residents of Kyiv weren't informed despite the fallout danger. The world learned of the disaster only after heightened radiation was detected in Sweden.

A 2,600-square-kilometer (1,000-square-mile) exclusion zone was established where the only activity was workers disposing of waste and tending to a hastily built sarcophagus covering the reactor.

In 2019, the entire building was covered by an enormous arch-shaped shelter. As robots inside the shelter began dismantling the reactor, officials felt new optimism about the zone.

"This is a place of tragedy and memory, but it is also a place where you can see how a person can overcome the consequences of a global catastrophe," said Bohdan Borukhovskyi, Ukraine's deputy environment minister.

"We want a new narrative to appear—it was not a zone of exclusion, but a zone of development and revival," he said.

For him, that narrative includes encouraging tourism.

"Our tourism is unique, it is not a classic concept of tourism," he said. "This is an area of ​​meditation and reflection, an area where you can see the impact of human error, but you can also see the human heroism that corrects it."

Officials hope that the level of interest in visiting Chernobyl will continue, or grow, once the global pandemic has receded.

Pripyat is a once-modern town of 50,000 now being taken over by decay and vegetation.

The Chernobyl plant is out of service, but there is still much work to be done at the decommissioned plant. Borukhovskyi said all four of its reactors are to be dismantled only by 2064.

Ukraine also has decided to use the deserted zone as the site for its centralized storage facility for the spent fuel from the country's four remaining nuclear power plants, and that is to open this year. Until recently, the fuel was disposed of in Russia.

Storing the spent fuel at home will save the country an estimated $200 million a year.

Until 2019, radiation leaked from the No. 4 reactor building and tourism doubled that year after the Chernobyl miniseries aired.

Although the radiation level in the zone is low enough that tourists can visit and workers can carry out their jobs, permanent residence is banned. However, more than 100 people still live in the zone that extends 30 kilometers (18 miles) around the nuclear power plant, despite orders to leave the site.

Among them is 85-year-old former teacher Yevgeny Markevich, who said: "It's a great happiness to live at home, but it's sad that it's not as it used to be."

Today, he grows potatoes and cucumbers on his garden plot, which he takes for tests "in order to partially protect myself."

Long-term effects on human health remain the subject of intense scientific debate. Immediately after the accident, 30 plant workers and firefighters died from acute radiation sickness. Later, thousands of people died from radiation-related illnesses such as cancer.

To the surprise of many who expected the area might be a dead zone for centuries, wildlife is thriving: Bears, bison, wolves, lynx, wild horses and dozens of bird species live in the people-free territory.

According to scientists, the animals were much more resistant to radiation than expected, and were able to quickly adapt to strong radiation. Ukrainian scientists are researching this phenomenon with colleagues from Japan and Germany.

"This is a gigantic territory...in which we keep a chronicle of nature," said biologist Denis Vishnevskiy, 43, who has been observing nature in the reserve for the past 20 years. "The exclusion zone is not a curse, but our resource "

The Ministry of Culture of Ukraine has already taken steps to recognize the zone as a monument, which will attract more funding and tourists.

"Chernobyl should not become a wild playground for adventure hunters," Tkachenko said. "People should leave the exclusion zone with the awareness of the historical memory of this place and its importance for all mankind."

In the spirit of preserving the memories, some enthusiasts have created the Chernobyl App, which includes declassified documents about the disaster and allows users to explore augmented-reality view of the zone and structures.

"Sixty percent of Ukrainians do not know the date of the accident and we decided that there should be a resource where a lot of verified information is collected," said Valeriy Korshunov, one of the free app's developers.