Chernobyl To Become An Official Tourist Attraction -- But At What Cost?
The Chernobyl disaster was the most devastating nuclear incident in history, killing thousands and exposing many more.
Now the Ukraine wants to make it a tourist destination.
President Volodymyr Zelensky made the announcement on Wednesday as he unveiled a massive multi-billion-dollar dome built to cover radioactive debris at the nuclear reactor.
The plan involves creating new walking trails, waterways and checkpoints as well as enhanced mobile phone reception and lifting the ban on filming.
"Chernobyl has been a negative part of Ukraine's brand," Zelensky said, according to the BBC.
"The time has come to change this."
"We will create a green corridor for tourists. Chernobyl is a unique place on the planet where nature [has been] reborn after a huge man-made disaster," he continued.
So What Happened?
A reactor at the power station exploded in April 1986, spewing radioactive particles across Europe and forcing the evacuation of towns and villages across the Ukraine and Belarus.
Within months, the death toll soared with those killed either by the explosion or from acute radiation sickness.
More than 600,000 others were exposed to high radiation levels.
While the eventual death toll remains unknown, the World Health Organisation estimates that up to 9,000 people could die as a result of exposure-related cancer.
Up until 2005, there more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer reported in children and adolescents who were exposed at the time of the accident, more cases are expected in the coming decades, according to the United Nations.
What About The Radiation Now?
The incident left the nearby city of Pripyat deserted as a 30km exclusion zone was put in place.
The area was opened to tourists nearly a decade ago, Ukrainian officials declaring it safe, but tours have been regulated -- controlling where people go, how long they start and what they eat.
"During the entire visit to the Chernobyl exclusion zone, you get around two microsieverts, which is equal to the amount of radiation you'd get staying at home for 24 hours," tour guide Viktoria Brozhko, who insists the area is safe for visitors, told NBC News.
While the details of the President's plans are yet to be released its believed that when it becomes an official attraction, tourists will still be restricted to certain areas and will still be tested for radiation at various checkpoints.
While thousands make the trip to Chernobyl each year -- 60,000 last year alone -- scientists estimate the zone around the former plant will not be habitable for up to 20,000 years.
To confine the worst of the radioactive debris, a shield to cover the nuclear reactor has been built, costing around AU$3.5 billion.
The size of the shield measures 275 metres wide and 108 metres tall -- big enough to cover the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
The structure will secure the molten reactor's core and 200 tonnes of highly radioactive material, meaning the biggest health risk will be completely covered.
The issue is, it has a use-by date -- 2119.
Why? Because no metal structure can survive the elements forever, but the radiation means they can't send a team in to do touch-ups.
Why Make It An Official Tourist Attraction?
Zelensky said that his aim was to stop ongoing corruption in the area.
"For the first time, we will create a Green Corridor for tourists and remove the preconditions for corruption," he tweeted after the tourism announcement.
"We have to show the Chernobyl of the world: scientists, ecologists, historians, tourists.
"The alienation zone is still a symbol of corruption -- law enforcement officials collect bribes from tourists, smuggle out illegal scrap metal and use natural resources."
It also appears to be a matter of money.
AU$3.5 billion dome needs to be paid off, and in May 2019, tourism numbers jumped more than 40 percent, largely due to the release of the HBO mini-series, Chernobyl, which has gripped millions of viewers around the world.
It remains the highest-ranked TV show of all time, beating out Game of Thrones on IMDB with a rate of 9.5/10.
There's also been a surge in Instagram influences visiting the area, the derelict space providing a perfect backdrop for Instagram aesthetic.
According to local news reports, English-language tours cost around $100 per person, so a 40 percent tourist increase equates to a lot of money.
With tourism numbers only expected to increase further as photos and videos of Chernobyl touch every corner of the world.