For some years now there are more and more tourists in the most famous contaminated area of Europe, and with the HBO series it is likely to become even more popular
The HBO series Chernobyl has brought great international attention to the site of the most serious and known nuclear disaster of the twentieth century in northern Ukraine. It is very likely that the series, which received excellent reviews and was distributed in many countries around the world, will increase tourism in the area where the Vladimir Lenin nuclear power station stood, but which has long been rather lively and on the rise: in 2018 about 60 thousand people visited it.
Today the area within 30 km from the site of the accident at the Chernobyl power plant is known as the “alienation zone”, whose access is strictly regulated and where it is forbidden to live or carry out commercial activities. An exception are the frequent tourist tours organized by various operators, of a day or several days, which from this summer will also be dedicated specifically to the places in the HBO series. One of the most natural questions is whether these tours, which involve a few hours in one of the most contaminated areas of the world, are safe.
The Ukrainian authorities opened the tourist visits to Chernobyl a decade ago, declaring them safe for health. The main tour operators that organize guided tours of the area of alienation argue that a brief stay in Chernobyl exposes to fewer radiations than a trip by plane.
The unit of measurement for calculating the amount of radiation and their possible effects on health are the sieverts: on average, one flight exhibits at 0.003 millisieverts per hour. On average, a person who does not live in contaminated areas is exposed to 3 millisieverts per year, much less than those considered harmful to health. There is in fact one thing to keep in mind when it comes to radiation: we are all constantly exposed to it, and therefore visiting Chernobyl means simply staying for a few hours in a place where there are more.
A normal radiograph exposes to less than a millisievert, which can however become many more (up to 20) for other more invasive types of examinations. Today it is thought that exposure to 100 millisieverts is the minimum threshold for which we can start talking about the risks of developing tumors, while out of one hundred people exposed to a cumulative exposure of 1 sievert, on average five develop – in the space of years – a deadly cancer.
Immediately after the Chernobyl disaster, the area was exposed to radiation levels from 0.1 to 300 sieverts per hour, that is to say over one hundred thousand radiographs, and almost a billion times higher than normal. The so-called “liquidators”, ie the skilled workers who worked in the following years to secure the plant, were exposed to over 100 millisieverts, according to the World Health Organization. The time that has passed and the security measures taken, including the large cement cover placed above the reactor 4, that of the accident, have greatly reduced radiation: today local tourism operators speak of 0.003-0.004 millisieverts for an entire day spent on the site.
But the area of alienation was not uniformly contaminated, and there are still more contaminated areas than others, in which the amount of radiation is a hundred or even a thousand times higher than normal, which could cause real problems health in case of prolonged exposure. The tours do not stop in these areas, or avoid them altogether. However, there are many recommendations and precautions, mainly to avoid absorbing and limiting contact with radioactive particles: you cannot eat in the area of alienation, you must wear opaque clothes and closed shoes (washing everything as soon as you get home), you can’t sit on the floor, avoid touching things and not take things home. The guides who take the tourists to the power plant take long breaks, after a few consecutive days of visits.
After being abandoned by humans, the Chernobyl area was largely occupied by the forest, and populated with many wild animals, from deer to wolves to brown bears. For many this phenomenon – also included in the recent Netflix naturalistic series Our planet – is an additional reason to visit the area.
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