Chernobyl: The Dark Underbelly of Dark Tourism

Pinar Demircan

Pinar is a Turkish activist-researcher, Coordinator of & Nuclear Energy Editor at Yesil Gazette.

This article was first published in Yesil/Green Gazette.

We earlier published her interview and articles on our website.

The Chernobyl series, which recently gained worldwide popularity, encouraged people to talk about Chernobyl in a way which even nuclear opponents could not manage, thanks to the influence of mass communication technologies – it is obvious that the series reached people of all cultures, ages, and political views. Since the series’ Director Craig Mazin clarified that he was not anti-nuclear, but in favour of nuclear energy, I attempted to understand the possible reasons for him making this film and discussed the timing of the Chernobyl series here. On July 10, we also read in the papers that Chernobyl which was the subject of the Chernobyl series, is “officially” also a tourist attraction now. What a big coincidence! It is hardly surprising that the Ukrainian Government would not have wanted to miss out on benefiting from the popularity of Chernobyl’s mystery and appeal! Or is it the opposite? Was part of the goal of the Chernobyl series, advertising and promoting Chernobyl as a tourist destination?

On July 10, even as Chernobyl was being officially declared a tourism spot, something equally significant happened, away from media glare – the steel sarcophagus, on which construction had started within the scope of the European Bank project in 2016 in order to cover the Reactor 4 building which had exploded during the Chernobyl accident, was completed and the keys were delivered to the Ukrainian authorities. The giant steel sarcophagus, weighing 36,000 tons, measuring 108 meters in height and 257 meters in width and competing with the world-famous Berlin Cathedral with its dome, was financed by 45 donor countries and institutions. The cost of the construction by the French engineering company was 2.6 billion USD and 900 million USD was covered by the project manager – the European Bank . Those who bore the cost of the steel sarcophagus, which is expected to contain radioactivity for the next 100 years, should have welcomed the opening of Chernobyl to tourism.

Turning to the issue that the series may have increased interest in Chernobyl as a tourism destination, one can not say that advertising is never bad, of course! Despite via subliminal messages, Chernobyl series mostly blames an “old” technology that does not have continuity today, and argues that there was an overdose of radioactivity which made people suffer for life time or killed them and poisoned the environment. For sure the living and non-living environment is under risk in case of any exposure to radioactivity! But who knows, how many of us think in this way? Young people all over the world might have never heard of Chernobyl in their lives and have learned something about it for the first time through the series. They have grown up with new technology and even computer games, and the misinformation that they receive from mass media may have hampered their understanding regarding nuclear facts especially since the series never made the connection with today’s nuclear reactors.

Advertisements aim to promote a certain location through information, persuasion and reminders, doubtlessly functions of goods and services within the framework of product marketing strategy are very important tools in reaching consumers. In this respect, let’s take a look at the tours that are currently underway in Chernobyl, which is officially declared as a tourism region, thanks to the series! Actually the visits to Chernobyl have been called “dark” tourism in English and sometimes referred to ‘sad’ tourism. Three of the seven most popular destinations, led by Auschwitz, appear to be Chernobyl, Hiroshima, and the US nuclear testing island of the Second World War which is one of the several places to have faced nuclear disasters. But at this point a new question is inevitable: How appropriate it is to include Chernobyl and other radioactive-polluted areas within the scope of tourism – places that have witnessed immense human suffering in general? In this respect, how safe is Chernobyl? Even though the steel sarcophagus was built over the Reactor 4, which exploded on April 26, 1986, it is not difficult to say that the places considered ‘touristic’ are still dangerously radioactive due to the accident which released radioactivity nearly 200 times of the amount emitted by the US Atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How can one ignore the fact that the reaction in a nuclear reactor has 1500 kinds of radioisotopes that have different half-life* periods from each other such as hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of years, for example plutonium has a half life of 24 000 years!

According to Helen Caldicott, the author of Nuclear Energy is not a Solution, the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster is far from over. She emphatically makes this point in her article, based on a scientific study ‘Chernobyl: Consequences of Disaster for the Environment and People’, conducted in 2009 by Dr. Alexey Yablokov, a Russian biologist and former advisor to the President of Russia, Alexey Nesterenko, a biologist and ecologist in Belarus, and, Vassili Nesterenko, a nuclear energy engineer . The Study concludes that Chernobyl-induced radiation exposure which impacted millions of people, will continue into the future. The main reason for this is that 40% of European soil is now radioactively contaminated by the spread of isotopes to the environment, whose impact will last for tens of thousands of years. Indeed, an important finding revealed by the Chernobyl Survey is that prior to the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe, 90% of children in Belarus were healthy, while only 20% are healthy today and one million children still live in the radioactive region. On the other hand, Dr. Caldicott underlines in her article that there are many victims of Chernobyl in Russia, Ukraine, European countries, UK and Turkey. She says that this situation will continue in the future as radioisotopes are in motion and agricultural products are being grown in radioactive soil from where they continue to enter the food chain. In fact, another Chernobyl Survey conducted by independent scientists in 2016 also suggests that there will be 40,000 new cancer cases in the next 50 years.

Guy Debord, in the book Show Society, states that where the real world is becoming one of simple images, simple images are also becoming effective motivations of hypnotic behavior. No wonder that with Chernobyl ‘officially’ becoming a tourism zone, it will influence society especially through social media and as a result of such interactions, there will be a flow of tourists to the region. Some of the tours sold by tourism agencies which cost up to four thousand dollars per person, are already booked until 2020. The announcement that the Chernobyl region has been officially opened up for tourism will increase the competition among agencies on the number of tours. Finally, these agencies, in trying to provide services in the face of increasing competition, will attempt to defy cost concerns and diversify services by including more dangerous and inaccessible places within the tour packages, with a view to attract potential consumers. In short, it is not difficult to foresee that capitalist business logic will hollow-out the content of words such as ‘safety’ and ‘caution’ in Chernobyl.

*Half-life: is used to calculate the time it takes for a radionuclide (radioisotope) to decrease its life. For example, the half-life of cesium radioisotope is 30 years. The effect will last for at least 300 years according to the decrease which will continue in the form of half of it. The half-life of plutonium can last 24 thousand years and 240 thousand years.



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