The Ukrainian government has announced a full-scale tourist program in the heretofore closed disaster region. It's scheduled to kick off next month.
The hardest-hit areas were Belarus and sections of Russia and Ukraine, which saw massive evacuations. Maps of the area on the news looked like fauvist canvases, full of day-glo purples and electric pinks. By the end of 1986, a perimeter had been established more than 30 miles from the epicenter of the tragedy, which was sealed off from the outside world by the Soviet government.
It is currently maintained by several thousand technicians, working in shifts to reduce exposure to radiation.
Over the following months and years, stories of mysterious experiments conducted by the military in the secret zone were common in Russia, and patches of unusually tall grass or a batch of unusually large vegetables at the market were commonly explained as radioactively induced mutation.
News that Chernobyl will soon open to tourists comes amid revelations today from the Accounts Chamber of the Ukrainian government, reported in the Russian and Ukrainian press, that not all funds budgeted for controlling the disaster site over recent years have actually been spent there and that the site is still a potential danger. In particular, the other three reactors have not been shut down according to plan, and the site has not been cleared of radioactive material, the Accounts Chamber said.
A "sarcophagus" constructed over the remains of reactor No. 4 has been deteriorating under pressure from within. The government plans to complete a new, more reliable shield by 2012. The Washington Post reported that the new shell is to be 345 feet tall, 853 feet wide and 490 feet long -- enough to contain Notre Dame Cathedral or the Statue of Liberty -- and will weigh 20,000 tons.
The plan is to slide it over the original "sarcophagus" on rail tracks. The estimated cost of the project, funded by international organizations led by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, has steadily risen to over $1.15 billion.
For years now the zone has engendered a kind of unofficial "extreme tourism." Adventurous souls have entered the exclusion zone, and several sites have posted series of haunting photographs of a landscape transformed by human scientific power. [WARNING, photos contain graphic images.]
The official tours in the zone are going to be run, comfortingly enough, by the Ministry of Emergency Situations. The ministry assures the public that the excursions will be designed to guarantee tourists' medical safety.