Lionel Beehner: 25 Years Later, Chernobyl Reinvented as a Tourist Hotspot

Roundup: Talking About History

Lionel Beehner is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project and PhD candidate in political science at Yale University. He is a term member and former senior writer at the Council on Foreign Relations.

CHERNOBYL, Ukraine -- "Did you drink last night?" Yuri, my chain-smoking guide, asks me as we head north out of Kiev to the world's most notorious nuclear plant. "If you have alcohol in your blood, you'll survive longer than other tourists."

My stomach growls, a mixture of motion sickness and dread as Kiev's dreary concrete flats give way to snowy fields and forests. I am visiting Chernobyl a few weeks in advance of today's 25th anniversary of the reactor's nuclear meltdown. The plant and its surroundings -- the ghost town of Pripyat, the Red Forest, all cordoned off in a 30-kilometer area dubbed the "death zone" -- have become a bizarre tourist attraction in recent years. After being deemed safe a half-decade back, thousands now make the pilgrimage, a ritual that is part ecological voyeurism, part morbid curiosity. And, as another nuclear disaster continues to unfold in Fukushima, Japan, visits to the site are reportedly increasing.

I ask Yuri how many Ukrainians suffer from health problems. "Define 'healthy people'," he answers with a wry smile. "Ukraine is a complicated place."

We pass through a series of checkpoints, where officers lazily run their Geiger counters up and down the outside of his beat-up car and check our documents. Shortly after being waved through, I see the remains of a millennium-old village. Once popular among fishermen and hunters, it's one of several villages now buried within the earth like a post-apocalyptic version of the Atlantis. The seedlings of forests, razed after the disaster, are slowly coming back to life, oblivious to being planted in the world's most radioactive topsoil.

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