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- HBO’s "Chernobyl" series has reignited interest in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a restricted area that allows visitors.
- In recent days, tourists have been criticized for disrespecting the site with raunchy or flippant photos on Instagram.
- Business Insider asked Claire Corkhill, a nuclear waste expert who’s been assisting with the Chernobyl cleanup, whether the zone is safe to visit.
- Corkhill said that visitors can expect "very minimal" radiation exposure. A flight from the US is likely to give you more radiation than a Chernobyl tour, she said.
- Visitors should still exercise caution by covering up, staying on the main pathways, and not petting any stray dogs.
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HBO’s "Chernobyl" series has reignited public interest in the world’s worst nuclear power plant accident.
"If you visit, please remember that a terrible tragedy occurred there," writer Craig Mazin said in a tweet on Wednesday. That tragedy took place more than three decades ago, but its effects still linger.
On April 26, 1986, the core of a reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant opened, sending plumes of radioactive material into the air surrounding Pripyat, a Ukranian city that was once part of the Soviet Union. Workers are now attempting to clean up the site, which hasn’t been fully decontaminated.
We asked Claire Corkhill, a nuclear waste disposal researcher at the University of Sheffield who’s been assisting with the Chernobyl cleanup, whether the area is safe to visit.
Corkhill said that visitors can expect "very minimal" radioactive exposure, but she shared a few tips for ensuring your safety.
Be mindful of the risks, but don’t worry too much about radiation poisoning.
After the disaster, Soviet authorities designated a 19-mile exclusion zone with restricted access. Workers decontaminated the surrounding area by washing buildings and stripping the top 5 centimeters of soil, Corkhill said. They also built a massive shell around the reactor that’s since been covered by a more protective steel confinement.
Today, the exclusion zone — which has expanded to around 1,000-square-miles — isn’t entirely off limits. A few families live there, and those 18 and older are allowed to tour the abandoned schoolyards, amusement parks, classrooms, and more.
But much of the area is still contaminated. The exclusion zone "is still in place for good reason," Corkhill said.
Stay on the main pathways.
Tourists are only allowed in areas that have been deemed safe by the government, but, as a researcher, Corkhill was allowed to visit the cooling towers of reactor number 5, which were just being built at the time of the accident.
"We had personal dosimeters with us and, all of a sudden, my dosimeter just started going crazy — like a huge dose of radioactivity," she said.
At the time, Corkhill was with a group of PhD researchers. ("We wouldn’t take paying students. There’d be too many insurance claims," she joked.) The researchers wanted to chase after the source of the radiation, but Corkhill wanted to exercise caution.
"I was like, ‘No, let’s just keep moving,’" she said. "I don’t want to stand there for too long."
Definitely don’t wander into the forest, where the trees are contaminated with radioactivity.
Corkhill said the exclusion zone contains a "huge forested region" that hasn’t been decontaminated. "It wasn’t possible to clean the soil underneath the trees," she said.
Corkhill said tourists who stick to major pathways aren’t likely to experience high levels of radiation like she did.
"You will probably get more radiation from the flight that you take," she said. That’s especially true if you’re coming from the US. At 33,000 feet, she said, "you have less protection from the earth’s atmosphere, the sun’s radiation, and cosmic rays and particles."
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