The world watched in horror as a nuclear disaster in Japan followed the earthquake and tsunami of March, 2011. And yet... thousands of visitors still line up in the Ukraine to take the government-sponsored tour of Chernobyl, site of the world's most infamous nuclear meltdown. The power plant and the ghost town of Pripyat, frozen in time, have become a compelling destination for those eager to venture inside the radioactive exclusion zone and witness the wasteland that remains a quarter of a century later.
Just don’t call them tourists… Chernobyl has been officially sealed off to them after the Ukraine’s highest court ruled last June that the country’s Emergencies Ministry was not authorized to organize what became known as “radioactive tourism” – day trips into the exclusion zone.
The ministry had claimed that the money paid by tourists (10,000 people were visiting every year, paying around $250 each) could have been used to help fund new projects on the contaminated land, but the prosecutor general’s office in Kiev was not able to identify where the money went.
But still the visitors come, thanks to a loophole that allows licensed operators to organize tours for interested observers such as scientists, journalists and students, all of whom must be accompanied at all times by tour guides as they enjoy close-up views of reactor 4 and the towering sarcophagus that surrounds it.
Given the new Ukrainian administration's increased emphasis on economic development, somehow keeping Chernobyl open for visitors - whichever official word is used for them - is crucial. And never more so this year, as the country prepares to co-host Euro 2012. For while this soccer tournament will enjoy one of the world’s biggest TV audiences, Ukraine’s biggest sideshow is located just over an hour’s drive from Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, where the tournament’s final will be held on July 1, 2012