On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant exploded after a safety test backfired, immediately killing 31 workers and firemen. In the aftermath, thousands more succumbed to radiation-related illness such as cancer, while more than 1,00,000 people were evacuated from Pripyat—the site of the deadly accident in Ukraine.
Thirty five years on, creepers hug abandoned buildings; elk, wolves and the Przewalski’s horse (an endangered breed of wild horse native to Asia) roam the grounds of the exclusion zone, located some 108 kilometres north of the capital, Kyiv. The setting might seem far from ideal to feature in the UNESCO World Heritage List. But Ukrainian authorities are now trying to get the zone recognised as a historic monument to garner funding and tourists in the future. The Ministry of Culture of Ukraine believes such an allocation “is an important step towards having this great place as a unique destination of interest for the whole of mankind.”
Before the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, HBO’s Chernobyl was behind a surge in local tourism. Approximately 1,20,000 people visited the power plant and the nearby ghost town of Pripyat in 2019. Officials are optimistic that tourists will return to the territory after international travel picks pace.
Although the radiation level in the zone is low enough that people can visit and workers can carry out their jobs, permanent residence is banned. More than 100 people still reside in the region that extends 30 kilometres around the nuclear power plant, despite orders to leave the site.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.