FROM MONSTER TO MONUMENT: THE CHERNOBYL EXCLUSION ZONE OPENS AS A TOURIST ATTRACTION

Pripyat, Ukraine
Beginning of 2011
Chris Ceravolo and Jessica Hauffe

On April 26, 1986, a series of malfunctions during a systems test ignited a graphite moderator inside Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.  The fire sent a plume of radioactive fallout through the roof and into the atmosphere, briefly painting the night sky with a horrifically beautiful array of color—some onlookers in the nearby town of Pripyat claimed it was the most awe-inspiring thing they had ever seen.

Image of deformed child taken by Paul Fusco in Minsk, Belarus.
Image of deformed child taken by Paul Fusco in Minsk, Belarus (Fusco, 2001).

The radioactivity spread all across Europe.  Whole towns were evacuated near the plant (such as Pripyat), unprepared hospitals had to create new clinics in order to cope with the influx of patients—even today in Belarus (the country into which 60% of the fallout landed) people struggle with contaminated food and water, and many children there are born with atrocious, debilitating deformities.  At that time, it was the worst nuclear accident in history, emitting 400 times more radiation than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

25 years later, in 2011, the innermost exclusion zone (a 6-mile radius around reactor 4) was opened as a tourist attraction.  Ironically, the same year the heart of Chernobyl began its transformation into an artifact—the same year the memory of the 1986 disaster began its petrification—we were confronted with another nuclear catastrophe of a comparable scope in Fukushima (these were the only two accidents given the highest rating of a 7 on the International Nuclear Event Scale).  Thus, with the public’s burgeoning interest in the nuclear power controversy, tourists began flooding the Chernobyl site.

Revitalizing this disaster zone as a tourist destination makes visible the sociopolitical turmoil that was infamously kept invisible by the Soviet Union— they burned documents, skewed numbers, forbade doctors to diagnose patients with radiation poisoning, etc.  Chernobyl is emerging from its historical shroud of secrecy to become a globally provocative spectacle. Architecture in this situation preserves the memory of the Chernobyl disaster, which will help inform concerned citizens on the extremely unclear discussion of nuclear power.

Whether you are pro- or anti-nuclear power, it is rather disconcerting to realize we do not understand it, considering its widespread use and obvious potential for catastrophe.  In 1987, when asked why the accident had been kept secret from Kiev (the capital of Ukraine) for several days, Dr. Valerii Legasov, head of the Soviet team dealing with Chernobyl, gave an impassioned 15-minute answer to the effect of: “It is important not to confuse the public by telling them about something that you do not yet understand yourself.”  We see this again today in the way the TEPCO director openly wept on public television when disclosing the truth about the Fukushima disaster.  Perhaps the scientists who actually understand nuclear physics are disconnected from the authority figures who decide whether or not it should be put to commercial use.  Or perhaps they are just apathetic.  Whatever the case, nuclear power is obfuscated from the public sphere.  The result is pandemic confusion/outrage when a nuclear accident occurs.

The only way to combat the expert lies and misuse of data (take for example the World Nuclear Power Association website’s random and contrived comparison of the 3 major nuclear disasters—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima—to the 14,500 cumulative reactor-years of safe commercial nuclear power operation) is to see the devastation first-hand.  Seeing, in this case, is believing.

Small monument to the workers (or liquidators, as they are often called) who died during the accident's cleanup.
Small monument to the workers (or liquidators, as they are often called) who died during the accident’s cleanup (SoloEast).

“It’s no memorial like Auschwitz,” says journalist Sarah Johnstone of The Guardian, documenting her excursion to Pripyat—“Its closest equivalent to Hiroshima’s contemplative peace park is a small, ugly monument to the firemen…who died during the accident’s cleanup.” The city has often been called the “Soviet Pompeii,” directly referencing its use as an artifact to study the sociopolitical conditions surrounding the Chernobyl disaster.  The new narrative of touring Pripyat is superimposed atop the old narrative of actually living in this area—from numerous personal accounts we can see that the effect is very heavy on the visitor.  Iconic images flood the Internet of the eerie Ferris wheel overgrown by trees, of the toys and propaganda and little gas masks collecting dust in the abandoned kindergarten.  The city seems to have become a part of the landscape, but we know it is not natural by any standard.

What allows tourists to still experience the site as an open wound is the unresolved situation of Fukushima, the frustrating controversy over nuclear power, and the real risk of radiation exposure that earns Chernobyl it’s classification under “extreme tourism.”

Doll collecting dust in abandoned kindergarten of Pripyat.
Doll collecting dust in abandoned kindergarten of Pripyat (SoloEast).

The infamous skyline of Reactor 4 (which has not yet been successfully covered) looms in the distance, reminding visitors of the “invisible enemy.”  It is customary to rent dosimeters and carry them throughout the tour, detecting the varying levels of radiation.  Guides assure you everything is perfectly safe, as long as you follow close behind them.  Yet nobody is allowed to live in the exclusion zone, and those who must work there can only stay for 15 days at a time.  The required signature on the waver saying the tour guide is not responsible for any future sicknesses caused by radiation exposure, and the multiple radiation screenings throughout the tour all are cause for skepticism.

The only spaces constructed for the tourists are the visitor’s center (with thick walls keeping radiation out), the cafeteria, and the radioactivity-screening room(s).  These are checkpoints that briefly lift the emotional burden one must carry outside, offering a short time for reflection.

(From top to bottom) Visitor's Center with a model of the reactor, cafeteria, radioactivity scanners.
(From top to bottom) Visitor’s Center with a model of the reactor, cafeteria, radioactivity scanners (SoloEast).

But the construction of another structure is underway.  Scheduled for completion in 2015, the New Safe Confinement (NSC) is meant to replace the original concrete sarcophagus that was hastily constructed around the reactor after the disaster in 1986 but is now threatening collapse.  Over 330 feet tall, it will be the largest movable structure in the world.  Though it is only purposed to confine radiation and allow the robotic deconstruction of the reactor over 100 years, its shear bigness makes it undeniably a spectacle for anybody visiting the site and draws attention to the bigness of the Chernobyl disaster.  It is often compared in height to the 305-foot Statue of Liberty.  This is an apt analogy because we believe that (when complete) the NSC will become a landmark, replacing the iconic skyline of reactor 4, decreasing radiation risk, and thus marking a step in the gradual transformation of the exclusion zone from monster to monument—closing the wound, but still remembering the injury.

Diagram of construction of New Safe Confinement—comparing the height to the Statue of Liberty.
Diagram of construction of New Safe Confinement—comparing the height to the Statue of Liberty (SoloEast).

 

RESEARCH RESOURCES

Journalism

Orion Magazine

Burwell, Hope. “Jeremiad for Belarus.” Orion Magazine, March 2004.

In this article (written in 2004), a journalist describes his journey to Belarus (the country most effected by the Chernobyl Disaster).  There he finds many disturbing instances of how the community is still coping with radiation.  Some scholars argue for the continued use of nuclear energy, despite the aftermath of the meltdown at Chernobyl.  This article, however, provides some insight that suggests otherwise.

 

RT

“Chernobyl plant’s roof collapses, but no radiation risk (PHOTOS).” RT (blog), February 13, 2013. http://rt.com/news/chernobyl-nuclear-plant-damage-107/ (accessed September 15, 2013).

This is an article discussing the roof collapse that occurred earlier this year (February 12th, 2013).  It provides a general overview of the event in its context of the Chernobyl Disaster, and the construction of the New Safe Confinement.

 

Chernobyl Tourism

Johnstone, Sarah. “Strange and unsettling: my day trip to Chernobyl.” The Guardian (blog), October 22, 2005. http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2005/oct/23/ukraine.darktourism.observerescapesection (accessed September 23, 2013).

This is a Journalist’s account of touring Chernobyl.

 

Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors

“Safety of Nuclear Power Reactors .” World Nuclear Association (blog), August , 2013. http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Safety-and-Security/Safety-of-Plants/Safety-of-Nuclear-Power-Reactors/

On their webpage entitled “Safety of Nuclear Reactors,” The World Nuclear Power Association defines 3 primary accidents to have occurred in the history of commercial nuclear energy: Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011).  A statistic that is supposed to help us place these incidents in context, written in bold face at the top of the page, reads: “These are the only major accidents to have occurred in over 14,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 32 countries.”  This is a small-scale example of the unclarity that is the nature of the discourse on nuclear energy; when the public asks for information from experts, this is the kind of response they get.  How does adding up the amount of years that each nuclear power plant has run without major catastrophe place the 3 plants that actually had a major catastrophe into context?   “Cumulative reactor-years” is not a real amount of time.  Effectively, what we have is 3 bad things opposed to 14,500 good ones (across 32 countries), and that is extremely deceptive.

 

Chernobyl Tourism Reviews

“SoloEast Travel Chernobyl Day Trip.” Trip Advisor (blog), http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g294474-d2372209-Reviews-SoloEast_Travel_Chernobyl_Day_Trip-Kiev.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

 

Images

Fusco, Paul. “Chernobyl Legacy” Recorded April 26 2001. Magnum. compact disc, http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/chernobyl.

“SoloEast Travel Chernobyl Day Trip.” Trip Advisor (blog), http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g294474-d2372209-Reviews-SoloEast_Travel_Chernobyl_Day_Trip-Kiev.html (accessed September 23, 2013).

 

Encyclopedia Entries 

Wikipedia

“Chernobyl disaster.” Wikipedia (blog), September 13, 2013. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chernobyl_disaster (accessed September 9, 2013).

We chose this casual, less academic source because it portrays the general, non-specialized knowledge available to our society.  This is important for our argument because we are analyzing the sociopolitical secrecy surrounding the Chernobyl events.

 

Brittanica

“Chernobyl accident.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013. Web. 15 Sep. 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/109428/Chernobyl-accident>.

We chose this more academic source to contrast with the Wikipedia entry.  It provides valid, more reliable facts for our research.

 

Scholarly Articles

Chernobyl: The Inevitable Results of Secrecy

Shlyakhter, Alexander, and Richard Wilson. Broad Institute , “Chernobyl: the inevitable results of secrecy.” Accessed September 23, 2013. http://www.broadinstitute.org/~ilya/alex/92a_chernobyl_secrecy.pdf.

This article summarizes the Soviet Union’s internal and external lack of communication, and how that effected the unraveling of the Chernobyl Disaster.  This is crucial to our understanding of Chernobyl as a sociopolitical encasement.

 

Orthographic Documentation 

Aerial shot of Chernobyl power plant around Reactor 4 (site of catastrophe)
Aerial shot of Chernobyl power plant around Reactor 4 (site of catastrophe)

 

 

Sectional perspectives of original sarcophagus, and New Safe Confinement
Sectional perspectives of original sarcophagus, and New Safe Confinement
Depicts a simple diagram of the encasement of Chernobyl at Reactor 4.
Depicts a simple diagram of the encasement of Chernobyl at Reactor 4.

 

Video and Audio

New Safe Confinement Construction

“Novarka: Encasing the unsafe Chernobyl reactor in a huge new arch – video” Recorded April 19 2013. Novarka. Web, http://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2011/apr/19/novarka-chernobyl-reactor-arch-video.

This is a video outlining the design of the New Safe Confinement that is supposed to last for 100 years.  Our position is that this merely repeats the strategy of the initial concrete sarcophagus, which is to encase the radiation—to bury it—without actually addressing the problem.

 

Documentary: The Battle of Chernobyl

“Best Chernobyl Documentary 2006 The Battle of Chernobyl” Recorded June 30 2013. Youtube. Web, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XiPgsesupDQ.

This documentary is an excellent summary of the Chernobyl disaster and its place in global history—it was indeed a global event, and should be analyzed as such.  The video describes multiple countries’ reactions to the spread of nuclear fallout (like France’s refusal to acknowledge any radiation in its borders), and the conditions of international communication.

 

News Report of Recent Roof Collapse

“Roof collapses at Chernobyl nuclear power plant” Recorded February 13 2013. Euronews. compact disc, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NlPIO5HBnY.

This is a rather short, non-mainstream news broadcast of the roof collapse on reactor 4 (the site of the original meltdown) that occurred earlier this year (February 12th, 2013).  The fact that we were not able to find a telecast of this event from a major, mainstream corporation (such as ABC, NBC, FOX, etc.) supports our position that the Chernobyl Disaster remains encased in secrecy, even in our information-hungry era.

 

In-Person/Online Survey

Though not used in the final draft, this is a survey we conducted that evaluates the general public’s knowledge of Chernobyl.  The purpose is to empirically determine whether the disaster has indeed been erased from our collective memory.  So far the results indicate that, although most people know about the event, there is still a significant number unaware (compared to the scale of the disaster).  Also, the lack of knowledge regarding the recent roof collapse suggests that there is a lack of discourse about the Chernobyl Disaster.

Graph 1

Graph 2

 

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