Behind Chornobyl’s story revival and tourism boom

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[Reporter Chris Brown] Everything to do with Chernobyl is suddenly hot again. We’re on a movie set in Budapest where a Russian movie crew is playing catch up with the wildly popular HBO Chernobyl miniseries. It’s making a Russian blockbuster version of the accident at reactor number 4. Its star and director is Danila Kozlovsky. I think it’s extremely important to make such a film to remind what happened in 1986. It’s very important we’re not allowed to forget, we have no right to forget. [Brown] Kozlovsky says his focus is on the so called Liquidators. The men who braved astronomical levels of radiation to drain water from under the stricken reactor and save Europe from an even worse radioactive cloud. I believe our film is kind of a patriotic film in a very good way. The HBO series hailed for its authentic portrayal of life in Soviet times and it’s searing criticisms of the government cover-up has sparked a Chernobyl revival. Tour operators report a 30% increase in visitors to the Chernobyl site. 90 kilometers north of Ukraine’s capital Kiev. Chernobyl souvenirs have never been more popular. Disaster tourism is booming. Most people we talked to had seen the HBO series. It shook me to be quite honest. I sort of looked at it and I thought I knew about Chernobyl but I didn’t really have a feel for the catastrophe and how it all unfolded. [Brown] We visited on a warm fall day recently. There’s a 600 square kilometer exclusion zone where the radioactive fallout was the most intense. Access is restricted. But surprisingly we learned it’s far from empty. In fact, in the town of Chernobyl itself 12 kilometers from Ground Zero we met a woman who lived here when the explosion happened and she’s still here today. Her name is Maria Matryvna. Babushka Maria to her friends. She was a cleaning lady at the Chernobyl reactor. [Reporter] I’ve been living here for more than 80 years, she told us. If the radiation hasn’t killed me yet I’ve got nothing to be scared of. She’s happy that all the interest has more people coming to her near-empty city and dropping by to say hi. Though notably not her grandkids. The contamination is still bad enough that no one under the age of 18 is even allowed to visit. Radioactive isotopes degrade at different rates so in some places the radiation isn’t any higher than normal. But in other spots, extended exposure could be lethal. With dosimeter’s to measure our own exposure and a Geiger counter to test the radioactivity around us we entered one abandoned village with our guide Victoria Brosco. 0.26, 28. Nothing dangerous but once I bring it closer to this soil. 3.18, 6.71, 7.47. [Brown] Is it safe to stand here? Well, it’s safe to stand for some minutes. We don’t usually live in here. We do not consume the products from here. If we stood in this spot for an hour we get a day’s worth of natural radiation. As for the reactor itself, you can actually get pretty close. Just a few dozen meters away the destroyed unit is hidden under a new stainless steel dome. Ukraine’s government which badly wants more foreign tourists is promising to expand tourism here even more including into areas previously off-limits. If you put on a hazmat suit and you’re very brave you can now actually go inside the old
control room of reactor 4 but radiation levels are over 40,000 times what they are out here. We said no thanks. That 40,000 figure was widely reported after local media visited the control room recently but Ukrainian officials insist the number is misleading. As the tour’s bypass the most toxic areas and visitors get only a small manageable dose of radiation. And you know that to me seems like a very unwise thing to be doing. Canadian scientist Timothy Mousseau supports visiting Chernobyl but not such extreme tourism. Musso has been coming here for 15 years to study the radiation in animals and plants in the exclusion zone. We did not venture into the control room number 4 simply because the the radiation levels in control room number 1 which is you know half a half a kilometer away are also you know above what we would normally want to experience. Mousseau says a potential impact of even larger crowds is also concerning. Take the abandoned city of Pripyat. Probably the most fascinating part of any Chernobyl visit it’s just three kilometers from the reactor. Today, it’s frozen in time. Tourists can wander through the former amusement park unaccompanied. But Mousseau says the ground remains contaminated. And with large numbers of visitors the risk of disturbing buried radioactive particles and sending them into the air again is high. [Mousseau] That aspect of tourism in this area is something I do not support. And think is quite foolhardy really. [Brown] With the increased interest though has also come renewed appreciation for those who risk their lives to prevent the disaster from being even worse. Igor Pizminsky and Andre Mizsko were both helicopter pilots. In just hours after the explosion they were ordered to fly over the burning reactor as it spewed out radiation dumping loads of sand and boron on the fire. [Brown] Those flights likely cut short both of their careers. Andre had to stop flying as his internal organs were damaged. Radiation was to blame. Igor says seeing the disaster recreated so vividly on TV has allowed them to experience new pride about their role. [Brown] Fans of the Chernobyl story will have to wait until the fall of 2020 to see how the Russian movie producers tell their version of the story. And remarkably, Russia’s Atomic Energy
Corporation RosAtom is helping finance it . Such is its renewed appeal that even the nuclear energy industry sees value in linking itself to the heroes of Chernobyl. Chris Brown, CBC News, in Chernobyl, Ukraine.

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