Human habitation is sharply curtailed within the 1,000-square-mile exclusion zone around the accident site. But thanks to a “green corridor” to streamline tourism announced by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in July, fans of the HBO television series Chernobyl can find a variety of tours.
Previously, most visitors were only able to see the plant from the outside. For many, the highlights were the crumbling flats and Ferris wheel of nearby Pripyat, whose 50,000 residents had been abruptly evacuated.
Last week, officials led journalists through the plant’s kilometre-long corridor and into the reactor four control room, which is located under the new containment arch but outside the old sarcophagus, to announce its opening as part of 21 new tourist trails. While much of the equipment was removed from the control room during an investigation into the accident, rusting panels with banks of buttons and displays can still be seen.
The visit lasted only a few minutes, to keep radiation exposure to a minimum. Guests spent far more time donning respirators, helmets and protective clothing and going through scanners on entering and exiting.
The biggest threat inside reactor four is radioactive dust. A visitor who accidentally brushes against something can get a large dose, according to maintenance workers who spray chemicals to keep the dust down. While numbers had been increasing before the HBO programme, so far this year more than 87,000 people have visited Chernobyl, compared with 72,000 in all of last year.
The Ukrainian government has been improving walking trails, checkpoints and mobile reception around the tourist attraction and ministers recently approved river boat tours.
But not everyone has welcomed the tourists. A rash of selfies taken by scantily clad individuals led to Craig Mazin, the creator of the HBO series, to plead: “If you visit, please remember that a terrible tragedy occurred there. Comport yourselves with respect for all who suffered and sacrificed.”
Dr Yury Bandazhevsky, who has studied Chernobyl for decades, opposes tourism to the exclusion zone as a needless risk of radiation exposure.
Camp fires in particular can release large amounts of dangerous particles, he warns. “Tourists can be both a victim and source of this danger,” he says.
On Monday, Kiev police revealed that they had arrested 323 “stalkers” – as explorers of abandoned places are called, after a popular video game – who managed to bypass exclusion zone checkpoints this year.