KYIV – The vast and empty Chernobyl Exclusion Zone around the site of the world's worst nuclear accident is a baleful monument to human mistakes. Yet 35 years after a power plant reactor exploded, Ukrainians also look to it for inspiration, solace and income.
Reactor No. 4 at the power plant 110 kilometers (65 miles) north of the capital Kyiv exploded and caught fire deep in the night on April 26, 1986, shattering the building and spewing radioactive material high into the sky.
Soviet authorities made the catastrophe even worse by failing to tell the public what had happened — although the nearby plant workers' town of Pripyat was evacuated the next day, the 2 million residents of Kyiv weren't informed despite the fallout danger. The world learned of the disaster only after heightened radiation was detected in Sweden.
Eventually, more than 100,000 people were evacuated from the vicinity and a 2,600-square-kilometer (1,000-square-mile) exclusion zone was established where the only activity was workers disposing of waste and tending to a hastily built sarcophagus covering the reactor.
Radiation continued to leak from the reactor building until 2019, when the entire building was covered by an enormous arch-shaped shelter. As robots inside the shelter began dismantling the reactor, officials felt new optimism about the zone.
“This is a place of tragedy and memory, but it is also a place where you can see how a person can overcome the consequences of a global catastrophe," said Bohdan Borukhovskyi, Ukraine's deputy environment minister.
“We want a new narrative to appear — it was not a zone of exclusion, but a zone of development and revival," he said.
For him, that narrative includes encouraging tourism.