The operator of the company that organizes tourist ventures into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone told reporters on Tuesday that a fire a man admitted to starting “for fun” had destroyed nearly a third of the sites his group typically takes visitors to see.
The highly radioactive area surrounding the defunct Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant has been on fire since April 4, requiring hundreds of firefighters, police, and other first responders to contain. At the height of its intensity, the fire reached the ghost town of Pripyat, a city built to house power plant workers that was permanently abandoned on April 26, 1986.
On that day, Soviet officials ordered plant operators to increase the energy input into the plant, causing it to overheat and eventually melt down. The communist government attempted to cover up the disaster for months and told Pripyat residents they were only temporarily evacuating the city, but they have yet to be allowed to return, save for short visits, due to the high levels of radioactivity in the area.
As radiation levels have fallen, the post-Soviet Ukrainian government has expanded permissions for tour groups to take interested parties to visit the remains of the plant and Pripyat, as well as explore the surrounding area as it has become a growing nature preserve. The expansive exclusion zone also includes several abandoned villages and other landmarks outside of Pripyat.
Chornobyl Tour is the largest company offering tours, helping organize tour guides and others acting independently to ensure that no rogue trespassers bring curious tourists to dangerous areas. On Tuesday, Yaroslav Yemelianenko, the director of the company, said the fire that had largely ceased burning by that day had destroyed several tour landmarks.
“More than 30 percent of tourist locations have been completely destroyed and cannot be restored as we showed old Soviet recreation camps on multi-day tours … A lot of Polisia [area’s] villages have been destroyed, too,” Yemelianenko said, according to the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN.
Yemelianenko confirmed that the most famous sites – the power plant itself, the town of Pripyat, and others – were not affected by the fire. Reports from Monday indicated that the fire reached Pripyat’s outskirts but never consumed any buildings.
Chornobyl Tour has been posting videos from the exclusion zone of the fires and interviews with first responders. The exclusion zone is now a largely wooded area, a product of humans no longer inhabiting it for over 30 years, which creates plenty of fodder for a fire.
Reports and footage from the exclusion zone circulating early this week indicated that the fire may soon engulf much of the area. Officials insisted it was “impossible” to know when the fire would die out and that a major effort by firefighting units was necessary to prevent a disaster. Ukrainian officials repeatedly assured reporters, however, that the fire was not near the power plant or any known nuclear waste and that radiation levels in the area had not left normal levels due to the fire.
Overnight between Monday and Tuesday, however, heavy rains and the abatement of strong winds appeared to help the hundreds of firefighters working on the site to reduce the fire to isolated embers.
“Aerial inspection of the last fires was made today (April 14) at 7 a.m. Today they will be completely extinguished,” Ukraine’s deputy interior minister Anton Gerashchenko said on Facebook on Tuesday. According to Gerashchenko, 400 firefighters and were deployed to the fires. Officers used 100 aircraft and other emergency vehicles to drown out the fires.
It is unclear when Ukraine will allow tours into the exclusion zone again. The tours are a source of significant revenue and a major part of Ukraine’s tourism industry. Chernobyl Tour, founded in 2008 to organize the various individuals offering tours independently in the area, typically offers both one-day and multi-day tours of the exclusion zone. The one-day tours, which start at $99, offer first-hand viewings of the safest areas of Pripyat and the outside of the power plant, along with historical information from guides. The multi-day tours, starting at $285, allow one to sleep at the Chernobyl hotel and offer trips into the woodland of the area for viewings of the animals that live there, as well as the chance to meet the few individuals still living in the exclusion zone. While the Soviet Union forced most in the area to evacuate, it did not fight some older residents who felt they would rather brave the radiation that start anew away from home.
“During 1-day tour to the Chernobyl zone you will receive a radiation dose equal to approximately 1-hour jet flight that is 160 times less than the dose received during a single chest x-rays, and 3600 times less than in the one the whole body CT scan!,” the tour group claims. It adds that the radiation at the “Chernobyl hotel” is no different than that in Kyiv.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed to expand Chernobyl tourism after being elected in 2019, turning it into a “green” nature preserve and a “land of freedom.”
“Chernobyl has been a negative part of Ukraine’s brand. The time has come to change this To begin with, we will create a ‘green’ corridor for tourists and remove the prerequisites for petty corruption” Zelensky said in July, signing a decree that formally recognized the Chernobyl exclusion zone as a tourist site. “There will no longer be huge lines at the checkpoint and sudden denials of which people learn when they arrive at the checkpoint. The ban to shoot videos will be lifted, as well as other nonsensical restrictions. Let’s finally stop scaring people, visitors, and make the exclusion zone a scientific and tourist magnet in the future.”
In remarks Tuesday, mostly about how Ukraine is combatting the Chinese coronavirus pandemic, Zelensky took a moment to address the fires.
“The Head of the State Emergency Service has been reporting daily on the developments over the last week. Yesterday, six points of fire outbreak were eliminated,” Zelensky said. “There is no threat to the nuclear power plant, spent fuel storage and other critical facilities. As of now, there is no open flame in the Exclusion Zone.”
“I urge all citizens not to panic. We remember the lessons of April 26, 1986. And no one will hide the truth from you. The truth is that the situation is controlled there,” he asserted. “Background radiation in the capital and the Kyiv region is within normal limits.”
Police arrested a 27-year-old man last week on charges of arson for starting the current fire. The man reportedly admitting to setting trash on fire at his home in Rahivka village “for fun.” Arson fires are common in remote areas of Ukraine as a source of recreation. He faces up to five years in prison.
Ukraine’s parliament is reportedly working on new legislation to impose harsher sentencing on arsonists to prevent a similar situation in the future.
April 26 will mark the 34th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the worst in history.