A playground is seen in the abandoned city of Prypyat some 3 kilometers from Chernobyl in Prypyat, Ukraine. Picture: AP

Washington - The tourists first started flocking to Chernobyl nearly 10 years ago, when fans of the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. wanted to see firsthand the nuclear wasteland they'd visited in virtual reality.

Next came those whose curiosity piqued when in 2016 the giant steel dome known as the New Safe Confinement was slid over the sarcophagus encasing nuclear reactor number four, which exploded in April 1986, spewed radiation across Europe and forced hundreds of thousands to flee from their homes.

Then in May, HBO's Chernobyl miniseries aired, and tourism companies reported a 30 to 40 percent uptick in visitors to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, abandoned and eerily frozen in time.

Now the Ukrainian government - capitalizing on the macabre intrigue - has announced that Chernobyl will become an official tourist site, complete with routes, waterways, checkpoints and a "green corridor" that will place it on the map with other "dark tourism" destinations.

"We must give this territory of Ukraine a new life," President Volodymyr Zelensky said during a visit to Chernobyl this week. "Until now, Chernobyl was a negative part of Ukraine's brand. It's time to change it."

Radioactive dust still coats it all.

"Chernobyl is a unique place on the planet where nature revives after a global man-made disaster, where there is a real 'ghost town,' " Zelensky said during his visit. "We have to show this place to the world: scientists, ecologists, historians, tourists."

Though exploiting a historical space like Chernobyl could infuse Ukraine's economy with tourism dollars and motivate developers to revive the sleepy towns surrounding the "dead zone," there are significant downsides, experts say.

The grounds remain coated with plutonium, cesium, strontium and americium - radionuclides (atoms that emit radiation) that could pose potentially serious health risks to those who touch or ingest them. Some areas are more radioactive, and therefore more dangerous, than others.

"Chernobyl was the worst nuclear accident in human history," said Jim Beasley, an associate professor at the University of Georgia who has been studying wildlife in the Exclusion Zone since 2012. "Even though the accident occurred over 33 years ago it remains one of the most radiologically contaminated places on earth."

More than 30 people were killed in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, and officials are still debating the full extent of the longterm death toll in Ukraine and nearby countries where people grew sick with cancer and other illnesses.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other officials visit the abandoned city of Prypyat some 3 kilometers from Chernobyl in Prypyat. Picture: AP

The World Health Organization estimates total cancer deaths at 9 000, far less than a Belarusian study that put the death toll at 115 000, reported Reuters.

Today, radiation levels inside the Exclusion Zone vary widely from location to location, said Dr. T. Steen, who teaches microbiology and immunology at Georgetown's School of Medicine and oversees radiation research in organisms at nuclear disaster sites. Because of that, she advises anyone visiting to be educated and cautious while inside the Exclusion Zone, and to limit time spent there.

"The longer you're exposed, the more that future impact is," she said.

Theoretically, more government oversight at Chernobyl could help curb this kind of interference, especially if a financial investment in the zone will help preserve the ghost town there and bring in more guards and checkpoints to patrol who comes and goes.

None of that will prevent tourists from disturbing Chernobyl's spirit.

The Washington Post