After visiting the town where people had remained despite orders to move, we had spent our two days in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone talking to groups of field researchers, scouring the wetland bushes by the cooling pond, and hiking the grasslands in search of a herd of Przewalski horses within a fifteen kilometer radius from the accident site. On our last day, we finally got a tour of the power plant itself.
Our guide was an international PR representative of the power plant, a man whom the researchers had met before. He was a very experienced and well-spoken, and had a flair for showmanship, too – I got the feeling that he knew how to give the visitors what they wanted out of their tour.
Our scientist hosts told us that they had earlier caught the same guide telling the visitors tall tales about the death count of the accident. I was uncomfortably aware that people may visit the place “for kicks,” in order to revel in an aura of horror, in the process unnecessarily mischaracterizing the true nature of the tragedy. Drawbacks of disaster tourism. The scarier the stories the guides could tell them about the place, the greater the dramatic effect.
After our plant tour was already over, when asked if he might sometimes embellish the truth a bit in the spirit of telling a more dramatic story, our guide neither denied or confirmed directly, merely smiled and shrugged in a suggestive fashion.
It turned out we did some embellishing of our own 😉 unwittingly confirming the Simpsons view of the glowing green nuclear plants. Jim Smith (on the right in the photo) had kindly loaned his fancy geiger meter to me for the duration of my visit. It had nice luminous green numbers on its display.
The readings were particularly interesting right around there: we were in the turbine hall that is wall-to-wall with the accident site, some 50 meters from the molten reactor itself. I recorded the peak rate of my trip a few meters from that spot, at 23.7 µSv/h (microsieverts per hour) – about a hundred times higher than the global average background radiation.
The radiation nerd that I am, I was pretty excited – the only time I’ve clocked higher was when I got to hug a warm cask of used nuclear fuel. Even then, I would have had to keep hugging that cask for ten weeks straight to approach the exposures where we could say anything half-certain about an increase in life-time cancer risk (statistically speaking, when exposed populations number in the hundreds of thousands or millions). At that point, it would be on par with the risks of having a drink of alcohol per day. I’ve laid it out in more detail in Radiation and Cancer Risk – What Do We Know.
In other words, the levels in the turbine were not worrisome, although the strict safety procedures (commonplace in all nuclear contexts) certainly make them seem ominous.
What comes to disaster tourism, our official guide to the Zone, a tough-looking pony-tailed man who stayed with us throughout the trip, told us that he was personally against the industry of sight-seeing in Chernobyl. If it was up to him, he’d want the area open for scientists and artists only.
I can see that the growing industry of touring Chernobyl is a nuanced topic. Helping the local economy would be important (if the money goes their way), as well as supporting the conservation efforts – the Chernobyl Biosphere group hopes the area will finally be granted the official status of a wildlife park.
I understand why people would want to see Chernobyl. I feel incredibly lucky to have visited it myself. But I am also not keen on the idea of having streams of tourists coming there without an appreciation of the complex political and psychological aspects that are responsible for most of what has happened in the Zone.
Abusing the trust of your citizens, as the Soviet Union did, and then taking their homes away, as happened during the mass evacuations, have grave consequences on people’s lives – more so than any radioactive contamination of the area has achieved. As the UN body studying effects of atomic radiation, UNSCEAR, has concluded:
“The mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest public health problem caused by the accident to date.”
The UNSCEAR report elaborates on the many causes behind those mental effects, including fear, distrust, as well as economical and political factors. If the Chernobyl tourism industry contributes to the image of inflated fear and doom around radiation, it could do more harm than good.
An Effort at Responsible Communication
I wanted to use my trip to help set the radiation exposures in perspective. I hoped I could get people to look past the fear reaction we have to the mere detection of radiation (although not in natural contexts!), and focus on the more realistic view of the magnitude of risks associated with radiation instead.
My posts about it on Facebook garnered a great deal of discussion. I wrote:
We imagine Chernobyl would be a place of particularly high radiation, right? And that’s true: there are places within the Zone where background levels climb higher than most places on earth. However, the absolute majority of the Zone is at perfectly mundane levels of 0.1 µSv/h or lower, identical to the typical measurements I get walking around in Switzerland.
It’s not particularly easy to accumulate doses as large as we receive just from cross-European flights – not even during a full two-day stay in the Exclusion Zone, including a venture to the turbine hall that is wall-to-wall with the accident site, some 50 meters from the molten reactor itself.
By the way, the levels we are exposed to on flights are not considered dangerous. A good piece on radiation on flights here at What is nuclear.
Many people who saw my post were surprised by the information, and said that my measurements could not be accurate. It’s great to stop and question the validity of something you see on the internet. Yay! The information is quite readily available. Radiation levels on flights, as well as those in various parts of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone can be confirmed from multiple reliable sources. The levels themselves are not controversial. I only wished to draw attention to them by my personal example in a way which may make the information more approachable and relatable to others.
Many protested, claiming that in one or other way the radiation in the Zone must be much more dangerous. That there were threats I was completely overlooking.
We live in a world full of risks, and we should acknowledge them. Nuclear power and its accompanying ionizing radiation are no exceptions to that rule. It is a good idea, for instance, to be mindful not to ingest or inhale dust in possible hotspots like those in the Red Forest, should one be disturbing the soil in areas with markedly higher radiation levels.
But any reference to a factual magnitude of the suggested added risks is absent in these discussions. People living off the land in the Zone, for instance, have only received about a CT-scan’s worth of extra radiation in 25 years.
Material contamination (mud, stones, dust on clothes/shoes) never triggered any of the several radiation check point scans we passed in our visit. Several of the researchers I talked to who have been doing field-work in the Zone for 10-30 years, could together recall one occasion when one of their teammates was stopped at a checkpoint due to mud on their shoe with a higher radiation reading. This was remediated with brushing.
In the case of radiation, distorted ideas about the size of the risks has already lead to thousands of deaths and serious health impacts – consequences of fear-reactions. These are real, tangible effects, and we have to take responsibility for them just as much as we need to take into account realistic risks from radiation.
From a public health perspective, the way we give information, communicate, and the kind of messages we send with our policy measures has a clear and real effect on people’s health. Where effects on physical health are minor, the exaggeration of such risks becomes a larger health risk on its own right. Information can also be toxic, in this sense. We should always consider the importance of context and scale when lifting up possible risks.
Visiting Chernobyl is an opportunity to reflect on a tragic piece of history, but also our own risk perceptions. It is not dangerous. It offers a great chance to observe thriving wildlife – no three headed fish or glow-in-the-dark rats among them.
Thanks for reading! Whole trip report series: