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Why Chernobyl has suddenly become a hotspot for global tourists

The site of the world’s worst radiological catastrophe is unexpectedly coming back to life -- due to an American television show. Scores of tourists are visiting Chernobyl, located in northern Ukraine, in response to an HBO miniseries that illuminates the disaster, which occurred before Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, in new detail. Special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we have heard tonight, so much of the news these days centers on Ukraine.

    Now we turn to one of the darkest chapters in that country's history, the explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. That came before its independence from the Soviet Union.

    Special correspondent Simon Ostrovsky in Northern Ukraine tells us how that darkness is now pierced by an unlikely wave of popularity.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Something strange is happening in Chernobyl. The site of the world's worst radiological catastrophe is coming back to life. It's not the residents who are returning, or nature taking over, as you may have heard. It's tourists, and they're coming in droves, thanks in part to an American TV show.

  • Stellan Skarsgard:

    Get us over that building, or I will have you shot!

  • Jared Harris:

    If you fly directly over that core, I promise you, by tomorrow morning, you will be begging for that bullet.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Tyler Ackley is an American visiting Chernobyl with his father-in-law, in part thanks to the critically acclaimed HBO miniseries dramatizing the disaster that came out earlier this year.

  • Tyler Ackley:

    I thought, as my wife and I were watching the series, oh, great, now it's going to be a popular tourist destination before we get a chance to go there. Hopefully, it's not too crowded or anything like that.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    The series brought not just the chronology of the disaster into tragic relief. It also exposed the top-heavy Soviet bureaucracy that tried to hide the scope of the accident from its own people and from the world.

  • Stellan Skarsgard:

    … is that Legasov humiliate a nation that is obsessed with not being humiliated. We can make a deal with the KGB. You will leave this information out in Vienna. They quietly let us fix the remaining reactors.

  • Emily Watson:

    Deal with the KGB? And I'm naive.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    But graphic scenes from the miniseries, which we won't show here, have inexplicably failed to deter visitors from the Exclusion Zone, as the area around Chernobyl, where habitation is forbidden, is known.

  • Rudolph Fockema:

    We did some research to see if it's — how dangerous it is from the radiation. And we saw that with the tours, it'll be safe.

  • Nichole Jensen:

    Even though I started to get, like, a little panicked as it was coming up, researching if it actually is safe or not. So, yes, still a little scared.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Sergii Mirnyi, founder of one of several travel agencies bringing people to Chernobyl, told us there's been a dramatic increase in interest.

  • Sergii Mirnyi:

    This miniseries has increased the interest to the Chernobyl zone. We predict that it will be like 30 percent increase. And so is the effect of the HBO miniseries. We expect 150,000, visitors in the zone in this year.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    One hundred and fifty thousand people, maybe not much for the Mona Lisa, but the Louvre doesn't exactly have plutonium-241 on display either.

    So these are our personal dosimeters. They're supposed to tell the researchers here how much every tourist absorbs in terms of radiation during their trip to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

    We're right at the checkpoint right now, and, from here, it's to the reactor. Guides do what they can to reassure nervous visitors about the dose of radiation they will get on a typical day trip to the Exclusion Zone.

  • Woman:

    Do you know to which materials our bodies produce radiation? This is potassium 14, contained in our favorite fruits, bananas and nuts as well.

    If, one day, you have a chance, and you surround yourself with 40 bananas, and spend about an hour accompanied by 40 bananas, you will get the same level of radiation that you will accumulate today, during one day presence in the Exclusion Zone.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    But the reassurances also come with a warning not to stray from approved routes in case you blunder into a radioactive hot spot.

  • Woman:

    If you decide one minute to roll on the grass, on the ground, or hug trees, I don't know, or bushes, or wild animals, well, maybe there is a chance of contamination. But if you do not do these stupid things, everything will be all right.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Underneath this brand-new shelter behind me is Chernobyl reactor number four, which in 1986 exploded and sent lethal doses of radioactive material throughout the Exclusion Zone.

    But, as you can see, it's actually not that exclusive. The draw is obvious. Chernobyl is billed as an open air museum of the Soviet era, uninhabited for 33 years, since Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge, frozen in time, taken over by nature.

  • Man:

    Chernobyl, for me, is kind of — it's kind of a mecca of sorts. I'm — back home, I'm a professor of Russian literature, history, culture. I grew up in the height of the Cold War. I remember climbing under desks when they did mock bomb — nuclear bomb threats.

    And so, for me, when I see all this debris and destruction here, for me, it's kind of symbolic, too, of the Soviet era.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    Do you feel like Chernobyl might have been the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union?

  • Man:

    Absolutely. I think it fell under heavy criticism from the world for that. And the moment Gorbachev tried to correct Soviet policies, the moment he tried to open things up, I don't think he knew what he was opening up. And I think the aftermath of that burned pretty hot.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    As of September, more than 90,000 people have visited. It's already well above more than the number of people who decided to brave Chernobyl in the whole of 2018, according to the Exclusion Zone Administration.

    So, this is actually my third trip to Chernobyl, but my first trip since I watched the HBO show. And I have got to say, it's a different experience, because Chernobyl is a disaster that I have lived with my entire life, but I didn't have an emotional connection to.

    And now that I'm here, I'm imagining the drama that played out here from the scenes in the show.

    Chernobyl lies now in an independent Ukraine. Then, it was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. And for Ukrainians, who are all too familiar with the consequences of the disaster, the show has served as a fresh reminder of what life was like under Moscow rule.

  • Sergii Mirnyi:

    The HBO miniseries has reminded the many Ukrainians about necessity to have controls of their lives, of their country closer to their own hands, because it's a terrible feeling when you are only to rely on somebody else's decision who is very, very remote and may or may not care about you at all.

  • Simon Ostrovsky:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Simon Ostrovsky in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

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