Abandoned plant and wasteland: Ukraine eyes UNESCO World Heritage tag for Chernobyl

On Monday, the former Soviet republic marked the 35th anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, when a reactor at the plant, located about 67 miles north of the capital Kyiv, exploded during a botched safety test.

The result was the world’s worst nuclear accident that sent clouds of radiation across much of Europe and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate.

Thirty-one plant workers and firefighters died in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, mostly from acute radiation sickness. Thousands more later succumbed to radiation-related illnesses such as cancer, although the total death toll and long-term health effects remain a subject of intense debate.

“We believe that putting Chernobyl on the UNESCO heritage list is a first and important step towards having this great place as a unique destination of interest for the whole of mankind,” Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said.

“The importance of the Chernobyl zone lies far beyond Ukraine’s borders. . . . It is not only about commemoration, but also history and people’s rights,” he told Reuters.

Before sending an application to the U.N., locations seeking UNESCO protection had to be included on a national cultural and historic heritage list, Tkachenko said.

Tkachenko said his ministry recently decided to include a huge military radar built near the city of Chernobyl in the 1970s in the list. It is also discussing expanding that to the whole of the nearly 19-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Most of the area around the abandoned nuclear plant is a wilderness of empty buildings, scrub­land and rubble. All of the buildings in Pripyat, a ghost town that was once home to 50,000 people mostly working at the plant, are in need of repair.

Tkachenko said he hoped that Chernobyl, which had already become a popular site for adventure tourists before the pandemic prevented most international travel, would bounce back and begin to lure visitors again.

In 2019, HBO’s “Chernobyl” was behind a jump in the number of visitors to the power plant and nearby Pripyat, with 120,000 people visiting the area.

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