Is it safe to go sightseeing in Chernobyl?

The miniseries Chernobyl, co-produced by HBO and Sky, has broken ratings records, surpassing the titanic Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. The series tells the story of the biggest nuclear catastrophe ever, with terrible consequences for Ukraine and the underlying countries. Under a brilliant research work, the team of the series has managed to embroider the facts, combining the tragedy of those who sacrificed, with the efforts of the USSR to protect its image.

The harshness of the facts and the veracity conveyed by the fiction have made an impression on the viewers who, three decades later, have relived the anguish suffered by the inhabitants of Pripyat and the surrounding villages. This has been especially felt in tourism, which has increased from 8,000 visitors a year to 70,000 since 2015, according to the latest statistics.

The increase in tourism has raised a collective question: how safe is it to go sightseeing in Chernobyl? Radiation is not seen, not smelled, but the short- and long-term effects are extremely harmful to health and the environment.

How does nuclear radiation affect our health?

Dr. Manuel Salvador Tarrasón, radiologist at the Imagine Barcelona center, explains that, as happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the population was affected in different ways. On the one hand, people who were in direct contact with the radiation, such as emergency teams, suffered severe radiation poisoning, causing skin burns and respiratory diseases. On the other hand, those who did not have such direct contact developed problems related to bone marrow, thyroid cancer, gene mutations, skin problems and sterility problems.

Those indirectly affected by radiation continue to appear; in 2005 alone, more than 6,000 cases of thyroid cancer were diagnosed that could be related to the ingestion of radioactive iodine. In addition, after the nuclear accident, the number of people affected by leukemia and cataracts increased, especially among those who carried out clean-up work in the area.

The event not only caused health-related illnesses, but also posed a great social and psychological problem for the population.

How does the radiation level affect our body?

If we look at the level of radiation, we should differentiate between stochastic and non-stochastic effects. The former is the one whose probability of occurrence increases with the amount of radiation, although the severity is the same (it does not depend on the dose), for example the development of cancer. On the other hand, the non-stochastic effect is that which does not depend on the volume of radiation, i.e., with a low volume of radiation, genetic mutations can also occur. In this sense, and extrapolating these effects on fetuses and pregnant women, Dr. Manuel Salvador Tarrasón explains that not all fetuses were affected in the same way. Among other factors, this depended on the amount of radiation and whether it coincided with the period of cell mitosis, which is when cells are much more sensitive. Also, between the 8th and 12th weeks is usually the period when malformations are created, as this is the time when the fetus is growing significantly. This is also the period when radiation can affect the fetus the most.

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Is it safe to visit Chernobyl today?

Although on the surface it is not dangerous to visit Chernobyl, several factors must be taken into account, since the radiation will be there for hundreds of years. For this reason it is important to follow the safety measures that are indicated and it is recommended to get rid of the clothes with which the visit has been made, in case it has rubbed against any radioactive element.

The tours are prepared to visit areas with less radiation, however, the contamination is in the air. Likewise, there are sites that cannot be visited for more than a certain time, for example, in the nursery you cannot stay more than 10 minutes, since it is an area with higher radiation. As for the main reactor, it is covered by a metallic structure that contains the radiation, and visitors carry a dosimeter that allows them to know the amount of radiation they are being exposed to. Before leaving the site, all visitors pass through thresholds that detect whether they are contaminated.

Could a nuclear accident happen again?

Nuclear reactors are difficult and controlling them is a highly technical task that requires experienced engineers and personnel. In addition, they need constant maintenance and attention, as they can trigger a catastrophe, either by human error or by a natural disaster, Fukushima would perfectly illustrate the latter. In 2011, due to an earthquake and subsequent tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear plant was compromised, putting the safety of thousands of people at risk. This can also be blamed on climate change, which is gradually gaining ground, so another nuclear accident due to a natural disaster would not be out of the question.

Likewise, we have to think that nuclear reactors, like any device, have a useful life that is gradually coming to an end. It is essential to constantly check them in order to maintain the safety of the population. However, we have learned something since, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, much more rigorous and demanding controls are being carried out and safety systems have been multiplied.