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Okay, I’ll bite. What’s atomic tourism?
Simple really, it’s for people who want to learn about the atomic age by visiting notable and notorious locations around the world.
Sounds pretty morbid, what’s the point?
That’s like asking what’s the point in history. The dawn of the nuclear age began with the detonation of the first nuclear weapon in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. Since then it’s been a guiding force in human history, so visiting key sites to understand what happened is bound to feed our curiosity.
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But what do they look at?
Anything and everything nuclear. The test sites in New Mexico are popular, as are the silos and bunkers that have been subsequently built (and often abandoned). But so are working nuclear power plants, and the sites of nuclear disasters like Fukushima and, of course, Chernobyl.
For the radioactive wolves?
Maybe. But Chernobyl is a must-visit for atomic tourists for many reasons, not least because you can get so close to the site of the disaster. In 2019 as many as 70,000 people visited the abandoned city of Pripyat and other locations in the Chernobyl exclusion zone. But what’s interesting is in the ensuing 35-years, nature has reclaimed the landscape, with plants, trees and wildlife (yes, including wolves) moving back to the area in the absence of humans.
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Doesn’t sound like there are many photo opportunities?
That depends. Chernobyl is undoubtedly chilling, but there’s a dark beauty to many of these sites. While other areas are so beautiful it’s hard to equate them with the horrors of the nuclear age. In Holland Park London, for example, is the Fukushima garden. Opened in 2012 after the tsunami and subsequent nuclear disaster, it was built to commemorate the support of British people after the disaster. As sombre as a garden can get, the space is almost empty, with a few rocks and a single lantern signifying the wasteland left behind. Also in the UK is Dungeness Power Station, which sits next to a nature reserve on a stunning stretch of coastline in Kent. Artist, writer and filmmaker, Derek Jarman called Dungeness home, and his house and garden at Prospect cottage are still popular with tourists (both atomic and not) to this day. Jarman said of his strange choice of home, “Dungeness, Dungeness, your beauty is the best, forget the hills and valleys. This landscape is like the face you overlook, the face of an angel with a naughty smile.”
Can it be considered disrespectful to visit these sites?
There’s definitely a right and wrong way to behave when visiting these sites, as some influencers found when they visited Chernobyl for a shoot. It’s hard to build a better future without learning from the past. Visitors just need to use the same etiquette they would when visiting any kind of memorial. There’s a reason Japan created beautiful memorial gardens in Nagasaki and Hiroshima; to turn places of death and destruction into places for quiet reflection.