Ukraine to open Chernobyl area to tourists in 2011

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) - Want a better understanding of the world's worst nucleardisaster? Come tour the Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

Beginning next year, Ukraine plans to open up the sealed zonearound the Chernobyl reactor to visitors who wish to learn moreabout the tragedy that occurred nearly a quarter of a century ago,the Emergency Situations Ministry said Monday.

Chernobyl's reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986, spewingradiation over a large swath of northern Europe. Hundreds ofthousands of people were resettled from areas contaminated withradiation fallout in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. Related healthproblems still persist.

The so-called exclusion zone, a highly contaminated area withina 30-mile (48-kilometer) radius of the exploded reactor, wasevacuated and sealed off in the aftermath of the explosion. Allvisits were prohibited.

Today, about 2,500 employees maintain the remains of thenow-closed nuclear plant, working in shifts to minimize theirexposure to radiation. Several hundred evacuees have returned totheir villages in the area despite a government ban. A few firmsnow offer tours to the restricted area, but the government saysthose tours are illegal and their safety is not guaranteed.

Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Yulia Yershova saidexperts are developing travel routes that will be both medicallysafe and informative for Ukrainians as well as foreign visitors.She did not give an exact date when the tours were expected tobegin.

"There are things to see there if one follows the official routeand doesn't stray away from the group," Yershova told TheAssociated Press. "Though it is a very sad story."

The United Nations Development Program chief Helen Clark touredthe Chernobyl plant together with Baloha on Sunday and said shesupported the plan because it could help raise money and tell animportant lesson about nuclear safety.

"Personally I think there is an opportunity to tell a story hereand of course the process of telling a story, even a sad story, issomething that is positive in economic terms and positive inconveying very important messages," said Clark, according to heroffice.

The ministry also said Monday it hopes to finish building a newsafer shell for the exploded reactor by 2015. The new shelter willcover the original iron-and-concrete structure hastily built overthe reactor that has been leaking radiation, cracking andthreatening to collapse.

The new shell is 345 feet (105 meters) tall, 853 feet (260meters) wide and 490 feet (150 meters) long. It weighs 20,000 tonsand will be slid over the old shelter using rail tracks. The newstructure will be big enough to house the Notre Dame Cathedral inParis or the Statue of Liberty in New York.

The overall cost of project, financed by international donors,has risen from $505 million (euro380 million) to $1.15 billion(euro870 million) because of stricter safety requirements,according to Ukrainian officials.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, whichmanages the project, said a final estimate of the project's costwill be released after the French-led consortium Novarka finalizesa construction plan in the next few months.