Will Chernobyl become a World Heritage site?

Aerial view of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant with its sarcophagus. Photo: Vadim Mouchkin / IAEA

On 15 December 2020 Ukraine commemorated an important date in its nuclear history: Twenty years had passed since the last operating reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was shut down. In connection to this event, and to the Day of Honoring the Participants of the Liquidation of the Consequences of the Chernobyl Disaster that is marked annually on December 14th, the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine announced its intention to apply for inclusion of the Chernobyl site in the UNESCO World Heritage list. The Ministry is planning to submit its application in the spring of 2021 and a decision would likely be issued within two years.

How come that Ukraine takes this step, to propose the most difficult and contaminated site of the country to be designated as world heritage, that is, of critical importance to all humankind? Aren’t heritage rather denoting cultural objects, historical and natural sites that we can admire and celebrate – and not, sites of human and environmental disaster? The announcement also immediately received international attention. For example, just a few days later, the French international channel TV5 Monde dedicated 15 minutes of its daily evening news show “64′ Le Monde en français” to examine the historical and cultural significance of Chernobyl. Atomic Heritage team member Tatiana Kasperski was invited as expert commentator in the live broadcast, together with Laurent Michelot, a photographer who recently published a photo album on the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

The TV broadcast can be viewed here. Photo: Christine Fassert.

The discussion revolved around the steadily growing tourist interest in the site (more than 124 000 people visited Chernobyl in 2019) and its potential heritage value. What attracts visitors to Chernobyl? Is it a good, let alone feasible idea to develop tourism in the heavily radioactively contaminated area? Can the place of the worst nuclear accident in history really become a heritage site? Tatiana Kasperski insisted that a designation of Chernobyl as a UNESCO heritage site might indeed be a good idea as it could support a responsible and sustainable management of the area.

Furthermore, she pointed out that even though it might seem surprising to consider Chernobyl as heritage, it is not completely a challenging idea within contemporary heritage practice. There are already acknowledged heritage sites connected to a dark, violent past, such as, Auschwitz Birkenau Nazi Concentration Camp, and in a nuclear context, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site. Within the World Heritage list these “difficult” heritage places (following a term coined by Sharon MacDonald) are certainly less numerous than the “positive” heritage sites. Nevertheless, it is crucial to preserve them in order to remind humanity about catastrophes that have to be avoided in the future.

Tatiana Kasperski therefore concluded that it makes great sense to transform the Chernobyl site into a heritage site. In fact, not only the growing tourism has already started this transformation, but also recent archival efforts have laid a foundation by incorporating recently declassified documents from the the Soviet era related to the Chernobyl disaster into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.