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Atomic Tourism: What is it & is it safe?

In the past few years, "atomic tourism" has gained popularity and become an intriguing idea for many adventure-seeking travelers. It's a different, more stoic, and historical type of tourism that's fascinating, eerie, and full of previously clandestine artifacts and knowledge.

What is atomic tourism?

Atomic tourism is a niche of interest that revolves around the atomic age. This includes visiting sites associated with the history of nuclear weapons and atomic energy, including former testing sites, missile silos, vehicles that carried atomic weapons, nuclear power plants, museums, and places where atomic weapons were detonated. 

Why is atomic tourism so popular?

Atomic tourism is popular for many reasons. 

  • Historical Significance: Many of these sites were at the forefront of huge, pivotal events that changed the course of world history in a single moment.
  • Dark Tourism Aspects: The destruction sites are often considered part of the "dark tourism" category, which involves visiting and touring sites associated with tragedy, death, or suffering.
  • Scientific Importance: The sites associated with atomic tourism offer unique opportunities to learn about the science behind nuclear weapons and energy and to see these technologies' effects first-hand. Also, regrowth, wildlife returning and thriving are fascinating to witness and photograph in areas with radioactive contamination and fallout.
  • Curiosity: Simply put, people are curious. There's so much mystery and secrecy associated with many of these sites from the Cold War era that is now out in the open. It's a new thing to explore and experience off the beaten path.

Is atomic tourism safe?

atomic-tourism-safety

Safety is a significant concern when visiting an atomic site, depending on its location and history. Many areas provide a radiation dosimeter and a tutorial on how to read it. (Note: the dosimeter measures radiation; it does not protect from radiation). 

If there's any doubt or concern, museums are always a safe route since they're designed to educate visitors without exposing them to the threats they'd face if visiting the actual site.   

Popular atomic tourism sites

There are several popular atomic tourism sites around the world: 

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

tourism-chernobyl

Located in Pripyat, Ukraine, this is where the nuclear reactor meltdown happened in 1986 in the former Soviet Union. The "red forest," where pine trees have turned a rust color from radiation, the massive superstructure built over the reactor building, and the highly photographed abandoned amusement park are all places of interest. 

Greenham Common

Located in England, this former U.S. airbase was used to house nuclear weapons during the Cold War. At Greenham, you can check out the storage and command bunkers, observation desk, and even the café. Movie buffs might recognize it as a filming location for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. 

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum

hiroshima-peace-museum

This museum documents the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in World War II. The museum was established in 1955 along with the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Hall to show the reality of damage caused by atomic bombs and to document the city's history before and after the devastating event. The peace memorial is comprised of remaining ruins following the blast that was almost directly overhead. This allowed the building to retain its shape and keep the dome and columns intact.

The Trinity Site


Was the first nuclear weapons test site for the Manhattan Project. It is now a historic site, managed by the U.S. Department of Energy, and is open to the public on specific open house days at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands

bikini-atoll

The US conducted 23 nuclear weapon tests here between 1946 and 1958. This very remote location is on the eastern edge of Micronesia. It is known to have some of the best shipwreck diving in the world. There is no infrastructure, so the tour would start and end on a boat and can take a long time to reach. Much of the marine life wiped out by testing has returned, but the island remains radioactive.

Long story short…

Despite being popular tourist destinations, visiting these sites can provide historical and educational opportunities. These sites and memorials should be approached with respect and consideration for the individuals and communities affected by the events associated with these sites.

Written by Andrea Jeschke