Nuclear tourism

Nuclear tourism is travel to places connected with nuclear research and technology, places where there have been atomic explosions, or places related to peaceful or wartime use of nuclear energy. They include:

Get ready

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. Albert Einstein
Dose rate meter is a basic tool of a nuclear tourist

Although in many of the nuclear tourism sites only background radiation can be detected, in some other visitors are confronted with levels above natural background. These include mainly sites related to nuclear accidents and weapons testing. When visiting places with increased radiation, it is reasonable to be equipped with a radiation monitor in order to have control over radiation exposure. The most common devices in a reasonable price range usually contain a Geiger-Müller counter. They are suitable for detection of gamma, x-ray, alpha and beta radiation, typically expressed as counts per second. In other devices the registered gamma radiation is converted in units of dose rate or absorbed dose. These basic counters can not provide information about individual isotopes, natural or man-made, but simply sum up all registered radiation.

In order to be able to use the radiation monitor it is essential to get familiar with the units and ranges of the measured values to evaluate the information obtained from the counter. Also one has to be aware of a strong variation of natural background radiation, which depends mainly on local geology.

Sites of nuclear explosions

Bombed cities

Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima

  Hiroshima, Japan, was a target of the first nuclear attack ever on 6 August 1945. Nowadays the event with 90,000–166,000 civilian victims is commemorated at the Atomic Bomb Memorial Museum and in Peace Memorial Park, including the iconic A-Bomb Dome and Children's Peace Monument covered by colorful paper cranes for bomb victim, Sadako Sasaki. Ground Zero is located slightly outside of the park not far from the Atomic Bomb Dome.

Another nuclear bomb was dropped three days later on the industrial town of   Nagasaki, Japan, with more than 60,000-80,000 victims. Visitors can learn about the tragic piece of history in the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum or the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, both located near ground zero.

As of 2014, both of the aircraft which dropped nuclear weapons on Japanese civilians are in US museums. Enola Gay (the plane which bombed Hiroshima) is displayed at the Udvar-Hazy Center (part of Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum) in Chantilly, Virginia ; Bockscar (which bombed Nagasaki) is on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio.

See the Pacific War article for the events leading up to the bombs.

Weapon test sites

Tourists at ground zero, Trinity site, April 2009.

In total, eight countries carried out nuclear weapon tests to determine the capability of their weapons, mostly in their own respective territories. The United States conducted the first and the most numerous tests, mostly in Nevada. Others carrying out tests included Russia (then the Soviet Union), the UK, India, France, and China. Pakistan, followed by North Korea, conducted the last nuclear weapon tests. Sites where weapon tests were conducted can be visited in these countries for adventure.

Peaceful use of nuclear explosions

In the USA, 27 peaceful nuclear explosions were conducted within Operation Plowshare to test the use of nuclear explosions for various civilian purposes, such as excavating channels or harbors and stimulating natural gas production from sediment layers. Most of the shots were performed at the Nevada test site; however, some of the test sites in Colorado and New Mexico are accessible for the public.

Sites of nuclear accidents

Some might find it unethical or at least controversial for tourists to visit sites where many people suffered following an accident, especially if local guides are repeatedly exposed to radiation when leading tour groups through exclusion zones too "hot" for residents to return.

Conversely, some welcome tourism as an alternative means to support local economies.

Accidents in nuclear power plants or nuclear materials production sites

New sarcophagus construction in Chernobyl
View west of the Sellafield facility, with the Irish Sea in the background
The nuclear site has been hosting a number of nuclear reprocessing operations. There used to be a Visitors' Centre, but it is no longer open.
When spending time on nearby beaches (for example the one in Seascale), you might be lucky enough to spot the Sellafield environmental monitoring workers beachcombing for "hot particles" using a special all-terrain vehicle.

Accidents of nuclear weapon carrying aircraft

During the Cold war there were several accidents involving thermonuclear weapons, and some of them led to local environment contamination. These are a few of them.

Manhattan Project-related sites

"Manhattan Project", named for the Manhattan Engineering District of the US Army Corps of Engineers, is a cover name for a war-time US military effort to develop an atomic weapon. Geographically, the project was spread over about 30 sites across the United States (and Canada). The best known are the secret laboratory in Los Alamos and factories to supply the fissile materials by enriching uranium and producing plutonium in reactors in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford site near Richland, Washington.

Atomic museums

Experimental HTRE reactors for nuclear aircraft, EBR-1 site, Idaho
A three hour long guided bus tour departs from the museum on some working days in summer season (March to November, for detailed schedule check the AMSE webpage). The tour takes visitors to the U.S. Department of Energy facilities: Y-12 (Uranium enrichment plant) Visitor Center or Oak Ridge National Laboratory Graphite Reactor, also known as   X-10 Graphite Reactor. It was the second nuclear reactor after Enrico Fermi's Chicago pile, now the world’s oldest nuclear reactor preserved as national historic landmark. X-10 was the first nuclear reactor to produce Plutonium 239 within the Manhattan Project. Only U.S. citizens can join the tour.
National Atomic Testing Museum, Las Vegas

Research reactors

Nuclear installations at the EPFL - the core of the Crocus reactor

Several sites operate nuclear reactors for either nuclear reactor safety training or for nuclear science experiments using them as neutron sources. Neutron scattering is an effective ways to obtain information on the structure and the dynamics of condensed matter. These days accelerators like the Spallation Neutron Source based in Oakridge allow more intense neutron beams. Nevertheless several reactors are in on-going operations. Fundamental and solid state physics, chemistry, materials science, biology, medicine and environmental science pose scientific questions that are investigated with neutrons.

In contrast to nuclear fission, where unstable atoms decay into smaller atoms, there exists also an attempt of nuclear fusion, where energy would be gained by processes similarly to what happens in the core of stars by the fusion of two light elements in a heavier one. ITER is an international nuclear research and engineering project to build the first the world's largest experimental tokamak nuclear fusion reactor.

Operating reactors

Decommissioned reactors


Nuclear power plant building sites never finished

Some nuclear power plants never had a nuclear fission reaction happening on their site, as they were not turned on.

Kalkar amusement park

Sites related to German nuclear bomb project

Nuclear bunkers

Nuclear bunkers were meant to protect in the case of nuclear weapon explosions. During the cold war this threat was considered imminent, hence many key figures would need access to such bunkers. While nothing was likely to withstand a direct hit, bunkers were built far underground to survive a nuclear strike which landed as close as one mile (1.6km) away.

Fallout shelters were intended to shelter populations in areas far from the targets of a nuclear strike; these communities were likely to be spared direct blast damage but still become dangerously radioactive in the initial days or weeks after an attack. Often, civil defence authorities would make provision for a posted fallout shelter in the basement of a library, post office, school or other large public building. In some countries building regulations even pushed for bunkers in the cellars of small domestic buildings.

Nuclear weapon sites


The Black Hole, Los Alamos, New Mexico

This iconic place where "everything goes in and nothing comes out" was created in 1980 by Ed Grothus, a former LANL lab employee and later a peace and nuclear disarmament activist.

Black hole's shelves were filled with all kinds of second hand scientific equipment for sale: any use for a Dewar bottle or a photomultiplier tube? Or at least a can of "organic plutonium"?

Black hole was scaled down after Ed Grothus's death in 2009 and closed down altogether in 2011.

The Black Hole, Los Alamos

Stay safe

One obvious concern in touring nuclear sites is radiation. In fact, good news is that most of the sites listed above are safe from this point of view. Where obvious danger exists, you should be usually stopped by fence and other security measures.

In case you happen to find yourself in a less safe situation or unknown suspicious area, you will probably be equipped with a radiation monitor and good knowledge of how to use it. It's important to know how to interpret the readings and/or convert the units. Although officially there is nothing like a safe level or radiation, there are some levels that can help to put the numbers into context. These are some examples:

The way to protect yourself against external radiation exposure (like radiation coming from soil polluted with radioactive fallout) is to limit the time spent in the polluted area and keep your distance from the source (hot spots).

During your exploration you certainly want to avoid internal contamination, that means ingesting radionuclides by eating or drinking contaminated food, or inhaling radioactive particles. Some easy protective measures are therefore avoiding eating and drinking and wearing a respirator.

Another kind of more general risks can arise from exploration of abandoned and off-limits urban locations. These include injuries or possible legal consequences. For more details check Urbex article.

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This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Wednesday, March 30, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.