Nuclear tourism

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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:

  • Sites of nuclear explosions (bombed cities, weapon test sites, sites related to peaceful use of nuclear explosions)
  • Sites of nuclear accidents and accidents of nuclear weapon carrying aircraft
  • Atomic museums
  • Otherwise remarkable sites of projects in nuclear technology

Get ready[edit]

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 a 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 in order 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[edit]

Bombed cities[edit]

Hiroshima Peace Memorial

  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 in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, including the iconic A-Bomb Dome or Children's Peace Monument covered by colorful paper cranes for bomb victim, Sadako Sasaki.

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 [1]; Bockscar (which bombed Nagasaki) is on display at the U.S. Air Force Museum near Dayton, Ohio.

Weapon test sites[edit]

Tourists at ground zero, Trinity site, April 2009.
  •   Trinity site, New Mexico - the site of the world's first nuclear explosion on July 16, 1945, which started the Atomic age. The site, which was declared a National Historic Landmark district, is open for tours once in a year (first Saturday in April). The ground zero, where the plutonium bomb was detonated from a tower, is marked with a plain stone monument. Careful visitors can spot glassy greeny pieces in the dirt. It is "Trinitite", sand fused by the enormous heat of the explosion into a crusty surface. Most of Trinitite was cleared away in the years after the test with a small piece of original surface preserved in a shelter. The small fractions of Trinitite left at the site do not pose any health hazard to the visitors from the external exposure point of view, but it is not allowed to take away any Trinitite from the inner fenced area. During the Trinity site open house days it is also possible to view Schmidt/McDonald ranch house, where the plutonium core to the bomb was assembled shortly before the test.

Peaceful use of nuclear explosions[edit]

In the USA 27 peaceful nuclear explosions were conducted within Operation Plowshare in order to test the use of nuclear explosions for various purposes. 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 public.

  •   Gusbuggy test site (25 miles SW of Dulce, NM). A small monument with a plaque containing a brief description of the event at the surface round zero. The site is in Carson National Forest and open to public access.
  •   Rulison test site (9 ml from Hw. 70, Parachute, CO, along a gravel road, Garfield County Route 338.). A small monument with a plaque containing a brief description of the event at the surface round zero.

Sites of nuclear accidents[edit]

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[edit]

View west of the Sellafield facility, with the Irish Sea in the background
  •   Pripyat, Chornobyl OblastUkraine. The Chernobyl disaster of 26 April 1986 is an event classified at level 7 (the highest) on the International Nuclear Event Scale. Pripyat and Chornobyl are now radioactive ghost towns. Although the Chernobyl sarcophagus was constructed with lots of concrete and by 500k workers the structure has since deteriorated and crumbled. There are plans to fix the containment by 2015.
  •   Sellafield is site of a number of accidents including the 1957 fire of the former nuclear reactor Windscale. It has been host to a number of reprocessing operations (2005 leak) - during those accidents a lot of radioactive waste ended up in the Irish sea, near Whitehaven, United Kingdom
  •   Three Mile Island, near Hershey, Pennsylvania, United States of America
  •   Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, Japan - damaged by 2011 tsunami

Accidents of nuclear weapon carrying aircraft[edit]

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.

  • In   Faro near Goldsboro (North Carolina), USA a B-52 crash dropped a hydrogen bomb which failed to detonate in 1961. The event is commemorated by a historical road marker in the town of Eureka, 3 miles (4.8 km) north of the crash site.
  • A   crater about 23 m wide and 11 m deep was left after another accident, in which a B-47 "Stratojet" crew mistakenly released a Mark 6 bomb while flying over Mars Bluff, South Carolina, on March 11, 1958 afternoon. The bomb went off by a conventional explosion at the property of local family Gregg and injured several family members. The crater can be visited from SC Highway 76 (East Palmetto Street) via a marked trail. There is an informational board and mock up of the bomb's size at the site. Nearby   museum in Florence has the story to tell including some historical artifacts connected to the event.
  • In 1966 after an unsuccessful inflight refueling operation an US bomber B-52 carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed in   Palomares between Almería and Cartagena, Spain. Nowadays, after cleanup operations, the area is used extensively for agricultural production. Two of the "hot areas" are closed to the public by a fence.
  • Another accident occurred in 1968, when B-52 "Stratofortress" with four hydrogen bombs on board crashed onto the sea ice near the   Thule Air Base, Greenland. The nearest civilian settlement is Qaanaaq, some 100 km to the north.

Manhattan Project related sites[edit]

  •   Chicago Pile-1 siteSouth Ellis Avenue, Chicago, Illinois. A monument at a site of the first fission reactor constructed by team of Enrico Fermi (originally under the stands of Stagg Field, the University's abandoned football stadium) was successfully tested.
  •   Site A/   Plot M Disposal Site, Illinois (Red Gate Woods). Radioactive waste disposal sites at former grounds of Argonne National Laboratory. At site A Chicago Pile-1 reactor along with other radioactive waste was buried. Monuments commemorate the event.
  •   Hanford Site, Washington (Red Gate Woods). Location of the B Reactor (U.S. National Historic Landmark since 2008) which produced some of the plutonium for the Trinity test and the Fat Man bomb. The tours to the B Reactor building connected to a bus tour through the Hanford site (Apr-Sep) must be booked in advance.

Atomic museums[edit]

Experimental HTRE reactors for nuclear aircraft, EBR-1 site, Idaho
  • American Museum of Science and Energy, Oak Ridge, Tennessee - bomb casings
  •   Bradbury Science Museum, Los Alamos1350 Central Avenue, Los Alamos, NM +1 505 667-4444, e-mail: . Tu-Sa 10 am–5 pm, Su Mo: 1–5 pm. The museum is devoted to the history and the current research in the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Great part of the exposition covers the history of the Manhattan Project. Admission free.
  •   Experimental Breeder Reactor I, Arco, Idaho - first nuclear reactor to produce electrical power, first breeder reactor, and first reactor to use plutonium as fuel
  • George Herbert Jones Laboratory, Chicago, Illinois - where plutonium was first isolated and characterized
  •   National Atomic Testing Museum755 E Flamingo Road, Las Vegas +1 702 794-5151. Mo-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su 12PM-5PM. Artifacts, pictures, maps and video footage presenting nuclear weapons testing and development in the southwestern US. If you're interested in science and history it's definitely worth visiting, and it's also a great break if you've become tired of the Strip. Videography requires special permission. Museum $14, Museum and Area 51 exhibit $20.
  •   National Museum of Nuclear Science & History (National Atomic Museum), 601 Eubank at Southern Blvd Albuquerque, New Mexico +1 505 245-2137. daily 9:00am-5:00pm, closed on vacation days. The museum serves as America's resource for nuclear history and science. The Museum exhibits and educational programs convey the diversity of individuals and events that shaped the historical and technical context of the nuclear age. $8.
  •   Savannah River Site, South Carolina - production site of plutonium and tritium
  •   X-10 Graphite Reactor, Oak Ridge, Tennessee - first nuclear reactor to produce Plutonium 239

Research reactors[edit]

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[edit]

  •   Forschungsreaktor München II (FRM II), Lichtenbergstraße 1, 85748 Garching bei München (U6 to Garching-Forschungszentrum),  +49 089 289 12147, e-mail: . The reactor is an optimised neutron source. Almost 50% of experiments are performed using cold neutrons. The compact construction of the fuel element means that more than 70% of the neutrons leave the uranium zone and build up to a maximum thermal neutron flux density at a distance of 12cm from the surface of the fuel element. From where they are distributed to the experiments. Please register early in advance your visit either by email or phone. The visitor needs to be older than 16 years, not pregnant and no phones or cameras are allowed inside.
  •   Institute of Atomic and Subatomic PhysicsStadionallee 2, 1020 Vienna, Austria. The 250 kW TRIGA Mark II reactor in the Viennese Prater started operation in 1962. The reactor is a training ground for International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors and neighbouring countries.
  •   ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor or the way (Latin)), Route de Vinon-sur-Verdon 13115, St. Paul-lez-Durance (CPA bus line 150 (Aix-en-Provence--St Paul lez Durance)),  +33 4 42 17 66 25, e-mail: . The ITER project aims to make the transition from experimental studies of plasma physics to an electricity-producing fusion power plants. ITER is designed to produce 500 megawatts of output power. Visitors are welcome year round on the second and fourth Friday of every month at the ITER site. General public visits include a stop at the Visitor's Centre for a presentation of the project followed by guided tour of the ITER platform where the ITER scientific facilities are currently under construction. Visit requests should be made at least four weeks in advance.
  •   Wendelstein 7-X fusion device (Max-Planck-Institut für Plasmaphysik), Wendelsteinstraße 1, Greifswald, Germany +49 (0) 3834 88-1203 or -1800, e-mail: . In Greifswald the large Wendelstein 7-X fusion reactor (stellarator) is under construction. The device as well as technology and workshops can be toured upon previous booking.
  •   Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin. The 10MW research reactor BER II delivers neutron beams for a wide range of scientific investigations. On open house day, interested visitors are allowed to take guided tours through the experimental halls around the research reactor. Scientists and reactor experts will be there on these days to answer questions about the facility and the safety measures.
  •   Swiss Spallation Neutron Source (SINQ), Paul Scherrer Institut bldg. WHGA/147, 5232 Villigen PSI, Swiss. SINQ is designed as a neutron source mainly for research with extracted beams of thermal and cold neutrons, but hosts also facilities for isotope production and neutron activation analysis.
  • TRIGA Mark I at the University of California, Irvine, in Irvine, California, US

Decommissioned reactors[edit]

  • PLUTO reactor (DIDO, 26MW, 1957–1990) in Harwell, Oxfordshire, England
  • ZEEP (1945–1973) of the Chalk River Laboratories in Deep River, Ontario, Canada


Nuclear power plant building sites never finished[edit]

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

  •   Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. The Philippine's only attempt to build a nuclear power plant, this US$2.3 billion plant was completed in 1984, at which point testing of systems began. In 1986, the authoritarian government behind the project was overthrown and following the Chernobyl disaster later that year, the new government decided to mothball the plant. The Bataan Nuclear Power Plant is complete and has been maintained since then, but was never fueled to operate. All uranium was removed by 1997. Due to the high cost of maintaining the plant, the Philippine government announced in 2011 that the plant would be turned into a tourist attraction. The tour admission fee also includes use of the adjacent private beach, WestNuk Cove, which also has some accommodation and recreation facilities (Westnuk Beach Resort, [2]). 150 pesos (2012).
Kalkar amusement park

Sites related to German nuclear bomb project[edit]

  •   Haigerloch, Germany: A site of a former research reactor during WWII called Atomkeller (Atomic cellar), which never went critical. The museum tells the story of the Uranverein (Uranium society), a German attempt to develop a nuclear weapon, and shows the Haigerloch nuclear reactor replica.
  •   Vemork, Norway: Heavy water production site and location of war-time heavy water sabotage .

Nuclear bunkers[edit]

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.

  •   Dienststelle Marienthal (Government bunker), Ahrweiler near Bonn, Germany. Apr-Oct W,Sa,Su 10:00-17:00, last guided tour 16:30 for individual visitors.. Nuclear bunker built in the 60s to house the West German federal government in case of nuclear war. Constructed inside two railway tunnels beneath 110m of slate rock. After the end of Cold War the bunker was dismantled and today only 203m of the original bunker exists near Ahrweiler. This existing part was converted into the Government Bunker Documentation Site Museum. €8.
  •   Atombunker Harnekop (Nuclear governmental shelter) (65 km NE from Berlin),  +49 1719 440304, e-mail: . Regular guided tours (in German) Mar-Oct: Sa,Su & public holidays 10:00, 12:00 & 14:00. One of the East German shabby relics of the Cold War located within 1 hour's drive from Berlin at an area of a former military barracks. The bunker in Harnekop was prepared for a possible war as the underground command post of the Ministry of National Defence of the GDR. Nowadays it's possible to join a guided tour in the bunker after an e-mail or phone registration.
  • Object 825 GTS (Balaklava submarine base), Balaklava Bay, Crimea. Top-secret military facility during the Cold War built inside a mountain, today part of the Naval museum complex in Balaklava.
  • F4 Object (Rákosi bunker), Budapest, Hungary. Several kilometres long, formerly secret nuclear shelter, 45-50m below central Budapest. Exact number of entrances is unknown. It is presently owned by the state and controlled by the BKV (Budapest Transport Company).
  •   Diefenbunker3911 Carp Rd, Carp, Ontario +1 613 839-0007, toll-free: +1 800 409 1965. Atomic bomb shelter built in 1959-61 (during the cold war Diefenbaker era) at the now-closed Canada Forces Station Carp as an Emergency Government Headquarters to house Canadian leaders during a nuclear attack. Now open as Canada's Cold War Museum, the Diefenbunker appears in one scene in the 2002 film "Sum of all Fears". Carp is in a rural area of West Carleton, west of Ottawa.
  • Underground Project 131 ("131"地下工程; "131" Dìxià gōngchéng), Gaoqiao Township (高桥镇) in Xianning in Hubei, China. A nuclear bunker and set of tunnels built in 1969 in order to provide shelter from a possible nuclear attack from the former USSR. This is still a military installation, and non-Chinese nationals may not be allowed to visit.

Nuclear weapon sites[edit]

  •   Minuteman Missile National Historic SiteInterstate-90 exit 131, east of Wall (South Dakota) +1 605 433-5552. Daily 08:00-16:30 (visitor centre), closed weekends in winter. 1960s Delta-01 Launch Control Facility, Launch Facility/ Missile Silo: Delta-09, visitor centre with information on Cold War history. This Minuteman ICBM site 75 miles east of Rapid City SD could rain down nuclear devastation six thousand miles away in 30 minutes. Guided free tours of launch control are available from the visitor centre but numbers are limited so large groups will need to book a few weeks ahead.
  • Strategic Missile Forces Museumвул. Одеська, 121, Первомайськ, Миколаївська обл. (Pervomaisk, Mykolayiv Oblast, Ukraine),  +380 5161 54896. Former missile base (46th Missile Nizhnedneprovsk Order of the October Revolution, Red Division). Samples of rocket engines, auxiliary vehicles, mock nuclear warhead. Missiles: SS-24 "Scalpel" silo-based and RS-20 missile (SS-18 "Satan").


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
  •   Ship Lucky Dragon 5, Tokyo, Japan (Daigo Fukuryū Maru), Yumenoshima Park, 3-2 Yumenoshima, Koto Ward, Tokyo +81 3 3521-8494. Tu-Su. The restored fishing boat Lucky Dragon which crew became unfortunate victims of nuclear fallout fallowing a thermonuclear test at Bikini Atoll is on display at Tokyo Metropolitan Daigo Fukuryū Maru Exhibition Hall. On 1 March 1954, 23 fishermen were hunting tuna near the Marshall Islands, when they witnessed the larger than predicted Castle Bravo nuclear test conducted by the US. Later on the fishermen were subjected to a strange white rain containing particles of radioactive fallout mixed with the coral reef debris. Unaware of the danger of the contamination on their bodies and the ship's surfaces, the fishermen headed back to Japan and over the following days developed symptoms of acute radiation syndrome. One crew member died later in hospital. Free.
  •   A Memorial to the X-ray martyrs of the world in Hamburg (Ehrenmal der Radiologie) (Garden of St. Georg hospital). This monument is devoted to researchers, physicians, physicists, radiographers, laboratory technicians and nurses who died from injuries or illnesses caused by prolonged exposure to radiation used in medicine. On the list of about 360 names of radiologists from 23 countries perhaps the best known are Marie Sklodowska-Curie and her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie.

Stay safe[edit]

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 typical yearly dose from purely natural background, consisting mainly of radon gas we breathe, building materials surrounding us, radionuclides in food we eat and from the cosmic radiation that keeps bombarding us. This value is 2.4 thousandths of Sievert (mSv) on average, with a large range between 1-13 mSv depending mainly on the geological background of the place you live.
  • Additionally to natural sources, artificial radiation contributes to radiation exposure of some of us. The main contributor here is medical diagnosis and treatment using radiation or radionuclides. Here the exposition varies widely based on number and type of such measures. Globally, an average person receives 0.6 mSv/yr, while in countries with well developed medical systems the numbers are higher, for example 3.14 mSv in USA. One bone scintigraphy scan with the use of medial isotope Tc-99m results in a one-time dose of about 5 mSv. A chest CT scan can give a dose of 5-10 mSv, which is much higher than a simple chest x-ray of 0.2 mSv.
  • Members of flight crews receive some 1.5 mSv annual dose due to increased cosmic radiation in high altitudes.
  • The limit for the Fukushima exclusion zone was set as 20 mSv/yr.
  • Occupational limits for radiation workers are usually at 50 mSv/yr.

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.

Related topics[edit]

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