Japan's Tōhoku region is still recovering from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, but a group that includes an author, a scholar, and a media activist has formed to turn the area's Fukushima nuclear disaster site into a tourism attraction. It's not the first time natural and human-caused catastrophes have lured visitors.
The world's worst nuclear accident occurred in the early morning of April 26, 1986, when Chernobyl's number four reactor exploded, spewing radioactive materials into the atmosphere and causing a fire that burned for 10 days. The disaster resulted in dozens of direct deaths and thousands of long-term ones, as well as the displacement of 350,000 residents from the cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat in the then Soviet Union. After an initial cleanup, authorities continued to run the plant's remaining three reactors, gradually shutting them down until the plant ended operation in 2000. Still, it may be 100 years before the number four reactor, which sits behind the concrete walls of its , can be decommissioned.
Ukraine-based tour company SoloEast Travel now runs daylong tours along a designated route within Chernobyl's "exclusion zone," the more than 1000-square-mile area surrounding and including the plant. The low levels of radiation that remain in the publicly accessible areas have been deemed safe, and the tour gets you within 1000 feet of the number four reactor. Additional highlights include a visit to the remains of Kopachi—a village that was mostly torn down and buried after the disaster due to high contamination levels (though the eerie kindergarten remains standing and accessible to visitors)—and a stop near the Red Forest, a pine tree woodland destroyed by radioactive contamination. Oddly enough, the forest has since become one of Europe's largest nature preserves, and is home to wild boar, wolves, and eagles. When people leave, nature returns.
In the early evening of May 6, 1937, the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire while attempting to dock at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station, just outside Lakehurst, N.J. In less then half a minute, the entire aircraft was in flames. Thirty-seven people died and the disaster became one of the biggest news stories of its time (The phrase "Oh, the humanity" comes from radio journalist Herbert Morrison's eyewitness account). While the cause of the fire has never been determined, some believe it had to do with the evening's severe weather. Others suggest it was the chemical mix of a compound used to coat the airship's skin.
Today, volunteers of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society conduct public tours of Historic Hangar One, where the Hindenburg was housed when in town. Just west of the hangar, the site of the crash is marked with a bronze plaque and cement outline. Advance registration is required.
On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker struck Alaska's Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound and leaked what is now estimated to be at least 30 million gallons of crude oil. Though not the world's largest oil spill, it is certainly one of the most notorious in American history. Oil from the spill eventually contaminated more than 1300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean, and killed hundreds of sea otters, harbor seals, and eagles and hundreds of thousands of seabird within days.
Family-run Stan Stephens Cruises operates glacier tours out of Prince William Sound that highlight the history surrounding the Exxon Valdez spill (Stan Stephens boats carried first responders to the scene) and its aftermath, including the oil industry's operations in the area today.
This past February, an asteroid weighing at least 10,000 tons and traveling at more than 41,000 mph entered Earth's atmosphere, morphed into a superbolide (basically an insanely bright fireball), and exploded approximately 14.5 miles above Russia's southern Ural region. The burst spewed fragments and sent out a shock wave that injured more than 1500 people and damaged thousands of structures.
Today, it's attracting tourists. Visitors to southern Ural can follow an unofficial meteorite trail, stopping off at Chelyabinsk, the city directly beneath the meteor's explosion; Lake Chebarkul, where one of the largest chunks of meteor fell; and Ilmen reserve, which boasts a small exhibit of meteor fragments. Regional authorities are even planning a celebration on the event's one-year anniversary, February 15, 2014.
In the years just after World War II, the U.S. government carried out a series of nuclear tests on Bikini Atoll, a tiny ring of pristine islands in the Pacific Ocean's larger Marshall Islands. One of these tests was the Bravo test, an H-bomb yielding the equivalent of 15 megatons of TNT (about 7000 times that of the Hiroshima bomb) that resulted in the largest U.S. nuclear test ever exploded. The blast created a mile-wide crater and caused widespread radioactive contamination that has displaced residents of Bikini since.
While Bikini remains uninhabited due to contamination, a limited number of divers (they're restricted to fully self-contained vessels that have made prior arrangements) can explore the atoll's sunken fleet of ships—originally used for nuclear target testing—annually. Trips are offered through Bikini Atoll Divers, in conjunction with Indies Trader Marine Adventures, May through November.
The U.S. government established the 586-square-mile Hanford Site in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project. Located along the Columbia River in Washington state, it's home to the B Reactor, the world's first full-scale plutonium production reactor and first large-scale nuclear reactor. The B Reactor is one of three reactors at Hanford to create the plutonium for "Fat Man," the atomic bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II.
While not a disaster site in the traditional sense, Hanford's 60-building Plutonium Finishing Plant is where nearly two thirds of all the U.S. military's plutonium was refined, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world to work. Inadequate safety procedures during Hanford's heyday has led to its designation as the country's most contaminated nuclear site, with operations releasing 53 million U.S. gallons of radioactive materials into the surrounding ecosystem. Today, Hanford is mostly decommissioned, though a small portion of the site—including a commercial nuclear power plant—remains active.
Nevertheless, Hanford welcomes visitors with two public tours. The 4-hour Hanford Public Tour includes an overview of Hanford, details on the government's cleanup efforts, and a guided walking tour of the B Reactor. A 4-and-a-half-hour tour focuses solely on the famed reactor, which was named a National Historic Landmark in 2008.
Eight years later, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is still staggering. The failure of the levees led to flooding in 80 percent of New Orleans. The storm displaced 800,000 residents and destroyed 204,000 homes. As the city continues its recovery efforts, several area bus companies are offering tours to the remaining damaged sites. It's a point of contention for residents looking to get their lives back on track, though tour operators argue that money raised helps with rebuilding efforts.
For those wanting to view Katrina's long-term effects firsthand with limited disruption to New Orleans' residents, a good alternative is by bike. Ninth Ward Rebirth Bike Tours offers 4-hour cycling rides though the city's Lower Ninth Ward, where Katrina's wrath was especially catastrophic. Rather than focusing on the destruction, the tours highlight the neighborhood's history and the perseverance of its residents in the hurricane's aftermath. A portion of ticket sales are donated directly to local charities.
The mother of all disaster tourism sites, Pompeii lay undiscovered for approximately 1500 years. When nearby Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it buried the ancient Roman city—along with neighboring Herculaneum—under mounds of ash and pumice, ultimately preserving everything from its streets to its frescoes. Pompeii was initially rediscovered in 1599, but it was Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre's broader excavation in 1748 that revealed large structures, including an entire Roman theatre. More recently, 300 human skeletons of people trying to flee the eruption were found on a nearby beach.
Today, Pompeii is part of the larger Vesuvius National Park and is one of Italy's most popular tourism attractions, with approximately 2.5 million visitors annually. Though it's possible to explore the site on your own, there are audio guides available, as well as tour guides offering services in English.