The List

Next Christmas in Chernobyl

Nuclear blast zones, floating landfills, volcanic moonscapes, and other must-visit destinations for the disaster tourist.


Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant

Pripyat, Ukraine

April marks the 25th anniversary of the worst nuclear reactor meltdown in history, at Ukraine's Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. If you're in the mood to celebrate, Ukraine has said that at some point in 2011 it will lift restrictions on tourism in the zone around the nuclear power plant, allowing tourists to legally visit the facility for the first time since the disaster turned the nearby city of Pripyat into a ghost town. Private tour firms based in Kiev, 60 miles south of the Chernobyl site, already take Soviet history buffs on tours of the disaster zone, but the Ukrainian government has previously deemed them illegal and unsafe. Today, however, the level of radiation exposure that visitors receive is about what you would get from a trans-Atlantic flight.  

In addition to the bragging rights that come with visiting the site of the world's only Level 7 nuclear accident, you'll be able to enjoy the area's wildlife -- including elk, lynx, and eagle owls, which have not only returned to this post-apocalyptical landscape but have flourished over the past quarter century -- and tour abandoned Pripyat, once home to 50,000 residents.

The tours will take place inside the 30-mile exclusion zone set up after the disaster. The area is still heavily contaminated -- the sarcophagus that was hastily built after the meltdown to seal off the exploded reactor is cracking and leaks radiation -- but government spokeswoman Yulia Yershova told the Guardian that tourism routes had been specifically designed to cover the main attractions while avoiding particularly dangerous areas, and that "There are things to see if one follows the official route and doesn't stray away from the group."

GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images


Mount Merapi

Yogyakarta, Indonesia

In Indonesia, where tourism is a major industry constituting 5 percent of the country's GDP, visitors come for the beautiful beaches, unique coral reefs, rich culture, and dramatic landscape -- including the islands' famously unruly volcanoes. When Java's Mount Merapi erupted this fall, killing over 350 people and displacing another 400,000, the nearby central Javanese city of Yogyakarta lost about 70 percent of its tourist traffic. Two months later, however, local travel agencies are adding Merapi to their itineraries: "In the new volcano tour package, we'll take customers to explore the closest village to the peak and see how bad the devastation is," Edwin Ismedi Hinma of the local tour agencies association told Reuters. "Then we'll take them to a river to watch cold lahar [volcanic mud] flood past."

The Indonesian Tourism and Culture Ministry is developing plans to encourage eco-tourism around Mount Merapi, hoping to attract international tourists and spur economic growth in the area. One ministry initiative is a volcano sightseeing tour guide training for local youths.

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Gruinard Island

Scotland

Until recently, Gruinard Island, an uninhabited island in the north of Scotland, suffered from a case of bad marketing: It was more commonly known as Anthrax Island. The British government's World War II bioweapons test site was declared safe to visit 20 years ago, but it wasn't until 2001's anthrax scares that the island elicited much interest from visitors, mainly journalists looking for a new angle on the post-9/11 terrorism story.

What's there to see on this 520-acre island, which was sterilized with 280 tons of formaldehyde after the war? Apparently, not too much. "Lovely fields of bluebells cover the island every spring," the island's caretaker told the Associated Press back in 2001. There's also bird- and rabbit-watching, and apparently conspiracy theorizing: After 9/11, some British tabloids claimed that Scottish terrorists had supplied al Qaeda with scoops of dirt from the island.

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Donghekou Quake Relief Park

Sichuan, China

The 7.9 magnitude earthquake on May 12, 2008, that left 90,000 people dead or missing struck the heart of Sichuan province, an area of China that had become increasingly popular with tourists thanks to its spicy food, adorable pandas, traditional opera, and dramatic scenery. Within a year, local officials had added the recent catastrophe to the list of attractions, creating a tour allowing visitors to see the ruins left by the quake. Most of the tourism initiatives are aimed at Chinese visitors, with some local governments subsidizing their citizens' trips to Sichuan. Highlights include a visit to Tangjiahsan, a new lake created by flooding and landslides, and an earthquake-themed museum which has incorporated parts of Beichuan High School, where about 1,000 students were buried in rubble.

You can also visit one of more than half a dozen parks in development commemorating the disaster. At Donghekou Quake Relief Park, the first of them to open, visitors can pay their respects to the missing and purchase earthquake-themed books, photos, and DVDs. According to USA Today, you can also pick up "Holiday Shock" vacation brochures at the Chengdu airport and go on day-trips to the quake zone with the China Youth Travel Service.

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Great Pacific Garbage Patch

The Pacific Ocean

Cruise ships aren't visiting the Great Pacific Garbage Patch yet, but it seems like only a matter of time. The conglomeration of trash in the ocean northeast of Hawaii, gathered by currents into a mass twice the size of Texas, is a floating monument to human consumption: a vortex of plastic bags, umbrella handles, footballs, hard hats, and just about everything else.

The disintegrating garbage has a consistency like soup, so the patch isn't easily spotted nor defined; it was only "discovered" in 1997. But that hasn't stopped a Netherlands-based architecture company from dreaming up "Recycled Island," a fully sustainable island with enough space for half a million inhabitants that would also clear out most of the Pacific's trash -- a plan that has yet to leave the concept stage. Among the few who have actually made the pilgrimage are a handful of scientists and the British banking heir David de Rothschild, who sailed to the patch on the Plastiki, a catamaran made from thousands of recycled soda bottles.

TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images


Bikini Atoll

Marshall Islands

The United States conducted 67 nuclear tests on the Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands back in the 1940s and '50s, making this remote coral-laden outpost the most unique tourist destination among Pacific paradises. The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof visited in 1997 and concluded: "Aside from its worldwide fame and relics like a bunker that once had a hot line to the White House, Bikini has the appeal of an untouched island and coral reef, as well as a lagoon offering some of the best scuba diving in the world."

For divers who like wreck diving, Bikini is El Dorado. There are 19 ships -- all casualties of the atomic tests -- at the bottom of the lagoon, including the USS Saratoga, the only divable aircraft carrier in the world. Bikini was recently declared a U.N. World Heritage site on account of its exceptional Cold War detritus. According to the official Bikini Atoll website, the island does have higher radiation levels than other spots in the Marshall Islands, but you don't need to worry about swimming and walking there -- the main threat comes from eating any food grown on the island. Avoid the radioactive coconuts.

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Union Carbide India Limited pesticide plant

Bhopal, India

In December 1984, the American-owned Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, leaked a cloud of toxic gas, killing 2,000 people immediately and thousands more in the following years due to the aftereffects. One of India's deadliest industrial disasters is still mainly unresolved -- eight former Union Carbide executives were convicted of negligence only last June, while the site, now under control of the state government, still has 425 tons of hazardous waste sitting around. In December 2009 on the 25th anniversary of the disaster, protesters gathered at the factory, angry about the lack of accountability for the accident's victims. While the United States later declared the case to be officially closed, victims still seethe about the injustice of an average settlement of just $550.

None of this stopped the Madhya Pradesh government from reopening the gates of the factory, like a dystopian Willy Wonka, last year. The purpose of the reopening was to prove that the site was no longer hazardous -- on a visit to the factory a few months earlier, Union Minister of Environment and Forest Jairam Ramesh picked up a handful of toxic waste lying in the factory and showed it to reporters: "Look, I am holding it in my hand and I am still alive," he said. But for all the bravado, the state government didn't seem totally convinced about the site's safety -- visitors were allowed in for only a few days.

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Centralia

Pennsylvania

Centralia, Pennsylvania, is kind of like that Billy Joel song: Nobody knows just who started the town's infamous subterranean coal fire, but it has been burning since 1962. The blaze began at a local dump, and went underground when the flames leaped from the trash heap to an exposed coal seam. Firefighters tried to battle the blaze for much of the next two decades, eventually giving up. Centralia became a ghost town, with a population dwindling down from the thousands in the 1980s to less than 10 today. In 2002, the U.S. Postal Service revoked Centralia's zip code.

Centralia may be pretty much empty, but it is open to visitors -- even if the ground is hot to the touch and occasionally prone to collapse. Two hours north of Gettysburg, it makes a great day trip for coal mining buffs and pyromaniacs. You can check out a now-closed section of Route 61 -- which features both effusive local graffiti and a massive fire-induced fissure in the middle of the road -- and the old town street grid, which is slowly being reclaimed by nature.  Don't stay longer than an hour or so: The fires still expel headache-inducing toxic gas. Also, should you need a refreshment after a long day in the smoldering countryside, there is a Yuengling brewery about 30 minutes away. Visit soon, though: Pennsylvania officials are in the process of demolishing the town's remaining structures.

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The List

Bloggers Read Books, Too

FP's bloggers pick their favorite books of 2010.

FP's bloggers are an interesting bunch -- from a Pulitzer Prize-winning nuclear historian to an international uber-consultant to an IR scholar with a thing for zombies. But one thing they all have in common is that they read, a lot. This year, we asked them what they especially liked reading in 2010 -- and the answers are unexpected, ranging from the best books about the financial crisis to advanced physics, from George W. Bush's memoirs (not really) to a little novel called Freedom.

Stephen M. Walt, Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University:

Here's my book list for the year -- not in order of importance or achievement.

1. William Pfaff, The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign PolicyA thoughtful, brooding reflection on the intellectual errors and arrogance that have undermined America's standing in the world, from one of our wisest commentators on foreign affairs.

2. Matt Taibbi, Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con that is Breaking America. Back in the 1990s, Tom Friedman told us that the United States had perfected "DOScapital 6.0." As Taibbi shows with a biting, incisive wit, what we'd really perfected was a series of scams designed to enrich financiers and leave the rest of us poorer. If you read this and then watch Charles Ferguson's Inside Job, you'll want to burn down Wall Street and keep your money in a mattress.

3. S.C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the ComanchesA gripping history of the American Southwest by Texas journalist Gwynne, with some intriguing lessons for our counterinsurgency struggles today.

4. Ussama Makdisi, Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations. A passionate but fair-minded chronicle of the many missteps that have undermined America's once-positive image in the Arab world. Why do they hate us? Makdisi makes it clear that they have ample reason in this tragic tale of self-inflicted wounds.

5. John J. Mearsheimer, Why Leaders Lie: The Truth About Lying in International Politics. You might think that states would lie to each other all the time, but Mearsheimer argues that this rarely happens, for the simple reason that states don't trust each other and they know that lies will be scrutinized and exposed. But leaders lie to their own people all the time, and usually for the wrong reasons. Now you know why governments hate WikiLeaks.

6. George W. Bush, Decision Points. Written with the self-critical insight and elegant command of language that one expects from Dubya, this book is the perfect guide to What Not to Do Should You Ever Become President. Or the head of your local PTA. Or chairman of the holiday party committee at your workplace. Or any other leadership position whatsoever. Just ask yourself, "What would W. do?" -- and then do the opposite.

7. Bruce Cumings, The Korean War. Rather than a strict narrative history, Cumings's book is an intense and revelatory reflection on how the Korean War has been forgotten, misremembered, or fetishized in North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. The book also illustrates the pervasive American tendency to get deeply entangled in societies whose history we barely comprehend.

8. Stephen Kinzer, Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future. A bold yet compelling argument for moving away from America's current "special relationships" with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and moving toward better ties with Turkey and Iran. Some will disagree with Kinzer's prescriptions, but it is a thoughtful analysis that deserves to be read and pondered.

David Rothkopf, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and CEO of Garten Rothkopf:

Throughout 2010, I've been working on my next book, and so almost everything I have read in my scant spare time has had to do with it -- a look at the centuries-long struggle between public and private power and how it has and will define the shape of the world. So I have been immersed throughout in Locke, Hobbes, Smith, Marx, and Milton Friedman. (I don't want to talk about it except to say that Milton Friedman does not deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with the other guys.) I also read a bunch of recent books on the relationship between markets and states, but I don't want to say anything about them because the authors are just the kind of people some book review editor is likely to have comment on my forthcoming book and so suffice to say, they were all brilliant.

So for me, the best books of 2010 were the few that I was able to escape into that took me far, far away from my writing and from a Washington that can have the same effect on its residents that a strong flush has on the Ty-D-Bol Man. Here are my favorites:

1. Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design. I find books on physics to be very relaxing. I'll admit this could be due to lack of comprehension. But they provide a complete escape from the emotion, speculation, and hoo-ha-filled world of foreign policy into somewhere completely different -- a place where facts and hard rules and rigor apply. This book, which makes the case that a creator was unnecessary to produce the origins of the universe, does include some speculation and guesswork by virtue of its subject. But it makes its case clearly, and its description of the current state of physics, M-theory, and the 10 dimensions in which we live is enthralling. The fact that most of those dimensions are tiny and curl in on themselves even makes Washington sound like part of the natural universe.

2. Mark Twain, Autobiography of Mark Twain. This is a masterwork of editing, stitching together the many attempts of the greatest American author to sketch out his own perspective on his life. I read it in one great swoop, but it could just as easily be dipped into for bits and pieces of inspiration. (And humility -- no writer can read this without feeling hopelessly inferior.) Take Twain on biography: "What a wee little part of a person's life are his acts and his words. His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself. All day long, and every day, the mill of his brain is grinding, and his thoughts, (which are but the mute articulation of his feelings,) not those other things, are his history. His acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world.... Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man -- the biography of the man himself cannot be written." True, but it's a fault not shared by this autobiography.

3, 4. Jonathan Franzen, Freedom, and Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question. These are the two best novels I read this year. Both are exceptionally well-written, as rich and multilayered as any novel should be but also suffused with the humor and humanity that elevate storytelling. After we're all long gone, people will be pouring through Freedom to feel and understand what life in our times was like, and not just for the Berglund family, its Minnesotan protagonists, but for all of us.

Finkler could be the most revealing exploration of anti-Semitism I've ever read, both because it understands the subtlety of the disease and also because Jacobson is deftly comic. Anti-Semitism isn't funny. But people are. Life is. Especially in a universe of 10 dimensions in which we are only just barely conscious of three -- or four -- depending on how you are counting.


David Hoffman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Dead Hand and a contributing editor to Foreign Policy:

1. Robert H. Carlson, Biology Is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life. Mankind is at the threshold of a new leap forward in our understanding of how life works, and this book shines a light on the path ahead by approaching the subject as a series of engineering and technology problems. The book is sophisticated, clear, and eye-opening in explaining the promise, and peril, of a profound revolution in genetics and molecular biology.

2. Brian Jones, Failing Intelligence: The True Story of How We Were Fooled Into Going to War in Iraq. The author is the former head of the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons division of British military intelligence, and this is one of the most clear and fascinating insider accounts yet of the Iraq debacle -- already released in Britain, due out in America in June.

3. B.R. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves -- and Why It Matters. This is a book that challenges what we know about North Korea's worldview and ideology. The author argues it is not Stalinism or Confucianism -- nor the oft-cited juche (self-reliance) thought that holds the place together -- but rather a kind of race-based nationalism that shapes North Korea's view of itself and the outside world. Should be read along with last year's excellent book on the North, Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick.

Thomas Ricks, who covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 to 2008 and writes the Best Defense blog for ForeignPolicy.com:

The novel I enjoyed most in 2010 was The Imperfectionists, a comedy about a failing newspaper in Italy by Tom Rachman, and the test of it was that after I finished it this summer, my wife read it and then my son and then his girlfriend. The most overrated book of 2010 was Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. I am a huge fan of Franzen's, but this book was not half as good as The Corrections. The writing that had the biggest impact on me in 2010 was hundreds of pages of interviews that Gen. George C. Marshall gave to Forrest Pogue, who was writing Marshall's biography.

Peter Bergen, author of the forthcoming book The Longest War and editor of ForeignPolicy.com's AfPak Channel:

1. Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone.

2. Anne Nelson, Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends who Resisted Hitler.

Both these books were published in 2009, but I only got around to reading them this year. They concern a subject of great moral interest: the men and women who resisted Hitler. Fallada was a novelist of some fame in Weimar Germany who continued to publish under the Nazis. His masterpiece was Every Man Dies Alone, which came out in Germany in 1947 and only in the past two years has become available in the English-speaking world. Fallada's novel traces the story of a very ordinary, working-class couple who lose their only son in one of Hitler's senseless campaigns, which launches them on a quixotic and eventually fatal effort of small-bore resistance to the Nazis.

In Red Orchestra, Nelson tells the true story of men and women from all walks of life in Berlin who led efforts both large and small to resist the Nazis. Those efforts invariably ended in failure and often those involved faced show trials and the most gruesome executions. But their examples remind us that some exceptional human spirits cannot be crushed even by the most vile of tyrannies.

Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy:

For me, 2010 has been year three of trying to come to grips with the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath. If last year's crop of books was about the tick tock of what happened, this year's harvest was more about why it happened. For me, the three best, most accessible books on this subject were Michael Lewis's The Big Short, Raghuram Rajan's Fault Lines, and John Quiggin's Zombie Economics. By honing in on the few people who bet against the subprime mortgage boom, Lewis's book nicely demonstrates the myriad ways in which the bubble was allowed to inflate for so long. Rajan's Fault Lines looks at the combination of underlying domestic and international factors that contributed to the crisis, while Quiggin's book deconstructs the ways in which market-friendly ideas devolved from rigorous theory into caricature.

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