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Learning the Nuclear: Educational Tourism in (Post)Industrial Sites


Edited By Natalija Mazeikiene

This book illuminates the educational potential of nuclear tourism and learning about nuclear power in informal and non-formal learning settings. The authors present a case of elaboration of the educational virtual nuclear route in the Ignalina Power Plant Region, Lithuania. Nuclear tourism takes its shape at the junction of several types of tourism – energy, industrial, cultural, and heritage and it becomes a site of outdoor and place-based education, promotes STEM, energy literacy, critical thinking, and environmental skills, and creates a valuable source for virtual learning. The book reveals peculiarities of learning and experience at nuclear power plants and disaster tourism destinations such as the Chernobyl Museum and the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

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Introduction. Nuclear Tourism as an Emerging Area of Learning about Nuclear Energy (Natalija Mažeikienė)

Natalija Mažeikienė

Introduction. Nuclear Tourism as an Emerging Area of Learning about Nuclear Energy

Sites of nuclear energy research, development and testing of nuclear weapons, atomic energy reactors or places of nuclear disasters are becoming attractive tourist destinations. The authors of this book discuss the educational potential of nuclear tourism and learning about nuclear power in informal and non-formal learning settings. This monograph is an outcome of a research project EDUATOM devoted to the elaboration of the virtual nuclear tourism route in Ignalina Power Plant region in Lithuania1.

On the one hand, the popularity of nuclear tourism is related to the development of energy tourism, which has long been a niche and expert-based tourism, attracting engineers, scientists, high school students studying nuclear physics, chemistry, engineering, and recently has been undergoing a transformation by opening up to new groups of tourists – students of all ages and citizens of different groups. On the other hand, the rise of nuclear tourism has been related to the cultural processes of heritagization when the history of nuclear energy research and the atomic energy industry have become an issue of atomic heritage that serves for the identity building of nations and communities. Such heritagization of the atomic past in the U.S. is exemplified by exhibitions and museums established in atomic cities, at nuclear weapons complexes, and other venues to construct the memory on the era of the atomic bomb development under the Manhattan Project during the Cold War period (Mollela, 2003).

A positive approach towards atomic heritage referring to atomic energy industry represents an idea of scientific achievements and promises of the atomic era. On the contrary, atomic heritage related to nuclear disasters (The Chernobyl Museum, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, etc.) and disastrous use of nuclear weapons (Hiroshima Peace Memoria in Japan, the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site in the Marshall Islands, Kakadu National Park in Australia) represents ←12 | 13→a dystopian account by representing the dark and difficult pasts (Storm et al., 2019). Both utopian and dystopian visions of the use of the atom created at these heritage sites appeal to a broader public imaginary of nuclear and radioactive dangers and disasters (Ibid.).

Heritagization of the atomic past and development of tourism at nuclear power plants is incorporated into the broader process of creating value of industrial heritage, when the memory of the industrial past in post-industrial society begins to be nurtured and industrial landscapes, buildings, and artifacts start to be treated as valuable cultural objects that must be preserved. In this process, nuclear power plants with closed reactors and damaged landscapes become objects of industrial heritage (Storm, 2014).

In the chapter Revisiting Educational Potential of the Industrial Heritage Tourism: Ruhr Area in Germany and Ignalina Power Plant Region in Lithuania, the co-author of this book, Ilona Tandzegolskienė discusses how educational industrial tourism in the (post)-industrial landscapes becomes a transformative experience, preserves memory, promotes urban development, and identity building. Narrative practices in educational tourism, art projects, and entertainment activities connect landscape and industrial facilities with memory and human experience of local community and tourists. These practices of interpretation of the past and present become a means of constructing a new post-industrial identity of the community. However, this process of remembrance and creating a heritage has a contradictory nature since the industrial past and industrialization are associated in many cases with negative painful processes of the obstructive and devastating impact on the landscape, natural environment, social development, and local identity. Scholars use the metaphor of wound and scar to express this negative element in the nature of industrial heritage (Storm, 2014). Authors analysing the industrial past in Lithuania (Drėmaitė, 2002, 2012) reveal negative meanings ascribed to industrialization which is associated with Soviet legacy. Industrialization falls into the category of dissonant heritage, inconvenient, and unwanted past.

The co-author of this book, Linara Dovydaitytė, dedicates the chapter The Pedagogy of Dissonant Heritage: Soviet Industry in Museums and Textbooks to heritagization of the nuclear industry in Lithuania and reveals features of the memory work on the nuclear past. In the post-Soviet politics of memory (including public pedagogy and educational discourse), the Soviet industry is treated as a difficult legacy since it is associated not only with modernization but also related with Soviet occupation, environmental issues, and negative impact on the social and cultural identity of citizens. INPP and nuclear industry in Lithuania are considered in the public political discourse as a Soviet nuclear ←13 | 14→project, and in this sense, the past of the nuclear industry does not fall into the category of valuable heritage. At the same time, conflictual interpretation of the Soviet industrial past leads to problematic development of the identity of post-industrial society since the work and life of former industrial communities are not being interpreted as valuable and memorable. That is why the contradictory nature of heritagization of the industrial past poses challenges for tourism and public pedagogy (museums and other educational sites). The authors of this book emphasize the importance of combining the critical thinking approach with empathy to local communities and formal workers of the industry.

In this regard, Ineta Dabašinskienė, the author of the chapter Place and Language Transformations in a Post-Soviet Landscape: A Case study of the Atomic City Visaginas, poses a question how after the closure of the INPP the unique multilingual and multicultural profile of the atomic town Visaginas can become a valuable resource for the education and tourism which would contribute to producing an economic value and building a new positively affirmed post-nuclear identity.

Nuclear tourism is analysed in the book as a specific case of energy tourism. On the one hand, excursions and activities of the Visitor Centres are aimed at developing STEM, energy literacy and environmental skills; on the other hand, loyalty of energy companies’ consumers has been formed. Furthermore, energy companies conduct corporate branding and public relations through tourism, seek to shape positive attitudes of energy consumers and citizens towards energy sources and energy companies. The co-authors of this book, Eglė Gerulaitienė and Natalija Mažeikienė, present a critical assessment of nuclear tourism in the chapter Energy Tourism at Nuclear Power Plants: Between Educational Mission and Retention of the “Safety Myth”, discussing the features of nuclear tourism at atomic reactors. Visitors to nuclear power plants participate in the educational process by gaining knowledge in various fields about the operation of nuclear power plants, participating in STEM education, and improving energy literacy. Alongside all this education, pronuclear indoctrination takes place, when nuclear tourism becomes a means of persuasion and purposeful communication of the nuclear industry, to form pro-nuclear attitudes and positive opinion about the nuclear energy industry and specific companies. Nuclear power plants use tourism to demonstrate security practices and procedures, strengthening the image of a reliable and safe industry. Another important development in nuclear tourism is the transition from expert-based to experience-based tourism, whereas nuclear reactors, like other industrial and energy tourism objects, attract tourists due to their specific physical qualities – exceptional grandeur, unusual appearance, ←14 | 15→and shape. When visiting large-scale industrial facilities, tourists experience special strong feelings – admiration for the majesty of industrial ‘cathedrals’. The experience of tourists in nuclear reactors is twofold – on the one hand, visitors are aware of the dangers posed by radiation, and this causes a special thrill. On the other hand, the safety procedures organized at nuclear power plants involve tourists in ‘security theatre’ performances, which also create special feelings and experiences for visitors and explains the attractiveness of this tourist destination.

In addition to excursions organized by energy companies and nuclear power plants, other nuclear tourism destinations also attract tourists’ attention. Natalija Mažeikienė and Eglė Gerulaitienė, co-authors of the chapter Chernobyl Museum as an Educational Site: Transforming ‘Dark Tourists’ into Responsible Citizens and Knowledgeable Learners, analyse the educational potential of the Chernobyl Museum as a cultural interpretation of nuclear disaster. Whereas expositions of nuclear power plants reflect an optimistic narrative presenting the nuclear energy as a future technology, antinuclear critical discourse on the unsafety of atomic industry and nuclear accidents (50 Miles, Chernobyl, Fukushima) is represented by museums, art projects, and tourist facilities which are not connected to the atomic industry. These sites raise questions about the real costs of nuclear energy – how much it ‘costs’ in terms of human health and life, evaluating its impact on the environment and future generations.

These ‘dark’ sites of nuclear energy disasters are memorials of the unsafety of nuclear energy, the danger to humanity and nature. Nuclear disaster-related museums and tourist destinations are a unique way to culturally construct a nuclear disaster, and it becomes a result of collective imagination and memory work. Nuclear disaster sites, museums, and memorials as a variety of dark tourism present people’s suffering and victimhood.

In this sense, a narrative on the mentioned objects differs from the optimistic story told by power plants, which radiates safety and reliability. Such places as the Chernobyl Museum has become a valuable spot to learn – it introduces the visitor to a structural approach to disaster, tells a story of how organizations and communities mobilized response efforts to disasters. That is why it has turned into a precious source for civic education and studying history. The Museum constructs and depicts the nuclear community, covers themes of nuclear geography, represents a critical historical approach to Soviet-regulated nuclear science and nuclear energy, which led to the disaster. In addition to the educational potential, the nuclear disaster expositions are designed to awaken the visitors’ existential experiences – to feel sublime – the ungraspable ←15 | 16→existential feeling of horror. The artistic installations at the Chernobyl Museum evoke deep philosophical and religious thoughts, contemplations, and feelings.

Nuclear disaster tourism combines an educational impact, which embraces rich knowledge from history, geography, sociology, nuclear energy, biology, and the environmental sciences. At the same time, the cultural construction of the Chernobyl catastrophe appeals to a broader area of nuclear imaginary dealing with dystopian post-apocalyptic images of nuclear disasters that were created in cinematography, literature, artworks (i.e. Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie ‘Stalker’, Svetlana Alexievich’s famous book on Chernobyl). It constructs prerequisites to establish stronger ties between non-formal learning in museums and tourist destinations and formal learning by using the intertextuality approach – by combining resources in outdoor education with school curriculum texts and using fiction, documentary and feature films.

Magdalena Banaszkiewicz, while discussing intensive touristification of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in the chapter Fun in the Power Plant. Edutainment in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone Tourism reveals how entertainment is created by appealing to the nuclear tourism imaginary stimulated by the global popular culture (i.e. video game ‘S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’, HBO series Chernobyl). Nuclear tourism in the Chernobyl Zone seeks to create visitors’ specific experience, which becomes a mixture of thrill, sense of risk, and excitement. Magdalena Banaszkiewicz describes new approaches in tourism when tourism based on principles of pleasure and relaxation 3S (sun, sea, sand) gives up position to 3E (entertainment, education, excitement) and 3F (fun, friends, feedback). Combining entertainment with education, tours to The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, can be turned from the ethically controversial endeavour of dark and toxic tourism to activities which ‘can provide a strong educational experience, raising awareness about the current environmental issues and the polluted environmental conditions around us’ (Di Chiro (2000), cit. by Yankowska and Hannam, 2014, p. 937).

The authors of this book discuss how cooperation between educators in the tourism sector and those in formal education can take place. In the chapter What We Find Outdoors: Discovering Nuclear Tourism Through Educational Pathways, Lina Kaminskienė analyses the concept of outdoor education, deliberating the possibilities of using educational resources outside the school. Educational nuclear tourism includes a specific form of non-formal education which creates an educational potential for visitors when links with formal education are strengthened through the implementation of contextual learning, place-based education, and region-focused curriculum. The concept of outdoor education is applied in the sites of nuclear tourism through school ←16 | 17→journeys, field trips, and other events and educational activities. According to Kaminskienė, outdoor education in nuclear tourism sites could be organized through place-based education which incorporates concepts of experiential education, community-based education, and education for sustainability.

A variety of educational strategies, such as problem-based learning, action research, landscape analysis, cultural journalism, and many others, contributes to learning on specific topics and issues related to the nuclear power (the role of nuclear energy in the broader energy landscape, energy literacy and current challenges in nuclear energy use, problems of nuclear waste disposal, nuclear disasters as a sign of unsafety and insecurity of nuclear energy, impact on communities living near nuclear sites). The place is conceptualized in place-based education not only as a real physical and social environment, it can be conceived as imaginative or virtual space. Therefore, the nuclear topic can be included in the school curriculum not only as a real place of physical visits to nuclear power plants and places of nuclear disasters.The role of the virtual environment in learning about nuclear is revealed by Judita Kasperiūnienė in her chapter Innovative Technological Solutions in Virtual Nuclear Education. The author analyses how learning about the atom is integrated into formal and informal education. The knowledge and abilities to understand and make decisions about the use of nuclear energy in various spheres of human life became especially relevant after the Chernobyl catastrophe and other nuclear accidents (i.e. Fukushima). Kasperiūnienė discusses nuclear/atomic literacy, learning about nuclear in non-formal and informal education, which takes place in education laboratories, museums, exhibitions, and virtual spaces by using new emerging technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality, computational dynamics, and virtual world. Development of nuclear literacy in contemporary educational environments of virtual reality and mixed reality tours is based on visualization, immersion, and interactivity. In nuclear literacy development, growing attention is given to the use of game-based learning, where experiential learning takes place through playing and using elements of challenge, fantasy, and curiosity. According to Kasperiūnienė, virtual, mixed, and augmented reality tours create a simulation of an existing location with the help of audio and video technologies that are very valuable in nuclear education, STEM, and nuclear tourism when recreating a realistic representation of reality and presenting views to inaccessible and restricted areas in nuclear power plants or sites of nuclear disasters. In the digital guides and tours, technology (hardware and software) is combined with narration and storytelling. Geolocation technologies and geolocation storytelling create an emotional experience, arouse curiosity and empathy, and foster critical thinking. In nuclear formal and informal ←17 | 18→education, additional educational opportunities are created by Serious Games, which combine learning with play and entertainment, help to gain knowledge, and develop skills while solving educational tasks and overcoming challenges.

In the chapter Energy Literacy in Geography Curriculum: Redefining the Role of Nuclear Power in Changing Energy Landscapes, the co-authors Odeta Norkutė and Natalija Mažeikienė reveal the significance of connecting informal and non-formal learning activities in educational tourism with the formal school curriculum to make educational tourism destinations attractive and useful to students and teachers. In the process of developing educational nuclear tourism routes and educational platforms on nuclear topics, geography curriculum could become an important school subject that covers nuclear energy–related topics. Geography is called a school ‘subject of survival’ and subject ‘for the future’. An aim to promote environmental and energy literacy, provide social competences, turns school geography into a central school subject which could create an educational response to energy issues in relation to climate change and pollution issues. While learning on the economic, environmental, and social aspects of the use of nuclear energy in the formal curriculum, pupils will find relevant and very helpful additional and complementary knowledge and experience on the issue in non-formal and informal settings of nuclear tourism.

It is obvious that attempts of educational specialists and tourism providers to promote educational nuclear tourism will be fruitless without strengthening junctions with formal education, without connecting settings of informal learning with other physical, virtual and imagined places of learning. At the same time, learning about nuclear energy emerges as a transformative experience when it is derived from and nourished by a wider cultural nuclear discourse and nuclear imaginary in cinematography, literature, media, entertainment and popular culture, virtual reality. In that regard, the role of educators and educational institutions still needs to be defined and envisaged.


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1The research project ‘The Didactical Technology for the Development of Nuclear Educational Tourism in the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP) Region (EDUATOM)’ was funded by the European Regional Development Fund according to the supported activity ‘Research Projects Implemented by World-class Researcher Groups’ under Measure No. 01.2.2-LMT-K-718 grant (No. 01.2.2-LMT-K-718-01-0084/232).