By Stepan Kravchenko
MOSCOW — The last time a disaster with global impact struck Chelyabinsk, officials covered it up for three decades. This time, they’re marketing it to the world.
The meteor explosion over this former secret Soviet nuclear hub two weeks ago was recorded by scores of dashboard cameras and viewed by millions of people, providing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attract international tourists and their money to the Russian province on the Asian edge of the Ural Mountains.
“Space sent us a gift and we need to make use of it,” Natalia Gritsay, head of the region’s tourism department, said in an interview en route to Lake Chebarkul, where some of the biggest meteorites have been found and where officials gathered Tuesday to map a new strategy for economic development. “We need our own Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.”
The meteor was about 17 meters across and weighed more than 10,000 tons when it hit the atmosphere and exploded with the force of about 33 Hiroshima atomic bombs, according to NASA. The blast was the biggest of its kind in more than a century. It shattered windows across the regional capital, also called Chelyabinsk, wounding more than 1,400 people and damaging more than 4,000 buildings.
In 1957, an explosion at the Mayak processing facility in the region released dozens of tons of high-level radioactive waste that killed hundreds of people in what is now ranked by International Atomic Energy Agency standards as the worst atomic accident after Chernobyl in Ukraine and Fukushima in Japan.
While the Soviets kept the Mayak leak a secret for more than 30 years, local officials are determined to capitalize on the latest apocalyptic event to hit their homeland.
Proposals proffered at the Chebarkul powwow ranged from holding an annual “cosmic music and fireworks festival” to erecting a “floating beacon-tipped pyramid” atop the lake.