Exclusive: First look inside Chernobyl control room where disaster began as it opens to tourists

At the door of the control room where the world’s worst nuclear disaster began, a Geiger counter showed radiation of 2.33 microsieverts an hour – well under the 100-microsievert total dose the Chernobyl power plant allows visitors.

Then long-serving plant employee Sergei Parikvash, who saw the reactor explode while fishing in the cooling pond on April 26, 1986, held the counter up to a protective lead plate on the hallway floor. The readings began going up: 5.6, 6.2, 6.4, 6.54 …

Tour groups have become an almost daily sight at the Chernobyl power plant following the hit HBO/Sky mini-series this spring. Now the plant will begin letting visitors into the reactor four control room, where much of the harrowing first episode is set, as part of a push to develop tourism.

The Telegraph was the first foreign media to visit this room since it was opened to the public, a few dozen feet away from the reactor that blew up due to a combination of design flaws and human error.

Stepping into the gloom of the control room, the group’s feet stuck slightly to the floor, which is treated with chemicals to keep down dust particles that could otherwise bring radioactive elements into visitors’ lungs.

A nuclear hazard sign indicated a hotspot on the wall, next to which the Geiger counter registered almost 25 microsieverts.

“Maybe your dosimeter isn’t properly calibrated?” guide Anton Povar asked. “It was 30 when I checked it last week.”

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Floating nuclear power plant to be towed across Russian Arctic despite ‘Chernobyl on ice’ concerns

The wind and rain whipped by at several feet per second as crew members stepped outside for a quick smoke, but the world’s only floating nuclear power plant barely shifted in the choppy waves of the Kola bay.

The length of one-and-a-half football pitches, with its once rusty hull repainted in the white, red and blue of the national flag, the Academic Lomonosov looks the part as the vanguard of Russia’s “nuclearification” of the warming Arctic.

Later this month it will be towed 3,000 miles from the northwestern corner of Russia to the Chukotka region next to Alaska, where it will provide steam heat and eventually electricity to the coastal gold-mining town of Pevek, population 4,000.

The state corporation Rosatom is trumpeting the Academic Lomonosov as the next big step in nuclear energy and a possible solution to electricity needs in Africa and Asia. It’s part of a surge in nuclear vessels along what Russia hopes will be a major new Arctic trade route including icebreakers, warships and even an underwater drone.

“This is like launching the first rocket into space because it’s a pilot project, the first in the world,” Vladimir Irimenko, senior engineer for environmental protection, said before showing journalists the reactor control room.

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Russia’s Arctic towns prepare for more polar bear ‘invasions’ as sea ice melts

Airport maintenance worker Ruslan Prikazchikov was coming to the end of a night shift last week when he glanced out the window and saw a polar bear walking down the taxiway, stopping every few feet to look around.

He wasn’t overly concerned. As a lifelong resident of Amderma, a hardscrabble former mining and military town perched on the edge of the Arctic Ocean 1,200 miles northeast of Moscow, Mr Prikazchikov has seen more than a hundred polar bears first-hand. He took a quick video on his phone, yelled out the window so the bear would keep moving and put the kettle on for tea.

“It’s par for the course,” he said. “They were always here. They are the masters here, so we don’t conflict with them, and they don’t show aggression toward us.”

The “tsar of the Arctic” has indeed always been part of life in Amderma. It features in the folktales of indigenous Nenets reindeer herders, and old photographs show Soviet soldiers feeding condensed milk to polar bears well within reach of their razor-sharp two-inch claws. Some residents even admitted to having poached the animals in the hungry 1990s, when a hide was said to fetch $10,000.

But as global warming melts the polar sea ice, these marine hunters are increasingly being forced onto land. The risk of conflict with the humans is rising, who are also arriving in greater numbers as Russia develops oil and gas deposits and expands its military capabilities in the Arctic.

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In Siberia, climate change comes to the coldest village on earth

The Siberian village of Oymyakon is regarded as the coldest permanently-inhabited place on earth.

Though it is only a few degrees of latitude further north than Aberdeen, the village of 500 residents is in a mountain valley where cool air pools, isolated from warmer currents by the “Siberian high” pressure system and the Chersky range.

Yet even here, the effects of global warming are already being felt.

There are no walruses tumbling to their deaths like in David Attenborough’s new Our Planet series. (That was in the neighbouring Chukotka region.) But as the permafrost soil thaws in this region, thousands of people have had to move to new housing, forests are burning more often and animals face new predators and diseases.

When I arrived after a bumpy 26-hour journey on the gravel “road of bones” – which is built over the remains of gulag labourers – it was -22C in Oymyakon. Locals described this as “warm” as they took me for a bracing dip at a place where an underground stream prevents the river from freezing.

The next morning it was a more respectable -45C, cold enough to make a cup of hot water freeze instantly when we threw it into the air. Yet it was still far from the record of -68C recorded in the “Pole of Cold” in 1933.

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Thawing Siberian permafrost soil risks rise of anthrax and prehistoric diseases

When authorities in Yakutsk invited participants in a youth government initiative to brainstorm ideas for an empty lot in the centre last year, it seemed like a smart way to get rid of an eyesore.

But the project was held up after residents and officials raised concerns that the site could hold anthrax spores preserved in the permanently frozen soil.

Although specialists eventually said it was safe to build a skate park on the lot, which once held a laboratory making an anthrax serum, the incident raised further questions about the ancient diseases known to be lurking in the permafrost—and whether they could be unlocked by global warming.

“Anthrax spores can stay alive in the permafrost for up to 2,500 years. That’s scary given the thawing of animal burial grounds from the 19th century,” said Boris Kershengolts, a Yakutsk biologist who studies northern climates. “When they are taken out of the permafrost and put into our temperatures, they revive.” Continue reading

How four years of war in Ukraine has left one million on the breadline

As winter begins in war-torn Eastern Ukraine, Alla Gapeshina manages a laugh while discussing how her family will survive the desolate cold months. “We’ll have potatoes breakfast, lunch and dinner,” she says, standing in her rocket-damaged home.

“Food can be scarce, but we won’t starve,” says Ms Gapeshina, 58, who lives  in the separatist-controlled village of Alexandrovka and works at a hospital cafeteria. “We’ll survive the winter.”

Some 900,000 people are struggling to eat as the conflict between government forces and Russia-backed rebels drags on for a fifth year, according to new planning figures that the United Nations will issue by the end of 2018.

It is also the coldest humanitarian crisis in the world, and dropping temperatures pose a threat due to damaged homes and infrastructure. In the summer, people often grow their own vegetables in small gardens, unless shelling makes it too dangerous, but this isn’t an option as the weather dips below freezing. Continue reading

‘He was a good kid’: Skripal poisoning suspect chose Russian army career after a childhood around soldiers

The man accused of poisoning Sergei Skripal grew up in a family with ties to the Russian army and signed up for officer training straight out of school, according to neighbours from his home town near the Chinese border.

Anatoly Chepiga,  who neighbours confirmed is the true identity of one of the alleged Salisbury nerve agent attackers, was raised in a single-storey white-brick house with a corrugated iron roof directly across a dirt road from the high school where he was a star footballer.

With three bedrooms, central heating and indoor plumbing, it was an affluent residence for the remote village of Berezovka, where many residents live in traditional stove-heated wooden cottages to this day.

But for neighbours here, the special forces colonel wanted by Britain for a nerve agent attack is fondly remembered as a conscientious student and keen sportsman whose glittering military career made his family proud.

“Yes, that’s him. I was friends with his father. He was a good kid,” Anatoly Chepaikin said on Friday when shown photographs of the man British authorities named as “Ruslan Boshirov.” Continue reading

Ballot boxes flown to herders at ‘end of world’ as Putin hunts down votes

As the electoral commission members rushed to set up the ballot box and voting booth in the deerskin tent, the lashing rotors of the helicopter outside reminded them that time was ticking.

“Are we re-electing Putin?” a reindeer herder asked as he lifted the flap and came in, every body part but his face bundled up in hides against the -28C (-18F) cold.

The three Nenets families at this windswept camp near the Arctic Circle in Siberia belong to one of the few nomadic peoples left in the world, travelling hundreds of miles in an annual migration to provide their reindeer with fresh pasture.

Sixty miles from the nearest city, the electoral commission essentially recreated a polling station in their tent before Sunday’s presidential election, in which Vladimir Putin is expected to win a fourth term in a landslide.

Within minutes, the ballots were cast, and the voting party began fighting its way back toward the Mi-8 helicopter through knee-deep snow and the downwash from the rotors. Then it was on to the next camp. Continue reading

Inside Russia’s ‘troll factory’: The Internet Research Agency accused of interfering in the US election

In 2015, Marat Burkhardt decided to try out for a better-paid position, writing in English rather than Russian, at the St Petersburg-based internet company where he worked.

The topic he was given for his 30-minute English writing test hinted at what kind of work his employer’s  “American department” would be doing over the next 12 months.

“It was a text prompt to write about Hillary Clinton’s chances in the presidential election in the United States,” he told The Telegraph. “I wrote that it would be great if the United States elected a woman for the first time. I said she has every chance, the Democratic Party is behind her. The choice is up to the American people.”

Unsurprisingly, he didn’t get the job: Mr Burkhardt’s employer, the Internet Research Agency, is believed to have been the engine of a secret Kremlin campaign to help Donald Trump win the election.

The full scale of alleged Russian election meddling was revealed on Friday as 13 people who worked for the Internet Research Agency were charged and their alleged crimes recounted in remarkable detail.

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Violence and terrorism cast shadow over the slopes of Chechnya’s £80m ski resort

Ramzan Kadyrov, head of Russia’s restive Chechnya republic, doesn’t actually ski. So after he pulled a giant lever to start the chairlift at the new Veduchi resort on Friday, he rode it down to speak with the young men who had skied the resort’s only slope holding flags emblazoned with the faces of the strongman leader and his late father.

On the way back up, the chairlift briefly ground to a halt, leaving Mr Kadyrov, who enjoys near absolute power in Chechnya, dangling in the fog for several long seconds.

Nonetheless, he later promised guests including Russian Olympic athletes that a tourist hub with “ideal conditions” was being created here.

“I’m confident that it will become popular not just with the Russian population but also with foreign countries,” said Mr Kadyrov before jogging from the stage to a VIP area surrounded by bearded bodyguards.

But technical hiccups are hardly the biggest worries facing the ski resort, which is located 12 miles up the road from Shatoy, the site of a major battle with Chechen separatists in 2000.

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