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.”
Though not everyone has welcomed the promotion of what is often called “disaster tourism” or “ruin porn,” president Volodymyr Zelenskiy pledged in July to turn Chernobyl into a “scientific and touristic magnet” and “one of the points of growth for a new Ukraine”.
Soon visitors will be able to kayak past the biggest nuclear accident in history, one of 21 new tourist routes. Mr Zelenskiy has also invited Western partners to hold safety trainings here as countries like the UK, Finland and France build new nuclear power plants to cut carbon emissions. Yet coming to Chernobyl is itself not entirely risk-free.
Already the number of people arriving in the thousand-square-mile exclusion zone, where visits are capped at five days to limit radiation exposure, has gone critical following the miniseries about the accident and its coverup.
The state agency that manages the exclusion zone expects up to 120,000 people this year, compared to 72,000 in 2018. Minibuses now queue daily at the main entry checkpoint, next to a kiosk selling snacks and T-shirts that read, “Enjoy Chernobyl, die later”.
“Every third person comes because of the show. I know because no one used to ask about the bridge of death before,” said guide Svetlana Sklyarenko, referring to the scene when residents take their children to the river to watch sparkling dust fly out of the reactor.While survivors dispute that particular instance happened, many were undeniably blasé about radiation. When the blast occurred, Mr Parikvash kept fishing until a radioactive graphite film formed on the water.
“There was a bang and we turned and saw sparks flying out like shooting stars, and then white steam and black smoke mixed together,” he recalled. “A column of light was visible, neon blue.”
“We thought it was a hydrogen explosion, anything but the reactor. They told us our reactor was the safest in the world,” he added.
The tourist boom has not come without growing pains. A rash of salacious Instagram selfies in the zone caused such a stir this summer that the creator of the Chernobyl mini-series called on tourists to “comport yourselves with respect”.
Guards at the plant joked that the more scantily clad women visited, the better, and Mr Zelenskiy is promising to improve mobile Internet coverage in the zone. But the fact remains that at least 54 people died in the immediate aftermath of the accident, including pump operator Valery Khodemchuk, whose body still lies somewhere in the fourth reactor block.
Nonetheless, many of those who survived see tourism as a good way to raise awareness and preserve the memory of the accident.
Oleksiy Ananenko, who was depicted in the mini-series wading through radioactive water to empty suppression pools mere feet below the burning reactor and avoid another steam explosion, told The Telegraph that “it’s good when people find out about the tragedy for themselves”.
“Don’t we visit monuments to soldiers who died in the Second World War?” he said.
“Let this not be swept under the rug, like it was after the accident,” said Olga Skuratovskaya, one of the roughly 100 ageing “resettlers” who defied the ban and returned to their homes in the exclusion zone.
The Chernobyl reactor explosion and fire scattered caesium-137 and other radioactive isotopes as far as Sweden, and areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia have suffered from elevated rates of birth defects and cancer.
Today the background radiation in much of the exclusion zone is actually lower than in many global cities, especially since the 36,000-tonne new safe confinement arch, the largest moveable structure ever built, was inched into place over the fourth reactor block in 2016.
“I guess it’s safe here. It’s got to be with all the tourists,” said Michael Hodan, a software engineer and fan of the miniseries visiting from the Czech Republic.
But contaminated hotspots still can be found around the ghost town of Pripyat, where 50,000 residents were suddenly evacuated the day after the catastrophe.
Despite assurances that tourists will stick to safe routes and stricter rules, the reality is more chaotic. During the Telegraph’s visit, a guide scolded tourists for entering the now off-limits Pripyat Cafe to get a better view of its stunning stained glass.
Meanwhile, law enforcement agents were seen hunting down “stalkers,” as those who sneak into Chernobyl without permission are known, amongst the gaping windows and overgrown playgrounds of the ghost town.
Two Lithuanians and a Ukrainian were later arrested, joining more than 300 stalkers caught this year.
While a Geiger counter registered only slightly elevated levels of gamma radiation during The Telegraph’s visit to Pripyat, guides stumbled across a dead bird on two separate occasions.
As the tour neared the power plant itself, the radiation levels gradually began to rise.
Dr Yury Bandazhevsky, who found hormonal changes in nearly half of 4,000 children in districts next to the exclusion zone, said the health effects of Chernobyl are not fully understood and warned that tourists could potentially inhale radioactive particles.
“We shouldn’t be making a show out of this,” he said. “It’s a place of tragedy that needs further study rather than people jostling around.”
“It’s a personal decision to go there. Of course all the risks are not yet known,” said Rashid Alimov of Greenpeace.
The plant says its procedures keep visitors safe. They are checked for contamination at the entrance and then don scrubs, gloves, shoes, disposable dust mask and hard hat. The clothing is white so any potentially contaminated stains are easily visible.
The instructions from Mr Povar were succinct if not entirely reassuring: “Don’t turn off anywhere, listen to my directions and everyone will survive.”
The famous “golden corridor”—actually plated with aluminium—leads some 2,000 feet from reactor block one to reactor blocks two, three and four.
Toward the end, the corner of the new safe confinement can be seen out of the windows. Management said the route had been disinfected and checked for harmful radiation.
Having passed another radiometer and stepped through a shallow water bath, The Telegraph’s tour snaked its way to the entrance of the reactor four control room, where power was cut to the cooling pumps as part of an ill-fated safety test on the night of the disaster.
It is located under the steel-and-concrete sarcophagus originally built to contain the roofless reactor.
Radiation readings spray-painted on the concrete wall attested to the frenetic clean-up effort three decades ago.
Inside the control room, a giant circular diagram on the wall showed the layout of the reactor’s control and fuel rods.
Although many of the gauges and buttons were taken as souvenirs by clean-up workers, the gaping holes in the gray metal consoles only added to the ominous aura.
The way out led through shallow water baths to wash boot soles and radiometers to scan palms and other exposed areas for contamination.
Individual dosimeters issued by the plant recorded a total dose of five microsieverts during the visit, equivalent to about five modern dental x-rays. A transatlantic flight, by comparison, can lead to a dose of as much as 80 microsieverts.
The 2,900 employees who maintain the plant and its components, including one of the largest storage facilities for spent nuclear fuel in Europe, are often exposed to much more.
Two employees told The Telegraph they and others had sometimes removed their mandatory dosimeters to complete work tasks without officially exceeding a daily radiation dosage limit of about 130 microsieverts. Another said he had covered up work-related medical problems to avoid losing his job.
With tours starting at $99 (£77) for foreigners, visits are said to generate hundreds of thousands of dollars of income for private companies and the state budget each year.
While the Chernobyl Tour firm is starting a foundation to support victims of the disaster, many in Slavutych, the town built for the “liquidators” who cleaned up the aftermath, wondered when the tourist dollars would trickle down to their community.
The Ukrainian government has reduced their benefits in recent years.
“At least some of this money should go toward treating sick kids in Slavutych and elsewhere,” perhaps by installing oncological equipment at the local hospital, said liquidator Viktor Kharin. His wife and daughter have suffered cancers that he blamed on the accident.
Some have also argued that the emphasis on bringing in visitors could distract from the incomplete tasks of removing radioactive materials from the three intact reactors and somehow dealing with 200 tonnes of nuclear fuel in the fourth reactor sarcophagus.
“I don’t like when 80 per cent of the talk is about increasing tourism and 20 per cent is about real problems,” plant official Viktor Kuchinsky said. “I’d rather have it the other way around.”