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.”

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”.

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