An HBO miniseries featuring Soviet-era nuclear nightmares has sparked global interest in the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and boosted tourism in Lithuania.
The Baltic country, which served as the filming location for "Chernobyl," has become a destination of so-called atomic tourism since the program aired earlier this year.
At Ignalina nuclear power plant, Mikhail Nefedyev was staring grimly at the row of blinking green lights on a control panel when another group of curious visitors poured into his realm. The 64 year-old engineer explained to them what exactly happened when a similar reactor exploded in Chernobyl, Ukraine, 33 years ago.
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The Ignalina plant is of the same prototype as the one in Chernobyl. It has similar blueprints and the same water-cooled graphite-moderated reactors with a capacity of 1,500 megawatts of power. Ignalina was shut down a decade ago. Closing and decommissioning it were key conditions of Lithuania's entry to the European Union in 2004.
In 1986, Lithuania, then part of the Soviet empire, was one of the republics affected by the nuclear disaster. Thousands were sent to clean up the mess in Chernobyl. Many of them are dead.
Today, the nuclear disaster is helping Lithuania grow as a tourist destination.
"Chernobyl," a highly-rated miniseries, continues to send curious watchers to the filming locations in the capital Vilnius and at Ignalina, where glowing uranium rods cool in concrete pools. The plant, which is still open for tourists, drew 2,240 visitors in 2018. By July, 1,630 had visited the plant. And demand is growing, plant officials said.
"They have made a good movie, I guess. But what happened long ago does not bother us now. I think looking backward is not good," Nefedyev said, after explaining how the RBMK-type reactor blew up.
Tourists who come to this Baltic coastal country of 3 million to see the HBO filming locations first visit the KGB museum in downtown Vilnius where interrogation scenes were shot. They are taken to a Soviet-era district of gray condos built in the mid-1980s that look somewhat like Pripyat, a nuclear city that served the Chernobyl plant.
"People come to see these places that we never used to promote. This is very new and unusual to see them not in the Old Town taking photos of Baroque churches, but sporting selfies here," said Inga Romanovskiene, general manager at Go Vilnius agency.
Already a popular movie-making destination, Lithuania has benefited economically from the HBO miniseries. The amount of foreign capital spent on filming reached 45.5 million euros ($50.6 million) last year.
After locations in Vilnius, atomic tourists may opt to travel 160 kilometers (100 miles) north and join a three-hour tour of the nuclear plant. They are given dosimeters, plastic helmets, white clothes and shoes before venturing through a maze of long, poorly lit corridors, reactor halls, turbine hangars and the control center with the red button which was pushed just before the explosion. Cellphones, cameras, eating, drinking and smoking are strictly off limits.
The plant tour costs 67 euros (75 dollars) per person and tickets are sold until Christmas, said Natalija Survila, spokeswoman for Ignalina power plant.
Lynn Adams, a 49-year-old psychotherapist, came from the United Kingdom to see the whole thing with her own eyes.
"It feels like you are stepping back into one of the scenes actually. It's very, very authentic. And I remember seeing about Chernobyl on the news, but I'm so much more interested in what happened and the events having seen the drama series. So I think it has kind of ignited an interest that I wasn't aware of at the time," Adams said after the visit to a Soviet-era district, used by HBO as a filming location for Pripyat.
Antanas Turcinas was among those sent to Chernobyl weeks after the disaster. He hopes the buzz from the miniseries leads to better care for survivors.
"This movie has brought back old memories. Emotions are very strong, because in 1986 we did not understand what we faced. I am happy to be still alive," he said.